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On “Critical Thinking and Book Reviewing”

At Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, I moderated a fantastic panel discussion on “Critical Thinking and Book Reviewing”. The panelists were Ambassador Navtej Sarna, writer Alexander McCall Smith, critic and translator Jenny Bhatt and literary journalist Somak Ghoshal.

5 Feb 2019

Marvel books

Marvel comics were launched in America in 1939. According to Wikipedia:

Martin Goodman, a pulp magazine publisher who had started with a Western pulp in 1933, was expanding into the emerging—and by then already highly popular—new medium of comic books. Launching his new line from his existing company’s offices at 330 West 42nd Street, New York City, he officially held the titles of editor, managing editor, and business manager, with Abraham Goodman officially listed as publisher.

Timely’s first publication, Marvel Comics #1 (cover dated Oct. 1939), included the first appearance of Carl Burgos’ android superhero the Human Torch, and the first appearances of Bill Everett’s anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner, among other features. The issue was a great success, with it and a second printing the following month selling, combined, nearly 900,000 copies. While its contents came from an outside packager, Funnies, Inc., Timely had its own staff in place by the following year. The company’s first true editor, writer-artist Joe Simon, teamed with emerging industry’s notable artist Jack Kirby to create one of the first patriotically themed superhero, Captain America, in Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). It, too, proved a hit, with sales of nearly one million. Goodman formed Timely Comics, Inc., beginning with comics cover-dated April 1941 or Spring 1941.

While no other Timely character would achieve the success of these three characters, some notable heroes—many of which continue to appear in modern-day retcon appearances and flashbacks—include the Whizzer, Miss America, the Destroyer, the original Vision, and the Angel. Timely also published one of humor cartoonist Basil Wolverton’s best-known features, “Powerhouse Pepper”, as well as a line of children’s funny-animal comics featuring popular characters like Super Rabbit and the duo Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal.

Goodman hired his wife’s cousin,  Stanley Lieber, as a general office assistant in 1939.  When editor Simon left the company in late 1941,  Goodman made Lieber—by then writing pseudonymously as “Stan Lee”—interim editor of the comics line, a position Lee kept for decades except for three years during his military service in World War II. Lee wrote extensively for Timely, contributing to a number of different titles.

Goodman’s business strategy involved having his various magazines and comic books published by a number of corporations all operating out of the same office and with the same staff.  One of these shell companies through which Timely Comics was published was named Marvel Comics by at least Marvel Mystery Comics #55 (May 1944). As well, some comics’ covers, such as All Surprise Comics #12 (Winter 1946–47), were labeled “A Marvel Magazine” many years before Goodman would formally adopt the name in 1961. 

For nearly eight decades Marvel comics have survived despite financial turbulence, been at the cutting edge of testing new publishing models, experimented in mediums and continued telling stories with superheros that have gripped the imaginations of young and old alike. With the booming popularity of films many of the superheroes came alive on the screen — Iron Man, Superman, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Wolverine, Captain America, and Hulk to name a few.  On August 31, 2009, The Walt Disney Company announced a deal to acquire Marvel Comics’ parent corporation, Marvel Entertainment, for $4 billion. As of the start of September 2015, films based on Marvel’s properties represent the highest-grossing U.S. franchise, having grossed over $7.7 billion  as part of a worldwide gross of over $18 billion.

Marvel books published by Scholastic, Summer 2017

The last decade has seen the explosion of digital and print mediums and recently of the two experiences coming together. It helps in creating an immersion which is absolute for die-hard fans of the Marvel superheroes. Scholastic, a publishing firm specialising in children’s literature predating the formation of Marvel Comics, has been over the years releasing a range of print products to meet this demand. Take for instance the recently released film Guardians of the Galaxy 2  ( April 2017) where popular actors have done voiceovers for the characters. ( Vin Diesel is the voice for Baby Groot!) Scholastic to coincide with the film published a range of books around the Guardians of Galaxy characters. These include “the movie storybook”, a novel “inspired by the film”, colouring and activity book and a sticker activity book. What is absolutely incredible is how smoothly the publicity team has created a range of successful publishing collateral targetting different age groups of readers. Children are immediately drawn to the books and are kept happily entertained for hours. Along with this a revised hardback edition of Marvel Super Hero Encyclopedia was released. Even though it is priced slightly on the higher side for the local Indian market it has proved to be a bestseller, notching up healthy sales. ( This, despite parents and schools, advising children not to buy such “useless” books!) What is a particularly charming aspect of these stories is that though the super heros are gender-defined and their physical forms are some illustrator’s fantasy of the ideal body shape, the characters appeal is gender neutral. Thankfully, irrespective of the gender of the reader, all children ( and adults) gravitate towards the books. Here is a link posted on Facebook by Seale Ballenger, Publicity Director, Disney Publishing Worldwide ( 29 June 2014) of the legendary Stan Lee speaking about the importance of writing stories for younger readers:

