book reviews Posts

“The Journey Of Indian Publishing” by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

I recently contributed to How to Get Published in India edited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.

Here is the essay I wrote:

****

AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher.  My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi.  These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.

In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of  The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.

To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!

The Daryaganj  Sunday  Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.

From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.

In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.

By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins  India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.

Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.

As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality  is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses. 

The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting! 

3 Feb 2019

Bookaroo app is launched!

Bookaroo, the Children’s Literature Festival organised by Swati Roy, Venkatesh Swamy and Jo Williams is in the tenth year of its existence. From the first edition the festival has blossomed into a travelling festival including going overseas to Malaysia as Pustaka Bookaroo.
In addition to the main weekend festivals, there is an outreach programme, Bookaroo in the City, which takes writers, illustrators, storytellers and poets to mainstream schools and special purpose institutions for children. In short, anything, anywhere, anytime to spread the joy of reading.

Earlier this year they won the International Excellence Awards at the London Book Fair 2017, the first children’s literature festival ever to get the honour. Now the festival organisers have launched the Bookaroo app that is available on Google Play. The immediate purpose is to make their programming available easily for everyone instead of sharing large spreadsheets.

Here is a short interview with the organisers about the app.

  1. Why did you decide to launch an app? The basic purpose of the app is to make the programme (session details) easily accessible without having to download heavy pdf files. Moreover, it is part of our efforts to reduce use of paper. In the future, we would like to be paperless.
  2. How often will you update it? – Just before every edition
  3. What is the kind of information you will capture from the data collected via the app? Why is it necessary for the app to seek permission to access the user’s phone camera and other databases? Why not restrict access to GPR alone? Most apps come with these permission requirements. We will look at data for internal analysis.
  4. Will the data analysis help in tweaking the Bookaroo programmes in future? – We have been constantly evolving the programme taking into account all the feedback that we receive. The app will simply be another avenue.
  5. Will it be available in different languages? –Yes it will, in the future.
  6. Would you ever slowly expand it to include interviews, maybe book excerpts to an online bookstore? The app is in beta mode just now. We will be looking into all the options, possibilities as we develop it.
  7. Will it remain a free app? – Yes – we hope so.
  8. Will it be available on the iOS platform as well?  – Yes, in October
  9. Who is the target audience? Adults  or children?   We are targeting all those who are interested in children’s literature.

30 August 2017 

 

Shovon Chowdhury, “The Competent Authority” ( A review)

Shovon Chowdhury, “The Competent Authority” ( A review)

300x300_6e6779fa5cf265a1d1083b6c6fcdcea1

( My review of The Competent Authority has been published in the Hindu Literary Review. 4 Aug 2013. Here is the url. http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/a-satire-like-no-other/article4985460.ece )

The Competent Authority is the head of the Civil Services of India and operates from New New Delhi. He is ‘temporarily’ in charge of all systems while the country is being “reconstructed” after the last war that occurred a decade ago and wiped out large chunks of the nation and made Bengal a protectorate of the Chinese. “As a humble servant of the people, he was anonymous” and does not wish to be recognised by anyone, save for a handful of people with whom it is imperative he interact. It is a bizarre society that he is at the pinnacle of.

The haves (inevitably filthy rich, with oodles of political clout, and shamelessly corrupt) live in the Dead Circle. The less fortunate human beings were relegated to a ghetto called Shanti Nagar. It was rumoured that they were diseased and unhappy mutants. Ever so often the Bank of Bodies (‘we don’t just repair bodies, we enhance them’) emissaries — the Medical Military Commandos — would swoop down upon Shanti Nagar inhabitants (‘donors’) to harvest body parts; usually ‘when some rich bastard wanted an urgent replacement’. In the next step of evolution for the firm, the board of directors wanted to progress from imparting Medical Joy to Religious Joy, by co-opting their ‘logical ally… Dharti Pakar of the Art of Breathing’.

In this charming mix of despots and maniacs also exist Hemonto Chatterjee, a telepath tester; Pintoo who donated a hand to Pappu Verma, the sweet but spoilt brat of Sameer Verma; Ali of the Al Qaeda; and Pande, the policeman. The chorus consists of a potpourri of characters, ranging from the eunuch Shanti Bai (who founded Shanti Nagar); Banani Chatterjee, the English school teacher who accidentally becomes Pintoo’s local guardian; Taru da the true-blue politician; and Mehta, the Competent Authority’s aide; No. 2 at Bank of Bodies, and so on.

The Competent Authority is a satire like none other by contemporary Indian authors writing in English (except perhaps for Ruchir Joshi’s The Last Jet-Engine Laugh). It is packed with detail and the reader is expected to engage with the script to appreciate the full import of what is being described or alluded to. Having a fair knowledge of geo-politics of the Indian sub-continent certainly helps enhance the pleasure of reading this novel. For instance, the completely colourless CA could belong to any party or ideology. The fact that he exists is frightening. Some of the grim issues that the novel deals with are political puppetry, organ harvesting, communalism, the impact of conflicts, privatisation, eternal debates on capitalism vs communism, and an investigation into the notion of a Nation State. But the humorous manner in which the author weaves the tale ensures that it is not a tedious read.

Shovon Chowdhury is an ad man who has a way with words. He is able to tell a story competently, with a detached sense of cynicism and despair about the crumbling of a secular democracy. It is an enjoyable novel as long as details like the disappearance of Sameer Verma do not annoy one.