( My review of Tanaz Bathena’s debut novel A Girl Like That has been published in the Hindu Literary Review on 29 April 2018. Here is the original url. I am c&p the review as well.
For lack of space the review had to be edited so I am reposting the last paragraph about finding a publisher and the literary influences upon her writing.
Tanaz Bathena is a first generation Canadian immigrant who wrote about the South Asian community in Saudi Arabia. This novel grew out of a short story. In an interview, Bathena said it took her five years to find a publisher because she refused to be bracketed with a certain type of south Asian literature that was expected to focus on oppression and cultural conflict. She began writing as she wanted to see more people in literature like herself and especially her Parsi community which remains invisible, thereby raising pertinent questions about South Asian identity and diaspora in world literature. Her fiction addresses this gap. She was deeply inspired by Bapsi Sidhwa, Rohinton Mistry, and Thrity Umrigar. Like other talented writers of south Asian origin, such as Sayantani Dasgupta, Tanuja Desai Hidier, and Sheba Karim, Tanaz Bathena consciously creates fiction for young adults to showcase the diversity of the south Asian diaspora.)
Brilliantly told story of a girl as scandalous in death as in life
Tanaz Bhathena’s debut novel A Girl Like That is about a 16-year-old orphan Zarin Wadia, born in Mumbai, now living in Jeddah, with her maternal aunt and uncle, Khorshed and Rustom Wadia. Zarin is considered half-Zorastrian as she is the illegitimate child of Khorshed’s sister. Zarin’s parents die while she is a toddler and she is adopted by the Wadias.
Zarin never considers them her family particularly since her Masi is always hostile towards her. It becomes an excuse for Zarin to turn rebellious — she smokes and prefers the company of boys in school. She is vilified by almost all except by her childhood friend from Mumbai, Porous Dumasia, who reappears in her life after 12 years and remembers her as the girl “of the cautious smiles and shy waves”.
A Girl Like That begins with an accident on the expressway in which both Zarin and Porous are killed. Their souls float above, watching the scene unfold beneath them. The story of the girl who is “as scandalous in death as she has been in life” is told via flashback and the shifting points of view of friends and relatives.
Zarin’s story highlights issues of sexist double standards in a society where women always need to be chaperoned by a male relative while 15-year-old Abdullah, Zarin’s boyfriend, can take decisions on behalf of his 40-year-old mother in his father’s absence. A Girl Like That also raises questions about teenage sexuality and date rape, and the vulnerability of girls in a patriarchal society, where it is unlikely that the woman will be believed if she complains of rape.
Bhathena is a first-generation Canadian immigrant writing about the South Asian community in Saudi Arabia. She began writing because she wanted to see more people like herself — Bhathena belongs to the largely invisible Parsi community — featured in literature, thereby raising questions about South Asian identity and the diaspora in world literature. A Girl Like That does precisely that, and with aplomb.
The writer is an independent international publishing consultant.
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”
( This blog post was picked up by the award-winning news website, Scroll. An edited version of this review was published by Scroll’s literary editor, Arunava Sinha, on Sunday, 19 June 2016. The original url is: http://scroll.in/article/809971/six-hundred-pages-that-will-tell-you-more-about-yourself-and-your-future-than-anything-else . )
The real magic was imagination.
( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Juggernaut, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George, journalist and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, IIC, New Delhi, April 2014
Siddharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. In 600+ pages Pulitzer prize writer Siddharth Mukherjee narrates the discovery of genes, evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene” coined by Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades only to be revived in early twentieth century and then became a common term. A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany. Half a century later the helical structure of DNA & RNA were discovered. Two decades later questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin to a resounding success. By 2000, about a century from when the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in the book with a few anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.
From the time of Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato who were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in the semen to Aristotle who rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details over the centuries the manner in which people pondered over what carried information across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel and his pea experiment and Darwin’s theories. It was Mendel, a monk, who first used the term “gene” except it was lost for a few more decades till resurrected in the early twentieth century. This was a watershed moment in the history of genetics as suddenly there were a concatenation of events that led to a furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism. From coining the word, understanding the structure, the mechanism, the potential, exploiting applied genetics as was done by the Nazis to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, using this branch of “applied biology” to justify their policy of lebensunwertes Leben or “lives unworthy of living” and justifying the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. It was based on the premise that identity was fixed. Curiously enough another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis on complete pliability. In both cases science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. Rapid advancement in genetics led to discovery of recombinant DNA to create crucial medicines such as insulin and its commercial production by biotechnology industries, the ability to clone as was done with Dolly the Sheep, to questions being raised about the ethics of genetics, to the establishment of the Human Genome Project. It has been a phenomenal few decades for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.
To a lay reader The Gene is a brilliant historical overview but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick for discovering the helical structure. It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick. Siddharth Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in such a way that it is evident the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.
I heard Siddharth Mukherjee deliver a public lecture two years ago when he came to India to receive the Padam Shri from the President of India. At the time he was still working on the manuscript of The Gene and here is an account: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ . In 2015 he gave a fascinating TED Talk followed by a brilliant exposition on the subject published as a TED Book by Simon & Schuster. Here is the link: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddhartha-mukherjee-the-laws-of-medicine/
What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, Siddharth Mukherjee embarks upon an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is phenomenal for the manner in which it weaves together the author’s precise scientific temper offering technical information against the backdrop of factually accurate and significant contemporary events of the time. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene accessible even by an ordinary reader.
