Hachette Posts

“Blood and Oil” by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck

Blood and Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck is a rivetting account of the Crown Prince of Saudi Prince. It is published by John Murray, Hachette. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia, is a prince who has captured the world’s imagination with his suave presence on the global political stage but also with very strong rumours of his unorthodox, at times brutal, methods of ruling. Most notably the allegation of his involvement in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the holding of three hundred members of the Saudi royal family in the Ritz Carlton for month. The authors refer to him on the back cover as “one of the world’s most decisive and dangerous new leaders”.

The two co-authors are experienced journalists and Pulitzer Prize finalists. They seem to know how to strike the balance between getting sufficent evident and putting together a narrative that zips along. It is astonishing to read the facts that they document whether the meteoric rise of the prince or of some of his aides. A case in point being the young Ali Alzabarah, a young Saudi who was educated in the United States on a Saudi scholarship and then had been employed at Twitter. As this extract from the book published in The Wire shows that Ali Azabarah’s rise in Saudi society and definitely within the inner circles of the prince was astonishing. ( “A Saudi Prince’s Attempt to Silence Critics on Twitter: An ongoing investigation reveals how Mohammed bin Salman’s team allegedly infiltrated the platform—and got away with it” The Wired, 1 Sept 2020) It is plain scary.

Other journalists have been equally fascinated by the prince and done their own form of investigative journalism. Take for instance, FRONTLINE PBS correspondent Martin Smith, who has covered the Middle East for FRONTLINE for 20 years, examines MBS’s vision for the future, his handling of dissent, and his relationship with the United States. This documentary was made a year after the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and FRONTLINE investigated the rise and rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia.

Books like Blood and Oil are fascinating to read but capture only a very brief moment in time. The prince works at a very fast pace and is forever evolving as are the circumstances around him. He is a man in great hurry who has youth on his side. So he will be here for a long time to stay. There are bound to be visible changes in Saudi society. For good or bad, only time will tell. This is an ongoing story.

Perhaps this book will take a life of its own in different media. It needs it.

For now, read Blood and Oil. Well worth the time!

23 Oct 2020

Interview with Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India on publishing Enid Blyton’s books

For some time now I have been seeing some wonderful new editions of Enid Blyton’s books published by Hachette India. Sometimes collections of short stories that I did not even know existed. Sometimes rejacketed versions of old faithfuls. At other times newly put together anthologies of extracts from Enid Blyton’s books or well-known children’s writers selecting their favourite extracts. And then there are the recipe books appealing to the adults who are nostalgic about the delightful eats Blyton mentions in her books while at the same time catering to the young readers who are fascinated by popular cooking programmes on television. Finally, there are examples of Enid Blyton’s stories being used to create grammar books for school children in the subcontinent.

Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India kindly agreed to a Q&A on publishing Enid Blyton’s books.

Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India

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  1. How did the tie-up with Enid Blyton’s literary estate and Hachette happen? 

There is no tie-up. Hachette is the estate now, having bought up the rights in March 2016. So Hachette now owns the copyright to all of Blyton’s work, except I think Noddy, because that was pre-sold by the estate earlier. Just like rights to the adventure series are pre-contracted to PanMacmillan… so those will remain in place for contract validity. How it began is from our history. We were Blyton’s first publishers in the 1930s and have published her continuously since then.

2. Is the contract meant only for the revival of the backlist? 

No it’s for whatever we want to do. As mentioned, we own the copyrights from the signing of the agreement with the estate where we are the new copyright holders in an outright buy out.

New copyright answered below would depend on what the authors chose—one-time fee or royalties and assignment or transfer. I don’t know that offhand, but the copyright page of any of the new books will state that.

3. Some of the more popular series such as Secret Seven are being expanded with modern storytellers. Why? 

That’s common for most very successful brands, not just Blyton. From Bourne to Bond, to Asterix, to Sidney Sheldon, Margaret Mitchell, Jane Eyre…further extensions through sequels, prequels, and line extensions have always been there. And it’s not just Secret Seven, Malory Towers has extensions too. The Naughtiest Girl and Malory Towers had them over 15 years ago. As to why—simply to contemporize it for current readers…reflecting today’s realities and cultural milieu. So Malory Towers now has an Indian writer with an Indian girl student joining the school. And no this was not done for India—this is to mirror British society which is much more multi-cultural today.

