Why We Need Independent Presses Like Story Artisan Press
March 10, 2020
‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ – Toni Morrison
As writers of the diaspora, Nandini Patwardhan and I had been following that advice for almost two decades, penning essays and stories that spoke of our experience and world view. Encouraged by the success of Indian American authors such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Bharati Mukherjee, we hoped to publish our work in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and even the coveted New York Times. Unfortunately, we encountered rejections from multiple literary outlets, big and small.
Nandini and I met through our writing that appeared in a California-based Indian American print magazine, one of the few that was open to publishing our personal essays. Our association strengthened when I started contributing a regular column to Desijournal, Nandini’s innovative online magazine that featured thought-provoking and authentic content by Indian expats.
By late 2018, Nandini had researched and written a full-length biography and I had completed the first draft of my memoir. When we resumed contact, we were not surprised to discover that we had accumulated multiple rejections from publishers in the U.S., India and Singapore, where I now live.
Success Of The Single Story
In the first few years of the 21st century, writers from India (or of Indian heritage) won many awards – Bookers for Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga, the Pulitzer for Jhumpa Lahiri. Without detracting from their stupendous success, the fact remained that when only certain (types of) stories get published, stereotypes abound.
As per a UN report released in 2019, at 17.5 million, the Indian diaspora is the largest in the world and is spread across multiple continents. As a member of this group, I have personally seen how our diverse needs are served through small, local magazines (India Currents and Khabar in the U.S., India Se and Tabla in Singapore) while literature created by and targeted towards this group is scattered across publishing sectors.
Outside India, publication of serious literature by and about Indians is at the whim of large mainstream publishers who are motivated solely by market-based imperatives. Appealing to the masses involves writing more of the narratives that are popular with Western audiences and are usually written along the lines of the handful that have succeeded. This leads to wistful, nostalgia-focussed or ‘othered’ writing being held up as the standard, while the full agency, optimism, history, and unique insider-outsider perspectives are ignored.
Genesis And Mission Of Story Artisan Press
More than simple friendship and camaraderie, Nandini and I found our ‘ideal reader’ in each other. It helped us feel less alone and invisible in the vastness of the publishing landscape. Convinced that there were many more readers (and writers) like us, we decided to create a welcoming space for them. We established Story Artisan Press in early 2019 with three simple goals:
- As avid readers, to create the kinds of books that we like to read — books that speak to our world views and experiences.
- As writers, to add our own voices and the voices of others like us to the marketplace of ideas.
- As pioneers, to create a community that fosters reading, writing, reflection, and critical thinking.
As our name implies, we are a small press that seeks to be a collective of artisans, not a mighty factory that cranks out millions of identical widgets. Just as customers of a certain kind seek out artisans and their creations, it is our hope that we will be found by readers of a particular bent of mind.
Like artisans whose goal is to focus more on quality rather than quantity, we aim to measure our success not solely by the number of books sold or the amount of profit made, but in terms of the number of people reached and the number of readers moved by our books.
As writers who have approached publishers in more than one market, we would like to avoid stratifying our readers as people living within or outside India. Our ideal readers are people looking for stories that feature characters, stories, and experiences that are representative of and relatable to them.
We believe that Story Artisan Press will create a close-knit – in spirit, if not in geography – community of readers who are looking for insightful and thoughtful stories that speak to them and to their experiences rather than pandering to stereotypes.
A Year In Review
Over the past year, we have published six books. This last year has also seen us climbing a steep learning curve, not just with respect to the technical aspects of our business, but also in terms of human elements. In order to understand Amazon’s KDP and other options, fundamentals of ISBN numbers, and the nuances of digital marketing, we have had to put our writer hats aside while focussing on business aspects. Nandini’s background as a web developer came in handy for our website design. I took on the challenge of building a social media platform with the assistance of my family, and both of us reached out within our networks to find interested readers.
One of our major learnings has been the discovery of the popularity of print books over e-books. In the U.S., print-on-demand is easily available. However, finding an equivalent, reliable service for printing in India was more difficult. Multiple emails, phone call follow-ups, and escalations were needed before we could offer this option here.
Another surprise awaited us when we put out the call for submissions for the Desi Modern Love anthology. Unlike Train Friends which features essays written exclusively by both of us, selecting good quality pieces, ensuring we had permission to publish them, and getting marketing support from the contributors to Desi Modern Love turned out to be more time-consuming than we had originally anticipated.
Having each other to discuss (or vent about) setbacks, brainstorm alternate options, or simply make a joint decision helped us ride these unexpected waves of turbulence and move forward towards our goal.
Clearly, the reward for such a labour of love has not been a financial one. But, we intend to continue our learning process, fine-tune our plans, and keep moving forward.
Our goal is to become a self-sustaining enterprise. For this, we may need to look at the option of collaborating with other ventures with a similar mission. Perhaps the most important aspect of funding will have to be approached in a creative manner. Without physical and financial support from a group of engaged readers, it will be difficult to take risks and bring new voices to the forefront.
What Makes Us Continue
Perseverance is the key to the success of any enterprise. Our shared belief is that stories matter, storytelling matters. That is how we construct ourselves and find wholeness. As individuals, the biggest reward is in knowing that we are no longer silent and invisible. By speaking our truth, we are making it possible for others to speak, or at least get in touch with their truth.
The more stories we get out there, the closer we move towards breaking stereotypes. By doing so, we rise above petty and superficial differences, and get to know the humanity in everyone.
Story Artisan Press is our attempt to create a more cohesive world.
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA. She lives in Singapore with her family and is presently working on a memoir. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon.
You can read her articles here.