China Posts

“Ma Huateng & Tencent: The Story of an Online Chinese Empire”

The story of billionaire Ma Huateng and the company he co-founded, Tencent, reads like a modern fairy tale. It’s tag line on the homepage of the company’s website is “Connecting People for a Greater Future”. LID Publishing that specialises in business books has published a biography of the 14th richest man in the world ( according to Forbes) in collaboration with China Translation and Publishing House.

It is a mesmerising tale of a young middle class computer programmer who driven by ambition, focused hard work and bold strategy realised the potential of the Internet in the 1990s. He also astutely recognised that the pager company he was employed in was a sunset industry but the future lay in instant communication using technology and the internet. Innovation was required in localising existing programmes as most of the population in China was monolingual whereas new apps and programmes being released in the global market were dependant on English as the mode of communication.

Through his grit and determination, astute strategy and long term vision, Ma Huateng was able to build a business empire that within years has grown into a billion dollar enterprise recognised worldwide. Its rise and influence in the global economy is unparalleled. He copies and innovates existing ideas to make his existing customers satisfied. His vast user base is what has enabled him to experiment and be bold in his strategies while also attracting investors who know there is no other player in Tencent in China who has such deep penetration and impressive impact in the country.

Ma Huateng & Tencent is a fascinating account of the man behind the firm who built his fortune on enabling instant messaging for Chinese users to creating a global brand integrating its PC and mobile gateways. Now Tencent is also known for its pan-entertainment services by offering a range of services from online games, books/publishing, reading websites to transforming the more successful works into movie projects. In its early days when word spread about Tencent and its instant messaging, it was registering an average of over 370,000 new users every day!

There is plenty to glean from this book about how to develop businesses, innovate and remain relevant to changing tastes and expectations of customers. Although it is a rivetting read there is plenty not said too about Tencent’s engagement with the Chinese government which as anyone who attempts do business in China is a must. Thus making this book a hagiography rather than a sharply told biography of a successful businessman.

4 January 2019

Freedom of Speech and Prix Voltaire Prize, 32nd IPA Congress, 11-13 Feb 2018, New Delhi

From 11-13 February 2018 the 32nd International Publishers Association (IPA) Congress was held at Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi. The International Publishers Association (IPA) is the world’s largest federation of national, regional and specialist publishers’ associations. Its membership comprises 70 organisations from 60 countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas. The congress was organised in Delhi along with the collaboration of the Federation of Indian Publishers ( FIP).

It was a wonderful congress with multiple panel discussions that fortunately ran in succession rather than in parallel and many fascinating conversations were to be had on the sidelines. It was a phenomenal gathering of publishers from around the world. The full programme can be accessed here.

Day two the discussions continued as energetically as before. The highlights of the events on this day were the panel discussion on “The threat of self-censorship in publishing”. It was chaired by Kristenn Einarsson, CEO Norwegian Publishers Association; Chair, IPA Freedom to Publish Committee and the panelists were Trasvin Jittidecharak, Silkworm Books, Thailand and Jürgen Boos, President and CEO, Frankfurt Book Fair, Germany. 

The Keynote speech was delivered by Norwegian publisher William Nygaard. On 11 Oct 1993 he was shot three times in the back outside his home. Although the crime was never resolved it is widely believed that this was linked to the fatwa William Nygaard received for publishing Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Both before and after the attack he has been a great defender of the freedom to publish and of free speech. His speech begins at 2:49:41 in the YouTube link given below:

Kristenn Einarsson during the course of conversation remarked that through libel laws economic sanctions are being imposed so allowing not necessarily governments but also people in power to really hit you economically if you publish something they don’t like or go to court with. So just a threat of that is hindering publishing.” Juergen Boos confirmed that the perception of self-censorship is on the rise particularly with the more and more populist governments being elected to power. At 3:32:12 Kristenn Einarsson remarks that the panel should have included an Indian publisher who could not make it and then opened the discussion to the floor except that once again no Indian stood up instead Edward Nawotka, Bookselling and International News Editor, Publishers Weekly spoke. He can be heard speaking off camera. ( Another equally telling observation is that while composing this blog post I discovered that Amazon India does not sell Rushdie’s Satanic Verses despite selling all his other books! )

Later in the day the 2018 IPA Prix Voltaire award ceremony was held. The award was given to Chinese-born Swedish scholar Gui Minhai who is a prolific writer often commenting on Chinese politics and political figures. He is one of the three shareholders of Causeway Bay Books in Hongkong. He went missing in Thailand in late 2015. It was received on his behalf by his daughter Angela Gui. “I think that my father’s version of optimism is perhaps precisely the kind that Voltaire describes. It’s an optimism that in the face of unimaginable cruelty still believes in change. And it’s an optimism that isn’t crushed by lies, force and humiliation.”