4. Who holds the copyright for these new stories? The commissioned author or the literary estate? What have been the immediate impact of this collaboration between Enid Blyton and Hachette? 

This will be the choice of the new writers—they could opt for one-off copyright sale, or royalties. (So it may vary and I’m not sure, but a look at the copyright page will tell you)

5. a. Enid Blyton’s stories are representative of the age she wrote in. So her references to “Golliwog” or her sexist representation of gendered activities would not be appreciated in contemporary times. Yet she has made a surprise comeback with many appreciating her books.

Perhaps because too much has been made of that bit is my belief. Almost every single English reading adult has grown up on these tales, and they haven’t turned out racists. This comes up from time to time, but is definitely not true when blanketed together like that. Let’s take them one by one.

There is certainly no sexism in her books… seen in the context of today they may not be stridently feminist (Anne being a homebody, is equally complemented by George being the main heroine of the Famous Five series; and the school series all have strong protagonists). Yes, there are stereotypes which existed in that time (of roles boys and girls play) and are there in most books of the era whether adult or children—from Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie. The racism question arose because of the golliwog toy in Noddy being analyzed in that context, which has since in the wave of political correctness been removed as I understand it, but certainly there is no derogatory text anywhere that can be called racist. Our current Hindi mass market cinema is far more racist, misogynist and xenophobic. Coming to xenophobia — hardly any of the books have foreigners, and if they appear as villains (Adventurous Four, the Adventure, the Secret Series) that is because of the setting and character; and inevitably there are balancing good characters from the same country. And statistically there are obviously more British baddies. Snobbery is shown as a clear negative in most of her didactic books, and those snobs always get their come-uppance.

It’s not as though there are not issues or problems… but they are issue of the time they were written in and do not I believe have any sort of impact—given the millions across the world who have grown up on her books. In fact, her books are very strong on the whole ‘moral values’ of the time—almost to the point of ‘preachiness’—which may be one reason they are so popular in India. Honesty, integrity, loyalty, bravery, courage—a veritable textbook of moral values. No matter that some of them like ‘British pluck’ may be outmoded. But what makes her still relevant and in demand is that she is one of the greatest storytellers in the world with an amazingly prolific output and makes children happy.

5 b. Have the Enid Blyton books been edited for a newer audience? If so what are the principles governing the editing of Enid Blyton’s backlist? 

Yes, or updated rather. Plotlines have not been interfered with; and Blyton is fairly timeless. Her stories stay universal because there isn’t too much datable about them. she doesn’t for instance name brands in her detailing. Cars for instance may be described as a “big black car, with a powerful engine” not a Rolls or Morris which would immediately date it. so what has been tweaked is very archaic usage—pinafore for uniform tunics, pullover for jumper etc. In fact the reverse happened when the Famous Five were experimented with…in almost a classic coke vs New Coke backlash the new text was not welcomed; and the old one was reinstated.

6. Do you have cultural sensitivity readers for Enid Blyton’s stories before releasing them? Do different markets have different teams supervising the release or is there a specific team overseeing the global release of Enid Blyton books and product lines?  

A mix of both—it’s primarily central in the Blyton Estate team based at Hachette UK, and we are asked for input when needed. And we create new product for our markets. In India we’ve begun a new non-fiction stream for instance. Essentially the legacy is continued as classic children’s fare with not much being done to change existing stories. New stories are done factoring in multi-cultural societies of today. And the continuations of her series—there are new secret seven, wishing chair, and Malory Towers stories in contemporary settings which are much more multi-cultural… the latest one even written by Narinder Dhami and featuring an Indian character.

7. Some of the new and fascinating array of collateral from this tie-up have been the cookery books and the English comprehension and grammar books. Why and how did Hachette decide to diversify the Enid Blyton portfolio? How have readers’ responded to the new range of books?