Siddharth Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2016. Hb. pp. Rs 699
I read Ravi Subramanian’s Bankerupt recently. I enjoyed the story. It was a well-paced thriller, the intricacies of the financial world come through well. The understanding of a Ponzi scheme involving Emus was fascinating. ( In Erode there was such a scheme that collapsed. Read more: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/greed-lured-even-literate-investors-into-emu-scam-rbi/r1017752.0/page/0) Other aspects in Bankerupt like the long-distance relationship, trying to keep their marriage alive, the stresses of an academic and the NRA were well-researched. No wonder Ravi Subramanian has won the Crossword Book Award ( Popular Vote) two years in a row: Bankster in 2012 and The Incredible Banker in 2011.
He is an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore), currently head of a leading financial institution. A career banker and financial services professional, Ravi has worked with various multinational banks (Citibank, ANZ Grindlays Bank and HSBC) for over eighteen years. As a result of his extensive background in foreign banks, writing about banking comes quite naturally to Ravi. Each one of his books thus far have been set in the backdrop of a foreign bank. His six bestselling books: If God was a Banker (2007), Devil in Pinstripes (2009), The Incredible Banker (2011), The Bankster (2012), Bankerupt (2013) and I Bought the Monks Ferrari (2007).
Trophies for the Crossword Book Award (Popular vote) won in 2010 and 2011
It depends. For parts of the plot which are in the banking domain, I don’t need to do much of a research. Just a couple of phone calls in case of a doubt. However for other aspects, I need to do fair bit of research. For example, in Bankerupt, I have talked in detail about the pitched battle between Gun Activists and the Gun Lobby in the United States. I read three books and read a research paper, to understand both perspectives and formulate my own opinion. Bankerupt was also set in MIT, Boston. To understand academia and lives of people working in this field, I spoke to multiple professors and research associates in the US. While one has the creative license while writing fiction, one needs to make sure that fundamental errors in plotting don’t creep in.
How do you work out the story drafts? Do you create each character beforehand and then tuck in details into the novel?
None of my stories or characters have been created beforehand and tucked into the novel. I always start with a canvas – a backdrop. And then keep adding elements. For example, the story of Bankerupt came out of a meeting with a MIT professor who had come to present to me a credit underwriting model. We got talking about life in the US in general and academia in specific. The moment the meeting got over, I knew that I had a backdrop for my story – the Academia in USA. Every element came thereafter.
I start the first chapter with the backdrop in mind. The first leads to the next, then the next and thereon the story continues. Characters are built along the way. This method of writing makes me rewrite many parts of the novel, but then it gives me one great benefit : IF I don’t know what the next page contains, there is some hope in hell that the reader will be able to predict what will happen. It helps me build intrigue and thrill in the novel.
Do you edit as you go along or only after completing the first draft?
Only the part that I need to change to make progress on my story, I edit as I go along. Else I don’t edit while writing. I complete the first draft (and the story) and then edit the entire manuscript. A number of changes creep in while editing – at times even the plot undergoes a tweak.
Do you take inputs from friends and editors to see how the story is improving?
Not while I am writing it. I talk to my daughter and my wife. Take their inputs while I write. But that’s it. I don’t share my manuscript till its complete.
Having said that, I do share my complete manuscript with a few people once its complete. This is a trusted core group of people who read it and come back with their feedback. If they recommend a change, and I am convinced about the change, I don’t mind tweaking the manuscript to incorporate that change.
How do you keep an eye on so much detail? Do you make an excel sheet of each character and situation or do you prefer working in longhand first?
It is not as complex as it sounds. I have a drawing book, which I use at every stage, to think and sketch a elementary storyboard of the next chapter, or maximum tow chapters at a time.
How do you tie up the loose ends ? Does it happen as you envision it will or do the characters also lead you along various ways?
I think it is a highly romanticized term which authors use to overcomplicate a simple process of writing a book. I don’t think any character will go where the author does not want him or her to go. I consider all the options, all the possibilities that can happen and then try and take the most shocking of them. And the characters do what it takes to drive the story in that direction.
Yes sometimes tying loose ends becomes a challenge. But when you write a thriller, you need to make sure that the pace is such that the reader is more curious about what happens next than worry about why a particular character did what he or she did. I normally use the last couple of chapters to tie in all the loose ends. A narrative style of writing helps me in this.
Do you read and read and read thrillers or do you not wish to be distracted while writing?
I do read, even when I am writing. Sometimes, when I am indecisive about which direction to take, it helps immensely if I take my mind of and read. Thinking about the problem on hand, after a break invariably solves it for me.
How long does it take you to write one book?
Eight to nine months. Given that I want to bring out a book a year, at the least, this pace is necessary.
How many drafts do you have in making now? Are you stocked up well on drafts for the next few years?