Bangladeshi Publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan was given a posthumous Special Award. He was brutally hacked to death inside his office at the hands of suspected religious extremists for his association with secular science writer Avijit Roy and other freethinking, secular and atheist writers on 30 October 2015. His widow, Razia Rahman Jolly, told the audience, “We have sacrificed our sunshine. We are in darkness,” but she promised to continue her husband’s work and keep publishing books in Bangladesh. In fact 12 July 2018 was Dipan’s birthday and Jose Borghino, Secretary General, IPA tweeted:

Months after the panel discussion was recorded at the IPA in Delhi, prominent Tamil publisher Kannan Sundaram, Kalachuvadu Publications, who is known for publishing Perumal Murugan, delivered a talk at the May Sahitya Mela in Dharwad, Karnataka, on May 26. It was published as an article for Scroll “As intolerance grows, India needs a brand of secularism that keeps a distance from religion, caste: Today, majoritarian fundamentalism is the biggest threat to a writer and an artist’s free expression.” ( 9 July 2018) This is what Kannan Sundaram says:

If one truly believes in freedom of expression, one has to fight to preserve the right of expression for ideas that one cannot stomach. For many people who consider themselves progressives, freedom of expression is often about fighting for the right to express only ideas they believe in. Some argue that freedom of expression is allowed only for rational thought. For ideas they consider regressive, they demand a ban and prosecution by the state. This strain of thought we know has led to the imprisonment and murder of writers throughout modern history by various regimes claiming to be revolutionary. Fascism can come from the right, left or centre of the ideological spectrum. It may come from any ideology or even from an ideological vacuum if people blindly and reverentially follow a demagogue.

In today’s context, majoritarian fundamentalism is the biggest threat to a writer and an artist’s free expression. If the Bharatiya Janata Party rules for another term, with full majority, it is sure to cause untold harm to the idea of India.

Intolerance is not a Hindutva creation. All ideologies, and political, religious movements and political parties in India have contributed to increasing intolerance. There is not one political party in India that has ever endorsed freedom of expression except mouthing it when it suits them. It is part of no political party’s manifesto. This soil was nurtured by intolerance over the decades by all political formations. Now, Hindutva has sown its seeds, watering it with blood and reaping it electorally. Yet, few have learnt the lesson. Hindutva intolerance cannot be met by anti-Hindutva intolerance. The real counter is to meet it with tolerance, discussion, debate, peaceful demonstration and campaigns – which are all, of course, relatively tougher options. We have to draw on the positive aspects of our tradition that have nurtured strong unifying points for different milieus and cultures.

Writers have always faced intolerance from family, neighbourhood, religion and caste. No government or party has ever supported their right to write. What is different now is that Hindutva organisations have been able to knit together multiple castes under their platform and launch major campaigns against writers or simply bump them off with hired killers.

A new definition of secularism in India has to define secularism as maintaining equidistance from all religious and caste formations.

The next important thing is to prepare a policy paper on freedom of expression and convince all secular parties to discuss and accept it.

Only time will tell how much freedom publishers and writers genuinely have, can they contribute to the cultural quotient as mentioned by Richard Charkin earlier at the congress or do many subscribe to the policy of self-censorship?

Read more about the congress on the IPA blog maintained by James Taylor.

13 July 2018 

The 2017 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction: a Formidable Shortlist and Winner

(I wrote about the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction on 7 June 2017, the day the winner, Naomi Alderman, was announced. It was published in Bookwitty. ) 

Research has long shown that major literary prizes have not acknowledged women writers. The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was established in 1996—first as the Orange Prize for Fiction, and after this year’s prize it will be renamed the Women’s Prize for Fiction—by co-founder and writer Kate Mosse to “celebrate women’s creative achievements and international writing, whilst also stimulating debate about gender and writing, gender and reading, and how the publishing and reviewing business works.”

The inspiration came the year of the Booker Prize in 1991 when none of the six shortlisted books was by a woman, despite the fact that almost 60% of the novels published that year were by female authors. A group of women and men working in the book industry got together to discuss the issue and the idea for the prize was born. From 2018 onwards there will be a family of sponsors instead of a title sponsor, the award will continue to be £30,000.

Now in its second decade, the prestigious literary prize is recognized worldwide for its exclusive spotlight on women writers. The winners have dealt with a range of subjects in the past but more than its uniqueness it has been the experiment with form, language and style while creating something new and memorable which has stood out as the winning mark. This year too, the shortlist of six novels was extraordinarily fine: there’s the winner, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me, and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Of the six novelists Linda Grant is a previous winner of this prize with her When I Lived in Modern Times (2000) and was previously longlisted for the Prize in 2008 for The Clothes On Their Backs. C. E. Morgan’s Sport of Kings was nominated for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and she won the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize, Madeleine Thien won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Do Not Say We Have Nothing and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Ayòbámi Adébáyò is making her debut as a writer. The common thread linking all of these women is not only their sharply confident voices but also their ability to observe and convey gender dynamics within society and across history.

Despite years of women’s movements being active in various countries and now with the second wave of feminism, women continue to negotiate for their space and are unable to experience the same sense of entitlement that men have within society. This is well illustrated in Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me when the husband, Akin, and wife, Yejide, argue about choices open to them as individuals. Yejide has been relegated to first wife status with the arrival of Funmi –a decision foisted upon them by their families—as Yejide has been childless. Yejide is furious with Akin:

‘So now you can talk? You can blurt it all out? Who married another woman? In this house who married another woman, tell me? Tell me now! Which bloody cheat did that?’

He traced the brown coffee stain with his thumb. ‘We’ve talked about that, we’ve settled it.’

I was so angry I could hardly breathe. I stood up and leaned across the table to stick my face in front of his. ‘OK now. Something else is settled. I want a baby and since you are too busy at your new wife’s place to try and get me pregnant, I can get a baby from any man I want.’

He got up and grabbed my arms just above the elbows. The veins in his forehead popped. ‘You can’t, ‘he said.

I laughed. ‘I can do anything I want.’

His nails bit into my arms through my shirtsleeves. ‘Yejide you can’t.’

I wagged my head. ‘But I can. I can. I can.’

He shook me until my head bobbed and my teeth rattled. Then he let go suddenly. I crashed into a chair, grasping the table for balance.

It all boils down to a matter of perspective, brought out searingly in Gwendoline Riley’s slim novel First Love. Young writer Neve is reading from a “strange document” to her husband, an older man, Edwyn, the brutal domestic violence her mother experienced in her first marriage.

“Listen to this,’ I said. ‘Slapped, strangled, thumbs twisted. Hit about head while breast-feeding. Hit about head while suffering migraine. Several kicks at base of spine. Hot pan thrown, children screaming.’

‘Oh, she kept a list, did she?’ Edwyn said.

‘Not at the time. She had to write it down for her solicitor. Not that anyone listened.’

‘I see. And how long were they married?’

‘Eight years.’

‘And she could remember that far back, could she? Did she keep a diary?’

‘Did she keep a diary? What a weird, horrible question.’

He frowned slightly, but he was smiling too, his eyes were glittering.

‘It was a genuine question,’ he said. And as he went one, he spoke slowly, softly, as if I were very stupid. Stupid and volatile.

‘She must have a very good memory, that’s all. Some people do. Of course they do. ‘That’s all I wanted to know. I’m interested. It’s very interesting to me. That she’d remember, quite so clearly, all of these …what might you call them?’

‘Assaults,’ I said.

He tilted his head, musing on whether to allow that.

‘Well – incidents,’ he said.”

It is not surprising then, given the overwhelming patriarchal blindness that continues to exist in societies that Naomi Alderman’s The Power, winner of the 2017 prize,  is a tantalizingly refreshing vision of a society where women are in authority—an idea notably explored by many women writers including, of course, Alderman’s mentor and co-longlisted writer, Margaret Atwood. In The Power women intimidate others, particularly men, by shocking them with an electric charge their bodies create naturally. Unfortunately, besides its strong and feisty women, there is little creative imagination at play as the characters have merely been supplanted in a social structure, which is similar to patriarchal norms.

 

The novels by Madeline Thien and C.E. Morgan are very different for their historical sweep about politics and literature told through inter-generational family sagas. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about a Chinese family that lives through the Cultural Revolution and then emigrates to Canada. It is a novel in which a “Book of Records” and the playing of Western Classical Music in a communist regime are interspersed with detailed historical research. Similarly Sport of Kings is ostensibly about breeding thoroughbreds and horse racing while it raises crucial discussions about slavery, racism, Darwinism, histories of the marginalized, and modern American civilization. Despite a little sidetracking into rambling backstories, C.E.Morgan’s exquisite craftsmanship is on display.

