A small indie press talks to a ‘little known Asian author.’
Lynn Michell and Mona Dash
Mona: I’m so excited! My book came in the post this morning1. I’m holding it in my hands. The cover is gorgeous.
Lynn: I’m really pleased with it too.
Mona: People will pick it up in book shops, won’t they? It should be fairly easy to sell with all these endorsements on the cover.
Lynn: I hate to put a dampener on things, Mona, but I’m afraid we need a reality check.
Mona: You sound hesitant, Lynn.
Lynn: Remember when we first talked, a long time ago now, and I said the book trade is a tough place, especially for a small independent publisher with very limited marketing money. And an author who is not a household name? I told you the Big Five publishers have book sales pretty much stitched up because they throw thousands in advertising and marketing money at a few books…not necessarily good books…but they become best sellers because they’re heavily hyped. And everyone buys them.
Mona: And is disappointed! Yes, I vaguely remember, but at that stage I was just so thrilled to have a publisher who understood my book and loved it enough to offer me a contract.
Lynn: I know. It’s the same with most of my authors.
Mona: So what’s different this time around?
Lynn: I hesitate to say this, but we have to factor in the A word. Throw into the equation your ethnicity and we may have more of a challenge.
Mona: Why? What’s wrong with Asian? The media is forever talking about diversity. I should be flavour of the month.
Lynn:You still may be, but I’m sending up a warning flare. In the foreword to May We Borrow Your Country, Preti Taneja writes about the ‘single story’ that’s expected from ethnic minority writers. Western expectations of Asian writers are still restricted and stereotyped. She says it’s a struggle to find editors ‘who “love” and “get” the myriad styles of our work?’ In other words, there are gatekeepers along the way to publication, blocking your path with their misconceptions.
Mona: But you understand my writing, Lynn. You see my story as one that has universal appeal for mothers who want to have a healthy child and as a message of hope for any parent facing difficulties and challenges.
Lynn: Yes, but as I said, editors and publishers haven’t caught up yet. Authors Sunny Singh and Nikesh Shukla launched the Jhalak Prize3 for the best books by British writers of colour because they believe they are often ‘ignored, overlooked and erased’. Singh is convinced that ‘we live in a mono-cultural literary landscape’ . Writers of colour ‘feel that their work is often marginalised unless it fulfils a romantic fetishisation of their cultural heritage.’ It’s the same message. You’re allowed only the single story.
Mona: I think you’re being too pessimistic. Maybe that applies to novels, not a memoir which is a true story. My reviewers, Neel Mukherjee, Bidisha, Roopa Farooki, Irenosen Okojie and Mahsuda Snaith are all empathetic and wildly enthusiastic.
Lynn: Those are all ethnic minority writers and reviewers.
Mona: Why do you need to label them? They are good authors. I’m proud and happy that they love my writing.
Lynn: It pushes you further into the Asian box. Asian author. BAME – even though I don’t like the label – reviewers. We have to get you out of that pigeon hole and set you free. It won’t be easy without western reviewers too.
Mona: Well, nothing is easy, Lynn. Don’t be depressing. You try to get more reviews from your western contacts. Let’s talk about the launch instead. I have dozens of friends who will come.
Lynn: OK, fire away. Where would you ideally like to hold it?
Mona: Well, Waterstones again. Or Daunt, that beautiful store in Marylebone. Or W H Smith? Can we do that?
Lynn: (Sighs). I’ve run Linen Press for eleven years and have never managed to get Waterstones to stock our books until your wonderful South Asian collective, The Whole Kahani, got themselves a launch in Gower Street. Maybe Reshma Ruia4 has magic persuasive powers. Maybe they liked the novelty of a line up of eight Asian authors and knew they’d pull in a crowd. Anyway, that was a first for all of us.
Mona: It was such a wonderful evening! So did you contact them?
Lynn: Yes. Gower Street Waterstones is fully booked for launches through June with a focus on history and philosophy.
Mona: I contacted them, Lynn. Finally they’ve agreed to offer me a place on a panel talking about motherhood on the 15th June.
Lynn: That’s amazing. Your perseverance has paid off.
Mona: Not with Daunt. They totally snubbed me. ‘We don’t host launches for unknown authors.’ That’s really upsetting. Known authors were once unknown authors! What makes them think I won’t pull in a big crowd? I’m Indian and we support one another. I have hundreds of friends and colleagues who will come if I ask them.
Lynn: It’s what I expected. They won’t take the risk. I wonder how many ‘unknown authors’ ask them for launches. They won’t bother to find out if the ‘unknown author’ already has a reputation. They gave Linen Press author, Maureen Freely, a wonderful launch, but she’s well known and her agent sorted it for me.
Mona: After a lot of emails, WH Smith has offered me a book signing in their Bluewater store in July.
Lynn: That’s fantastic, Mona! You’ve really stuck at it. Not a launch, but a book signing is better than nothing.
Mona: Well, with so much uncertainty, I’ve carried on looking. Venues are incredibly expensive. The Wellcome Trust charges £6000!! The Library Club wants £1500 or a £1500 minimum spend at the bar. I complained to fellow writer, Catherine, and she said, ‘Are you having a Vegas wedding there or what?’ The London Review of Books and the Yurt Cafe charge hundreds. The only free venue is the Nehru Centre.
Lynn: Stop, Mona! We’ll find something!
Mona: Now I’m really worried about the launch.
Lynn: I know but my concern about the Nehru Centre is that it labels you as an Asian author. This memoir is not an Asian story. It’s an Everywoman story.
Mona: But the first part is set in India where there’s no diagnosis or treatment for my son’s genetic condition. I do write about Indian culture and our endless visits to doctors and hospitals.
Lynn: I know, but you could be a mother carrying the same flawed genetic gene living in a dozen other countries where there’s no treatment. And the story soon moves to London. I’ve contacted Indie book shops for a launch and to stock your book. Listen to this from one: ’We are very cautious about stocking titles that are either self-published, or from very small publishers, as experience shows that regardless of their merit, they very rarely sell and we end up (very sadly) throwing them away. The comparison between a self (or small) published book and a shop full of titles commissioned and produced professionally by large publishers is generally not very kind.’
Mona: That’s awful! And so untrue.
Lynn: It makes me wonder which Indie presses they’ve stocked. At the last big event in that abbey in France, lots of people stopped at our stand and admired our covers and the quality of our books. Anyway, the problem with Indie book shops…the few that are left…is that they usually order just one or two copies. They’re struggling too.
Mona: Let’s move on to magazines. Better news there?
Lynn: I sent a long, detailed pitch about your book and your long moving quest to become a mother to a top glossy. The editor knows me. Every month I get the same email: ‘Do you have an author who has survived a major life change? There must be a happy, uplifting ending.’ Perfect, I thought. I didn’t even get a reply. In the past, they’ve asked for more information, even if they finally rejected the idea. I’ve had one double page feature in their magazine.
Mona: Wait …did you send in a photo?
Lynn: Of course. The one of you looking relaxed by the Thames.
Mona: Well, there’s your answer. I’m Asian! Come on, you should know how few, if any, Asian women are featured in their pages. Especially in true life stories. Why did you tell them I’m Asian?
Lynn: If I hadn’t told them, and that was the reason for rejecting you, they would have done so later. But I have no proof. They use black models in their fashion pages. Sometimes. But I imagine their readership is mainly white, well-heeled, slightly older women.
Mona: And they aren’t interested in a story that begins in a foreign country? Not very encouraging. OK, let’s move on to the Asian reviewers. Remember the guy who seemed very keen and had reviewed my previous pieces in May We Borrow Your Country, very positively! Have you heard back?
Lynn: Yeah. He turned you down because, he said, your memoir isn’t specifically Asian. They only feature books which are Asian!
Mona: This would be funny if it weren’t tragic, Lynn. The Asian blog thinks that my book is too universal to be reviewed in an Asian literary magazine, and the mainstream reviewers thinks an Asian story can’t have a universal appeal?! So it’s lose, lose.
Lynn: Publishers and agents seem to be entrenched in misperceptions about the ethnic minority narrative. A recent report5 says that Black and Asian authors feel pressured into offering books which conform to a white book trade’s perception of what is an accurate reflection of their cultures. ‘Of the publishers and literary agents interviewed by Writing the Future, 74% of those employed by large publishing houses and 97% of agents described the industry as only ‘a little diverse’, or ‘not diverse at all’ Writers are being advised by agents and editors to make their manuscripts marketable in this country by ‘upping the sari count, dealing with gang culture or some other image that conforms to white preconceptions.’
Mona: Upping the sari count! I have personal experience of that. I sent an extract from my novel to an agent who said, ‘So this is about India. I am expecting colour. I am expecting noise. You need to add all of that.’ It seems the India I understand and write about doesn’t match the India imagined by western editors and publishers! So to appeal to non-Asian readers, as an Asian author, I must add Indian flavours and spices. Maybe there should have been an elephant somewhere in my memoir. Or a cow? Honestly, how can I not have a cow when half of the story is about India? You should have told me, Lynn. It’s a memoir and every word is true…however I could have included a cow and linked it to genetics!
Mona: So I have to be a non-Asian author for non-Asians and Asians. Let’s start again and use a photo of a blonde woman. Or I’ll just write a cow into the manuscript. Where shall I put the cow, Lynn?
After a lot of effort, Mona dash now has three events booked:
15 June 14.00 – 17.00: Book signing in W H Smith, Bluewater, London.
19 June 18.30: Panel discussion. The Feminist Book Society presents: Motherhood – the last feminist taboo.
9 July 18.00 – 20.00 : Launch in Waterstones, Islington,London.
- A Roll of the Dice: a story of loss, love and genetics. https://www.linen-press.com/shop/a-roll-of-the-dice/
- May We Borrow Your Country. Linen Press. 2019. https://www.linen-press.com/shop/may-we-borrow-your-country/