The Tribune - Spectrum

, May 26, 2002

Contesting the right to write what is not right
Manohar Malgonkar

ALL authors must get them — letters from total strangers who have written a book—I get them too. Will I read the book? Will I write an honest report on its merits? Suggest a title and recommend it to a publisher. Instead of saying no, no, no and no, I write back to say something like this: If you’ve written a book, send it to a publisher. To show it round to others is a mistake. To show it to other authors is the worst thing you can do. They’ll run it down and, likely as not, steal your plot. Good luck!

As a rule it works. At least the same person has never written to me again — except one. A young man wrote to me thanking me for my advice which he had followed. He had found a publisher in England. But there was a slight hitch. Could he come and talk things over?

I said ‘yes’, and he came a week or so later. His difficulty was that he didn’t have enough money to pay the publisher. "I have to raise a lakh of rupees, and was hoping..."

"A lakh of rupees to have your book published? But damnit, a publisher should pay you money... not ask you for money! What sort of publisher have you found?"


"I found his advertisement in a magazine. Here it is." He showed me a clipping. It was an advertisement offering to publish books for "new authors". My visitor had sent his book to the publisher in typescript, and had received an offer. The publisher would be happy to publish the book if the author would send him in advance £ 2000, which, in those days, came to just under a lakh.

I tried to explain to my visitor that it is unusual for a publisher to solicit business through advertisements. The one he had found must be what they call a ‘Vanity’ publisher. They catered to the needs of people who are prepared to pay a publisher to see their books in print. ‘Vanity’ publishers are not for people like ourselves — those who hoped to make money from the sale of their book.

I don’t think that he was entirely convinced. In fact he gave me the impression that he would somehow raise the lakh to pay the publisher, and see his book in print.

Should what are called ‘family’ magazines carry advertisements which can lure gullible people into spending money which they can ill afford? By making them think that they’re getting value for money? Or that a Vanity publisher is the same as say Knopf in New York or Faber in London? You will find that most of the mass-circulation magazines carry such advertisements which seem to be targeted at people facing difficulties.

That harassed underclass from third-world countries longing to go and make a new life in some foreign country seem just tailormade for such advertisers. They offer to make it easy for these intending immigrants to get entry permits to the UK, the USA, Canada — or anywhere where they want to go. According to their ads, the American Government lets in immigrants into their country by drawing ‘Lotteries’, as many as 50,000 at a time. Write to us and we’ll show you how you, too, can ‘participate’ in these lotteries. But hurry!

So what to make of another advertisement on the same page which actually tells you in so many words, "how difficult it is to obtain a permanent resident visa, or Green Card, in the United States." (Difficult? But is it not merely a matter of ‘participating’ in a lottery?) But there is a way. All that you have to do is to ‘invest’ half a million dollars. Just write to us and we’ll tell you how to do it. In fact this particular ad bears the heading: A US visa in six months!

Such advertisements are a regular feature of some of the most popular news magazines. This itself is proof that there can be nothing the least bit shady about them. The magazines have highly paid legal advisors to make sure that nothing, but nothing, that is not strictly legal is published in them. So when one of their ad says in bold letters: ‘Debt Recovery’ No-Success No-Cost’, we just have to assume that these people recover debts only through friendly persuasion and not by resorting to strong-arm tactics. Nor is there any reason to wince when you come across an ad offering to set up an ‘Offshore’ business for you.

Offshore? But is not offshore almost a synonym these days for secret banking and money-laundering? Maybe to you and me, but not to the magazine or its advertisers. In fact they, quite openly offer to provide you with ‘banking/accounting services offshore.

Oh well. Magazines must be free to take in advertisements which, on the face of them, don’t break the law. If gullible readers are misled by some ad which is perfectly legal, you cannot blame the magazine for it. Then again, since it is the function and duty of a magazine to report newsworthy happenings as fully as possible, they cannot hold back some information because some fusspots might think that it is not in the public interest.

Such as what?

Such as how to make a powerful bomb — cheaply.

Timothy McVeigh made such a bomb to bring down a public building in Oklahoma. Many people were killed, including 19 schoolchildren. How McVeigh made his bomb, merely by buying the ingredients in ordinary stores, was described in detail in most accounts of the trial.

What is fit to print? Does the public have a right to know everything? Should responsible publications hold back information on such things as how to make a cheap bomb? Or refrain from taking advertisement which just might mislead an unwary reader? If there have been established norms about such matters, what is clear is that the magazines as well as their advertisers are busy pushing the frontiers of such norms.

And even they, daring as they seem to be, look tame and timid when compared to some of their colleagues in the business: the book publishers. Some book publishers seem to believe that there should be no limit to information — that anything that anybody wants to know is fit to publish. The public at large must not be treated like children: told that there are some things which they must not know — for their own good.

If, for instance, some one wants to know how to launder money, or how to grow poppies and make opium at home, it is up to the publisher to bring out a book to tell him how to do it. So there are books these days on both the above subjects and also on things such as ‘How to Pick Pockets’, ‘How to smuggle drugs’, and one titled ‘Disposable Silencers’ which you fit on to the barrels of pistols. Or did you want to know how to obtain a second passport, how to make counterfeit money, how to make powerful poisons, ‘How to Ditch your Debts’.

I was particularly intrigued by a book title "How to recover illegal debts". I kept thinking of the possibilities inherent in a situation in which some one bent on collecting illegal debts finds that his victim has read that manual on "How to ditch your debts"?

That would be a nasty confrontation, wouldn’t it? So, perhaps it is just as well to leave this business of collecting debts — illegal or legal — to the experts themselves. Remember that ad I mentioned earlier? ‘Debt recovery, no success no cost’.