Haha.. how I wish!!! No. While I have lots of stories inside me, I don’t have draft or outlines. Because each of the story in my mind, can be strewn into a novel in ten different ways. And that clarity will only come if I sit down to pen the story. I have one complete manuscript, which is a story of three generations of south Indians which I will bring out sometime in the future.
Where do you find your stories?
All around. In people, in conversations, while driving, while attending social engagements, reading…. There is a story everywhere. You just have to spot it.
How do you determine the length of your chapters?
I consciously try to keep my chapters short. This is something which I have leant over the years. Short chapters help the reader complete more chapters while reading at night, helps keep the intrigue factor high, and increases the pace of the book. 3-4 pages of a book per chapter is good. 5-6 is acceptable. And more than six is avoidable. Bankerupt has 77 chapters in 320 pages.
What is an ordinary day in the life of Ravi S as a writer?
I lead a very normal life. Get up at 6.45am. After the mandatory filter coffee, three newspapers, I wake up my daughter. I love the five to ten minutes that I spend in waking her up. The two minute sleep extensions drop to 1 minute and then to 30 secs and then the “Get up now… or you will be late for school”, is fun. I help my wife with work in the morning. We are a working couple, so time is at a premium. I drop my daughter to school and head to work. Am early at work. Getting in early gives you the luxury of leaving early. I get back home by 6.30. Half an hour at the treadmill, a bit of loafing around and its time for dinner. I sit down to write post dinner and often write till 12.30 or 1.00. That’s the time I try an respond to mails, feedback etc. I sleep late. Once in a while I sleep for a few extra hours on Saturday and Sunday and make up for it. It helps that I don’t have to sit in a secluded place with birds chirping and rain drops falling on the window to focus on writing. I can do that pretty much sitting in the midst of constantly chattering people.
Mr S.K. Ghai, Managing Director, Sterling Publishers (P) Ltd is responsible for the Institute of Book Publishing and Publishing Today, A monthly of the book industry and its professionals. In Vol. No. 7, No. 8 & 9, Jul – Aug 2013 ( http://www.ibpindia.org/p/Publishing-Today-July-August-2013 ) he interviewed me. This is what he wrote in his introduction: “For One to One I have interviewed Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International publishing and literary consultant, there are a very few professionals who write on publishing regularly and she is one of them and having a regular column in Business World. She is quite active on social media and had over 250,000 visitors in less than a year.” I am c&p the interview below.
4 Sept 2013
SKG You have been interviewing publishers, authors; is it the first time that you are being interviewed? JBR No. Not at all. Some of the interviews that come to mind are by Samit Basu in 2006 (http://samitbasu.com/2006/07/03/jaya-bhattacharji-interview/) and by Anupama Krishnakumar in 2012 (http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=4379).SKG When, how and why did you choose publishing as a career? JBR I cannot even recall when I fell in love with books. But I wanted to delve in to publishing from as long as I can remember.SKG You were once selected in the editorial team of Penguin, but you decided not to join. Any reason? JBP Yes I was. This was immediately after I had completed my BA (Hons) English from Jesus and Mary College. David Davidar had interviewed me, Renuka Chatterjee called offering me the job. But I refused since I decided to pursue my MA (English) at St. Stephen’s College.SKG You prefer to be freelancer as compared to being in a regular job. Any reason? JBR I prefer being a freelancer since it allows me to balance my time between professional commitments and bringing up my daughter Sarah Rose. Plus the independence it brings allows me the freedom to comment on the industry, without any bias. It can be challenging at times, but I certainly prefer it.SKG I remember meeting you briefly at Zubaan. How long did you work there and any memorable experiences or incidents that you would like to share? JBR I joined Zubaan the day it rose from the ashes of Kali for Women. I was there for more than 4 years, but those were the formative years. It was during this time that the significant books like Baby Halder’s A Life Less Ordinary, Anil Menon’s The Beast with a Million Feet and Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma were published. I enjoyed working on various projects. Some that come to mind immediately are creating a mini author website for Kunzang Choden. It was done at a time when such intiatives were still rare. (http://www.zubaanbooks.com/circleofkarma/) I also helped in the branding of Zubaan by circulating monthly newsletters, creating a database, conceptualising and launching the official website (zubaanbooks.com); inheriting the womenwriting.com website from the British Council and revamping it (http://www.womenswriting.com/WomensWriting/AboutProject.asp); curating the visual history of the women’s movement in India via posters called PosterWomen (http://posterwomen.org/Posterwomen/ ) ; helping out with the Words of Women series at the India Habitat Centre and lots more. It was definitely a packed and exciting schedule.There are so many memories to share, but difficult to choose one.SKG You also worked for Routledge and then Puffin for a short while – any special memories ? JBR I worked as Editorial Manager, South Asia, Journals for Routledge, Taylor and Francis and as a Consultant Editor, Puffin Books India. Both the assignments were very different to each other. The journals assignment was an eye opener since it taught me a great deal about academic publishing, especially the methodical manner in which journals are published.Whereas with Puffin Books the joy of working with children’s and YA literature was thrilling. It is a genre that I have worked with ever since the 1990s, from the time I was asked to be the Guest Editor for the Special issue of The Book Review. It was an issue published every November. I expanded the focus to include literature from South Asia and got publishers to send in review copies from abroad. All this was done before the internet and emailing was possible. I remember even getting the third volume of Harry Potter. It was mailed from London and arrived a couple of weeks after it was released. Yet the review copy reached me a few months before it was released in India. A far cry from when the last volume in the series was released. It had a simultaneous release in India and UK.SKG You have