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“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:

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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

Scott Galloway “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google” and Yanis Varoufakis “Talking to My Daughter About the Economy”

Imagine: a retailer that refuses to pay sales tax, treats its employees poorly, destroys hundred of thousands of jobs, and yet is celebrated as a paragon of business innovation. 

A computer company that withholds information about a domestic act of terrorism from federal investigators, with the support of a fan following that views the firm similar to a religion. 

A social media firm that analyzes thosands of images of your children, activates your phone as a listening device, and sells this information to Fortune 500 companies. 

An ad platform that commands in some markets, a 90 percent share of the most lucrative sector in media, yet avoids anticompetitive regularion through aggressive litigation and lobbyists. 

This narrative is also heard around the world, but in hushed tones. We know these companies aren’t benevolent beings, yet we invite them into the most intimate areas of our living. We willingly divulge personal updates, knowing they’ll be used for profit. 

Scott Galloway’s debut The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google is a brisk analysis of these four technology driven companies. This is the man who week before the deal actually happened predicted that Amazon would buy Whole Foods. He argues in his book that these companies will be the first to break ( if they have not already done so) the trillion dollar barrier. The secret of their success is dependant not necessarily on their providing services such as being an effective online search engine (every one in six questions asked of Google has never been posed before), a massive marketplace ( Amazon’s online retail store purports to be the biggest shopping complex making it convenient for shoppers to buy from the comfort of their homes), connecting people across the world by preying on their psychological need to be loved and cared for as exemplified by the “like” button on Facebook or that the of the iconic design of Apple products creating a desire amongst people “permitting” the firm to price its commodities exorbitantly, earning irrational profits and yet, always have ready customers. According to the author, Apple controls 14.5 % of the smartphone market but captures 79% of global smartphone profits. In his TED Talk he says “the combined market capitalization of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google is now equivalent to the GDP of India. ”

The Four is narrated at a brisk pace, almost as if Galloway is lecturing to his students in the classroom. It is a sharp understanding of these four modern day business empires which together are worth $2.3 trillion. He focusses on the speed at which technological advancements permit people to buy, mine the Internet for information or even be connected to people across the globe in miliseconds whether using social media platforms or their smartphones.  He recognises how these companies synonymous with the information age are focussed on delivering a product or a service for the prime objective of earning a profit — a fact often concealed niftily from the end consumer, i.e. you and I, but making these four no different to any other manufacturing firm. Oddly enough these companies such as Google “ages in reverse,becoming more valuable with use” which harnesses the power of 2 billion people every 24 hours. Facebook connects 1.2 b of the 7.5 people in the world.  Apple’s cash on hand is nearly the GDP of Denmark. Amazon is growing at the rate of 20% plus each year. He acknowledges in the book that these companies have benefitted in a manner of speaking by governments which grant them special treatment regarding antitrust regulation, taxes, even labour laws.  The financial worth of these companies is heavily dependant upon the sensitive personal and credit information shared willingly by millions and millions of humans around the globe.

The Four  is very readable in its arguments except that by focussing primarily on the branding and market identity of these companies. Galloway prefers to focus on the consumerism of these services without ever really discussing the impact it has on humans, particularly in terms of the debt incurred by consuming these services offered. This is where Yanis Varoufakis preferance for calling this consumerism as a “a commodification of everything” and how the rise of profit as a major incentive for people to do things come hand in hand with a new role for debt. According to Varoufakis this commodification is the “unstoppable vicotry of exchange value over experiential value” — a characterstic trait of the market society which most modern economies have transformed into.  Individuals now have to rely upon multinational companies that have technological capability to  fulfil their every need. The companies in order to guarantee their profits, use patents to assert legal onwership of their produce. Usually this shift in produce and consumption patterns is done with the help of the state. “To put it simply, private wealth was built and then maintained on the back of state-sponsored violence.” This lucid historical analysis of  modern economy or global capitalism is available in the former Greek Finance Minister’s brilliant Talking to My Daughter About the Economy. Or watch this fantastic lecture on the concept of money he gave at the Google HQ on 29 April 2016 called “And the Weak Suffer What They Must?

These two illuminating books are significant publications of 2017 and very worth reading!