Stan Lee talking about the importance of writing for young readers at ALA 2014

Posted by Seale Ballenger on Saturday, June 28, 2014

Frankly the fascination of these Marvel books is obvious and worth recommending. They keep children happily engaged and away from electronic babysitting while opening up an imaginative world away from their daily routines. It is like going down a worm hole on an adventure with bizarre characters.

27 June 2017 

A fistful of journalism: An interview with Deca collective

Deca( I interviewed some members of  the DECA collective. Founder-member, Sonia Faleiro facilitated the conversation via email. This was uploaded on the Hindu website on 11 April 2015 at: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/a-fistful-of-journalism/article7088990.ece and a shorter version of it in print on 12 April 2015. I am also c&p the text below.) 

The members of Deca, a global journalism cooperative, share the reason for sharing it, and the future of web publishing. 

Deca is a global journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices ( www.decastories.com and @decastories). It takes its cue from Magnum Photos, a member-owned cooperative that changed the rules of photojournalism in the 1950s. Magnum’s founders, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, took advantage of the technological shifts of the time — portable 35mm cameras and fast, cheap film processing —to strike out on their own, covering the stories they felt were most important. With journalism entering an era of dramatic change with tablets and smartphones replacing print books and newspapers, established journalists can now bring their stories directly to readers. These shifts — and agencies like Magnum — are Deca’s inspiration.

Deca’s members have authored acclaimed books and articles in magazines like Harper’sThe Atlantic,The New YorkerTimeScienceRolling StoneGQNational GeographicOutsideBloomberg Businessweek, and The New York Times Magazine. The members — who are based in Rome, London, Shanghai, Barcelona, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Seattle, Washington DC, UAE, Lebanon, and South Africa — include winners and finalists of prestigious awards like Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, PEN Literary Award, Livingston Award, Whiting Writers’ Award, and Los Angeles Book Prize. Since Deca’s launch in mid-2014, five stories have been published. Sonia Faleiro’s 13 Men was No. 1 on Amazon India and was selected as a ‘Kindle Select 25’ (one of 25 best books in the Amazon Kindle storefront across all markets).

Once a month, Deca publishes a non-fiction story about the world, somewhere between a long article and a short book. Each piece is written by one member, edited by another, and approved by the rest. The eight founding members are Sonia Faleiro, Stephan Faris, McKenzie Funk, Vanessa M. Gezari, Marc Herman, Mara Hvistendahl, Delphine Schrank, and Tom Zoellner. Recently, Elizabeth Dickinson, Rania Abouzeid, and Richard Poplak became members too. In a freewheeling interview, Deca’s members talk about why they started Deca and the future of publishing on the web. Excerpts:

What prompted the creation of Deca?

Our inspiration — and proposed response to any coming changes — are one and the same. New technologies may be gutting the market for print journalism but they have a silver-ish lining: If journalists want to write directly for their readers, it’s now cheap and easy to pull off. No longer do the two sides need a magazine in order to find one another. Note that we also found inspiration in newer photo cooperatives like Noor and VII, which came about after a more recent sea change in photography: digital cameras. We wanted to tell the important stories of our times, to do so in detail, and for as wide a readership as possible. But we also wanted to maintain the standards we’ve become used to working for great traditional media. We wanted to be sure we’d be well edited, copy edited, and beautifully published. Deca does all of this along with providing us the support and security of working with a group of similarly idealistic but also very hard-working people.

Once you publish the long-form stories, what next?

Photo cooperatives have long functioned as a way to keep archival photos by its members from disappearing in the dust bin. It’s likewise possible that Deca could package and put out anthologies of its members’ work — stories sitting in our individual archives that are newly relevant today.

What are the rules that you foresee changing of making content available on smartphones?