interviewed many publishers – national and international CEO’s like Naveen Kishore-Seagull, Liz Calder-Bloomsbury, Peter Booth- Wiley. Any unique experience you would like to share? JBR With every publishing professional I meet whether from India or abroad, I enjoy my interactions. It is learning, sharing of experiences and understanding how the business works. Many times I continue to be astounded at how the basics of the business remain the same. It is only the technology of production and communication that changes. Of the three you mentioned I learned a great deal about translations from Naveen Kishore; from Liz Calder what it takes to be a woman publisher, setting up Women in Publishing, co-fouding Bloomsbury Publishing, how her firm discovered J K Rowling, establishing the Paraty festival in Brazil etc; with Peter-Booth Wiley it was discovering how a successful family business operates and continues to be ahead in the game of publishing. He is the sixth generation of the Wiley family who is managing the business, 200 years after it was founded.SKG When you assess and recommend manuscripts to publishers, what are the points you generally highlight? JBR It really depends upon the genre and style of writing. It is very difficult to comment in general terms. But I think it has to be a fine balance between what is a good story/narrative and whether it will work in the market.SKG Your comments on the recent amendments to the copyright act? JBR The recent amendments to the copyright act were mostly in favour of the music industry except for the clause about the use of photographs and images. The parallel imports clause too that was causing much concern in India has now been referred to a Parliamentary committee for review.SKG Your comments on the highlights/missing points in the recently formulated India’s National Book Promotion Policy? JBR I wrote about this in my column. Here is the link: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/08/01/national-book-promotion-policy-where-are-we-nov-2011/SKG What are your views on India’s digital publishing and how do you think they can monetize ? JBR I don’t think anyone really has a clear answer to this. Digital publishing, IMHO, should be seen as a unifying factor in publishing. It allows publishers to streamline operations and access various markets that hitherto were inaccessible. Monetization will happen depending upon the publisher’s requirement and an understanding of the market. For now there is a lot of experimentation in the business models of publishing particularly in academic publishing. Trade publishers are as yet to figure out what works for them. If the latter had a system of impact factors as is in journal publishing, probably they would be able to strategically explore and execute alternative streams of revenue generation.SKG You review books regularly. What are your comments on ‹The art of book reviewing›? JBR Read, read, read. Review books without any biases, but with knowledge, honesty and fairness. All criticism must be constructive, whether positive or negative. Also never damn a book however annoying it may have been to read. The book is an author’s baby. Be kind. And if it has been a pleasure to read, be balanced in your assessment rather than packing your review with hyperbole.SKG Many publishing professionals have godfathers in the industry; do you have one or consider some one who helped/guided you? JBR Hmm. I am not sure if I have had a godfather. Mentors certainly. Many of them women. I have always been passionate about publishing. But I was fortunate to have been given opportunities to explore publishing by Uma Iyengar and Chandra Chari of The Book Review; Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan; Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited; and Gordon Graham, former Chairman, Butterworth Publishers and Founding Editor, Logos.SKG Where you would like to be after five years? JBR A successful international publishing and literary consultant and columnist.SKG You know the publishing industry inside out. How do you see the future of book publishing given the current scenario of digital verses print? JBR I do not see it as a digital versus print game in the publishing industry. I see the entry of digital technology as a game changer that will encourage publishing to evolve to the next level. Initially it will be viewed as a disruptive element since the traditional modes of production, publication and dissemination have been working very well for generations. But to survive in the future, it is important to adopt and adapt.The future of book publishing is not bleak especially for those professionals who are smart about taking up challenges and capitalising upon opportunities. But today there is no scope for complacency. Unfortunately the truth is that to commission, create and produce high quality books you need to have time and be methodical about it. It is a process that cannot be hurried. Yet the consumption patterns of readers are changing so rapidly that publishers need to strike a balance between the two arms of business — commissioning/editorial and marketing/selling. There are many ways to do so. Most importantly exploring new opportunities for revenue generation. It will come from selling the books in innovative ways, accessing new markets but also focusing on good, reliable content, ensuring that the long tail of business continues. Also never forgetting that the core of the business of publishing are the authors. So it is important to manage author relations, irrespective of their being on the A, B or C lists.SKG You are very active on social media networks- Facebook , Twitter, LinkedIn and writing blogs. How useful do you find social media what would be your suggestions for young publishing professionals? JBR Social Media is an integral part of one’s life now. In order to access, network with like-minded professionals you need to know how to use these platforms. I use them only professionally. But it requires strategy and learning every single day.I started a blog sometime ago focused on publishing and literature. On 27 Aug 2012, I installed a visitor counter. Today, 9 Aug 2013, it shows 2,61,563 visitors. All of these are real digital footprints since I have a SPAM blocker. I am told that it is an “extremely impressive” count.My advice for young publishing professionals is to be passionate about publishing, always be alert and receptive to new ideas, think out of the box, do a bit of homework every single day and definitely use and explore the social media platforms. But by merely plonking stuff on to a platform, without understanding and updating it, will be insufficient. You have to challenge your limits.SKG What are your hobbies? JBR Cooking/Baking, listening to music – it used to be gardening, painting