Influencing may soon be the internet’s most-saturated hustle, but it is one that on closer inspection looks like a giant pyramid scheme. Its real beneficiaries — the companies and shareholders reaping the highest rewards — are hidden by those desperate to take centre stage.
Journalist Symeon Brown’s Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy ( Atlantic Books) is an investigation into why and how do ordinary people, especially the young, use social media to improve their status. In principle, there is nothing wrong in anyone having ambition, but what really bothers him is the degrees to which people will go in order to look positive, beautiful and portray a lifestyle and a body image that is couldn’t be further from the truth. What is it that prompts peope to do this? What is this bug about getting rich quick? Why hustle in this manner? Are they not afraid? Do they not have a perspective on their lives? Or how in the process of attaining these goals, they are dragging their family and friends down too? One of the most disturbing statistics that Brown shares is that 1 in 5 children want to become a social media influencer when they are older. They have not a clue what lies in store for them but that is what they aspire to. These ambitions are fuelled by such news reports as The Forbes listing of the highest paid You-Tubers such as MrBeast, Jake Paul and Markiplier who earned millions. ( “The Highest-Paid YouTube Stars: MrBeast, Jake Paul And Markiplier Score Massive Paydays“, Forbes, 14 Jan 2022). The mistake many youngsters who idolise these social media gurus is that MrBeast, Jake Paul and Markiplier have teams working for them. They are not one-man/woman shows. There is a lot of effort and slick production that happens behind the scenes.
Brown’s terrifying and at times sad book documents these dreams that ordinary youngsters chase. How many times these efforts are horribly ruined. Sometimes the individuals are staring at financial ruin or have harmed themselves through cosmetic surgery in order to look as good as everyone else wants them to be. Yet, extraordinarily, many of the people Brown interviews refuse to give up hustling. They persist. What is astonishing is that they do it at the cost of telling lies such as white influencers passing off as blacks. There is a term for this — blackfishing. There are women who mistakenly perceive the choices they make to use apps to show parts of their body, sometimes bordering on soft porn, as being an empowering move; little realising that if she had some perspective on herself, she would see that she has fallen into the age-old trap of being objectified. Using technology or a snazzy app does not in any way mitigate the fact that it is what it is at the end of the day, a form of sex work. There are many more examples that Brown shares such as of youngsters hustling merchandise by setting up fake websites with authentic digital payment portals. Once they have collected sufficient cash, they close operations and move on.
The sleaze, the aggressive aspirations, and the anxiety with which many individuals live is a trait across socio-economic classes. This has been exacerbated by the coronavirus epidemic and compounded by job insecurity. It was brilliantly documented by Barrett Swanson in Harper’s magazine, “The Anxiety of Influencers: Educating the TikTok generation” ( June 2021). Brown tries to uncover many such stories but more importantly makes the ugly connections that exist between the tech behemoths and ordinary users. It is an entangled web of deceit and suffering for the individuals trying to be influencers while the shareholders and owners of the tech companies, the capitalists, mint money because of the increased advertising revenue that comes with a spike in engagement amongst users. The depressing fact is that these rapid transformations in society and social behaviour are so recent that it is impossible to tell what the future holds. Earlier it took at least one generation or approximately twenty-five years for a change to be brought about in society but with the techonological advancements, these changes are taking place in less than a decade. It is an alarming thought.
Read Get Rich or Lie Trying but more importantly, find a way to get the youngesters to read it. They should. It is a wake-up call to stop being mesmerised by click baits, financial mirages etc. Bills in the real world can only be paid by hard cash that is earned regularly and not through online hustling.
On 24 March 2020 invoking the Disaster Management Act (2005) the first phase of the lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. “Disaster Management” is considered to be a part of the Concurrent List under “social security and social insurance”. With the announcement all but the most essential economic activity halted nationwide. Only 4 hours’ notice was provided, insufficient time to plan operations.
Demand and supply existed but all cash cycles dried up — because bookstores were not operating. Brick-and-mortar stores had to close while online platforms focused on delivering only essential goods and books were not on the list. Priyanka Malhotra says “When Full Circle reopened in mid-May, there was a great demand for books. Mid-June, supply lines are still fragile, so getting more books regularly is uncertain. Well-stocked warehouses are outside city limits and are finding it difficult to service book orders to bookstores. We are mostly relying on existing stocks.”
In future, the #WFH culture will remain particularly for editors, curation of lists, smaller print runs, the significance of newsletters will increase, exploring subscription models for funding publishers in the absence of government subsidies and establishment of an exclusive online book retailing platform such as bookshop.org. Introducing paywalls for book events as the lockdown has proven customers are willing to pay for good content. Distributors and retailers will take less stock on consignment. Cost cutting measures will include slashing travel as a phone call is equally productive, advances to authors will fall, streamlining of operations with leaner teams especially sales teams as focused digital marketing is effective, With the redefining of schools and universities due to strict codes of physical distancing and cancellation of book fairs, publishers will have to explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content.
In such a scenario the importance of libraries will grow urgently. Libraries benefit local communities at an affordable price point. They are accessed by readers of all ages, abilities and socio-economic classes for independent scholarship, research and intellectual stimulation. The nation too benefits with a literate population ensuring skilled labour and a valuable contribution to the economy. By focusing upon libraries as the nodal centre of development in rehabilitation and reconstruction of a nation especially in the wake of a disaster, the government helps provide “social security and social insurance”. Libraries can be equipped without straining the limited resources available for reconstruction of a fragile society by all stakeholders collaborating. As a disaster management expert said to me, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
After a disaster, the society is fragile. It has limited resources available for rehabilitation and reconstruction. To emerge from this pandemic in working condition, it would advisable for publishers to use resources prudently. It is a brave new world. It calls for new ways of thinking.
Given this context, the Economic Times, Sunday Edition published the business feature I wrote on the effect of the pandemic on the publishing sector in India. Here is the original link on the Economic Times website.
As the first phase of the sudden lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 24, the timing was particularly unfortunate for the books publishing industry. End-March is a critical time in the book publishing industry.
End-March is a critical time in the book year cycle. It is when accounts are settled between distributors, retailers and publishers, enabling businesses to commence the new financial year with requisite cash equity. Institutional and library sales are fulfilled. The demand for school textbooks is at its peak. But with the lockdown, there was a severe disruption in the production cycle — printing presses, paper mills, warehouses and bookshops stopped functioning. Nor were there online sales as books are not defined as essential commodities.
“Publishing in India is estimated to be worth $8 billion in annual revenues,” says Vikrant Mathur, director, Nielsen India. “Trade publishing has seen four months of near-zero sales which straightaway knocks one’s revenues off by at least 25-30%,” says Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India.
Profit protection became key. Firms either reduced salaries or laid off employees, and unaffordable rentals forced closures of offices and bookshops. Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, says, “After three months of almost zero print sales, and low ebook sales, we decided to move out of our office space.”
In mid-May, bookshops and online portals resumed selling books. Bookstores delivered parcels using India Post, Zomato, and Swiggy. Sales of children’s books exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 30% more than pre-Covid sales. Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India, says, “The ecosystem of children’s books and content comprises mainly of parents, educators and children. While print is traditionally preferred, it has to be recognised that content of any sort has to be format-agnostic. Whether it’s digital solutions for parents and children, helping educators through professional development or providing curated, age-appropriate books for children, being agile and nimble is key.”
Publishers announced curated digital content for schools engaged in remote learning. Scholastic Learn at Home, Collins Digital Home Learning, DK’s Stay Home Hub and StoryWeaver’s Readalong** were among such initiatives. Paywalls were introduced for creative writing workshops and were fully subscribed. Academic publishers noted an increase in inquiries from universities regarding bundle subscriptions.
To remain relevant with readers, there was an explosion of hashtags and promotions on the internet: #ReadInstead, #BraveNewWorld, #Reset, #MacmillanReadingSpace, #PenguinPicks, #KaroNaCharcha and #MissedCallDoKahaaniSuno. Book launches and lit fests went digital, with viewers across time zones. Brands like JLF ( Jaipur Literature Festival) got a viewership of over 700,000 worldwide*, while Rajpal & Sons got a viewership of over 300,000 — both hosted an equal number of events (50+) in the same time frame.
According to Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, “India’s reading consumption patterns during the lockdown consisted of ‘bucket list reads’ of classics, voluminous works and series fiction; self-help and mind-body-spirit lists.” Publishers launched frontlists (new and current titles) as ebooks , deeming that preferable to tying up cash in inventory. Interesting experiments by editors have involved crowd-sourcing new ebooks, usually kickstarted with an opening by a literary star. Vikas Rakheja, MD, Manjul Publishing, says, “We have seen a 300-400% growth in sales of our ebooks in April-June, over the same period last year, in both English and Indian regional languages, on Amazon Kindle and other online sales portals.”
Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says their titles saw greater time spent on ebooks during the lockdown. Audiobooks also sold. Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, Storytel India, says, “Globally there was doubling of intake. In India, it accelerated exposure to audiobooks.”
But India is firmly a print book market. So it will take some time for patterns to change. Kapil Kapoor, MD of Roli Books and owner of CMYK bookstore in Delhi, says, “In Unlock 1, we have not yet seen a significant spike in the demand for books. For now, sales figures hover around 40–50% of pre-Covid-19 days, largely driven by online sales — an accurate reflection of consumer preference of wanting home delivery and not venturing out to markets due to a fear factor, which is understandable.” A concern is book piracy will increase in direct proportion to economic stress in households.
As for lasting trends, work from home culture will continue, particularly for editors. Experimentation with curated lists, smaller print runs and subscription models will be seen. Some publishing firms, imprints, bookstores, retailers and distributors may go out of business. Increasingly, finance and legal will join sales departments to ensure “correct” decisions are made. Cost-cutting measures may include slashing travel, relying more on digital tools for efficiency, such as negotiating book rights online, employing leaner sales teams and expanding business horizons beyond the Anglo-American book market, without travelling. New platforms capitalising on professional expertise and fostering creative synergies have emerged on social media, like Publishers’ Exchange, an initiative by language publishers across India, Mother Tongue Twisters, Roli Pulse, Independent Bookshops Association of India and Publishers Without Borders. With the redefining of schools and universities, publishers will explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content. Could book events go behind a paywall? Perhaps libraries will regain significance?
As the industry negotiates this disruption, it’s clear that it will take a lot of ingenuity to emerge largely unscathed on the other side. Everyone is hoping for a happy ending to this particular saga.
* At the time of writing the article, this figure of 700,000+ held true for JLF. But on the day of publication of the article, the number has far exceeded one million.
** Storyweaver’s Readalong are multilingual audio-visual storybooks.
Alice’s rabbit hole began when she entered her father’s library and picked up one of the books she was forbidden to read. In it, the words were flavoured with anger and terror and beauty and everything she hadn’t tasted yet in her young life. People revolting, war, famine, anger at the aristocracy, compassionate philosophers writing famous ideas and wild theories.
Wonderland emerged when Alice found her love for reading, and even better, acting on what she read. …
She scorned the idea that young ladies of that time should not do what she did. Make change and make waves and create a world more equal for everyone that lives in it. She was more concerned about making a change and in every little way she could find, she would.
Wild Embers, pp. 68-69
Nikita Gill is a British-Indian writer and poet living in the south of England. With a huge online following, her words have entranced hearts and minds all over the world. Wild Embers (2017) was her first book. I discovered the hugely popular Instapoet poetry in print, not on social media. It were the print editions that caught my attention primarily because her book publicists sent the beautifully designed editions of Wild Embers and Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul. Strong poetry that is a pleasure to read for its sharply articulated ideas and representation of strong, independent, and thinking women characters especially in the retelling of the age-old fairytales. In fact Fierce Fairytales was whisked away by my young daughter as her own! I was a little surprised at her action as I was not sure how much of the poetry she would understand. Yet she surprised me pleasantly by getting the gist of the stories. She may not have got the layered meaning but she got the gist. It speaks volumes of Nikita Gill’s skill as a poet to be able to connect across generations. Unsurprisingly she has a legion of followers on social media: Facebook (109k), Instagram ( 478K), Twitter ( 26.6K) and Tumblr
Hachette India helped faciliate this email interview.
1. How and why did you decide to become a poet?
When I was 13 years old, I was introduced to the work of Robert Frost through English class. There was something incredible in capturing such a wide span of emotion inside a single poem that rattled my soul and I felt a deep connection with it. Soon after, my nani (maternal grandmother) gave me my very own copy of Sukhmani Sahib and the hymns and verses there made me realise how poetry and prayer were not dissimilar, each one crafted from air to create something beautiful in and of itself. This was what made me fall in love with and want to write poetry.
2. How long does it take you to write a poem?
Genuinely speaking I am never done writing my poems. I think it was Da Vinci who said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”, and I resonate with that deeply. I frequent my old journals often, and rewrite pieces that I wrote years ago. I have a fondness for visiting an old thought with a fresh mind and a newer heart. I edit my manuscripts over and over again until I have to give them up. On a good day, a first draft will take about 6 hours, and rewrites take longer.
3. You are a huge success on social media. You are one of the few Instapoets who is known worldwide with a celebrity following too. But traditionally publishers are hesitant to publish poetry for the book gets easily read in a store or can be easily copied. How do you manage your poetry posts online from being plagiarized or shared without acknowledgement?
There are battles you can fight and battles you can’t. Plagiarism is a difficult thing to battle when your intellectual property is out on the internet. People get inspired by things, when we are finding our voices, our work tends to be clichéd. The easiest way for me is to write new things which I’m not seeing done around me right now. Fairytales verse retellings, writing about my very specific experiences with Partition and being Kashmiri and Punjabi, and my love for the night sky. The point is to keep reinventing yourself and keeping your head above the water. It’s also the only way to become a better creator.
4. Your primary audience are on social media. Do you find writing poetry for publication on paper is any way different to putting out posts in cyberspace? How does it affect your style of poetry? Would you say that writing for an online audience is predominantly performance poetry but it’s tone has to change for consumption in print? Do you edit the poems before the print publication or do you publish the poems as was first put out on social media?
It’s interesting because I always thought my primary audience was on social media. But my sales figures show an even split between bookstores and internet sales. Social media is also a very different realm than to paper. You’re fostering a community there. Thoughts, ideas, friendships – also there is close interaction with your audience which you don’t get with a book. I have always said that the community in the comments section is the most magnetic thing about posting your work, unfiltered, online. I wouldn’t call it performance simply because performance poetry is such a beautiful craft in and of itself (the poets on Button who are powerhouses for instance). I would call it “confessionalist bite-sized poetry” which exists to cause a reaction, a thought, a feeling. When I write for a book, the work is edited and reedited many times before I am happy with the story it tells, whereas on the digital platform, I predominantly share excerpts or aphorisms.
5. Do you find that interacting regularly with your readers on social media influences your poetry as well as selection of themes?
I think I have a huge responsibility towards my readers to ensure my platform remains a safe space for them to share their experiences. My first allegiance is to marginalized people and survivors of trauma and I ensure posts contain trigger warnings. I don’t let it affect my work for the simple reason that the people who follow me only follow me because they enjoy the work I already put out. I need to be true to myself to be true to them. I don’t post at any particular time of the day or daily. Just when I have a fleeting thought to put something up or create something. It’s all so much more organic that way.
6. Who are the poets who have influenced you the most?
I have a fascination for the works of Emily Dickson, Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Pritam, Walt Whitman, Anne Carson, Emily Berry – this list is non exhaustive. I think the more older poetry we read, the better we learn how to truly see that poetry is a very vast subject and means very different things for different people.
7. What are the forms of poetry you prefer to read and write in?
I like to read every form of poetry – there are so many genres to enjoy and such a rich world of poets to discover. Recently, I’ve been experimenting more and more with lyric poetry and moving away from free verse which has been my form for so long. Lyric poetry is far more based on regular meter and it’s teaching me a lot to try and learn how to write it.
8. Your poems seem to be in free verse with a “fludity” about the stories. Do you “work” at this craft or does it evolve on its own when you are writing?
It does evolve on its own. I have to often stop myself from rhyming but the poem does exactly what it wants to do without permission from me. I’ve found that it is best not to fight it, fighting it leads to writers block. So I just go with it instead. And then edit like I am own worst critic (because truly, I am. I don’t know anyone who has ever sworn or yelled at me as much as my inner critic has.).
9. Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was very clear that his poetry was meant to be meditative and it is the reason why he developed the inscape technique. It forces the reader to engage with the poems. Whereas your poetry is far easier to read but the ideas of love, feminism and independent women that you share are powerful. Do you, like Hopkins, wish for something equally transformative wrought in the reader after engaging with your poetry?
Absolutely, but I do think that will take time. I am still young in my writing journey and discovering my voice. To be truly transformative is to not only find your voice but have complete of command over it. Whilst I have discovered what I want to say, what messages I want to put out, I feel like I am just at the very beginning of honing my craft. I feel like language shouldn’t be something that is overly difficult to read, but it should make the reader feel changed when they have read a thought a certain way.
10. How did wonderfully sharp and witty Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir your Soul come about?
I think Fierce Fairytales was something I was always meant to write. The idea within the book all germinates from a single thought: the incredible magic we seek in our environments, in other people, is already within us, and we must seek it out. This idea has been within all my books but with Fierce Fairytales I got to explore it, and tell the stories of the villains who I genuinely believe have so much more to say than just “we are evil people doing evil things”. I enjoyed writing this book thoroughly, so much so that it has been the seeds for multiple new projects which are presently in development.
Kim Jong-un had called Trump a dotard, perhaps they’d all be blown to smithereens. Still, ants at least would proceed, building up their infinite cities, stealing honey from the cupboards. She held on to her bag. She waited for her flight. She loved him, she loved him. Love is the world, pain is the world. She was in it now, she was boarding, there was nowhere to hide.
Olivia Lang’s debut novel Crudois about Kathy, a writer, and her impending marriage — the bare storyline. While reflecting on her personal life undergoing a massive transformation. She, who is in her early forties, successful writer and teacher who is at ease in Britain and USA, soon-to-be-married, third wife of her future husband, ponders over what it would be like to share spaces with a husband. While reflecting upon the changes in her life she inevitably begins to look at the socio-political landscape. She cogitates about Brexit. She wonders about the consequences of electing Trump as President of USA and few months into his presidency has been a series of catastrophes. She often remarks upon the acrimonious relationship between the presidents of USA and North Korea. She escapes to social media (” stalking the internet”) often but its a noisy universe.
People weren’t sane anymore, which didn’t mean they were wrong. Some sort of cord between action and consequence had been severed. Things still happened, but not in any sensible order, it was hard to talk about truth because some bits were hidden, the result or maybe the cause, and anyway the space between them was full of misleading data, nonsense and lies. It was very dizzying, you wasted a lot of time figuring it out. Had decisions really once led plainly to things happening, in a way you could report on? She remembered it but distantly. A lot had changed this year. The people who opposed it were often annoying but that didn’t make them wrong.
Kim Jong-un and Trump, Singapore, 12 June 2018
Olivia Lang captures exquisitely the loneliness of a person in a rapidly evolving world which engulfs an individual 24×7 in a cacophony of images, words and experiences particularly if they are hooked to social media. Olivia Lang’s character Kathy seems to be an amalgamation of all the lonely individuals Lang describes in her non-fiction bestseller The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. It is as if Lang wishes to explore further how an individual who seems to be successful in all senses of the word — professionally, socially and economically — how do they actually exist? The Lonely City is a collection of essays reflecting upon the decadence of humans on technology particularly noticeable in cities. And yet, ironically, while there is this veneer of being super connected, socially active and part of a thriving community there are many who are terribly lonely in the city. In some cases this solitude is by choice. Olivia Lang is curious and understanding about this individuals while being inquisitive too and this inquisitiveness she hopes will be fulfilled to some degree by her character Kathy in Crudo who is an epitome of all the lonely souls of The Lonely City. The political commentary that is as fascinating to her as the changes in her personal space makes her a sharp and perceptive observer, a trait many quietly reserved souls exhibit. Towards the conclusion it is hard to discern the difference between Kathy the character and Olivia Lang the writer, they seem to become one:
Writing, she can be anyone. On the page that I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly.
Concealed behind the thin guise of fiction, it is perhaps “easier” to express fear about the increasing political instability in global politics, its ramifications on the individual, and yet “she was in it now, …, there was nowhere to hide.” Take for instance the conversation about Kim Jong-Un and Trump, Kathy/Olivia are fearful of what the stubborness of the two leaders may result in and yet who was to know that weeks before the publication of Crudo* ( 28 June 2018) the two leaders would actually meet in a historic summit held in Singapore on 12 June 2018.
Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction lives off reality. Politics and literature have always been and always will be inextricably linked. Crudo is a stunning testament to the fact.
Olivia Lang Crudo Picador, Macmillan, London, 2018. Hb. pp. 156
12 June 2018
*I read an advance review copy ( ARC). While this blog post was composed and written on 12 June 2018 as mentioned it was not made public till after the release date of the book of 28 June 2018.
** All images are off the internet. I do not own the copyright. If you do please let me know and I will update the blog with the correct information.
The most successful organizations see the entire map of functional links to understand the context within which each decision is made. They don’t look elsewhere for answers, but find their own. This is a fundamental principle of strategy. Strategic success doesn’t just benefit from being different from others. It requires it. If you aren’t different in business, you’ll die.
The Content Trap by Bharat Anand
For a while now it has been said that content is the oil of twenty-first century. Many are under the ( false) assumption that being visible on various social media platforms will make their businesses/initiatives flourish. Well it is not true. Many assume ( again false) that strategising and using digital tools is easily achieved whereas it is equally if not tougher than working in the real world. The Internet gives the false impression that because it is digital, work is invisibilised and there is little tangible result. The truth is the parallel world which exists in cyberspace is a complicated and intricate web of connections. Even after making allowances for the existence of bots and other automated tools on the web the fact is a legitimate user is easily profiled and they are rapidly perceived as influencers.
Recently published books by Bharat Anand’s The Content Trap, Venkat Venkatraman’s The Digital Matrix , Lindsay Herbert’s Digital Transformation and a slightly older but seminal theory, “Online Gravity“, proposed by Paul X. McCarthy ( 2015) in his book of the same name are powerful for the way in which they understand and lay bare the “rules” governing online digital strategies.
First and foremost fact that comes through in analysis of the digital space is that it is constantly evolving. Having said that the digital medium can be a powerful tool to use, to amplify one’s work/business, if done methodically and strategically. Blasting information out into cyberspace is ineffective. The idea is to remain original and fresh in one’s approach at making information available and by extension the business one is engaged in while retaining a distinct identity and being aware of the diffrentiation factor between you and your competititors. It is imperative to have a network of connections that inevitably help in disseminating information further. At the same time be clear that you know your business thoroughly, the economics that govern it and who is your target audience/customer. It is only then that the digital space will benefit you. All the while remembering that it is still a hybrid market which means there are fixed costs that need to be taken into account; so it would be wise to know your customer. Otherwise wading into cyberspace, offloading content about your work, assuming it will transform one’s business will be nothing short of a trap.
Despite the existence of these conveniences, digital tools remain just that — tools! Unless you curate your content regularly; adopt new strategies, adapt them for your requirement and help transform your business; always remember that the real and digital worlds co-exist parallelly but also to a large degree mirror each other. The human brain discerns plenty even though we may not like to give it its due credit. So despite all its sophistication the digital world is an ecosystem where users exhibit a herd mentality by trusting influencers and amplifying the content by disseminating the information through their networks. The digital matrix mantra is : Product + service +platform + solution. The seven laws of online gravity reiterate this while stressing the significance of it being “naturally global”, applicable to “intangible goods” whilst embracing the “big winners” and analysing “data”.
The assumption that digital is disruptive happens while discussing examples such as collapse of Blockbuster by Netflix and its recommendation algorithms, the launch of Amazon’s Kindle and ebook pricing in USA, the success of musical streaming subscription service – Spotify and turnaround of the fortunes of print-media firm Schibsted,Oslo. The truth is the two parallel universes of reality and digital are not mutually exclusive instead are in a symbiotic relationship. Hence it is crucial to collaborate / develop partnerships / expand and strengthen networks digitally and in real life too as this helps in overcoming the proficiency gap that may occur in businesses which are trying to scale up or innovate.
Mental health issues at the best of times are rarely discussed. It continues to be a socially taboo subject despite it affecting millions of people across the world and of all ages. Despite it being an information rich world now where there are myriad ways of being able to communicate with people 24×7, loneliness and severe mental stress is on the rise. Recently I read a young adult novel How to Disappear and Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over published by Project Semicolon that consists of testimonies by people affected by or have witnessed those suffering with mental health issues.
How to Disappear is about a shy and reserved young girl, Vecky Decker, who rarely meets or interacts with anyone, even with her classmates. The only person she is fond of is an old schoolfriend, Jenna, who has now moved to another city. The novel is about her discovering a new life through her virtual life by creating an Instagram account which belies her reality. She accrues more than 2 million followers. Yet ironically she continues to be a fairly lonely girl in real life. Later of course the plot morphs into a predictable sugary conclusion with Jenna becoming a local heroine for her good deed. She uses her vast social media network to find her lost friend, Jenna, whom she suspects is on her way to a cliff to kill herself.
Project Semicolon is an equally disconcerting book for the varied number of testimonies it has gathered. It not only gives an insight into the minds of people crumbling internally though outwardly all may seem well but it also helps in imparting a message of hope. For many of these accounts are by people who have survived a particularly rough patch in their lives either tackling their own mental health issues or of their loved ones.
Both the books are worth considering for a library where these can be shared widely. Mental health issues are not to be taken lightly and must be discussed frankly.
Sharon Huss Roat How to Disappear Harper Teen, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, NYC, 2017. Hb. pp. 380
Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , NYC, 2017. Pb. pp.
Neil Gaiman is the superstar of storytellers and one of the leading influencers on social media with his strongly voiced opinons. He is incredibly generous while sharing his knowledge, he has bundles of energy, oozes with charisma and can pack quite a powerful punch while speaking his mind. He comes across as straightforward and can be blunt when he wants as in the essays — “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013” or “The PEN Awards and Charlie Hebdo ” ( 2015). He is charming in his hero-worship when he writes about meeting legends such as Fritz Leiber and magnanimous with his compliments such as on illustrator Charles Vess with whom he often collaborates. Gaiman is passionate about his love for reading, letting the imagination roar and creativity blossom as evident in the innumerable speeches he has delivered. One of them being “Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech”or after his visit to a Syrian refugee camp, Azraq refugee camp, Jordan — “So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014”. Here is a typical Gaiman straight-from-the-heart observation:
I realise I have stopped thinking about political divides, about freedom fighters or terrorists, about dictators and armies. I am thinking only of the fragility of civilisation. The lives the refugees had were our lives: they owned corner shops and sold cars, they farmed or worked in factories or owned factories or sold insurance. None of them expected to be running for their lives, leaving everything they had because they had nothing to come back to, making smuggled border crossings, walking past the dismembered corpses of other people who had tried to make the crossing but had been caught or been betrayed. ( p.506)
Most of the essays and speeches collected in this volume have gone viral on the Internet recently. They have developed a life of their own for the ideas they spawned. As Gaiman says in “Credo”, “I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast. He also firmly believes that “Literature does not occur in a vaccuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.” The title essay refers to his appearance at the Oscar ceremony when the film adaptation of his book Coraline had been nominated and he walked the red carpet but was given a seat in one of the top balconies.
The articles included in this collection may over a period of time vanish from their original place of publication in cyberspace or disappear behind pay walls as business models of media websites evolve. This is an anthology that is must have that will constantly be read and re-read for its thought-provoking ideas, its analysis of the changing game of publishing, the relationship between writer and readers but most importantly it will be remembered for Gaiman’s fervour in infecting others with his passion for reading and allowing the imagination to run wild.
Buy it. Treasure it. Preserve it. Share it widely. Pass it on to the next generation.
Neil Gaiman The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction Headline Publishing Group, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 532 . Rs 599
Hachette India distributes it in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Amazon homepage on 6 June 2016 shows Novoneel Chakraborty’s book being amongst the top 25 bestsellers.
Novoneel Chakraborty is a successful commercial fiction writer who is known for his psycho-sexual or romantic thrillers. He is now a screenwriter for television too. He began writing in 2008 but since then has had phenomenal success with his books. He obviously has a knack for knowing what the readers/market desire and caters to it exceptionally well. His books are selling extremely well as testified by Amazon India’s banner on their homepage in June 2016.
His “Stranger Trilogy” consists of
Marry me, Stranger;
All yours, Stranger
and Forget me not, Stranger. Theseare being sold as a boxed set.
This trilogy has been creating a buzz for a while. The stories are written in first person by the protagonist Rivanah Bannerjee and have a lot of sex. The stories are ostensibly about the mysterious identity of a stalker who regularly sexually assaults Rivanah and she assumes its her boyfriend. The trilogy comes across as very uneven writing. The sex scenes are written very confidently and quite bold but always seem as if they are strongly influenced by international thrillers. It would not be so evident if it were not for the “bridges” between the sex scenes that is actually the narrative. It crawls like a typical contemporary Indian novel written in English which relies considerably on mundane conversation. There is little in terms of psychological thriller that makes these stories distinctly their own except for the mysterious identity of the stalker and reasons for stalking. A blue-blooded psychological thriller is packed with details, working in layers and the suspense building slowly and steadily sometimes even with multiple perspectives embroiling the reader into an emotional space that teeters between empathy and curiosity and horror. Unfortunately “The Stranger Trilogy” does not quite meet the mark.
It is also distressing to discover that a book written in the first person by a woman incorporates the male fantasy gaze “appreciating” if not at times fantasing about the sexual acts that would otherwise be seen as a rape. It is disturbing to have such literature being published and obviously rapidly finding a readership/market because somewhere it is catering to these bizarre fantasies. In terms of creative licenses every author has the freedom of expression to write on any subject they like and in any manner. But this? Given the current scenarios of the horrific rapes and stalkings that are constantly being documented in India. Who can forget the rape of the young girl in December 2013 or the recent one in Kerala of a Dalit girl in April 2016? Alas these two young women did not survive the horrific assaults. In 1983 Sohaila Abdulali had written about her experience of being gang-raped in Bombay and the article was published in Manushi. Here is the link: http://bit.ly/1r9YCMH In the past few weeks two very powerful posts by rape survivors have gone viral on the internet. They are extremely moving for the manner in which these women have survived their assaults, had the immense courage to write about the experience even though it must have been very painful to recall details and put it down in words. The first is by Jessica Knoll whose debut Luckiest Girl Alive smashed all bestseller charts for its story. (Reese Witherspoon has optioned the film rights.) Weeks after the book was published Jessica Knoll wrote this article in Lenny Letter for the first time acknowledging being gang-raped as a teenager. ( http://bit.ly/1UCLhGR ) On 4 June 2016, the rape victim of a Stanford swimmer read this letter out aloud in court after the rapist was sentenced to a mere six months in jail because a longer sentence would have “a severe impact on him,” according to a judge. The letter was published on Buzzfeed. (http://bzfd.it/213lAkL ) And who can forget the Steubenville High School rape case on the night of August 11, 2012, when a high-school girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her peers, several of whom documented the acts on social media. The news exploded on social media creating a cyber-storm across geographies with widespread condemnation.
These rape cases highlight the horror of the act and that sexual assaults are a serious crime. Cultural collateral such as book products are an integral part of a complex social ecosystem. Presuming such stories exist as standalone entities meant solely for entertaining is unacceptable. These acts may be the fantasy of many and products peddling such sexual fantasies sell well even in the book market but The Stranger Trilogy is irresponsible publishing especially by a reputed firm.
Novoneel Chakraborty The Stranger Trilogy Random House India, Gurgaon, 2015. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 175 each.
‘I’m writing a book about public shaming,’ I told Clive. ‘With citizen justice we’re bringing public shame back in a big way. …’
If ever there was a chilling book on the impact of social media platforms, then Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tops the list. This book is about ordinary people who were publicly shamed through an ill-timed and foolish tweet or a Facebook post, which unfortunately went viral, resulting in the “shamed victim” losing their jobs and becoming a recluse. Jon Ronson began to write this book when his identity was hijacked by spambot. He managed to wrest his identity back only after having publicly shamed the team which had created the spambot, otherwise they were determined to keep the infomorph alive, asking Jon Ronson to “play along”. It was after this personal experience of having publicly shamed the creators of a robot version of himself did Jon Ronson realise the power of citizen justice and democratization of justice. But this incident made him decide “the next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer — the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way — I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.” ( p.10-11)
This is exactly what he did. He documented a range of people who had been publicly shamed — from bestselling authors like Jonah Lehrer ( who continues to be represented by literary agent Andrew Wylie) for making up stories about Bob Dylan; a politician who had concealed his sexual orientation was shamed into going public about it; Justine Sacco who sent a tweet with a racist overtone and a couple of young men attending a technology conference who posted a seemingly innocuous joke about a dongle but with sexist underpinnings. He tracked many cases, meeting many of those people involved. His findings are disconcerting. ( Jon Ronson, 12 February 2015 , NYT “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0 )
Many people who posted messages online did it on an impulse, under the mistaken belief the messages would be read by only their circle of acquaintances, familiar with their personalities. Little realising whatever content is created online rarely disappears and stoked by the mysterious ways in which the Google algorithms work posts can go viral with very unexpected consequences. A link to a page or a post is like a nod of respect. If the page linking to the particular page has a lot of links to it then the page counts for more votes. The internet particularly social media platforms are like an echo chamber where the number of “likes” approving a post can push it to a high PageRank. “The Google algorithm prejudges them as well liked.” As Jon Ronson discovered the Internet is not necessarily about the individual but about the big companies dominating data flows of the Internet. It made Ronson wonder if companies like Google made money from destruction of Justine Sacco?
Could a figure be calculated? And so I joined forces with a number-crunching researcher, Solvej Krause, and began writing to economists and analysts and online ad revenue people.
Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place – a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of $0.38 for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: 38 cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million people were searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $456,000.
But it wouldn’t be accurate simply to multiply 1.2 million by $0.38. Some searches are worth far more to Google than others. Advertisers bid on ‘high yield’ search terms, like ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Jewellery’ and ‘Kenya vacations’. It’s quite possible that no advertiser ever linked their product to Justine’s name. But that wouldn’t mean Google made no money from her. Justine was the worldwide number-one trending topic on Twitter. Her story engrossed social media users more than any other that night. I think people who wouldn’t otherwise have gone onto Google did so specifically to hunt for her. She drew people in. And one they were there I’m sure at least a few of them decided to book a Kenya vacation or download a Coldplay album.
I got an email from the economics researchers Jonathan Hersh. He’d come recommended by the people who make Freakonomics Radio on WYNC. Jonathan’s email said the same thing: “Something about this story resonated with them, so much so that they felt compelled to google her name. that means they’re engaged. If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue. Google has the informal corporate motto of “don’t be evil”, but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.’
In the absence of any better data from Google, he wrote, he could only ever offer a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation. But he thought it would be appropriately conservative — maybe a little too conservative — to estimate Justine’s worth, being a ‘low-value query’, at a quarter of the average. Which, if true, means Google made $120,000 from the destruction of Justine Sacco.
Maybe that’s an accurate figure. Maybe Google made more, or possibly less. But one thing’s certain. Those of us who did the actual annihiliating? We got nothing.
Given this disquieting discovery, it is not surprising companies such as reputation.com have been established. They offer a “strategic schedule for content creation and publication…create a natural-looking activity online…a lot of accumulated intelligence” with the purpose of creating a bland internet presence for a person, preferably moving the negative posts to pages beyond the first page.
While I write this blog post, noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has posted on his Facebook page a long note about his latest Bollywood film, BombayVelvet. Critics have not been kind about the film but as a Facebook post points out, “there is a bit of schadenfreude of bringing him down a peg or two. (a few of them have are his fanboys, by the way.)” Noted journalist, Poonam Saxena, says “the negative chorus around the film reminds me of a lynch mob.” There is a term for this — “virtual lynching”.
A simple fact easily forgotten when navigating one’s way through cyberspace is that usually an online identity is a real person. So the online activity on a person’s social media timeline is more often than not a direct projection of their real personality. Under the mistaken notion that the Internet is a place where anything can be said people make the classic mistake of revealing more than they should, especially when speaking to strangers. Truth is that the same rules and etiquette that exist in real world must be observed online too. In fact to err on the side of caution would be preferable since nothing is ever lost on the internet. By strewing these careless digital breadcrumbs as many of the people shamed discovered to their horror get embedded in a vast and intricate “surveillance” network, i.e. the Internet. There will always be people who will not allow the shamed person to forget.
In fact the extract published in the New York Times earlier this year about Justine Sacco was shared by schools too to alert parents and students to the consequences of irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour online. This is a fabulously disquieting book meant to be read, discussed and shared.
Jon Ronson So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Picador, London, 2015. Pb. pp.280 Rs 599
( My column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online focuses on the Wendy Doniger book controversy. Here is the url to it: http://businessworld.in/news/economy/total-recall/1266222/page-1.html . )
On 11 February, Penguin Books India reached a compromise drawn up in a Delhi Court that insisted it cease the publication and sale of American Indologist, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in India within six months. Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samitri had filed a civil suit against the publishers to withdraw from circulation all copies. Given that Batra had filed the case four years ago and it was still subjudice, the news of this compromise spread like wildfire. Later that day, Doniger issued a press statement “I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit. They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”
Penguin Books India released a statement on 14 February stating “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can…. The settlement reached this week brings to a close a four year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. We have published, in succession, hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of the title. International editions of the book remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it.”
What followed the announcement perhaps was only a natural outcome given the speed at which social media helps communicate information. There was public outrage at this development— newspapers, print, digital, and, of course, social media forums. A number of commentators, journalists, and even Penguin authors wrote passionately against Penguin Book India’s decision to destroy the book. Arundhati Roy in an open letter spoke of her distress and said “You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least”. Nilanjana Roy, author and member of PEN Delhi wrote on censorship and how to remain free; Jakob de Roover in an outstanding essay “Untangling the Knot” discussed the complexities of governance, judiciary and free speech; journalist Salil Tripathi commented perceptively on the issue on many platforms ; Stephen Alter wrote, “Both as a writer and as a reader, I am deeply offended that anyone should dictate what I may read or write”; Penguin author and essayist, Amit Chaudhuri reiterated that “It’s important that the law protect all texts”; and Antara Dev Sen, Editor, The Little Magazine, wrote that the Indian Penal Code “Section 295A targets ‘deliberate and malicious acts (which include speech, writings or signs) intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. In an age of identity politics and hurt sentiments, this has been used frequently by politically motivated people to stifle free speech. But back in 1957, the Supreme Court had ruled that only when there is a ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings’ is it an offence under this law. Higher courts in India have consistently ruled in favour of freedom of speech and have protected books and people hauled to court under this law.”
In fact, two Penguin authors, Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma, asked for their contracts to be terminated. Another Penguin author, Arshia Sattar (who has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara from Sanskrit to English) expressed her dismay at the “complete capitulation” of the firm and how her “pride and that faith has been shaken…of being with a publishing house that protected its people and the books they wrote”.