A shocking proportion of people now read their news and books on their smartphones. It helps that screens keep on getting bigger, which is true of Amazon’s phone as well as the new iPhone, apparently. Stories can now live independently of their publications.

How will crowdsourcing work for this collective?

Kickstarter’s been a smashing success so far. But it will go on in some fashion via our website and a campaign on the new crowdsourcing platform Tugboat. Many publications are now using a slow-drip version of the NPR model: “If you like us, please support us.”

How will the collective work add new authors?

New authors will be added subject to a unanimous vote. We’re obviously looking to work with great writers. But we are a co-op so we also want to be sure that whoever we bring on board understands that this is about shared effort, responsibility, wins and losses. They must also be pretty easy to work with.

What is the selection process?

We publish only members’ work and have no plans to do otherwise. We do have plans to eventually translate members’ stories to other languages, however.

Will you develop this into a subscription model or will it remain as an offering of digital singles on KDP?

Yes. Subscribers are signing up now via Kickstarter. Our app is up and running and so is our subscription service. So basically we now sell singles on Amazon. We sell singles and subs through our app that people can download to their smartphones or digital devices. Readers can subscribe to Deca for $14.99, which buys them 10 stories (http://www.decastories.com/store/subscribe/). Readers can also buy singles from our website to read online (http://www.decastories.com/13men/)

Why did you opt for a Digital Restrictions Management (DRM model) when models such as Creative Commons are becoming popular?

Perhaps mainly because we’re a bunch of writers, not techies or business people, and funding our work via the DRM is the model we could most easily wrap our heads around. Creative Commons is great, but we’ve yet to understand how, if readers don’t pay, we can’t fund reporting trips, let alone pay ourselves. So we’ve started with a pay-to-read model and are crossing our fingers. The money for research has to come from somewhere. Readers supporting journalists directly — outside the framework of a magazine or a large media organisation — is also a trend. Even so, our subscription for a full year costs about the same as a single night out at the movies, and directly expresses your support for the continued existence of this kind of journalism.

Will you ever consider anthologising these e-singles in print? (Guernica announced in summer of 2014 it will be publishing an annual print-anthology.)

Absolutely considering. We’re still fond of print, even if we’re enabled by digital. And there may already be cases when you see Deca’s work in print: When new Deca stories come out, we aim to partner with magazines and publish excerpts therein. In fact, Of Ice and Men was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. They published a whopping 9k word excerpt.

12 April 2015
The Economics Of Electronic Content: If the e-content falters or is under-par, it will not translate into a sustainable business model

The Economics Of Electronic Content: If the e-content falters or is under-par, it will not translate into a sustainable business model


( “PubSpeak” My column on publishing in BusinessWorld online. 22 March 2013)

few weeks ago educational researcher and professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK, Dr Sugata Mitra won the $1 million TED grant for his ‘Hole-In-The-Wall’ project. It basically promotes the concept of school in the cloud (web) relying on the premise that in the absence of supervision or formal teaching students will discover good content, share, discuss and teach others too. It is based on his experiments conducted in 1999 at Kalkaji, an urban slum in New Delhi. Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering the slum, installed an internet-connected PC, and left it there (with a hidden camera filming the area). What they saw was kids from the slum playing around with the computer and in the process learning how to use it and how to go online, and then teaching each other. Such is the nature of technology that children relatively unexposed to the internet and computers were able to operate and learn to work with the technology.

The outcome of the experiment points towards one direction – the need for availability of reliable and relevant content. The importance and demand of good and reliable content in education is evident in the alacrity with which SmartClasses were adopted in India. The vendors, who were keen to sell computer hardware and claim they have “content for KG till 12 Std”, had a strong USP -– make the information electronically available would help their students in learning. According to a proposal letter from a Delhi-based vendor says they offer to set up SmartClasses and a Knowledge Centre and they have done so in over 10,000 schools across India. Recently there has been some information circulating that this large firm responsible for introducing smart classes is floundering since the veracity and quality of the content it offers is questionable. Schools are getting out of these alliances after 2-3 years of getting into the partnerships.

The ‘E’ Landscape
Sure, the market for e-content is growing. However, to get a definite figure for the size of the edu-content market is difficult. Perhaps these numbers and facts will help us imagine the landscape and possibilities in the ‘E’ economics. The literacy rate for the Indian population is 74.02 per cent (2011), up by 9 per cent from the previous decade. Of this 40 per cent of the population is below the age of 30, where 200 million children are under the age of 18 and 69 million of them reside in urban areas. The book market is estimated to be between Rs 10,000-12,000 crore in value with over 18,000 publishers doing business in the country. and you will perhaps even plan on setting up shop for e-content. Moreover, the publishing industry is growing at a rate of 30 per cent as per recent Ficci estimates.