*****

Scott Galloway is the founder of L2 Inc, teaches brand strategy and digital marketing and the NYU Stern School of Business.  He was named “one of the world’s 50 best business school professors” by Poets & Quants in 2012. He is also the founder of Red Envelope and Prophet Brand Strategy. He was elected to the World Economic Forum’s Global Leaders of Tomorrow and has served on the boards of directors of Urban Outfitters, Eddie Bauer, The New York Times Company and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Yanis Varoufakis is a former finance minister of Greece and a cofounder of an international grassroots movement, DiEM25, that is campaigning for the revival of democracy in Europe. He is the author of the international bestseller Adults in the Room, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, and The Global Minotaur. After teaching for many years in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, he is currently a professor of economics at the University of Athens.

6 December 2017 

Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

jon-ronson-publicly-shamed‘I’m writing a book about public shaming,’ I told Clive. ‘With citizen justice we’re bringing public shame back in a big way. …’

If ever there was a chilling book on the impact of social media platforms, then Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tops the list. This book is about ordinary people who were publicly shamed through an ill-timed and foolish tweet or a Facebook post, which unfortunately went viral, resulting in the “shamed victim” losing their jobs and becoming a recluse. Jon Ronson began to write this book when his identity was hijacked by spambot. He managed to wrest his identity back only after having publicly shamed the team which had created the spambot, otherwise they were determined to keep the infomorph alive, asking Jon Ronson to “play along”. It was after this personal experience of having publicly shamed the creators of a robot version of himself did Jon Ronson realise the power of citizen justice and democratization of justice. But this incident made him decide “the next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer — the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way — I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.” ( p.10-11)

This is exactly what he did. He documented a range of people who had been publicly shamed — from bestselling authors like Jonah Lehrer ( who continues to be represented by literary agent Andrew Wylie) for making up stories about Bob Dylan; a politician who had concealed his sexual orientation was shamed into going public about it; Justine Sacco who sent a tweet with a racist overtone and a couple of young men attending a technology conference who posted a seemingly innocuous joke about a dongle but with sexist underpinnings. He tracked many cases, meeting many of those people involved. His findings are disconcerting. ( Jon Ronson, 12 February 2015 , NYT “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0 )

Many people who posted messages online did it on an impulse, under the mistaken belief the messages would be read by only their circle of acquaintances, familiar with their personalities. Little realising whatever content is created online rarely disappears and stoked by the mysterious ways in which the Google algorithms work posts can go viral with very unexpected consequences.  A link to a page or a post is like a nod of respect. If the page linking to the particular page has a lot of links to it then the page counts for more votes. The internet particularly social media platforms are like an echo chamber where the number of “likes” approving a post can push it to a high PageRank. “The Google algorithm prejudges them as well liked.” As Jon Ronson discovered the Internet is not necessarily about the individual but about the big companies dominating data flows of the Internet. It made Ronson wonder if companies like Google made money from destruction of Justine Sacco?

Could a figure be calculated? And so I joined forces with a number-crunching researcher, Solvej Krause, and began writing to economists and analysts and online ad revenue people. 

Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place – a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of $0.38 for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: 38 cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million people were searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $456,000. 

But it wouldn’t be accurate simply to multiply 1.2 million by $0.38. Some searches are worth far more to Google than others. Advertisers bid on ‘high yield’ search terms, like ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Jewellery’ and ‘Kenya vacations’. It’s quite possible that no advertiser ever linked their product to Justine’s name. But that wouldn’t mean Google made no money from her. Justine was the worldwide number-one trending topic on Twitter. Her story engrossed social media users more than any other that night. I think people who wouldn’t otherwise have gone onto Google did so specifically to hunt for her. She drew people in. And one they were there I’m sure at least a few of them decided to book a Kenya vacation or download a Coldplay album. 

I got an email from the economics researchers Jonathan Hersh. He’d come recommended by the people who make Freakonomics Radio on WYNC. Jonathan’s email said the same thing: “Something about this story resonated with them, so much so that they felt compelled to google her name. that means they’re engaged. If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue. Google has the informal corporate motto of “don’t be evil”, but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.’ 

In the absence of any better data from Google, he wrote, he could only ever offer a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation. But he thought it would be appropriately conservative — maybe a little too conservative — to estimate Justine’s worth, being a ‘low-value query’, at a quarter of the average. Which, if true, means Google made $120,000 from the destruction of Justine Sacco. 

Maybe that’s an accurate figure. Maybe Google made more, or possibly less. But one thing’s certain. Those of us who did the actual annihiliating? We got nothing. 

( p.263-4)

Given this disquieting discovery, it is not surprising companies such as reputation.com have been established. They offer a “strategic schedule for content creation and publication…create a natural-looking activity online…a lot of accumulated intelligence” with the purpose of creating a bland internet presence for a person, preferably moving the negative posts to pages beyond the first page.

While I write this blog post, noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has posted on his Facebook page a long note about  his latest Bollywood film, Bombay Velvet. Critics have not been kind about the film but as a Facebook post points out, “there is a bit of schadenfreude of bringing him down a peg or two. (a few of them have are his fanboys, by the way.)” Noted journalist, Poonam Saxena, says “the negative chorus around the film reminds me of a lynch mob.” There is a term for this — “virtual lynching”.

A simple fact easily forgotten when navigating one’s way through cyberspace is that usually an online identity is a real person. So the online activity on a person’s social media timeline is more often than not a direct projection of their real personality. Under the mistaken notion that the Internet is a place where anything can be said  people make the classic mistake of revealing more than they should, especially when speaking to strangers. Truth is that the same rules and etiquette that exist in real world must be observed online too. In fact to err on the side of caution would be preferable since nothing is ever lost on the internet. By strewing these careless digital breadcrumbs as many of the people shamed discovered to their horror get embedded in a vast and intricate “surveillance” network, i.e. the Internet. There will always be people who will not allow the shamed person to forget.

In fact the extract published in the New York Times earlier this year about Justine Sacco was shared by schools too to alert parents and students to the consequences of irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour online. This is a fabulously disquieting book meant to be read, discussed and shared.

Jon Ronson So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Picador, London, 2015. Pb. pp.280 Rs 599

17 May 2015

 

 

 

PubSpeak, “Rules Of Publishing: Be On The Move”There has to be serendipity in publishing. It is the smarter way of keeping the ecosystem alive,

PubSpeak, “Rules Of Publishing: Be On The Move”There has to be serendipity in publishing. It is the smarter way of keeping the ecosystem alive,

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose ( The latest edition of my column, PubSpeak, has been uploaded on BusinessWorld online today. The link is http://www.businessworld.in/news/economy/rules-of-publishing-be-on-the-move/1246485/page-1.html. I am also c&p the text below. )

Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone’s ‘The Everything Store’ is about Jeff Bezos and his baby, Amazon. After the book was published, Bezos distanced himself from the book. Significantly his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, gave the book a one-star rating on Amazon saying it contains “numerous factual inaccuracies” and is “full of techniques which stretch the boundaries of non-fiction”. The book is based on a number of interviews that Stone conducted with Bezos, his staff and ex-colleagues to get a sense of the firm. What is very clear after reading the book is that Amazon is significant because it has the advantage of being a first mover, it is a game-changer, certainly for publishing.

There are three points worth considering:

1. Bezos was the first to exploit the potential of the internet and collaborate with start ups with new ideas. For instance, his acquisition of a firm that specialised in digital books, with the .mobi format, resulted in his insistence on making the files uploaded on Kindle to be DRM protected.

2. He knew that sales ranks would be like a drug to authors, so he insisted that it change whenever a new order came in: thus influencing the gradual shift in publishing houses laying more emphasis on marketing and promotional activities than on editing and commissioning. (Whereas it cannot be an either/or situation, it has to be a combination.)

3. Finally Bezos’s famous analogy of comparison that publishing firms are like gazelles and Amazon is a cheetah. This belief was integral to his strategy in agency pricing. He had to persuade publishers to give him the digital files to the books they published. (It required time since many publishers discovered that they did not have the rights to the digital formats from the authors.) He was convinced marking the books at such a low price was rational since there were no printing and warehousing costs involved — a misconception that has come to be associated with the entire system of publishing. But Amazon is able to achieve much of this due to the ‘technological moat’ it has dug for itself, that is, of low margins. It ensures that with the creative vision Bezos and his team have they are able to expand their business into uncharted domains, effectively keeping competition out.

At BookMark, the B2B space for publishing professionals at the Jaipur Literature Festival there were a number of fascinating conversations about the business. Most significantly the resistance in original publishing to digital and the disruption it would cause in the publishing ecosystem was no longer making news. The presence of technology to facilitate, produce and disseminate books is now an accepted norm. It is here to stay. It was interesting to see how the industry was responding to the rapid changes taking place in the environment, necessitating a rapid pace of evolution by adapting and adopting new methods.

Take Penguin Random House CEO John Makinson’s comment at the event, for instance. The coming together of Penguin and Random House was a “strategically delivered merger” since it was the only combination that changed the game, said Makinson. He was confident that the industry would consolidate itself in a bit of time. At a time when the global industry is reeling from the massive presence of Amazon, the formation of Penguin Random House catapults it to the first position with 25 per cent share of the global market. In October 2013, Jüergen Boos, Director, Frankfurt Book Fair, at the opening of the fair, warned that companies like Amazon, Apple and Google were “logistics magicians but are not publishers”. It stands to reason since online recommendations are purchase based and not behavioural. It does not tell you what people want to read since much of the online purchases are for gifts.

There has to be serendipity in publishing. It is the smarter way of keeping the ecosystem alive, creating newer readers and shifting away slightly from being only a writer’s space.

The overwhelming presence of Amazon, Google, and the iBook store of Apple and closer to home, Flipkart, has resulted in the “disturbing dominance of content” as John Makinson put it. It is inevitable that online retail platforms will require large volumes to remain sustainable. They are not discerning and curate content as booksellers are known to do with their stocks. So, it is fairly common to find on these websites second hand, and out-of-print books, or those titles that belong to backlists but are not readily available. In fact, Paul Yamazaki of City Light Booksellers and this year jury member, DSC South Asian Literature prize  is clear that he will retain titles on his shelves that are worth recommending, not necessary that it is the latest title creating waves in the media. City Light Books, is a landmark independent bookstore and publisher that specialises in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. It was established by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin and synonymous with the ‘beatniks’.

Of late, publishers have been a worried lot since their traditional forms of publishing are not giving them the benefits they have been used to; in addition the sales of ebooks have plateaued, falling far short of the forecasts. The reliance on frontlists is making publishers an anxious lot since author brands only work for a limited time and within a given framework. For instance, commercial fiction authors are a brand unto themselves, a specific market who only read the specific author, but do not guarantee sales with every title. Ever since publishing houses were established they relied on a formula of 80:20 where 20 per cent was reserved for experimentation or the mid-lists, to discover and nurture new writers, which sometimes became the bedrock of the future for the firm. This is now happening less and less. Instead it is easier to offer authors a contract once they have proven themselves in the market. Many new voices are being discovered via the self-publishing route and traditional firms recognising the business potential of this are offering self-publishing services. This is in trade publishing. But even in academic publishing, technological advances and the presence of agents such as Apple, Google and Amazon have had an impact. For instance, material in a digital form for classroom and assisted teaching, teacher resource material and even the rent-a-textbook model, like Coursemart, have proved to be successful.

Among some of the other responses to the changing environment were that established businesses know the only way forward is to recognise that their expertise is limited; collaborations with new ideas or new startups is the only way to keep the business afloat; exploring a subscription service to deliver books/content to users/customers as indicated by the tie-up between Scribd and HarperCollins; looking to create a market beyond English-language readers (since it is a limited market), moving beyond viewing English as a functional, operational and legal language, translating content and creating a base of readers in the mother tongues to increase readership. The fact is that when markets are volatile and competing forces are at play and with 40 per cent of the population online it is not easy to forecast what will happen in the near future, save that a certain amount of realignments will happen through mergers and acquisitions, new systems will evolve and it will be survival of the fittest — big or small, who knows for now!

6 Feb 2014 

Mukul Kesavan, “Homeless on Google Earth”

Mukul Kesavan, “Homeless on Google Earth”

Homeless on Google Earth

( My review of Mukul Kesavan’s book Homeless on Google Earth was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement today, 5 Jan 2014. The online version is available at:  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/lucid-yet-forceful/article5538031.eceThe review is c&p below as well.) 

Mukul Kesavan Homeless on Google Earth Permanent Black, Ranikhet Cantt., India, 2013. Hb. Pp. 315. Rs. 595

 In India we bank on time and forgetfulness to paper over the great rents in our history. They help but can’t do the job by themselves.  (p.252)

As a consumer of news, you could be forgiven for thinking the Indian elections are ideology-free. Pundits in the press and on the television news channels are always saying that votes are bought, coalitions are constructed out of caste fractions, politicians defect, political parties swtich sides with frictionless ease, and the policies contained in party manifestos are irrelevant to the democractic process because they are never seriously discussed. Add up these defects and what India seems to have by way of elections is the mechanism of representative government without the large ideological contestation that is, or ought to be, a democracy’s reason for being. (p. 237)

“The electoral impact of the controversy over the reinstatement of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code might be small, but the political significance of the positions that parties have taken on the decriminalization of homosexuality is considerable.” The opening lines of Mukul Kesavan’s latest column—“A political prism – What the different parties’ positions on 377 reveal”. In one sentence, clearly and sharply, scholar-journalist and historian, Mukul Kesavan, has encapsulated the furore that has dominated recent news but also pithily analysed it, forecasting the impact it will have politically; powerful words, especially on the eve of General Elections in India and after the four state election results were announced. Hence it is not surprising to discover that the web link to this article has been shared, reposted and discussed furiously in social media platforms. In fact, during the last elections, he was often spotted on television channels as a panellist, offering his independent, strong, thought-provoking and well-articulated opinion.

Homeless on Google Earth is a collection of 58 essays, most of which seem to have been written recently, judging by their subject. Mukul Kesavan teaches history at Jamia Milia Islamia, a university in New Delhi. In these opinion pieces, he covers a range of topics—his identity in “No place like home”, book launches, literary festivals, travelling to Kruger National Park with Amitav Ghosh, Bollywood, technology, gender issues, travelogues, education and political commentaries that cover topics like Israel, Gaza, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Tibet, Kashmir, naxalism, the pogroms in India of 1984, 1992 and 2002, communal violence, elections and terrorism. The essays in the book are well arranged. They start from the easy-to-read, light and sometimes hilarious essays like “Consuming wildness in Kruger”, to the grim, sober and chilling commentaries on police encounters at Jamia Milia Islamia (“Presumed Innocent”); on naxalites (“Operation Green Hunt”); and communal hatred (“Vox Pop and Varun Gandhi” and “Accounting for the Dead”). He is a genuine historian who marshals his evidence to bolster his arguments in tautly structured essays manifesting his splendid  command of English. Without undermining the intelligence of his readers, his arguments are is lucidly and simply expressed.

Homeless on Google Earth is about important events in contemporary political, social events in  India and aspects of society that usually go unnoticed, like the women taxi drivers or the peculiar social space of society that in which MSM exists in. But read at a sitting, the essays can become very tedious. They are a collection of writings published at various times, originally meant to be read one at a time. When collected as a book, their rhythm and organization can seem to have a dull sameness. But unless one has followed Mukul Kesavan’s columns and other writings, one will not know that the essays were written at different times as there are no dates for them in this book, an unexpected oversight from a historian.

At a time when mainstream papers are slowly going out of business or moving actively and aggressively to online spaces, the vaccuum steadily being replaced by citizen journalists, online and at times armchair activism,  voices of opinion makers like Mukul Kesavan are valuable.  He is rational and sound. He does not seem to be swayed by majority sentiments, and is acutely aware of his academic discipline which he brings to bear on the issues dealt with here. One may not agree with his point of view but it is presented forcefully yet courteously and without shrillness.  It is important for such voices to be heard more often. They reach out to a range of people and ideological groups. The historian E.J.Hobsbawm said in his public lecture in Delhi 2004, that earlier society used to change at a pace that allowed people at least a generation to respond and adapt to it. But recently change has been so rapid that we are having to do this adjusting and adapting in the space of a decade or less. At this speed it becomes imperative to have rational thinkers to actively participate in civil society, as Mukul Kesavan has done in these essays.

On “discoverability” in publishing. (PubSpeak, BusinessWorld, Aug 2013)

On “discoverability” in publishing. (PubSpeak, BusinessWorld, Aug 2013)

PubSpeak, Jaya

( My monthly column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online. July 2013 is on “discoverability”. Here is the link to the orignial url http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/publishers-search-tools-to-find-readers/r1013160.37528/page/0 )

Publishers’ Search Tools To Find Readers

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose on why it is the discovery of a book that ultimately matters for the business of publishing

How does a reader ‘discover’ an author/book? Today digital technology is rapidly becoming a unifying factor in the coming together of print and electronic forms of publishing. It is also responsible for the “discoverability” of a book. Traditional forms of discovery – curation in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, word-of-mouth recommendations, libraries, second hand bookstores, gifts, book reviews in newspapers and magazines and book clubs continue to be significant. Literary prizes too are important.

Chinaman
Caroline Newbury, VP Marketing and Publicity, Random House Publishers India explains the link well with reference to their author, Shehan Karunatilaka winning the DSC prize worth $50,000 in 2012 for his book Chinaman. “Any prize which supports both new and established writers is to be praised but the DSC Prize is a special case for its specific promotion of writing about South Asia,” says Newbury. “Since its DSC Prize win we have reprinted Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman and its prize-winning credentials definitely help bring it to a wider readership in India and beyond.”

