Monday, September 27, 2004

Adventures in publishing

Preethi Nair is famous for a publishing coup with her first book. She told us all about it at a reading in Willesden Library Centre last week.

She had been working in the city and writing in spare time on her way to work every day. When she finished the last chapter of Gypsy Masala she couldn't wait to get away from her boring job so she told her boss she was quitting to be a writer. She couldn't tell her family because they were an old-fashioned Indian family who had all sorts of plans for her, so she put on a suit and went out every day as if going to work.

She sent copies of her manuscript out to publishers and as they bounced back or were ignored it dawned on her that she was in trouble. She decided to invest ten thousand pounds and self-publish the book, planning a complete publicity campaign, printing and launch.

She invented a publishing company, Ninefish, and started phoning newspapers as "Pru", a pushy publicist, canvassing interviews for Preethi Nair whose book "they were going to publish." Then she would talk to them in her own voice as Preethi Nair. It worked. Interest was stirred.

Preethi went to a printer and arranged for 3,000 copies to be printed and available as of a certain date. She was able to arrange a TV interview for the week of the launch. Somebody phoned from her hometown to tell her the books had been delivered. So she rushed home from London to a room full of books. When she opened the first one she found (yes, to her horror) that page 179 was blank, completely blank - and it wasn't supposed to be.

The printer said it was his fault but it would take 2 months till he would be able to reprint the books. So she told him to print three thousand copies of page 179 and send them to her right away, and she sat and glued the missing page into every one of the books.

TV interview. Great. All about the book. It was only when the interviewer asked her where viewers could obtain copies of her book that she realised she had completely overlooked the issue of distribution. She had thought that by telling distribution companies her book was available, it would find its way somehow into shops . It doesn't work like that.

You gotta love this writer. She set out to visit every bookshop in London. Every day she went out with a suitcase full of books, saying 'I'm Preethi Nair, will you take a few.' 200 bookshops. It had been over two years since she'd finished writing the book.

One day she went back to a bookshop in Finchley Road to find Gypsy Masala was on the second shelf in a top ten display, above Booker nominees etc. She thought it was some mistake, or because her book was the right size to fit there or something, but no, she had a local hit.

It was about this time that the story of her fake publishing company got out, and it was featured on page three of the London Evening Standard. "Pru" had been shortlisted for the PPC Publicist of the Year Award, but her cover was blown -- it was Preethi all along. The publicity turned a local hit into one that sold 3,000 copies each from about 40 more bookshops, which is a lot of books (as she said.)

There was a contretemps at this point. The fuel protest blockades started here, and trucks couldn't pick up her books from the printers and distribute them. The moment was lost. As she told us, once the story goes cold like that you're old news and nobody wants to know anymore.

Preethi doesn't write every day nine to five or anything like that. Somebody lent her a cottage in the country and she went away to write a new novel. By this time she had an agent who gave her helpful feedback chapter by chapter and encouragement. Preethi completed the novel in six weeks, expressing all the pent-up feelings and stories from the past two and a half years in a fictionalised version of her own publishing adventure, Beyond Indigo.

After a bidding war, the novel was sold to Harper Collins and they gave her a deal. Part of the deal was for her to rework Gypsy Masala and the result was 100 Shades of White. I have a signed copy here. There are echoes in it of Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things. For one thing they both originate from Kerala in Southern India. More good news for the author, the BBC is going to make a mini-series from it.


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