Now, let’s go over the statistics on the electronic part of the content. The O’Reilly Global eBook Market’s (Feb 2013) says the ebook market in India is expected to be less than 1 per cent of the total book market, though this too is expected to grow by 20-25 per cent in the next 2-3 years.

Almost all of the online educational content and digital books are currently in English. According to PrintWeek India “In the last five years, digital printing industry has grown by approximately 21.6 per cent and over the next five years it is expected to expand by 23.6 per cent. There is a growth of 73 per cent in textbook printing in the last five years in India.”

The government of India is leading several initiatives to promote digital literacy and provide access to digital content at school and college levels. National-level missions such as the Rs 4612 crore ($859 million) National Mission on Education through ICT (NME-ICT) have been introduced. The NME-ICT is working in collaboration with other related missions and schemes—National Knowledge Network, Scheme of ICT in Schools, National Translation Mission, and the Vocational Education Mission. The idea behind the initiative, according to a report published in The Hindu (7 January 2009,http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/001200901021501.htm), is to work towards creating personalised and interactive knowledge module for students.

India’s education sector, moreover, is set to increase to Rs 602,410 crore ($109.84 billion) by FY15 due to the expected strong demand for quality education going by a recent report issued by India Ratings, a Fitch Group Company. Indian education sector’s market size in FY12 is estimated to be Rs 341,180 crore and the market for content forms a key chunk of this pie. The sector grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 16.5 per cent during FY05-FY12. The higher education (HE) segment was at 34.04 per cent ($17.02billion) of the total size in FY10 and grew by a CAGR of 18.13 per cent during FY04-FY10.

The Fitch report also said that it has a stable outlook on the Indian education sector which includes both school and higher education. Hence it is not surprising that content service providers and publishers future strategies are based on how to capitalise this sector. For instance, in Jan 2013 it was announced that HarperCollins India would be launching a new educational division in India. Collins India in a press note said the English-language schools textbook market in India currently stood at more that £150m, more than the market size in the UK, and is expected to grow further. Similarly Wiley India launched its Authorship Development Roadshow to get quality content in Bangalore and Chennai.

Now link all this to the demand from thousands of schools for e-content in India, and perhaps you will immediately think of registering a company and learning the ropes of the business to supply content. And competition already exists in the form of the education sector (K-12, higher education and academic) who were the early adopters of e-learning and e-content have company — the trade publishers too have joined the ‘E’ game.

But it’s not just competition that could prove a bugbear to your prospective firm. The vendor should find out if the content he is providing to schools is legitimate and importantly if it is suitable to the recipients.

With the tablet and smartphones boom in India, convergence is inevitable. However offering good content then becomes a prerequisite. As Thomas Abraham, managing director with Gurgaon-based Hachette India says, “Where trade (non academic books, literary fiction, self help, mind, body and spirit lists) books are concerned, 90 per cent of revenues come from the straight text flows of narrative fiction or non-fiction — the printed page moving on to the screen.”

Content Is Still King
One of the five publishing predictions for 2013 made at international publishing conferences at the start of the year is reiteration of the fact that content will be king. This is the future of publishing. If content falters or is under-par, it will not translate into a sustainable business model. It does not matter if the service provider is a trade publisher for fiction and non-fiction books or an education publisher for creating textbooks, everyone has to focus on creating good, reliable and authentic content.

Today there are slight shifts noticed in the nomenclature being used to offer content. Well-established publishing firms whose focus is education prefer to no longer be identified as publishers instead as educational service providers. Others will prefer to use terms like “content management” and “curriculum development”. Trade publishers, whose prime focus in their children’s list is to create fiction and non-fiction, recognising the need for offering reliable and branded content in educational institutions are now expanding their lists to include grammar books, elocution speeches and quiz books written by “branded” names or those who are willing to lend names. Everyone recognises the market and its potential, so it does make strategic sense to tweak existing lists and offer it in any format: print, digital or audio. Or as was said at the ‘If Book Then’ conference, Milan (19 March 2013) “data is the new oil of xxi century”.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist