Sunday, July 06, 2008

Cry, Beloved Books

By Sunil K Poolani

Go to the roots

While releasing some of my recent titles and trying to convince the distributors to take up the copies for putting them up on the bookshelves, they told me bluntly: “Pal, we wanted to tell you this earlier; since you are an old friend we did not want to disappoint you, then. But, now, to tell you the truth, the kind of books you publish, well, there are not many takers, thank you. Why do you publish fiction? And poetry! You should be out of your mind to do that in today’s climate.”

And what should I publish? Pat came the reply: dictionaries, ‘how to learn alphabets’, colouring books for kids, cookery books, or if you I am rich enough, publish coffee table books by celebrity cooks, tinsel stars, businessmen…

I was about the rest the case and disappear into thin air, but they reassured me: “Ok, fiction is fine if there is sex, stunt or drama in it. Something scintillating, you know. Can you do that?”

I am still thinking.

End of hype and hoopla?

The market feedback tells me that the much-hyped books by Shobhaa De and Chetan Bhagat are not doing well as the publishers thought they would be. Of course, they are bestsellers by any standards in this dog-eat-dog world of publishing, but it seems their respective publishers overestimated their brand value. The result? Unsold copies in the repository.

I don’t know how true these findings are, but the feeling I get from readers — which include laymen who pretend to be reading — that they too are fed up of ploughing through these exercises in vague. Does that mean the mindset of the ‘thinking’ and ‘reading’ Indian readers in English is changing? For good? Time will tell. But, at least for now, the publishers are not complaining, as they are laughing all the way to their respective banks. Ditto, the ever-green ‘people’s’ authors.

Rise of regionalism

Reports from the real connoisseurs of good literature and writing suggest that if the English-reading pretentious clienteles’ range and depth are receding, that is not the case with regional languages. Good works published in languages like Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali are on the rise. This, at a time when no one in a local train in Mumbai will risk reading a regional language newspaper. Why? Inferiority complex. What if they do not understand the difference between Becket and a bucket.

Indian fiction soaring

Just savoured a good book by an unassuming Indian writer: Saikat Majumdar’s Silverfish. The title of the book could not have been more apt. Like silverfish that nibbles away precious printed words, leaving a whitish trail, Calcutta, the city of neither joy nor love, gnaws the already-pathetic and morose lives of two protagonists, separated by two centuries.

Silverfish is melancholic testimony of a debauched land (in this case Bengal) inundated and infested not just by age-old religious stupidities (as in a parallel plot that vivifies the life of Kamal) but also of a skewed polity in the name of a redundant ideology called communism (as in the other narrative in which the ‘hero’ is Milan Sen).

Give it a try; you will never get disappointed.


The damage management books have done to today’s yuppies is showing. An acquaintance-marketing executive told me recently: “As C K Prahalad said, what we need is a paradigm shift.” I am sure Prahalad would not have said something stupid like this. But I am still wondering what that sentence means. If you have an idea please enlighten me.

— Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

A Snake Pit Called Publishing and Other Stories

By Sunil K Poolani

I started publishing with just Rs 2,000 in hand; was fed up of journalism and I ventured into it as I loved books, wanted to be with books and wanted to hold books on to my chest.

It was a tough game; it is even today. And as I ventured into it I realised what a murky dog-eat-dog world it is. I am not ruing, thank you. In my initial days, I did vanity publishing, and I did cover some bit of the damages. But all these things did not help in the long run. The question of getting money from the intricate corridors of the distributors’ and bookstalls’ moneyboxes was not at all easy. And I eventually learnt that there is only one tribe that benefit from publishing: distributors.

I am not complaining, though. I am skin deep into this and no way can I get out of these murky waters, at least till that time I clear all the dues. Nevertheless, I do enjoy what I am doing. And I love, every time, when I take a whiff of the newly, and painstakingly-produced book that appear from the printer’s shop. Ahem.

Some thoughts on publishing, if you wish. I know that in a country like the US, a new and unknown author can aspire to sell 30-40 thousand copies of a novel, whereas in India, a new home-grown Indian author is considered successful if the book sells just 1,000 copies. Is it because the many citizens of our great country are disinterested and dull, or is it also because good, original and interesting Indian books are not published and marketed in the right way?

My answer is thus: Who says books do not sell well in India? Trash brought out by Shobhaa De, Robin Sharma, Chetan Bhagat sell. Ditto books on cookery, cinema, self-help (due to growing mental insecurity), and travel guides. What does not sell is meaningful and path-breaking literature. So an aam janata does not know who a Kiran Nagarkar is or M T Vasudevan Nair is. The scene is the same in the US, too, where thousands of books come out every year. If a work of fiction has to sell, in India or in the US, hype and hoopla are important; get a Booker, get dragged into controversy, voila, then your book is in the best-selling list. Yes, volume-wise, there is a chalk-to-cheese difference in the US and India as almost all Americans read English — that is not the case here.

And does an Indian author writing in English have to taste success abroad first? Why the market is dominated by East meets West books, but the home-grown Indian books are hidden away in the back shelves? That is due to our colonial mentality; if we were the slaves of the British, now the neo-colonialists are the US. The mentality is thus: ‘Wow, he got a US award (however unheard of it could be), so it should sell well in India.’ Then in a day’s time you will find a pirated Kavya Viswanathan ‘magnum opus’ on Bombay’s great streets. Also to be blamed are the Indian media which is perpetually lick up the western ‘success’ stories.

It is also true that home-grown Indian writers in English cannot turn out much more than run of the mill masala stories or the same old, hackneyed Panchatantra tales retold for the umpteen hundredth time. Do Indian writers lack originality? What stops them? Yes, Indians are lazy. They do not think. They hardly polish their (so-called) talent or style. They do not imagine. The do not think, plainly. Also to be blamed are poor payments, the lalas of the trade, lack of funds for research... Look at the kind of money British or other writers are besotted for the research of their works. So, save our Ramachandra Guha, the best history books on India are written by British writers. Gregory Rabassa is paid as much as Marquez for translating the latter’s work.

Writers like Hemingway were great storytellers, used language and literary techniques beautifully, created art with words and told great stories which resonated with the masses. Why do Indians cannot aspire to write such stories as well? Why not a combination of great artistic techniques, rich emotional, philosophical and other nuances, and also a great plot and narrative that people can understand and relate to? Hmmm, I do not fully agree with the viewpoint here. The best of the Indian writing is not in the English. A Vaikom Muhammad Basheer or a Sarat Chandra Chatterjee is any day equal to a Marquez or Umebrto Eco. They are not famous because they were not properly translated like their western counterparts. And the problem with us is that we did not rekindle our skills though we claim to have a rich and varied culture. It’s bullshit. We had. But what do we have today?

The case is that most Indian publishers, including multinational biggies, push the burden of marketing and publicity entirely upon the author. No matter how good a book may be, if it is not publicised, people will not know about it, and not buy and read it. How can a first-time Indian author compete with bestsellers without adequate support from the publisher?

Well, it is simple. That’s the tragedy one has to suffer, no matter how talented you are. Like their western counterparts, not a single big publishing house entertains new talent unless it has sex appeal and/or probability of selling. I will not name names. “The best magical realist after Marquez,” that’s what a ‘great’ books page editor of a national weekly called a 20-something Bombay guy who wrote a trashy book. He paid the publisher nearly 10 lakh for launch, pitching stories, interviews and reviews. The publisher got a good deal; the scribes were paid; and for the author, belonging to a rich business family, got instant stardom. What if, if the book sank without a trace.

A rich Malabar Hill lady sent me an unsolicited manuscript, written in ink on paper. The book sucked, so I put it in my favourite dustbin. Few weeks later, I got a call from the lady. Asking me whether I am publishing this book or not. I said, ‘Sorry’. She said, “Ok, can I have the manuscript back.” I said I junked it. “Ooops,” she said, “that was the only copy I had.” So? You did not even take a photocopy of it, I asked. She said: “No.”

— Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle