Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Publishing in 2006

Circa 2005 could have been a damp-squib year, or a mundane buffer, between 2004 and 2006 for many a sector. Save for publishing. The year was not an earth-shattering one for this industry, but it has provided enough ammunition that the following year(s) will witness explosions one after the other and the whole text could well be rewritten — for better or worse.

First things first. Publishers the world over got a bolt from the blue when Google Print decided to scan every book they could lay their hands upon and create an online repository. Which means, one can practically read any book published in Tamil to Creole — all at one keystroke — without paying a single paisa. Readers rejoice. They do not have to hunt for a particular book in dusty shelves. Publishers wail. For obvious reasons.

Does this amount to copyright violation? Authors’ Guild and other industry bodies think so and have sued Google. As it is definitions of copyright is an absolute muddle because it lapses 50 years after the author’s demise. So more and more publishers will print and publish Tagore or Orwell without paying any royalty to the original publisher or the authors’ legal heirs. Nobody seems to have a clear-cut idea over what actually is a ‘copyright’. Reproducing 500 or so words of a work for review or promotional purposes does not breach any copyright violation, but that may not be the case of a 100-word poem.

While admitting that the future of this fractured industry seems detrimental in 2006, one cannot rule out the fact that people are really getting hooked on to buying (who cares whether they really read) books. The reasons may vary (status symbol; to give an intellectual air), but crass publishers will have the last laugh.

Now, coming to the Indian publishing scene, the big, brash and bunkum ones will rule the roost. Consequently, many Chetan Bhagats will outsell an Amit Chaudhuri (he is planning a book on Kolkata and a novel on music in 2006) and Indira Goswami (a novel, a short story collection and her autobiography sequel). Ditto motivational or self-help books, whatever they mean.

From the international scene the books that will hit the Indian market (and in all probability, become a hit) will be Jan Morris’s Hav, a rare treat, and Carlos Fuentes’ The Eagle’s Throne, a fictional expose of Mexican politicians in 2020.

Another trend that will make the industry more competitive will be the setting up shops of international publishers, tapping, what they think, is a highly potential market. Prominent among them are Random House, Taylor & Francis, Disney Publishing Worldwide and Thomson. Readers are bound to benefit as the quality of the text and production will improve since competition will set in.

There wouldn’t be a marked difference in terms of the reading public’s appreciation of what is euphemistically known as “Indian writing in English published by Indian publishers”. The sure way to success will of course be, “first publish abroad (and get a fat advance and a box item news as a bonus) and then make waves in India”. Sad, but it is true that only a few independent publishers will be able to face the internecine and meticulous war led by big publishing tycoons. Thus, every middle-level publishing house is on the perennial lookout for the next Bhagat, Anurag Mathur, Shobha De or a Khushwant Singh. Well, spice it up by adding a Paulo Coelho or two from foreign land.

Mediocrity will be the catchword this year. You cannot blame the publishers as most of the English-reading public in India’s urban centres are that: mediocre. The publishers are making hay while the sun is shining. And as this yuppie generation’s aspirations have grown voluminously, they swear by and die for ‘inspirational’ books, which will remain a multimillion-rupee industry this year, next year and so many years to come, till such time better sense prevails. Till such time the space for good writing in English will remain cramped.

Books do not sell on its merit alone; it’s a product today, and it will remain thus tomorrow. Good reviews in influential publications no longer ensure good sales; word-of-mouth publicity and ludicrous plugged-or-paid interviews alone work. Or ask the PR companies that make a killing out of this new bunch of cretins who will never get published in the magazines published by the colleges they might have studied in.

One solace for the run-of-the-mill publishers would be the ensured success of cookery, fashion, cinema and children’s books. Since the advent of designer bookstores, these genres will remain the favourites for a long time to come.

Talking about bookstores, India will witness a massive penetration of fancy bookstores. Crossword and Oxford Book Store will open more and more brightly-lit bookstalls in every nook and cranny of the metros and several coffee shops like Barista and CafĂ© Coffee Day will find extra space for books — what if they are titled Who Moved My Cheese or One Night @ the Call Centre.

Two emerging trends in the Indian market will be the proliferation of books in regional languages and fiction giving way to non-fiction in English language. Penguin has already realised the immense potential in regional language fiction and more are expected to follow suit. Coelho, after Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has already found a huge market in a language like Malayalam and it is a matter of time that Rohinton Mistry and Amitav Ghosh will become household names — breaking regional barriers. The dividing line between fiction and non-fiction has almost become blurred, so you can expect more Vikram Seth-type literary non-fiction hogging the limelight.

Indian publishing, whatever its pitfalls and challenges are, will remain a force to reckon with and India will continue to remain the third-largest publisher of books in English language. If it has to withstand the not-so-salubrious climate, they have to invest more in quality and the publishing houses should realise that mediocrity alone will not stand the test of time. People mature as they think as they read.

(The writer, Sunil K Poolani, is the publisher and managing editor of Frog Books, a Mumbai-based publishing house that promotes fiction and young talent, not necessarily in that order. He can be contacted at poolani@gmail.com)

Sunday DNA, January 1, 2006