The grammar, vocabulary and other educational collateral was our idea and exists only in India. I felt that since we owned the brand and the fact that Blyton was one of the best teachers of English you could have…it would be remiss of us not to publish a breakaway stream of non-fiction using the texts. The series were just released last year. It’s early days, and this series will require school channel distribution not just trade, so we’ll know in a couple of years how they fare.

8. Do Enid Blyton’s imaginative stories translate well into other languages? If so, which are the languages that are most receptive to her books?  

Because the storylines and plots are so good, they certainly would translate well just on those terms. Yes, the amazing use of English language which is the other great part, would be lost. Yes, she’s been translated into over 90- languages. So they are all over including Sinhala.

9. Will Hachette ever republish Enid Blyton’s autobiography The Story of My Life

Not on current schedules which is in the first instance republishing all her fiction output. The non-fiction and memoirs will follow.

10. Indians enjoy reading Enid Blyton’s stories. But ever since the revivial of her backlists, has there been a noticeable surge in sales? Also is it possible to discern whether the newly commissioned stories are preferred to the original Enid Blyton stories or does that not matter? 

Enid Blyton has always been a huge seller. The famous Five sell over half a million copies every year, of which India’s share is about 35%… so while that is fantastic, it should also correct the erroneous impression that she sells predominantly in India. The newly commissioned stories join the others so get similar sales, but the original canon still sells just that bit more.

The UK is a very front list market (meaning new books), so while she sells very well (her sales there are still higher than sales in India) she may not rank in the current top five children’s authors for instance. But even recently in a UK poll, she was voted as the most popular children’s author of all time beating Roald Dahl and JK Rowling.

India is still a throwback market, relying on traditional favourites and backlist (older books) is very strong. And Enid Blyton here is still in the top three after recent bestsellers Geronimo Stilton and Jeff Kinney. And this is over 70 years after these books were published.

For context it must be understood that the core and basic readership in the UK or USA is very wide, unlike India where it is minuscule. We also react to the top trends in the world, so Harry Potter, twilight, Hunger games, wimpy kid will make it big here too. But the next level or a wider range of books gets very little exposure—whether they be international books or home grown books.

11. Are any film / TV adaptations of Enid Blyton’s stories to be expected soon? If so which ones are the most likely to be created first? 

Yes, there are a couple in the pipeline though I don’t have details. From the 1940s, every decade has seen a movie or TV series made of the main series. Next year will see Malory Towers from the BBC.

12. How significant is the audiobook market for Enid Blyton’s books? 

Not very significant. The audiobook revolution was in the adult market. I’m not aware of the children’s segment audio. There the experimentation is in book and sound formats. very few standalone audiobooks that I know of.

20 Dec 2019

“Remarkable Minds: A Celebration of Reith Lectures”

The Reith Lectures were inaugurated in 1948 by the BBC as a ‘stimulus to thought and contribution to knowledge’ and has remained a flagship programme in Radio 4’s broadcasting ever since. The name marks the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC. John Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which ‘enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation’. It is in this spirit that the BBC each year invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures on radio, aiming to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.

The first BBC Reith lecturer was the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and in the seventy years since there have been seventy-seven different speakers. Usually a set of four lectures are delivered every year by the invited speaker. In Remarkable Minds nineteen lecturers have been featured by journalist, broadcaster and author, Anita Anand. These span topics across art, science, nature, technology, history, religion, society, culture and politics. In each case a highlight essay from the lecture series has been chosen.

Anita Anand is the presenter of the Reith Lectures. In her foreword to Remarkable Minds she writes:

The Reith Lectures are often controversial, but have also proven themselves to be remarkably presecient too. …

The Reith Lectures not only reflect the time in which they were delivered, but often take a scalpel to the insecurities faced by the world at the given moment. …

Though the subject matter of the Reith Lectures has certainly been diverse, that cannot always have been said of the lecturers. Initially they were exclusively male until Margery Perham, the colonial historian, delivered her lectures in 1961. They were also all white. Robert Gardiner, the Ghanaian professor and economist, who served the United Nations broke the mould in 1965, when he delivered his series of lectures considering the state of race relations internationally. Since then, the effort to find diverse voices from a spread of disciplines, with a wealth of different experiences has been tangible and a real credit to successive Radio 4 controllers.

Remarkable Minds is a wonderful introduction to the variety of subjects introduced and discussed during the Reith Lectures. In fact the entire collection of lectures may be heard on Apple Podcasts. Here is the link.

18 September 2019

Favourite Enid Blyton stories

How I Began 

That is one question so many of you ask me — and grown-ups ask it too. ‘How did you begin writing, Miss Blyton?’ Well, let me tell you this straightaway. I meant to be a writer from the tmie I could read and write, even before that, I think. There are some children who know from the beginning what they want to do, and mean to do. 

Usually those children have a gift for that particular thing. They feel impelled to write, or to compose tunes, or to paint pictures. It is something they cannot help, something that is given to them when they are born. How fortunate they are! 

To use — and to use as perfectly as they are able to. All gifts much be practised and trained, a great deal of hard work must go into that person’s life, unremitting, never-ending work, every minute of which is worthwhile. No idling, no slacking, no half-measures — a gift is such a precious possession that it must be trained to perfection. 

If a child has a gift, then I think it should be developed and encouraged as far as is possible in a child — but first and foremost the child should have an ordinary, natural childhood, and above all he shouldn’t be spoilt, pushed on too much, or made conceited. His gift will flower all the more if he has a sensible childhood, many many interests, and has plenty of character. So, my dears, if you have any ‘gifts’, don’t expect people to turn you into a horrid little ‘prodigy’ and make you grown-up long before it’s time!

Enid Blyton The Story of My Life (1952)

 

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Ever since Hachette won the licensing of the Enid Blyton brand, the firm has ensured that the books are constantly available and at reasonable prices too. Generations of readers have grown up on Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, school stories, magical stories etc. They have sparkled the imagination of young readers worldwide. It has also helped ressurect many of the lesser known Enid Blyton stories in special published bumper anthologies where the original dates of publication have been included. Some of the stories were published as early as 1925!

Owning the license to publish Enid Blyton stories has enabled Hachette to consider experiments in children’s literature. For instance, the publishing firm commissioned  Pamela Butchart to write a new Secret Seven mystery called Secret Seven: Mystery of the Skull. Aimed at a new generation of readers it has  a lively pace of writing. In all likelihood introducing a brand new book is smart business acumen too. It ensures that the copyright period of this story will be active for a long time to come which is lifetime of the author + specified time period in the particular country. The book is published under the co-authorship of Enid Blyton and Pamela Butchart.

Enid Blyton (1897-1968) influenced many young minds. Generations of kids have grown up on Blyton stories dreaming of scones and clotted cream, picnic baskets, making invisible ink using orange juice, reading of magical lands, fairies and pixies, of high school stories and adventure stories. Many of Blyton’s readers of  the past years are now well-established children’s writers in their own right. People like Michael Morpurgo, Andy Griffiths, and Jacqueline Wilson have become household names. Now Hachette has brought out a scrumptiously illustrated hardback anthology of prominent children’s writers introducing their favourite extract of an Enid Blyton story. It is called Favourite Enid Blyton Stories. Every story is prefaced by a short piece by the modern day author reminiscing about discovering Blyton and her fantastical world. There are many gems to choose from but the last extract by Jacqueline Wilson is particularly charming as it is from Blyton’s autobiography ( published in 1952) and which sadly now seems to be out of print. Here’s hoping that along with all the other popular titles The Story of My Life is also published soon.

( All the Enid Blyton books mentioned are published by Hachette Group and are easily found online and in brick-and-mortar stores. )

20 November 2018 

 

“Sight” by Jessie Greengrass

…the framing of a  radical scientific discovery in ordinary language, the ability to impart understanding without first having to construct a language in which to do so. Rontgen’s description of his work comes like the unravelling of a magician’s illusion which, explained quickens rather than diminishing, the understanding of its working conferring the illusion of complicity …

Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel Sight is about an unnamed narrator pondering whether to have a child or not.

I wanted a child fiercely but couldn’t imagine myself pregnant, or a mother, seeing only how I was now or how I thought I was: singular, centreless, afraid. 

It is a long reflection by the narrator split into three parts like a play with a short interlude.  Every section itself is structured with the long self-reflecting passages about by the narrator interspersed with interludes with factual historical content. The first section involves the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays; the second section is about psycho analyst Sigmud Freud and the final section is about Scottish surgeon John Hunter who was exceptionally well known for his knowledge of the anatomy, both human and animal. In fact John Hunter’s fine collection of over 14,000 specimens was acquired by the British government and even today exists at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Interestingly every section while the narrator reflects it corresponds with a particular moment in her life. The first section while she tussles whether to get pregnant or not she also contemplates upon Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays whose experiments in the laboratory resulted in a big impact on medical science and society too. It was the intensely subjective moment that led to greater objectivity:

For seven weeks and three days Röntgen existed in a private world transformed for him and him alone, and perhaps this too was a part of his later bitterness: that despite this experience of revelation, the conferral on him of a scientific grace, afterward nothing was different at all, and although he had seen through metal and seen through flesh to what was hidden, and although he had known, or thought that he had known, its nature, what had been left afterwards was only so much quibbling on the bill. 

Similarly mothering her firstborn, remembering the death of her mother due to cancer while the narrator herself was in her early twenties leaving her an orphan,  sharing her fears with her partner Johannes whether to have the second baby or not, while wondering if she is capable of the responsibility — these are intensely personal experiences for any woman more so for the narrator. Pregnancy is a very female experience that is repeated number of times over with every mother-to-be and yet remains an intensely intimate and subjective experience. Towards the end of this section she realises she has “outdistanced her anxiety” and wants the second child.

In the second section the narrator introduces her grandmother, Doctor K, and Sigmund Freud — both psychoanalysts.  Her childhood memories of spending holidays with her grandmother who worked as a professional psychoanalyst while caring for her granddaughter and on those rare occasions for her own daughter. The narrator recalls her mother telling her how when she was a five year old girl her mother, Doctor K, would insist upon analyzing her dreams. Result was the little girl stopped dreaming! It is a jumble of memories shared by the narrator that are at once intimate and intertwined and yet involving distinct individuals and personalities, much as in the way the network of blood vessels connect the unborn baby in the womb to its mother. Similarly Sigmund Freud’s biography and analysis of his patients including daughter Anne are interspersed with that of the personal narrative.

…the past is as prosaic as the future and the facts about it only so much stuff. To pick through dusty boxes, to sift through memories which fray and tear like ageing paper in an effort to find out who we are, is to avoid the responsibility of choice, since when it comes to it we have only ourselves, now, and the ever-narrowing come of what we might enact. Growing up, I said, is a solitary process of disentanglement from those who made us and the reality of it cannot be avoided but only, perhaps, deferred … . 

Plate VI of “The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus” (1774) by William Hunter, engraving by Jan van Rymsdyk.

In the third section the narrator is pregnant and waiting to give birth so a lot of time is spent in hospital waiting rooms awaiting tests. She intersperses her reflections with that of the eighteenth century Scottish surgeon John Hunter who was also known for his phenomenal collection of specimens. He was very keen to know about anatomies and would pay gravediggers to get him bodies from fresh graves so that he could dissect them and study the anatomy.  He worked closely with his brother William Hunter who had in fact introduced him to the medical sciences. The dissections were conducted in the basement of William Hunter’s Convent Garden house where the brothers were inevitably accompanied by the artist Jan van Rymsdyk who rapidly sketched as evident in the illustration on the right.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “Sight n. the faculty or power of seeing”. Jessie Greengrass studied philosophy in Cambridge and London. Her novel Sight is a literary example of psycho-geography — a combination of personal reminiscences and factual historical content. It is also an attempt to get at a further truth which is about how we see one another and we see ourselves especially the female experience which is most often taken away from human experience. ( Interview with BBC Radio 4, February 2018) It is a constantly evolving process of the individual’s subjectivity vs objectivity. It was first discussed in a similar meditative fashion by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria. It is unsurprising given that Coleridge  too like Jessie Greengrass was inspired by John Hunter’s work and its focus on the distinctions between life and matter. As Jessie Greengrass remarks in her BBC interview “having a subjective self is something which allows us privacy but also separates us even from the people we are closest to” and this is the angle she explores as a novelist in her powerful debut Sight.

Sight has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and the winner will be announced on 6 June 2018. This will be a close finish since the other contenders for the prize are equally strong and experienced women writers.
Jessie Greengrass Sight John Murray ( Publishers), an Hachette UK Company, Edinburgh, 2018. Pb. pp. 
30 April 2018 
* All pictures are off the Internet.

Jaya’s Newsletter 4 (19 November 2016)

Hello!

with-carolyn-reidy-and-rahul-srivastava-14-nov-2016-ss-india

(L-R) Carolyn Reidy, Simon & Schuster Inc., Jaya Bhattacharji Rose and Rahul Srivastava, MD, S&S India

The business of publishing continues to be fascinating. Simon & Schuster India celebrated its 5th year and announced its inaugural list at a wonderful reception attended by prominent publishing professionals. Authors on the list include Natasha Badhwar, Jairam Ramesh, Keki Daruwalla, Samanth Subramanian , Prayaag Akbar , Jagdeep Chokhar, Priyanka Dubey, Paddy Rangappa et al. Fascinatingly local authors signed by the Indian office will be offered a global platform. Meanwhile in USA, AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s publishing imprint which focuses on translations, continues to surpass all other publishers in the number of titles it’s doing per year. Their target is to publish between 60-100 titles / year. This emphasis on making world literature visible especially through translations is bound to have a significant impact on global publishing.

Award-winning publisher Seagull Books’s Correspondence  by Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann and translated by correspondenceWieland Hoban has been turned into a critically acclaimed film. Paul Celan (1920-70) is one of the best-known German poets of the Holocaust; many of his poems, admired for their spare, precise diction, deal directly with its stark themes. Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73) is recognized as one of post-World War II German literature’s most important novelists, poets, and playwrights.

The 2016 National Book Award winners were announced with Colson Whitehead winning the fiction category for The Underground Railroad.

jeffrey-archerThe dates for the Jeffrey Archer book tour to launch the final volume of Clifton Chronicles have been announced:

21 Nov – 7pm at Amphitheater, Cyberhub, Gurugram

22 Nov – 7 pm at Amphitheater, VR Bengaluru, Bengaluru

23 Nov – 7pm at Crossword bookstore, Phoenix Market City, Pune

24 Nov – 6pm at Crossword Bookstore, Kemps Corner, Mumbai

Entry is free. It is on first come first serve basis.

Jaya Recommends

New arrivals

Michel Bussi, “After the Crash”

Michel BussiInteresting little book. It is a translation. A thriller. Detailed as you would expect mystery stories to be. Bulk of the action takes place in 48 hours, although the air crash and mixed-up identities around which the story revolves took place eighteen years earlier. It employs the literary technique of interspersing journal entries with the plot moving in real time as well. So it is not always the flashback technique in a straightforward narrative but text that appears at the right moment — just when the character reading the journal and  reader of After the Crash begin to have questions, they are neatly supplied by the journal. Many readers and critics of After the Crash are putting Michel Bussi in the same league as Steig Larsson and Joel Dicker. The comparison is inevitable since all three authors have written gripping thrillers, each unique in its treatment of plot, style and storytelling and curiously enough, the books are translations that seem to have transcended all cultural barriers and caught the imagination of readers worldwide. Michel Bussi too is a man worth reading. 

Michel Bussi After the Crash ( Translated from the French by Sam Taylor) Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Hachette, Great Britain, 2015. Pb. pp.390 Rs 399

1 September 2015

Literati – Of books and launches ( 5 April 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 4 April 2015) and will be in print ( 5 April 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-columns/literati-of-books-and-launches/article7067754.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

Last week I attended a book launch at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. A small distinguished

(L-R) Mrs Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament, HE Pranab Mukherjee, President of India and Mrs Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha

(L-R) Mrs Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament, HE Pranab Mukherjee, President of India and Mrs Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha

audience gathered in the Yellow Drawing Room to witness the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, launch former and first woman Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar’s Indian Parliamentary Democracy: Speaker’s Perspective in the presence of the current Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, and senior-most Parliamentarian, L. K. Advani. This volume — published by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi — contains selected speeches delivered by Kumar at various multilateral conferences and during bilateral visits to several nations in India and abroad during her tenure. It was a book launch that ran with precision, partially due to protocol but also in a large measure due to professionalism of the politicians. These people have known each other for decades, yet made the effort to spend some time reading the book, offering their personal perspective on the importance of speeches to negotiate issues of government policy and to strengthen Indian diplomacy. Listening to the frank conversation made a ‘dry’ book about the efficacy of parliamentary diplomacy as an evolving medium of communication among nations seem worth reading. It was an effective launch as it interested the audience in the book and was not just another occasion for a photo-opportunity.

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Book promotions are a two-pronged affair. One is a planned strategy to promote a book: an author tour, book launches (preferably with a celebrity launching it), circulating review copies, book trailers on YouTube, interviews and interactions on all media platforms, the author participating in literary festivals, writing articles discussing and describing the writing process threadbare … all in a very short span of time. With the explosion of social media platforms, the variety of ways in which books and authors can be promoted is staggering — podcasts of interviews and literary salons, online book clubs, using photograph-based websites such as Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram to showcase book covers and promote reading experiences.

Tie-ups

According to Publishers Weekly, “HarperCollins is working with Twitter Commerce, the social media platform’s effort to offer ‘native commerce’, or offering firms the ability to send out tweets with buy buttons embedded in them.” The new promotion allowed fans to purchase a hardcover edition of theInsurgent movie tie-in edition at a 35 per cent discount, direct from HarperCollins Publishers US, without leaving the social media site with a buy in-tweet available only on March 23, 2015. Both HarperCollins and Twitter sent out a series of promotional tweets directed at fans talking about the Veronica Roth book series and movie adaptation.

This is similar to a recent partnership between the Hachette Book Group and Gumroad, an e-commerce venture that enables creators to sell content via social media, to promote and sell Hachette titles via Twitter. In August 2014, Amazon ‘buy it now’ buttons were embedded in Washington Post articles about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, assuming impulse buying will propel sales, but these were quickly pulled down after a massive outcry on Twitter (http://mashable.com/2014/08/18/washington-post-amazon-buy-button/). Amazon and Washington Post are both owned by Jeff Bezos. All these publicity efforts by the publishers, authors and vendors are to boost sales.

The Buried GiantA second and crucial component of book promotional activity is the preview critic and book reviewer. A good review is fair and unbiased. For instance, Neil Gaiman’s review in The New York Times of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new and oddly fascinating novel, The Buried Giant, says it is “a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love.” It is a balanced, constructive and informed critique by the superstar of contemporary mythographers of another exceptional storyteller.

With the democratisation of social media platforms too, bloggers (word and video) and online reviewers have made their mark. Many are professional and their opinion is valued tremendously. But there is a tiny core in the online community offering “book reviewing plans” to promote a book, by publishing reviews on specific websites, blogs and online vendors — for a price. Unfortunately these reviews gush hyperboles. The mistake often made is that a paid promotion needs to be positive. This does not sell a book; only honest and constructive engagement with the book does.

4 April 2015

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

( The Hindu asked me to write a short piece about the ongoing price war between Amazon and Hachette. It was published on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/price-fighters/article6365601.ece . I am c&p a longer version of the article published. ) 

Cartoon accompanying the Hindu article On August 10, 2014, Authors United wrote an open letter decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pressure tactics on Hachette to lower ebook prices. The letter — written by thriller writer, Douglas Preston and placed as a two-page ad, costing $ 104,000, and signed by well-known names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Pullman, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver —states, “As writers — most of us not published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” The writers printed Bezos’ e-mail id and asked authors to write to him directly.

This letter came after months of a public spat between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon. No one is privy to the details but it is widely speculated that the fight is about the pricing of books, especially e-books. Authors began to feel the effect of these business negotiations once Amazon stopped processing sales of their books or became extremely slow in fulfilling orders. It even removed an option to pre-order  The Silkworm , by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, prompting the author to respond on Twitter where she encouraged her three million followers to order  The Silkworm from high street stores and independent booksellers. Ironical given that Amazon’s motto is customer satisfaction.

