Best-selling and prize-winning writer of history and fiction Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘s Written in History: Letters that Changed the World is a fantastic addition to his list of publications. It is a selection of correspondences between eminent people at significant moments in history. Matching form for form, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s introduction too is in the form of an epistle addressed to the reader. In it he describes the principle upon which his selection of letters has been arranged. He also gives a crisp and informative account of the various purposes letters have served over the ages. “Some letters were intended to act as publicity, some to remain absolutely secret. Their variety of usage is one of the joys of a collection like this.” This collection consists of letters that are public letters ( like Balfour promises a Jewish homeland), letters that were designed to be copied out and widely distributed in society such as the public letters of great correspondents ( Voltaire and Catherine the Great were enjoyed in literary salons across Europe) or official letters announcing a military victory or defeat. Or letters that were political and military in nature revolving around negotiations or commands and could not be read out in public. For instance Rameses the Great’s disdainful note to the Hittite king Hattusili or Saladin and Richard the Lionheart negotiate to partition the Holy Land. This is a fine selection of letters originally written in cuneiform, on papyrus, then letters written on parchment or vellum, until paper was created in China around 200 BC. Letter writing belonged to all spheres of life. The beauty of letter writing is that nothing beats the immediacy and authenticity of a letter.
Written in History is a splendid anthology. It is a fabulous introduction to different moments in history made ever more delightful by the short notes written by Simon Sebag Montefiore preceding every letter. It is a wonderful, wonderful book which balances the act splendidly between providing information, being sensitive to the correspondents and being a sophisticated performance of a walk through history.
In March 2019, London-based Intelligence Squared’s acclaimed events on great speeches and poetry presented an event based on Letters That Changed The World. Joining the author on stage were No 1 bestselling novelist Kate Mosse. Together they discussed letters by Michelangelo, Catherine the Great, Sarah Bernhardt, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing and Leonard Cohen.
A cast of performers, including Young Vic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, rising star Jade Anouka, Dunkirk actor Jack Lowden, and West End star Tamsin Greig, brought the letters to life on stage.
In January 2019 Simon Sebag Montefiore attended the Jaipur Literature Festival. He gave a splendid public lecture-cum-performance on the Romanovs. Here is a recording of the event where he held the audience spellbound. Much like the reader is with Written in History.
Bridge of Clayby Markus Zusak is an extraordinary book. It
is a story about a family of five brothers and their parents. Penelope
Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar, the mother is an immigrant who is dearly
loved by her second husband, Michael Dunbar, and father of the boys. One fine
day it all falls apart with the discovery that the mother has cancer. It is a
slow death. A grief so searing that it tears the family apart. The father
drifts away, abandoning the boys, expecting them to fend for themselves. It is
a story told slowly, flipping back and forth in time, by one of the sons –
Michael Dubar. Bridge of Clay is
about the Dunbar family, Michael returning to the boys seeking their help to
build his dream bridge and the younger son, Clay, offering to help.
Bridge of Clay is quite unlike Markus Zusak’s previous novel, The Book Thief. Yet, Bridge of Clay is a fabulous novel for
its craftsmanship, its unique form of storytelling, its pacing, its brilliant unexpectedness.
It builds upon expectations of the readers of The Book Thief but as Markus Zusak says in the interview, “the
challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written,
despite The Book Thief’s success, and
readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for.”
I met Markus Zusak at the Jaipur
Literature Festival where he was a part of the delegation of writers and publishers
brought across by the Australian High Commission. It was then he kindly agreed
to do an interview for my blog.
Here is an edited version of the interview
conducted via email.
JBR: Bridge of
Clay can only be read if one places oneself in that fog which comes
with grief and numbness of sorrow. What prompted this story? How do
you work out the voices of the characters?
MZ: I had this story in my mind since I
was twenty years old…I was walking around my neighbourhood back then, in
Sydney, and I had this vision of a boy who was building a bridge and he wanted
it to be perfect – one beautiful, perfect, great thing.
The voices of the characters came the way
all ideas do – from spending time with the book, getting to know it. After I’d
written The Book Thief, I realised it
was finally time to take on the boy and his bridge. And as soon as I did that,
I thought, ‘Well, you can try to write a smaller, quieter book…or you can bet
everything.’ I decided to bet everything, and the first part of that was seeing
Clay, the protagonist, as one of five brothers. Next came the
multi-generational story, and I took it from there.
JBR: This kind of fluid writing, languid, placid,
calming tone of the narrator, all the while creating a disruptive
narrative is very emotionally draining to craft. Yet it feels special
in Bridge of Clay. Did it
take many revisions to achieve? What was your routine to write this book?
Did it differ from your other books?
MZ: Routine is everything. I actually have
a friend whose first question to me when we meet is, ‘How’s your routine
going?’ The idea of the writing in Bridge of Clay was very exact. Matthew is
trying to make order of the chaos in the epic, sprawling and sometimes shambolic
history of the Dunbar family, and I was trying to write in the spirit of Clay’s
bridge-building. I feel like that was one of the reasons it took thirteen years
to write this book. I was writing for the world championship of myself.
JBR: Did this book involve research?
MZ: It took a lot of time researching this
book – not only bridge building and the artworks of Michelangelo, and
horseracing, and details of Eastern Europe during communism, but also the
biggest research of all – which is getting to know the characters themselves.
Being with the characters and working for them is what gets a book over the
line, I think. In the end you’re not writing for the audience anymore – you’re
writing for them – the characters
inside the book. In this case I was writing for Clay and all the Dunbar boys,
and the animals in their household, and for Michael…but especially for Penny
Dunbar, who is the true heart of the book.
JBR: Why jumble the sequence of events?
MZ: The structure of this book works in two ways: one is that it continually builds, which
is why each part is still titled with the previous part. For example, Part Two
is called Cities + Waters, rather
than just Waters. Part three is Cities + Waters + Criminals. I did this
because it replicated the building of the bridge, but also because we don’t
just live things and leave them behind. We carry our stories with us.
The second part of the structure is tidal – where
the past and present come back and forth like the tide coming in and going out.
I like the idea that we start becoming who we are long before we’re even born.
Our parents’ stories are embedded in us, and so are their journeys and
sacrifices, their failures and moments of heroism. I wanted to recognize those
stories. I wanted to write a book about a boy in search of his greatest story
whilst recognizing the stories that got him to that point.
As Clay is makes his way outwards in the world, the
history of the Dunbar family is coming in…and I think that’s how our memories
work. We are always caught in the current between looking forward and behind
JBR: Pall of death looms large. It is not discussed
easily in families. Yet a nickname soon takes on a proper noun —
“Murderer”, a terrible reminder of Death. Why choose this horrific
MZ: Matthew Dunbar names Michael, his
father, the Murderer because he left the family after their mother, Penelope,
died. He claims that he killed their family by doing this, so it’s really a
play on words. I also used it because I think we all know when we see a
nickname like that, that there must
be more to it. Is he really a murderer? Or is he taking the blame for someone
else – and in what capacity has a crime been committed?
We spend this entire novel getting to know
its characters (and especially Clay), and when we finally understand the irony
of the nickname, we have one of the last pieces to understanding its
JBR: Why have such a slow paced novel at a time when
every else is writing fast paced detailed novels? Is this novel about the
creation of art, creating something unique? How did you decide upon the chapter
titles? A piece of artwork that is only completed with the complete
engagement of the reader otherwise the story glides past.
MZ: Why follow a trend of continually
making this easier, faster, and too easily known? We live in a world now where
we feel like we deserve to know everything right
now – and I see the role of novels as a saving grace where we can still
say, ‘Come on – do some work. Think a little bit. I promise you’ll be
rewarded.’ Maybe novels are one of the last frontiers where the pay-offs aren’t
instant. You can be offered a whole world, but it also demands your attention.
They’re the sort of books that have always become my favourites.
JBR: What came first — the story or the
MZ: The story was always there. I had
several different attempts at narrators, and settled on Matthew about seven
years into writing the book…In the end he deserved it – he does so much to keep
the Dunbar family together, and he’s telling the story to understand and
realise just how much he loves his brother, and how much he wants him to come
JBR: How did it feel to create the character of Clay?
MZ: Clay was always there. He was always
there, attempting to be great. He kept me honest writing the book. I wrote this
book to measure up to him.
JBR: Who is Penelope modelled upon? Why does it seem
that she is not necessarily based on her namesake from the epic?
MZ: All characters become completely
themselves from the first time you fictionalise something about them. In the case
of Penelope, she was based on my parents-in-law, who came to Australia from
Poland. When they got here they were shocked by the heat. They’d never seen a
cockroach before. They were horrified…but they had made this epic journey to
start a new life – and that was the first seed for Penelope’s story – but from
the moment I saw her practising the piano and being read to from The Iliad, she was only ever Penelope
Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar.
As for not being a based on the exact
template of Penelope in The Odyssey,
she’s certainly patient, and determined – but I also wanted her to be more. All
of the characters in this novel are heroic in their own way. Penelope, as I
said, is the heart of the book, and I wanted her to be stoic, and deceptively
strong. She’s perennial – a survivor and mother, and certainly a formidable
opponent in the Piano Wars with her sons
JBR: Which edition of the Odyssey and Illiad did
you read? When did your love for the epic start? What prompted you to reimagine
MZ: My editions are the Penguin classics,
translated by E.V. Rieu. I never studied them at school or university, but I
decided one day that I needed to read The
Iliad. I always loved the bigness of them – the larger-than life characters
and language…the overwroughtness of it!
As for it’s thread in Bridge of Clay, it came to me when all of the characters started
having nicknames, and when Clay is training – the start of the novel is like the Games in Ancient Greece. Then, when
I thought of Penelope being called The Mistake Maker, I immediately saw her
practising the piano in Eastern Europe, which I called a ‘watery wilderness’,
which was a direct quote from Homer’s description of the sea. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what Bridge of Clay is. It’s a suburban
epic that pays tribute to the bigness of our everyday lives.’ We all think we
have dull, drab existences, but we all fall in love, We all have people die on
us. We all fight for what we want sometimes. It all just seemed to fit, and
then I thought of Penelope being sent to Australia with a copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I never doubted that part of the story.
JBR: What was it like to interact with readers in
India when you visited the country in January?
MZ: To be in India with a book is like
being with your fiercest friends. Indian readers are special in that they love
showing you how much they love you, and as a reading culture it is like no
other place in the world. I loved every minute.
JBR: Why release the book for two types of readers
across the world particularly in an important book market like USA where it has
been labelled as #yalit?
MZ: I’ll often answer this question by saying it
really doesn’t matter because a book will find its true audience. I had a
choice to release this book with a different publisher to place it firmly in
adult territory, but I love the people I work with, and I wanted to stay with
them. That’s the only reason it was released as a young adult novel there. I
think that was possibly an easier proposition with The Book Thief, because it’s an easy book to love – but I think Bridge of Clay does makegreater demands of its reader. It’s a
tougher book to read. Liesel is given to you on a plate; she’s easy to love –
orphaned, in a book about loving books – but Clay is a character to fight for.
You almost have to prove that you can withstand all he goes through to fully
In short, a reader almost has to earn the right to
love him – and so maybe it’s more a novel for true believers in my writing,
which makes it a harder book to market for teenagers.
Either way, the challenge was always to write this
book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience.
And that’s something I know I fought for. Every decision was made to make the
book exactly what it needed to be, and follow its vision completely.
Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today. The Jaipur Literature Festival is a festival of cultures, language, ideas and literature, and I feel very privileged to have the chance over the next few days to listen to so many Indian authors and personalities from around the world and to converse with them.
At this confluence of cultures, I’m pleased to address
the friends from the trade at Jaipur Bookmark today.
After all, that is the fundamental principle of any
literature festival: creating an environment for interactions that promote the
free exchange of ideas and opinions.
The free exchange of ideas and opinions – never has
that been easier than today, in the 21st century.
And never has it been so threatened.
Over the past 20 years, communications technology has
taken an evolutionary leap, one that surpasses anything the most far-sighted
science-fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries could have imagined.
In Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” from
the year 1968, Dr Heywood Floyd, an astronaut, has a “videophone call” with his
daughter while at the space station.
Fifty years later, in the summer of 2018, the German
astronaut Alexander Gerst used his mobile phone to take fascinating photos of
his time at the International Space Station, images which were transmitted
around the world.
Videophones, computer tablets, artificial
intelligence, voice control – many of the things that Kubrick envisaged 50
years ago have become reality.
According to the 2018 Global Digital Report, of the four billion people
around the world who have access to the Internet, more than three billion use
social media every month. Nine out of
ten users log on to their chosen platforms using mobile devices.
The number of people who use the most popular
platforms in their respective country has grown over the last 12 months by
almost one million new users each day.
What I find remarkable here is that not only has
communications technology made a quantum leap, the devices that allow the
world’s population to participate in the global conversation have also become
so inexpensive that almost everyone can afford one.
That is giving rise to a previously unknown
participatory process, one that has the power to change democracy’s traditional
Everyone today is in a position to publish whatever
they want – using blogs, podcasts and self-publishing platforms, as well as
traditional publishing houses. News is transmitted around the globe in the
fraction of a second, and social networks allow us to reach more readers and
viewers than ever before.
In just a minute I will talk about the challenges and
consequences that are resulting for the publishing industry.
First, however, let’s look at the darker side of these
In the 21st century, a few select businesses have
become private superpowers. They can do more than most countries to promote or
prevent a free exchange of opinions.