and playing with my dogs, but no more. No time for the first two and I no longer keep dogs. And I have to add, reading. I actually love it.SKG How would you describe a good book? JBR Fiction or non-fiction – it has to be one that sustains the reader’s interest till the very end. It cannot be a book where the author polishes the first fifty pages and then forgets about the rest.SKG Apart from manuscripts, do you get the time to read & what do you like to read? JBR I make the time. Carpe diem is my motto. My reading is eclectic. It can range from periodicals, short stories, fiction, non-fiction, young adult and even picture books. Anything and everything to do with words.SKG In fiction, what makes a bestseller? JBR Tough question. Does anyone really have an answer to it? If it is the Rs 100 novel or commercial fiction that is extremely popular today in India, then I would attribute it to the conversational style of English used by the authors. The readers are able to comprehend and understand and respond well to the content. But it is not a given that a consumer of a Rs 100 novel can be termed as a “Reader”, one who reads substantially, not necessarily voraciously. For literary fiction it is the quality of the work, the complexity that lies in the treatment of the story. Similarly other genres like translations, science-fiction, children’s literature, YA literature, thrillers, etc will have their own peculiar characteristics that help in determining its viability in the market. Probably the standard for all would be the content should be good, the treatment by the author/translator above par. Technicalities like editing, production quality, distribution, price points also play a crucial aspect in the rapid consumption of the book. If it is a “good” book but unavailable and unaffordable, the whole point of investing time and patience in producing it will be defeated.
ONE TO ONE with Jaya Bhattacharji RoseInternational publishing and literary consultant who also has a monthly column, “PubSpeak” , in BusinessWorld online. Her blog http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/ has had over 2,50,000 visitors in the 11 months since the visitor counter was uploaded.
( 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.
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.
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.
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
Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between sunroom and garden considering whether to go back to get them. He won’t. His second wife Ama is asleep in that bedroom, her lips parted loosely, her brow lightly furrowed, her cheek hotly seeking some cool patch of pillow, and he doesn’t want to wake her. Ghana Must Go
There is a moment in reading, when you need to put down the book and take a deep sigh and say, “Wow”. This is new. Not necessarily the plot, but the style, the ease with which the writer flits through countries, social and economic milieus, without sounding trite. Plus the style of writing is so refreshing. There are no apologies made about references from other cultures and languages. They are used as lightly and easily as if they are going to be understood by a new generation of readers — the Facebook generation. A bunch of youngsters who are very well-informed and reading voraciously. Understand different cultures and know how to navigate their way through. Ghana Must Go falls in that category.
The title is borrowed from the phrase “Ghana Must Go”, a slogan that was popular in 1983 when Ghananian were expelled from Lagos. This is a story about a family of immigrants based in America. Folasadé Savage (Fola) leaves Lagos for Pennsylvania to study law, but meets her future husband and brilliant surgeon, the Ghanaian husband, Kweku Sai. Fola abandons her professional aspirations to raise their four children. But after losing his job at the hospital under unsavoury circumstances, Kweku abandons them all and returns to Ghana. The family splinters and regroups when the news of Kweku’s death in Accra brings them all together. It is a story that has to be read, to be experienced. It is a bittersweet story that will stay with you for a while.
Taiye Selasi was born in London of Nigerian and Ghanaian parents, and raised in Massachusetts, now lives in Italy. Earlier this year she was one of the twenty recognised as Britian’s upcoming novelists. It is an award that is well-deserved. The other two pieces of writing by Taiye Selasi that I enjoyed are “Driver” in Granta: Best of Young British Novelists and her essay “Bye-Bye Barbar” ( http://thelip.robertsharp.co.uk/?p=76 ). The latter is on being a cultural hybrid or an Afropolitan. This is what she says:
“the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars. There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.
It isn’t hard to trace our genealogy. Starting in the 60’s, the young, gifted and broke left Africa in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad. A study conducted in 1999 estimated that between 1960 and 1975 around 27,000 highly skilled Africans left the Continent for the West. Between 1975 and 1984, the number shot to 40,000 and then doubled again by 1987, representing about 30% of Africa’s highly skilled manpower. Unsurprisingly, the most popular destinations for these emigrants included Canada, Britain, and the United States; but Cold War politics produced unlikely scholarship opportunities in Eastern Bloc countries like Poland, as well.”
Trust me when I say. Read Ghana Must Go. ( Possess the printed book for the fabulous cover design.)
Taiye Selasi Ghana Must Go Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi. 2013. Pb. pp. 320 Rs. 499
CEO MARKUS DOHLE ANNOUNCES PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE GLOBAL LEADERSHIP TEAM
BERTELSMANN & PEARSON FINALIZE MERGER TRANSACTION
(July 1, 2013)—The global senior executive team for Penguin Random House was announced today by Chief Executive Officer Markus Dohle, following the closing of the transaction by shareholders Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA and Pearson this morning to formally establish the venture. Bertelsmann owns 53% and Pearson 47% of the company. Penguin Random House will combine the adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction print and digital trade book publishing businesses of Penguin and Random House in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India; Penguin’s trade publishing activity in Asia and South Africa; Dorling Kindersley worldwide; and Random House’s companies in Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile. Random House’s German-language publishing group, Verlagsgruppe Random House, is outside the venture, and remains part of Bertelsmann, continuing to report to Mr. Dohle.