 Amazon defended its actions through a letter released on its website, Readers United (http://www.readersunited.com/), and circulated it to self-published authors using their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. In it, the company said that for a “healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon is asking for all e-books to be priced at $9.99 or less. Misquoting George Orwell’s ironic comment on the popularity of new format of paperbacks in the 1930s, Amazon wrote that even Orwell had suggested collusion among publishers. It released the e-mail id of Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, asking readers to write to him directly to make books affordable since it is good for book culture.

 Pietsch replied to all those who wrote to him stating clearly, “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone… More than 80 per cent of the e-books we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower. Those few priced higher — most at $11.99 and $12.99 — are less than half the price of their print versions. Those higher priced e-books will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published. … Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish — hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

Amazon’s shareholders are getting tetchy with the massive losses the company has posted once again. For the current quarter, Amazon forecast that the losses would only grow. It expects a healthy rise in revenue but an operating loss of as much as $810 million, compared with a loss of $25 million in the third quarter of 2013. Losses increased as the firm spent heavily in a bid to expand its business with its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. Bob Kohn has pointed out the monopsony power of Amazon, which has a current market share of 65% of all online book units, digital and print, is not just theoretical; it’s real and formidable. When a company has dominant market power and sells goods for below marginal cost, it is engaging in predatory pricing, a violation of federal antitrust laws.”  There have been articles in USA for the government to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the law prohibits a retailer from wielding its mere size to bully suppliers for discounts. But as Colbert’s experiment of promoting debut author Edan Lepucki’s novel California showed that if readers want, they can procure a book from anywhere. His discussion about it, stemming from his anger for Amazon’s monopolistic practices, propelled California to becoming an NYT bestseller.

In India, commercially-successful author Ashwin Sanghi, drawing parallels between the music industry of 2002 and publishing of today, says, “Books are at an inflection point in 2014; a bit like music was in 2002. Music producers were accustomed to selling CDs whereas Apple wanted to sell singles at 99 cents. The face-off between Amazon and publishers/authors is similar. Publishers wish to charge prices that the industry is accustomed to while Amazon wishes to charge prices that customers will like, thus inducing more customers to buy on Amazon. I think the time has come for Jeff Bezos to sit across the table with publishers. There is no alternative.”

Another author, Rahul Saini writes “I have never supported the idea of monopoly and that is what Amazon is clearly trying to do here. Looking at the argument Amazon is making, it does make sense — buyers are always driven by low prices and heavy discounts (the Indian book market is a perfect example) but I firmly believe that the retailer does not own any right to dictate the pricing of a book. It has to be a mutual consent between the author and the publisher.”

 Popular author Ravinder Singh has his own take. “A publisher has the right to decide the cost of its books (in any format).  If the retailer really wants to bring down the price of the book, he can discount on his margins and should be free to do so. To decide the price tag of a book is a publisher’s (and not retailer’s) prerogative. Having said that, knowingly delaying shipment of titles of a particular publisher (and their authors’) just because it is not accepting the demand, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — readers, authors and publishers. Amazon may be right about the price-demand elasticity of the e-book and in saying that it can certainly bring more readership and thereby more money (offsetting the drop in price). But Hachette has all the right to decline it, even if it means letting go off money. As far as authors are concerned, they would not like to see one particular entity in the entire chain (that has accumulated huge powers), be it a publisher or a retailer, to decide their fate. They want to reach out to as many readers as possible, on time and make the royalties that they deserve.”

 Writing in the Guardian, Kamila Shamsie says, “All writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette — similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles.  Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work. It’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers.

Others disagree. Major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey petitioned Hachette asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage”. This has gathered over 7,600 signatures.

 Publishing is not like selling biscuits or furniture. It isn’t a question of taste and preference but an exercise in social philosophy. Amazon is primarily a tech-company whose dominance in the book industry is unprecedented. There may be some similarities with what happened in the music industry 10 years ago but publishing thrives on editorial tastes, which requires human intervention, not a series of algorithms promoting and recommending books. The book industry relies upon editors who know the business of “discovering” authors and converting them into household names. This public outrage against the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette proves that books are important to the cultural dimension of society.

1 September 2014 

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