An elegy for printed books

Ten years ago, not knowing what to do with myself after retirement, I took the advice of a former colleague who is very good at dispensing advice. Write a novel, she had been saying. So I started writing one and finished it in four years, five years ago. It took some time to find a publisher and it was eventually published four years ago.

It was a resounding failure, commercially. But the reviews were good, because, even though I say so myself, it is a good, well-structured and well written book. That’s what the reviews said, anyway. It tells the story of an irresponsible but clever young man in the publishing industry. Some very honest friends, who are not given to politeness, also told me it was a good book.

But that was very small consolation. Very few people bought it. Less than 500. So I swore not to ever write another novel. It is hard work and, if the book turns out to be a failure like most such books do, it’s hard to muster up the courage and the energy to try once more.

But last year while visiting my son and his family I was once again bored stiff. I was the old man around the house whose only duty was to push the stroller on which my grandson rode grandly to his crèche in the morning and back in the evening. So one day while sitting on a bench in a park, I took out my iPhone and started typing out a new novel. It had been germinating in my mind for about a year.

Writing a novel is hard work and, if the book turns out to be a failure like most such books do, it’s hard to muster up the courage and the energy to try once more.

It is about six men in their mid-60s who rent the same sprawling cottage every year in the hills of north India for six months. They leave their wives behind, with both sides promising that contact between them will be restricted to one call a week of not more than three minutes. The wives too are free to do whatever they want, including taking on boyfriends if they can find any at their advanced age. The arrangement has worked perfectly for eight years but problems begin to emerge.

That’s what the novel was to be about. I managed to write 15,000 words which is roughly a quarter of such books. So upon my return to India, I called up some friends in publishing and asked if they would consider the thing for publication. All said no before I could blink. “No one reads anything these days, least of all novels and even less by Indian writers writing in English — and not at all by unknown wannabe novelists like you.” My fame as a third class novelist had spread. So that was that. I stopped writing the novel.

The world has thereby been deprived of a masterpiece. But while I am sure it can cope with this disaster, I can’t help wondering about the long term future of books. My advice-dispensing machine thinks books will survive because she is an optimist who loves to ignore reality. But I disagree. At least books printed on paper won’t survive except as high priced luxuries like mink coats.
I also think that the trend towards self-publishing will gather steam where intermediation by publishers is eliminated. Books will become available for free via the Internet. That means writing books for making a living will become impossible. Like thousands of other novelists, I got zero royalties from my first novel. But you know what? I had insisted on an advance. Small but satisfying. But in the years to come even that will vanish. As the supply of online novels becomes infinite, the price will become zero.

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