Between mid-February and early June, in order of review, Penguin Random House received governmental merger control approval in the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, the European Commission, Canada, South Africa, and China, all without condition.
Penguin Random House will employ more than 10,000 people across five continents. It will comprise nearly 250 editorially and creatively independent imprints and publishing houses that collectively publish more than 15,000 new titles annually. Its publishing lists include more than 70 Nobel Prize laureates and hundreds of the world’s most widely read authors.
Effective with today’s closing, Markus Dohle, Chairman and CEO of Random House worldwide since 2008, assumes the position of CEO, Penguin Random House, and John Makinson, head of the Penguin Group worldwide since 2002, takes on the position of Chairman of Penguin Random House. The Penguin Random House Board appointments were announced separately by Bertelsmann and Pearson this morning.
Mr. Dohle said, “Today, Penguin and Random House officially unite to create the first truly global trade book publishing company. As separate companies, we have long performed outstandingly by every benchmark; as colleagues, we will share and apply our passion for publishing the best books with our enormous experience, creativity, and entrepreneurial drive. Together, we will give our authors unprecedented resources to help them reach global audiences—and we will provide readers with unparalleled diversity and choice for future reading. Connecting authors and readers is, and will be, at the heart of all we strive to accomplish together.”
John Makinson said, “Penguin Random House starts life today as a freshly minted company, but also as a creative enterprise that will draw on the greatest legacies in the history of book publishing. That heritage will help to frame the culture and personality of Penguin Random House as we place our extraordinary shared resources at the service of our authors, our customers, our readers, and our colleagues. It is an exciting day for all of us.”
In announcing his senior executive appointments, Mr. Dohle said, “Our global and local leadership comprises proven executives drawn from both sides of the company who are inclusive and collaborative with colleagues in their decision making and who fully support our publishers and our authors in realizing their vision and objectives for our books.”
Effective immediately, the following newly appointed executives report to Mr. Dohle, who additionally serves as CEO for the Penguin Random House U.S. company:
Coram Williams, previously CFO for the Penguin Group, will serve in a dual capacity as Chief Financial Officer for Penguin Random House, in the U.S. and worldwide. Mr. Williams will also oversee the self-publishing business Author Solutions.
David Shanks has stepped down as CEO, Penguin Group (USA). He will serve as Senior Executive Advisor to Mr. Dohle and the U.S. executive team.
Madeline McIntosh, formerly Chief Operating Officer, Random House U.S., becomes President and Chief Operating Officer of Penguin Random House in the U.S.
Brad Martin, formerly President and CEO of Random House of Canada, is appointed CEO of Penguin Random House in Canada.
Tom Weldon assumes responsibility for Penguin Random House in the U.K. as CEO. He was previously Chief Executive Officer, Penguin Group UK.
Gail Rebuck will become Chair of the Penguin Random House U.K. Board.
Ian Hudson will serve as Deputy CEO of Penguin Random House U.K., a position he previously held at Random House UK. Separately, he will oversee Penguin Random House’s operations in Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and Asia in his capacity as Chief Executive Officer, Penguin Random House International (English Language).
Gabrielle Coyne will be CEO of Penguin Random House Asia Pacific and Gaurav Shrinagesh will be CEO of Penguin Random House India. Ms. Coyne previously served as CEO of Penguin Group Asia Pacific, and Mr. Shrinagesh as Managing Director of Random House India. Stephen Johnson will continue to lead Penguin Books South Africa. They will all report to Mr. Hudson.
Also, continuing in their current capacities:
Núria Cabutí, Chief Executive, leads the company in Spain and Latin America; it will operate under the name Random House Mondadori.
John Duhigg, Chief Executive, Dorling Kindersley, is responsible for Dorling Kindersley (DK) business worldwide.
Mr. Dohle announced the appointments of three executives with Penguin Random House global corporate responsibilities: Frank Steinert will be the company’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Stuart Applebaum will lead communications, and Milena Alberti will oversee corporate development, each having served in similar capacities at Random House. All will also have responsibility in the U.S. for their respective corporate functions.
Mr. Dohle also announced the newly formed Penguin Random House Global Executive Committee to work together with him to set the company’s strategic, operational, and publishing direction and priorities. The Committee’s members are:
Núria Cabutí; Gina Centrello, President and Publisher, Random House Publishing Group; Tony Chirico, President, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; Gabrielle Coyne; John Duhigg; Leslie Gelbman, President, Mass Market Paperbacks, Penguin Group U.S.; Ian Hudson; Barbara Marcus, President and Publisher, Random House Children’s Books; Brad Martin; Maya Mavjee, President and Publisher, Crown Publishing Group; Madeline McIntosh; Sonny Mehta, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; Susan Petersen Kennedy, President, Penguin Group U.S.; Andrew Phillips, Chief Executive Officer, Author Solutions; Frank Steinert; Don Weisberg, President, Penguin Young Readers Group U.S.; Tom Weldon; and Coram Williams.
Penguin Random House world headquarters are in New York City.
Penguin Random House (http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/) is the world’s first truly global trade book publisher. It was formed on July 1, 2013, upon the completion of an agreement between Bertelsmann and Pearson to merge their respective trade publishing companies, Random House and Penguin, with the parent companies owning 53% and 47%, respectively. Penguin Random House comprises the adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction print and digital trade book publishing businesses of Penguin and Random House in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India, Penguin’s trade publishing activity in Asia and South Africa; Dorling Kindersley worldwide; and Random House’s companies in Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile. Penguin Random House employs more than 10,000 people globally across almost 250 editorially and creatively independent imprints and publishing houses that collectively publish more than 15,000 new titles annually. Its publishing lists include more than 70 Nobel Prize laureates and hundreds of the world’s most widely read authors.
In 2012, Penguin Random House had pro forma revenues of £2.6bn (€3.2bn) and operating profit of £346m (€427m).
( My column, “PubSpeak”, for June 2013 is on What constitutes good literature? It is published in BusinessWorld online. The link is: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/good-lit-versus-saleable-lit/r964342.37528/page/0 . It was uploaded on 29 June 2013. )
Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit
What is good literature? The fine, complex and well-crafted story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well? The debate is on…
Some of my happiest childhood memories are sitting curled up in a chair and reading. I read and read. I bought books, I was gifted books, I inherited books. My brother and I browsed through encyclopaedias, books on art and museums, read fiction, non-fiction, and anything else in between. Call it by any name, but the pleasure of holding and reading a book was tremendous. In fact one of the canvases I painted was of my brother reading a Leslie Charteris “Saint” novel, borrowed from the library its red jacket visible while he lies on the bed absorbed in reading. We read voraciously. We read whatever came our way. I don’t recall anyone telling us that books were strictly by age or category. We liked a good story. Period.
Today it is different. In June 2013 award-winning German writer, translator and Publisher at Carl Hanser Verlag, Michael Krüger, said in Publishing Perspectives, the daily e-newsletter on publishing, “I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. …Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding.” Publishers are increasingly more careful about commissioning titles and work a great deal on the packaging and promotion of the books. Always with an eye on the market, reaching out to the regular customers and trying to connect with new readers. For instance titles for children are being classified according to age, to make it easier for customers to find authors.
New imprints are being launched especially for young adult literature (it is a booming market segment) – Inked (Penguin Books India), Red Turtle (Rupa Publications), Duckbill (Westland) and Scholastic Nova. The idea is to always have a pulse on the market. Some of the genres that are popular are commercial fiction, children’s literature, non-fiction, self-help, business and then there are new lists appearing – young adult/ tweens, cross-over titles, and speculative fiction.
Jaspreet Gill, a marketing executive who wandered into the industry a year ago, (and the publishing bug has bitten him) says “It is not an industry for the most part driven by Editorial (I thought it was), or the quality of content. The whole trade is driven by sales. The worth of a book is judged by how well it can be sold, or how much the author can spend and how well he can be utilised for marketing. This is also, with all due respect to them. They are smart salesmen, but that is all that they are, selling commodities, not presenting ideas, ideologies, and good literature. I sincerely believe that the reason for success of the authors of commercial fiction is not the quality of their content, but the price of the book, and visibility they are able to get at the retail stores. They are also clever marketers, and know how to sell their products to people.”
Somak Ghoshal, former literary fiction commissioning editor with Penguin Books, acquired some fine literature (Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Anjan Sundaram, Neamat Imam and Shazaf Fatima Haider) says, “Commercial fiction sells. The print runs are staggering. The success of these titles allows the firm to acquire literature that in turn develops the brand of the firm. It is a symbiotic relationship.”
It raises the (eternal) question of what is good literature? What sells? And why? Does good literature equal saleable literature? Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books, Kolkata (with offices in New York and London), offers an explanation “Like everything else, we need to question the ‘market’. After all, it cannot exist in a vacuum. To put it another way: without content — largely implying the labour of the author, the effort of the publisher and all the other players including the vital function that a translator plays — where would the market be? What would it ‘showcase’? What would it sell? And let us make no bones about the fact that ‘content’ is not simply and only about a certain swiftly ‘saleable’ kind of book. It is also about the arts and literature and culture and philosophy and thought that go into making us human. Again if we persist with our interpretation of what the market wants we will end up by not publishing 90 per cent of these subjects. What kind of a future will that be? It is in this context that the market has a responsibility and a proactive role to play. ‘It’ (the market) cannot be lazy about this and merely sit back and expect only the books that make the grade according to ‘its’ standards be accepted! The market has to learn to cater, feed, nurture tastes for literature that do not necessarily extend to the millions . . . always remembering that the first Kafka text only sold 800 copies! If the market had behaved as it does now we would never have had a Franz Kafka! It is in this context that I suggest that the market needs to find you.” Sterling Lord, literary agent to Jack Kerouac, Ken Casey, Gloria Steinem, and Berenstains reports in his memoir Lord of Publishing of Ted Geisel, editor, Random House who published the Berenstain bear stories that he insisted on the story being a page-turner. But it “wasn’t only the story that Ted focused on; he cared about the title page, the type, the paper, every phrase, every word, every rhyme, and every drawing.” The intervention of the editor created a book that would sell and launched a new author into the market. By March 2009, nearly fifty years after publication, The Berenstain Bears Go to School had sold 3,520,554 copies in North America alone.