Yet it is the popular modes of discovering a book including online reading communities like Goodreads and Riffles; advertisement banners in e-mails and on websites; automatic recommendations on online retail sites like Amazon, Flipkart; conversations and status updates in social media spaces such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest; following literary curators; bloggers; and even movie adaptations of a book.

50 Writers
Two books that I read recently – 50 Writers, 50 books: The Best of Indian Fiction and Reading New India: Post-millennial Indian Fiction in English, apart from being thought-provoking commentaries on literature, are a good way of discovering authors. The first is an anthology of essays discussing books from Indian fiction, across languages and the second a critique with a synopsis of the stories of predominantly commercial fiction. The texts complement each other well, but for a reader they are valuable for discovering fiction hitherto they have unheard of, especially since the fiction discussed is recommended by academics, authors, critics and literary tastemakers.
reading-new-india-post-millennial-indian-fiction-in-english

It is important to delineate the thin line between discoverability and promotion of a book. Discoverability would depend largely upon the gravitas of the book, the whispers that are heard about a book in various contexts. But promotions would be the marketing blitzkrieg created by the publishing houses. These could include the predictable book launches, panel discussions, and author tours, interviews in the prominent newspapers and participating in literary festivals. Now add to that list partnerships with coffee chains. Authors too are beginning to hire PR firms and consultants to strategise and create a media buzz for their books.

Last week two publishing professionals – Jonathan Galassi, head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/farrar-straus-giroux-jonathan-galassi-on-hothouse.html) and Anakana Schofield, debut novelist ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/25/anakana-schofield-how-to-write ) – raised the fundamental question about the meteoric rise in the number of writers, but where are the readers? It seems that for the first time in publishing, there are more writers than readers. It should be considered as a happy trend. More to publish, more to sell. But are there any takers? Or more importantly, how do you discover a book you want to read so that you will buy?

On 1 July 2013 Penguin and Random House announced that their merger had been approved. From 2014, the merged entity Penguin Random House is expected to be publishing 15,000 titles a year. Assuming these are all new titles of the front list, it will be a formidable stable of authors. But at the rate of publishing 41 books a day will only make it tougher to locate a title.

And if this is the scenario in English-language trade publishing how does the rest of publishing fare? Some of the other categories to be considered would be trade lists in other languages, translations, children’s literature, non-fiction, and of course academic publishing. All kinds of authors are struggling to be heard/ read.

And this conundrum of discovering an author or a relevant text extends beyond trade publishing to academic publishing too. Last week The Bookseller, a publishing industry daily, announced that “Google is to bring a textbook sale and rental service to the Google Play store this August in time for the Back to School season. The company announced it had partnered with academic publishers Pearson, Wiley, Macmillan, McGraw Hill and Cengage Google Play will offer textbook rentals and sales for up to an 80 per cent discount, the company has said, which is the same claim Amazon makes for its Kindle textbook rentals.”

This is similar to the CourseSmart model provides eTextbooks and digital course materials. It was founded in 2007 by publishers in higher education including Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group (Macmillan) and John Wiley & Sons. According to research firm Outsell Inc Online products accounted for 27 per cent of the $12.4 billion spent on textbooks for secondary schools and colleges in the US last year. Publishers like Pearson Plc and McGraw-Hill Education are also creating online versions of their texts, often loaded with interactive features, and selling students access codes that expire at semester’s end.

These alternative methods of discovering an author may be worth exploring. It is probably “easier” to experiment with dedicated platforms for textbooks where the selling price of a title is exorbitant. So, offering short-term licences (“access codes”) to academics and students to review, rent and (in moderation) print relevant pages creates a wider community of users.

Plus, it is increasingly becoming an important alternative source of revenue generation for publishing firms, although reservations exist about the adoption of a digital format by students, indications are that students prefer books. Whereas for trade publishers investing in platforms will be economically unviable unless you are Penguin and create Book Country. But for most others it will be an expensive proposition unless they opt for digital catalogues. Hence an online, interactive, cross-publisher catalogue service that supplements or replaces traditional hard-copy publisher catalogues like Edelweiss, whose tag line is “Finding your next favourite book is a lot easier”. As marketing executives say books are a low-cost product so media copies are distributed but it is the discovery of a book that ultimately matters for the business of publishing.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist
@JBhattacharji