There is a lot that a pen has to do

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 29 September 2018

A panel of authors and an editor of a publishing house discuss the future of books and how people can be encouraged to read literature

Since the turn of the century and the proliferation of invasive technology, we have been debating about books and if their charm has faded vis-à-vis ebooks, kindle et al. Putting all the aforementioned and a few more pernicious issues like piracy and marketing on the table were the panelists  — Milee Ashwarya, editor, Penguin Random House, Uday Mahurkar, journalist and author and Shatrujeet Nath, author. The discussion, moderated by author Archana Sarat, saw the panelists discussing ‘Future of Books and the Power Culture of Reading’ at the Pune International Literary Festival. Here’s what they discussed...

Why should we read serious books, non-fiction and fiction genre?

Mahurkar: Reading serious books is very important. PM Modi started a nice experiment called ‘Vache Gujarat’, in which he would read books, biographies of leaders like Sardar Patel, with school kids. He led by example. 

Ashwarya: I agree, serious books have to be read. Non-fiction reading is certainly growing. Sixty-seventy per cent non-fiction is a part of our lists now.  When we say non-fiction, we shouldn’t limit to reading only history and biographies. We are trying to do books in other areas as well — true crime, food, travel, feminism etc. We have to respond to what is happening in the country. There is a #metoo movement we are seeing in Bollywood. We have a timely book for that, called Feminist Rani, written by Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant. 

Nath: Storytelling is probably evolving, as far as fiction is concerned. I think there is a change in the way books are consumed; we have pocket sized books, new formats of telling stories. Sometime back, I was asked to submit a four page synopsis of my book, which could be turned into a web series. So you start off with something else and still have your book. We might have these kinds of experimentation. It also helps the book get traction. The more franchise-able a book is, the more popular it is, it  spreads to more platforms. 

Books have become much  shorter. Earlier, authors couldn’t send books which were lesser than 60- 70,000 words. Have  the norms changed? 

Ashwarya: I can say yes and no to that. There is a certain readership for certain kind of books. We had Gurcharan Das’ book on Kama: The Riddle of Desire with more than one lakh words. We recently published Ramchandra Guha’s book, which is around two lakh words. Then, we also brought out Hindol Sengupta’s The Man who Saved India, which was about one lakh and eighty thousand words. All three books are selling very well. There is an audience for it. 

India is a very big, diverse and young country. The youngsters might not want to read these books, but something else, something slimmer, which can be read in a metro, in a car. I wouldn’t say that serious books are not received well. We have seen growth in both these areas. 

We have to have something for everybody. How else will the readership and sales grow? If a publisher dictates terms, ‘oh this is what you should read’, it’s not fair. People are also engaging with us, letting us know what they like. We have to be tuned in to what readers want, that’s why we are coming out with books on sports. We can have a diverse list. 

Mahurkar: I have written on specific areas, on Modi’s policies. But people around me, my kids and nephews, they want to read books of icons — people who have succeeded. Is there a trend?

Ashwarya: Inspirational stories are read by youngsters; they look at role models, follow them, learn from their lives. There is definitely a merit in publishing them. We are also bringing out something on Indian heroes — from politics, sports and music. We are going to publish a biography on Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, a revered, admired Hindustani classical vocalist in the country. His disciples include Lata Mangeshkar, A R Rahman. He is an interesting personality, but very little is known about him. The people, youngsters especially, could find him interesting, how he achieved this status etc. The challenge is to produce books that are engaging. Audience are spoilt for choices today. 

There are some books that are not very engaging, not very well-written, but end up hitting bestseller chart. Are good marketing and good design becoming much more important than good writing? 

Ashwarya: If a book is selling, there is definitely a readership for it. I think marketing and publicity are certainly very important now. Right from the time we acquire a book and put it on the list, we discuss how should we position it, package it, how should we price it, what’s the title and so on. All this can be the strongest support for your book. These are the first things that readers see and then decide to buy the book/s. Of course, good writing and content is on the top. 

With online platforms, when you are surfing, you see the titles. The books have to be digitally good because we rely on pre-orders too. Timing is crucial as well. If your book on triple talaq comes around when the issue is being discussed, it will be picked up. 

Mahurkar: Connections play a big role too. 

Nath: I agree that we have to drum up that marketing buzz. Marketing is a crucial aspect. Another aspect is that of the author going all out through the year to promote the book. At the end of the day, a publisher has limited resources to support any book. An author gets a window of about two or three months. What after that? The book is still in the market, so the author has to come in and engage with the readers, through giveaways, interacting with readers. You are building a relationship. It’s a long term. 

What can be done to counter book piracy?

Ashwarya: It’s a huge problem, especially in India. Once the book is out, it’s easy to make copies and sell at traffic signals. I feel sad about it, because in India, publishing is growing, but it’s still not a huge, lucrative profession. It is tough for writers to be full time writers. So with every pirated book that is sold, the author loses his royalty. 

With pdf downloads and manuscripts being circulated on WhatsApp, there is much that we have to counter. Some of our authors requested us to release the e-book little later than the physical copy. That helped, but it’s not ideal.

Mahurkar: The government has to play a bigger role in this. There should be stringent laws. 

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