A counter legal initiative perhaps was expected. According to the website, Legally India, advocate Lawrence Liang, part of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, has issued a 30-paragraph legal notice to Penguin India, claiming that the publisher has violated freedom of speech laws and readers’ rights by agreeing to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’. The notice sent on behalf of Liang’s clients, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarthi Sethi, argues that because Penguin has agreed to withdraw the book from India and destroy all copies, after a legal dispute with a religious group, it has “effectively acknowledged that it is no longer interested in exercising” its ownership in the work and should surrender its copyright to the Indian public. Sengupta is a Delhi-based artist and writer, while Sethi is an anthropologist with a “deep interest in Hindu philosophy”, according to the legal notice. Both are “avid bibliophiles” and were apparently “delighted” when Penguin published Doniger’s book, “and as people who have closely followed the scholarly contributions of the said author they regard this book to be a significant contribution to the study of Hinduism. They consider Ms Doniger’s translations of Indian classical texts and her work on various facets of Hinduism from morality in the Mahabharata to the erotic history of Hinduism as an inspiration for their own intellectual pursuits.”
At the recent Globalocal event (German Book Office, New Delhi’s annual B2B conference on publishing), a regional language publisher wondered if it was possible for any other publisher to option this book and publish it, after all it has not been legally banned in this territory. Echoing this sentiment, Shamnad Basheer, IPR lawyer, writing in Spicy IP, reflected upon the pros and cons of compulsory licensing, and whether it was possible if a publisher decides to stop publication, one could apply for a compulsory license.
Globally Penguin has been in the news related to their peripheral businesses and their merger with Random House. In 2012, Pearson PLC (of which Penguin Books India is a part of) acquired the self-publishing firm, Author Solutions, for $116 million. But in 2013, this deal soured as a number of disgruntled authors filed lawsuits against Author Solutions for its poor service. In the landmark case pertaining to ebooks and agency pricing, in April 2012, the US Department of Justice sued Apple and five publishers, including Penguin, for conspiring to raise prices and restrain competition. This was done after Amazon filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, Penguin was obliged to pay $75 million. George Packer observes in the New Yorker, “an enormous sum in a business that has always struggled to maintain respectable profit margins”. On 1 July 2013, the global merger between Penguin Books and Random House was announced. It was a strategic alliance, forged as a response to the growing presence of Amazon in the publishing industry. The formation of Penguin Random House (PRH) has created a group that has 25 per cent of the market share. A merger comes at a cost of resources that have to be taken into account for the new firm to begin work on a strong footing.
In Oct 2013, Penguin Random House announced the completion of its purchase of Ananda Publishers Private Limited’s minority stake in Penguin Books India. It plans to invest Rs 55 crore or $8.6 million for this stake buy. As banker-turned-author Ravi Subramanian, with whom in June 2013 Penguin Books India signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) wrote on his blog with respect to Doniger’s case, “publishing is a business”. For any firm, particularly in publishing, this is a lot of money being moved around its balance sheets. Naturally the ripple effect of these financial adjustments will be felt even in the local markets—it is like conducting business in a global village where in the context of a globally contacted world, the minimum consumption that people desire is also influenced by what is going on elsewhere.
Similarly, with the Doniger case, Penguin Books India has probably taken an informed business decision, based upon a global strategy when it signed this deal on 11 February, in order to preserve a healthy English-language publishing market in India.
Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Books India, in a guest blog post in 2012 during the Banned Books week, had this to say: “Injunctions make things costly, time consuming, and take our energies away from the work we are really meant to do. And so we try and avoid them as much as possible. Apart from the fact that we don’t fight hard enough for them, I wonder whether it means we impose a kind of self-censorship on ourselves.”
Ironically this latest controversy broke exactly twenty-five years after the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for his ‘Satanic Verses’ published by Penguin. At the time, his publishers stood by him and did not pulp the book. The fact is publishing is a business that is built upon the creative energies and emotions of people. India is also a functioning democracy. Freedom of speech is the right of every citizen. With the General Elections less than a hundred days away, the need for openness, frank conversations without any inhibitions, and certainly not a capitulation to any ideological position is imperative.
Scholar-journalist and historian Mukul Kesavan points out that that selling books is not like selling any other commodity. Publishers have moral responsibility and a publisher voluntarily agreeing to withdraw a book has previously been challenged with the case of James Laine’s book on Shivaji in 2007. Oxford University Press voluntarily agreed to withdraw the book. An FIR was issued against the publisher and printer of the book in Pune (one charge, under Section 153 A, was ‘inciting class hatred’) and the printer was actually arrested. When the case (‘Manzar Sayeed Khan vs State Of Maharashtra, 2007’) came up before the Supreme Court, however, the government of Maharashtra’s case against the author and the publisher of the book was found to be wanting. So, there is a precedent by the Supreme Court to rule in favour of free speech.
Nevertheless, the Wendy Doniger book controversy raises a bunch of issues pertaining to the publishing industry. Questions about legislation and the freedom of speech, what are the ethics involved in publishing, do readers and authors have a right that they can exercise, what does it mean for licensing, do possibilities exist in a mixed environment of digital and print publishing such as do readers have a choice?
Finally does this self-censorship by a publishing firm mean an inadvertent promotion for self-publishing, encouraging authors to be responsible for their books completely? Interestingly in a space of less than six weeks I have heard John Makinson, CEO, Penguin Random House and Jon Fine, Director, Author & Publishing Relations, Amazon talk about their publishing businesses and both have stressed upon the importance of discoverability of an author. This controversy could not have come at a better time for Doniger and even Penguin. They have achieved the Streisand effect whereby in an attempt to censor a piece of information, it has had the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely. It has achieved what no PR could have—a boost in sales.