The publishing industry functions rather inconspicuously, churning out book after book from behind the shadows, without much talk or acknowledgement. While the literary scene in urban India is quite robust, with literary festivals lined up one after the other, and literary events gaining greater traction and leading to much conversation. But what people often forget is that publishing houses are responsible for many literary trends. These publishers stand as guardians of literary merit, standing guards at the doors, to ensure that no one “underserving” gets through, while of course, themselves having to pitch to authors who will help them take care of the bottom lines, ensuring that they’re out of the red. And they can’t be berated for the same, because publishing is, at the end of the day, a business, though one closely linked to an art, and money will come into the picture sooner or later. So if a certain book gets accepted and published, you have them to thank (or blame), and the same applies to when a book is rejected as well.
It is important for one to remember that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by numerous publishers before Bloomsbury finally accepted it. So a publisher’s can’t be the last word in literary matters.
It is an interesting time for the business, as technology and unconventional business models are allowing newer players to enter an industry with major entry barriers, though these barriers weren’t regulatory; be it Juggernaut, with its distinct online presence targeting mobile-readers, or self-publishers like Blue Rose and Notion Press, who allow a greater chunk of the writer-base to get their voice out to the world.
The Indian publishing scene has long been limited to a few prestigious names, and it is high time that things changed a little. While readers continue to lap up both college-life fiction and more “serious” literature coming from the elite, there is demand for freshness, fresh voices, fresh stories, fresh narratives, free of either pretension and elitism, or meaningless pandering to the lowest-common-denominator. For it is possible to write books which are both meritorious and entertaining. And to simply shrug off this responsibility by citing an undeveloped reader-base, is hardly acceptable. Commissioning needs to move out of wine-and-cheese soirees, and allow space for unheard voices. The recent imprints Harper Perennial and HarperVia are proof of the same.
Standing at a traffic signal, I took a good look at the pirated books being sold by street-hawkers. It made sense for only the most popular and in-demand books to be the ones being pirated and hawked, since a pirate would only be in it for the money, and considering the negligible storage space available to these hawkers. The books, contrary to what many elite members of literary circles might lament, weren’t all Chetan Bhagat and Rich Dad Poor Dad, in fact, some of the books I saw were Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Shashi Tharoor’s Why I Am A Hindu, and Khalid Hosseini’s Kite Runner. I was surprised to see the nonfiction titles heavily outweighing fiction in sheer volume. And it is here and at local bookstores that sincere publishers should do their research to figure out what India is reading, and not just use Amazon and Nielsen Bookscan figures.
Indian books have some of the lowest prices across major book markets, and yet, piracy is abundant. This doesn’t necessarily mean that readers are unwilling to pay the full price, but the price point, accessibility, and convenience of it all leads many a reader astray.
There seems to be a vast divide and dichotomy in the industry. On the one hand, you have the literati, showering disdain on a never-ending list of books that don’t match their towering standards, and on the other, you have the supposed “masses”, who couldn’t care lesser about the opinion of the literary elite, and read what they want. Publishers are caught in the crosshairs, as they certainly have to uphold these literary standards, while also push commercial successes as much as possible, to facilitate the cross-subsidy model which helps fund their less commercial (but more meritorious?) releases. They key would be to leave all our pretensions and airs at the door and just publish, letting the reader choose what he or she wants to.
I personally remember an incident from my time working at a bookstore, a couple of young teenagers walked in, asking where they could find the latest Chetan Bhagat novel, and the manager, while pointing to the book, told them off for reading such “crap” and told them to read better books; she condescendingly told them that even if they had to be easy reads, they could be better ones, failing to take into account that there could be x many reasons for them to be reading it, none of which were really her concern. Why the bookstore stocked the book, if it was such “trash” is a question that resounded loudly in the silence that followed. Predictably, the girls, too shocked to even take offence, left the bookstore without a purchase. No one benefited from this exercise, not the author, not the publishers, not the bookstore, and certainly not the readers. If they had to read better books, they could have read one after the book in question as well, shaming them or upbraiding them like little children was neither called for, nor acceptable. And the faster publishers realise this, the faster they will be able to absolve themselves of this hypocrisy of publishing what is, supposedly, “drivel”, and looking down at people for reading it.