Coldstream Review

Publishing in the Bleak Midwinter

by Iqbal Ahmed

To maximise their chances of success each year, mainstream publishers aim to bring out their big titles 16 weeks before Christmas. I worked as a bookseller in the Gower Street branch of Waterstones during the Christmas period in 2000 and realised that bookshops in the UK do most of their business during the festive season. In the days leading up to Christmas, my co-workers had to empty the tills and collect the cash in an airline-style trolley more than once a day as the cash registers were quickly getting filled to the brim with banknotes.

It worried me, though, to see some people buying books related to the reality television show, ‘Big Brother’. I thought it bad enough to waste hours watching a TV show like that, let alone read books about it. Little did George Orwell imagine that half a century after his death, his nightmarish future-world scenario would lend itself to a money-spinning light-entertainment franchise for a TV production company.

Sadly, this year there will be none of the usual razzmatazz on the publication of my new book, The Art of Hospitality: A European Odyssey. It used to give me great pleasure to host my friends and acquaintances in the hotel where I worked, for a launch party, or as I preferred to think of it, a banquet of thanksgiving, to mark completion and publication of my latest book. A toast would invariably be proposed at the end of the evening. When I decided, however, to publish my latest book in the fallow midwinter – January is notoriously one of the leanest months in the publishing calendar – it fulfilled a secret impulse of mine to go against the grain.

Seeing my first book. Sorrows of the Moon, displayed on the shelves of several indie bookshops in London gave me the courage to write another book. On one occasion I saw a grey-haired man, with a walking stick held in his armpit, leafing through my book in the British Library bookshop. I felt overwhelmed by the sight.

For a small publisher, the indie bookshops are invaluable because you don’t need a distributor for them to stock your titles. It was therefore an irksome surprise for me, not long ago, to find that you need the big wholesaler, Gardners, to stock your titles in order to have them listed on Bookshop.org, which recently started selling books online in the UK.

Many published authors give up writing after just a couple of books because they find it hard to sustain their vocation, and most authors do not venture beyond five books. However, it would take only a handful of loyal readers for me to cross that barrier and perhaps one day again produce a book that is recommended by the indies.

Our retreat from the physical world into a digital one in 2020 has made chance encounters between authors and readers a more distant prospect. It was a rite of passage for me, as a writer, to attend the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2007, where I met some of my readers in person. There is an immense difference between someone who owns a copy of your book and a person who has actually

read it. A lot of books given as Christmas presents remain unread, and end up collecting dust on mantelpieces. I admit that I myself have sometimes found it hard to finish a big book given to me as a Christmas gift.

Printed books have thankfully pushed back the onslaught of e-books in recent years. You cannot furnish a house with e-books. In the age of Zoom, many people like to use their bookshelves as a backdrop for their video calls.

The printing of books involves many stages of production and a lot of writers are mystified as to how exactly their words are transformed into a physical object in the form of a book. I decided to have my new book published in a clothbound edition because it is a delight to feel the coarse texture of the cloth between one’s hands. There isn’t any blurb printed on the back cover of my book. I know that book-marketers would object to such an omission but then I don’t have an ad-man to question the validity of my admittedly maverick idea. Even having a barcode stuck on the back cover of my book seems intrusive to me, so I have asked the printer to position it on the inside instead.

Timing seems to be everything in the world of commercial publishing. Hence it is counterintuitive to publish a book in the bleak midwinter. Any astute accountant would advise against it. But it matters not a jot whether you publish your book in January or September if you are in other respects going against the tide.

These days, it isn’t only authors who have written half a dozen books who find it difficult to secure an advance from a mainstream publisher. Even those who have written two-dozen books brought out by the top four ‘caviar’ publishing houses, find themselves in the same boat. I burst out laughing when someone once described me as a prolific writer. I believed that you could only justify using the word ‘prolific’ for an author who has written dozens of books, one of which has been mainly responsible for establishing their writer’s reputation.

To earn a living as an indie author is a formidable task. It is far easier if you can find a day job to keep you going. After the publication of the second edition of my first book in 2005 I attended a Christmas party at the London Review of Books’ office and a contributor to the magazine asked me what I did for a living. It was a fair and realistic question and made me reflect how lucky I was to have a stable job at the time that enabled me to start writing a second book.

The current pandemic has put paid to many permanent jobs in the hospitality industry in which I have worked for two decades. Any new job-contracts are going to be strictly temporary. It is certainly the end of an era when you can no longer remain true to your calling as a writer by working in a hotel or restaurant. The future of work in the gig economy indeed looks very daunting.