Linda Grant’s novel, on the other hand, falls just short of being a period piece even though bulk of the plot occurs in 1949 in a sanatorium for tubercular patients supported by the newly formed NHS. It is the last one-third of the book which brings the story into twenty-first century Britain, exploring ‘new freedoms’ between men and women, anti-Semitism, ‘immigrant scum’, refugees fleeing wars, poverty in post-World War II and the public health care system that leaves a haunting impression on the reader.

Picking a winner from the formidable shortlist of talent must have been tough for the judges chaired by Tessa Ross, Sara Pascoe, Aminatta Forna, Katie Derham, and Sam Baker!

11 June 2017 

 

Literati – “Readers return to book fairs” ( January 2016)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My column, Literati, has been published online on 16 January 2016 and will be published in print in the Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 January 2016. I am c&p the text below. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-how-readers-are-returning-to-book-fairs/article8113687.ece 

Publishers across languages were taken aback by the phenomenally positive response at this year’s World Book Fair

“Because I have time to spare, and for the first time in my life nobody expects anything of me. I don’t have to prove anything. I’m not rushing everywhere; each day is a gift I enjoy to the fullest.”

                                                                                                                                           Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover

Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, ( Simon & Schuster) is a breathtakingly elegant novel, full of quiet grace, about ageing, love, and friendships across generations. There is violence in the story, plenty of it. It is impossible to escape it. Allende writes about her Jewish protagonist Alma Belasco who flees from Nazism in Poland as a young child, the setting up of camps for Japanese families in America after Pearl Harbour, and the devious rings of online child pornography, which Irina Bazili, a refugee from a Moldovan village, experienced. Yet, surprisingly, The Japanese Lover radiates peace. It is written by a 73-year-old novelist who is herself no stranger to violence, having fled Chile during General Pinochet’s coup. As in Toni Morrison’s stupendous God Help the Child, ( Penguin Random House) these two writers come to terms with the fact that there are hardships, but it is important to treasure life one day at a time.

It is this spirit that across during the World Book Fair this year. The fair was brought forward by a month since the country of honour, China, had requested it. Many Indian publishers were apprehensive about the move as they were not very sure about the impact it would have on sales. Yet publishers across languages have been taken aback by the phenomenally positive response.

Piyush Kumar, Publisher, Prabhat Prakashan, whose family has been selling Hindi books for many decades, was astounded by the response. He noted with happy astonishment, “After the crowds left on Sunday evening, our stall looked as if it had been looted. My father who started this business has never seen such record sales.” Across publishers and languages, everyone is reporting unprecedentedly brisk and healthy sales.

At the CEOSpeak on 10 January, organised by FICCI and NBT, Le Yucheng, the Chinese Ambassador, stressed that “books matter in bilateral exchanges”. The presentations focused on translations, digitisation, volume printing and paper trade. But the shocking rates offered by Indian publishers to translators needs to be addressed before such bilateral publishing programmes can be explored.

For instance, the range varies from no payment to an absurd 0.25 paise per word (which has no value given that the denomination is no in circulation) to an acceptable sharing of the author’s royalties. The Translators Association of UK recommends that translators be paid between £80 and £90 per 1000 words but it is still an uphill task to ensure that publishers pay this fee.

Talking of healthy sales, some reasons publishers gave for the phenomenon was that readers are now shunning online stores because of the fluctuating discount structures, the improved connectivity to the fair with the Metro, the fair being organised at the beginning of the month before household budgets are exhausted., the excellent weather, Delhi schools being shut to implement the odd-even traffic rule, and the discernible long-term impact of government programmes like ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ that have encouraged literacy and reading.

The size of the Indian publishing industry is estimated at Rs. 260.7 billion (2013-14) with a CAGR of 20.4 per cent. Manisha Chowdhury of Pratham Books remarked, “India is a country of more than 780 documented languages, 66 scripts, only 22 scheduled languages and we have lost 250 languages in 50 years. Sixty per cent of books published are for education. Children’s books are at 30 per cent. We do have a book hunger in this country where there is only one book available for every 20 children. Publishing for children is important only for textbooks whereas every child’s childhood should find a reflection in their literature.”

Having said that, at the book fair, children and adults were seen buying all kinds of books or attending conversations at Author’s Corners with equal enthusiasm. Online conversations like this, “M not into reading but my son is … nd he is after my lyf for wbf .. nd finally gng tmrw” are popping up often on social media newsfeeds. As a publisher said to me, “The glitz and glamour in Delhi is a mirage; people in this city are poor too, so those who come to the fair today may be on a budget, but they come to spend.” They live life to the fullest.

16 January 2016 

Literati – “Opportunities in Publishing” ( 1 March 2015)

 Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published in print ( 1 March 2015).  I am c&p the text below. 

Opportunities in Publishing

In 2003 when mobile phones were new, we conducted an experiment at the publishing firm I was part of. We converted a print story into an audio file, dramatized it using voice actors, recording at a studio. A phone company offered to make it available on landlines and mobile phones. The only cost to be incurred was the origination cost. After that, the consumer would pay a nominal fee to hear the story. We knew we had a new income generation stream with a revenue-sharing model. It seemed to be a win-win situation, except for a tiny hiccup – insufficient good content. It had to be easily available, origination cost at an affordable price point, transparency on copyright, with preferably multi-lingual options to cater to target audiences in different regions. Naturally, it remained an experiment in convergence that was ahead of its times.

Ironically in 2015, publishing engagements held to coincide with the World Book Fair, New Delhi were dominated by conversations regarding content, opportunities for publishing where mostly telecommunications company representatives spoke or IT experts expounded on the significance of mobile reading. Impressive statistics were reeled out. For instance, 4.5 b people have access to bathrooms, but 6 billion have access to phones. There are only 7 billion people on earth.

The close relationship between publishers, content and technology is discussed well in an article, “No profit left behind”, published in POLITICO Pro (10 Feb 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/pearson-education-115026.html ). It is argued that Pearson wields enormous influence over American education and “makes money even when its results don’t measure up”. On 20 Feb 2015, an Indian newspaper report said, “Pearson Education is eyeing a larger share of the Indian education market through digital offerings. Chalking out its growth chart for the coming years, the learning and publishing company has identified India among the four biggest markets, the others being China, Brazil and South Africa.” (http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/services/education/pearson-education-eyes-big-share-of-indian-education-market/articleshow/46297541.cms ) All though riddled with challenges such smart classes and modern libraries with Wi-Fi are not unheard of in India where the contracted vendor provides the hardware, software, content and even helps get broadband access to the institution.  Hence it is not surprising to have heard telecom representatives requesting for a Digital India Programme – creation of digital infrastructure, delivering services digitally and advocating digital literacy. In theory a splendid idea since it gets to many. But when rumours about local broadband service providers seeking differential pricing for customers begin to become real, it is a worrying trend. These internet service providers are flouting the basic premise of net neutrality where all data exchanged on the net should be treated equally. With broadband connectivity expected to grow rapidly with 450 million users in 2017 putting India amongst the top two data markets globally and maximum internet growth is expected to happen with 69% of the population who have affordable smartphones, feature phones and low-cost feature phones operating on 2G and 3G spectrums, with another 9.8% of the population being able to afford higher end phones and tablets using wi-fi too, this is a lucrative business to be in.

Other conversations of note were an insistence on targeted marketing by leveraging technology; creating a classification of readers – casual, avid, niche, topical, educational and lapsed; taxation issues;  exploring new business models such as  Direct – to – Consumers (D2C) and opportunities to sync audio to text – bundle of e-book and audiobook with seamless switching; the conversion of passive online consumers to active “prosumers” [Producer-Consumers] driven by convergence; analysing targetted audience interactions like browsing / buying behavior, and impact of augmented reality in book promotions as it simulates to some extent the real world not necessarily recreating it exactly in detail. Significantly there was an interest to explore translations in Indian languages but the more animated conversations took place at the Food Court at Pragati Maidan than at Rights Table conclave. The increasing presence of overcrowded remaindered bookstalls presented a paradox with their low-priced books –a bane for publishers, a boon for readers. Finally the stress on how digital publishing was a great opportunity for the Indian publishing sector and must be explored for content creation, distribution and consumption dominated.

The reality is digital penetration is still at a nascent stage in the sub-continent, definitely in a sector estimated to be valued at $2.2 billion. It will require active participation of all stakeholders to ensure the delivery of quality material, at the right price point (for e-readers, ISP, price of content), plus taking into account multi-lingual, gendered and cultural characteristics of consumers.

1 March 2015