Of course the notion of what constitutes “good” literature is subjective but it is obviously a challenge that plagues the industry worldwide. Is it literature that is fine, complex, well-crafted and tells a good story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well and caters to the mass market? Can literary tastes even be defined? Eric Hobsbawm says it well in Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, “… much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.” No one really knows. Is it the author that creates a market with their storytelling or does the market create an author? Publishing continues. New authors are discovered. New readers emerge. The cycle continues.
As I file this column, it is announced that Penguin Books India has signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) with Ravi Subramanian, popularly referred to as the John Grisham of banking. This follows close on the heels of Amish Tripathi, of the Shiva trilogy fame, who has inked a deal worth Rs 5 crore (approx $843,000) with Westland for his next series.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist.
He had little time for the polished spic-and-span, design-heavy theatre that was being produced in the capitals of the country. Long before Jerzy Grotowski or Peter Brook came along there was Brecht, emphasizing the primacy of the actor on the stage and Habib Tanvir’s theatre was all about his actors. They were-are, rather- amazing actors. Completely at home at Raipur or Delhi or Edinburgh. They are intensely physical and mobile on stage, athletic, even acrobatic, and tremendous singers withal. Their comic timing is not easily surpassed by any group of actors in India, yet they can transform into great tragedians within minutes. They speak Chhatisgarhi which is not always understood verbatim but they will speak it with elan, regardless of which corner of the world they find themselves in.
(Extract from p. xlvii Habib Tanvir Memoirs )
Habib Tanvir began writing his memoir when he was past eighty in 2006. Despite being fluent in English, he chose to write in Urdu. He had planned a three volume memoir called Matmaili Chadariya (Dusty Sheet), but he was unable to complete it. He died in 2009. The Memoir published dwells upon his childhood in Raipur, then Central Provinces and now Chattisgarh; his trip to England to gain training in theatre (1955) and his discovery of the Brechtian style of theatre. All though prior to his departure he had already written and directed Agra Bazaar ( 1954) where he had used the locals from Okhla in the play. He returned (after having abandoned his training) to India and established Naya Theatre, and continued to be closely linked to it for more than fifty years. Now it is managed by his daughter, Nageena. He won many awards and was even nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1972. His plays were powerful, with a Chattisgarhi folk element, till then unheard of, became his signature. Also an influence of Brecht and his upbringing in Raipur.
The memoirs have now been translated into English by Mahmood Farooqui. He has also written a detailed and a fabulous introduction that details the theatre movement in India, documents the seminal influences on Habib Tanvir and his plays, the politics and of course the Chattisgarhi kind of performance. The essay that Mahmood Farooqui writes is formidable in the amount of knowledge and information it packs in about the different forms of theatre, singing, folk theatre etc. Given how dense the essay is with information, it does not seem so to be so since he wears his knowledge lightly. (Thank heavens for scholars like him!) I suspect that being one of the key performers of Dastangoi has helped polish and refine the skills that he learnt as a historian. There is something that seeps through the text of being a performer and a practitioner at the same time. Love it!
I find reading memoirs a revelatory exercise. Not necessarily about the life being unveiled or the people the author met, but its always an insight into what the person chooses to reveal. Habib Tanvir does not write about theatre / IPTA as much as you would have wanted/expected him to. His freewheeling and surprisingly chronological account of his life is charming. ( A trait not necessarily associated with women memoirists, who tend to meander.) With such ease he pulls you into his life, introduce a multitude of characters without making your head spin. Given that he began writing these memoirs at the age of 81+, it is surprising at the amount of detail he has retained. He is a good storyteller with a phenomenal memory. I have been discussing this book with my friend and noted theatre actor Sudhanva Deshpande. ( He knew Habib Tanvir well and made a short documentary on him too.) Sudhanva prefers to call the memoir a “confession”. Whereas I have been reveling in the marvelous storytelling and evoking a time in Indian history that has disappeared forever. Reading the memoirs also resounded on a personal note for me. Suddenly my mother-in-law’s penchant for breaking into song and dance, singing folk songs and rattling off in Chattisgarhi made so much sense. It was obviously part of the social fabric. She too grew up in Raipur in the 1930s and 40s. A period that is dwelt upon in detail in the book.
This is book that I would heartily recommend. Read it for the period in Indian history that is not always told in history books. Read it for the experience of reading a memoir of a noted performer. Even the act of writing this memoir, is a performance. (He makes the “characters” come alive by recalling tiny details about dress, their deportment, emotions etc.) Read it for the translation. A work of art, this is. Habib Tanvir – Memoirs will be released in New Delhi on May 28. At the launch (which is by invitation), Tanvir’s daughter is expected to sing some of the songs that lent her father’s theatre – Naya Theatre. It is to be followed the day after by a performance (open for all) at May Day Cafe.