Timbuctoo and the future of publishing

6 October 2012

by Victoria McEwan
2012 intern


“People get very worked up about creating a book and having their name on it.  Write for yourself. Not for anyone else”.

Tahir Shah is an Anglo-Afghan Indian author and a controversial character in the literary world, for he is not afraid to talk about how the book publishing world is behind with the times or about how self-important authors annoy him. Shah has strong views on traditional book publishing practices and assertively refers to those publishers who do not employ new methods as being ‘stuck in the stone-age’.  
“I am quite against the conventional model that publishers use to sell books. It’s really old fashioned and really boring. I think the printing is really shoddy and pathetic.  I am so passionate to recreate beautiful books”.
Timbuktu, Shah’s latest book, a historical novel about the first Christian man to visit Timbuktu, is self-published on the grounds that Shah is fed up being embarrassed by his books being published in such a ‘shoddy and pathetic’ way, with cheap paper and unoriginal cover art. He almost commands that there should be more respect for books, as works of art rather than cheaply put together paperbacks.
The new book was a complete sell out at Wigtown Book Festival and those who did not manage to get a copy enquired to as where they could get one (Amazon - if anyone is wondering).  The aesthetic beauty of this book caused quite a flurry of excitement in the audience. It is rare to see such a striking looking modern book.  We have become used to seeing brightly coloured book covers, filled with cheap paper.  
People queued up after hearing Shah speak to have a better look at the book, and feel the weight and quality of the book in their hands.  The book feels expensive and you would be proud to have it on your coffee table, as a conversation piece, some might say.  There are tastefully illustrated black and white maps that fold out from the book, and create a whole new dimension to the story being told.  
Being a self-published book this also gave Shah the freedom to experiment with new methods of publicising the book – “What I have tried to do because I have published this myself is to hype the book in ways that is not usually done in the media.  For example geocaching things – you hide items, anywhere, like in the countryside or a city, and then people with their smart-phones use the GPS to find it. So, I have hidden e-copies of the book on USB drives, lots of them, all over the country”.
Shah argues that publishers are actually not as great as some might think at publicising books and he hopes that they change their approach soon, as to avoid ending up with the problems the music industry has.  He feels the currently publishing situation can be adeptly compared to a book called The Tale of the Sands – “In it a river wants to cross the dessert and it gets absorbed by the sand and the wind tells the river that if it wants to cross the desert it can but it needs to change its form.  You have got to come in to the wind as mist and I will blow you across. I think publishing is similar to this.  They have been living in a la la cuckoo land for too long. I hope a new model is emerging”.
Another of his pet hates is when writers are self-important and in turn almost end up being some sort of celebrity.
“I feel so embarrassed. It is kind of like a carpenter – ‘yeah I made a pretty good table today’. I just see writing as a craft, like woodwork. I don’t want to know what the carpenter ate for breakfast or what his sex life is like”.
Despite his complaints about publishing and of other authors his arguments are all based around the philosophy that you should write for yourself, as it is the journey you embark on during the writing process which is the most important part of writing a book, above everything else.