Via social networks, phenomena like the viral spread
of fake news, hate speech and slander now have a global impact.
Professional trolls strategically destabilise
political discourse online, fuelling populist, nationalist and anti-democratic
tendencies throughout Europe and around the globe.
One observes that, here in India, free speech is facing a threat sprouting from religious motivations, political biases and social judgments. Attempts in the recent past to silence journalists, writers, film-makers and publishers reflect the rise of identity politics and apathy on the part of the state. Two journalists of international repute – Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari – were shot dead within a span of nine months. Publisher friends like DC Books, Kalachuvadu Publications and their authors have witnessed attacks by fanatics who may have never even read the books in question.
When I look at the hysteria, hatred and hostility that
characterise the discussion in social media, the permanent state of turmoil
that societies around the world find themselves in, then I begin to doubt
whether we are actually capable of using the communications technologies whose
development we are so proud of.
To paraphrase Goethe: “The spirits I called / I now cannot
In social media, language is used as a destructive weapon
day in and day out, and it’s become clear how disastrous this can be for those
individuals targeted by the bullying. It can even lead to murder.
In his 2016 book Free
Speech, which you undoubtedly know, the British historian Timothy Garton
Ash examines the question of how free speech should take place.
He asks which social, journalistic, educational,
artistic and other possibilities can be realised to ensure that free speech proves
beneficial by facilitating creative provocation without destroying lives and
He comes to the conclusion that the less we want to
have laid out by law, the more we have to do ourselves.
After all, Ash explains, there is no law that can draw
a line between freedom and anarchy – every individual must look within before expressing
himself or herself and must take responsible decisions.
I would like to talk with you about this “how” in the
coming days and hear your opinions.
Personally, I feel that the participatory process I
mentioned before requires us – our industry, but also each of us as individuals
– to take a stance. Expressing an opinion of this type was long reserved for
politicians or the media. Today, in the 21st century, we all have the
possibility of making our voices heard.
And we should not do that in keeping with the motto “overnewsed
but uninformed,” but in a carefully considered manner.
I believe that this permanent state of turmoil is
troubling, this hysteria which does not stop at speech, but which now
increasingly leads to violence.
Personally, I’m alarmed at how the language we use is
becoming increasingly coarse and, following from that, the way we interact with
The problem about this state of turmoil is that it
usually results in the exclusion of others and, consequently, causes even
deeper trenches to be dug.
Yet how can we deal with the challenges of our time –
and find solutions to them – if not in dialogue with each other?
That leads to the question: what responsibility do
publishers bear, does our industry bear, today, in the post-Gutenberg era?
How can publishing houses and their products remain
relevant in an age in which fake news can be disseminated faster than
In which rumours, supposition and conjecture are more
quickly viewed, liked and shared than texts capable of explaining complex
As my friends Kristenn Einarsson and José Borghino have
pointed out on many occasions, “If we are to create and maintain free, healthy
societies, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge
established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and make room for
new knowledge, critical opposition and challenging artistic expression”.
Publishers in the 21st century are in a privileged
position: the industry looks back on a long tradition, on the one hand, and has
built a reputation. Publishers are gatekeepers – they filter and assess
content, they curate before they publish.
They consider it part of their job to publish content
that is well-researched, documented, checked and carefully assembled as way of
contributing to the range of opinions present in society.
On the other hand, they now have the possibility of
reaching their readers through various channels, offering their expertise, their
content and their opinion exactly where their target group is found.
Publishers and authors in many parts of the world risk
their lives by writing or bringing out books that criticise regimes, uncover
injustices and shed light on political failures.
On 15 November 2018, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer,
Arundhati Roy wrote the following in a letter to the Bangladeshi writer,
photographer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam: “How your work, your
photographs and your words, has, over decades, inscribed a vivid map of
humankind in our part of the world – its pain, its joy, its violence, its
sorrow and desolation, its stupidity, its cruelty, its sheer, crazy
complicatedness – onto our consciousness. Your work is lit up, made luminous,
as much by love as it is by a probing, questioning anger born of witnessing at
first hand the things that you have witnessed. Those who have imprisoned you
have not remotely understood what it is that you do. We can only hope, for
their sake, that someday they will.”
As you know, Shahidul Alam was taken into custody in
July of last year after he criticised the government of Bangladesh in an
interview with Al Jazeera and in various Facebook posts. Fortunately he has since
been freed, but the charges against him remain.
Without wanting to turn these very personal remarks by
Arundhati Roy into a generalisation, I would just like to say that she has put
it in a nutshell when she writes that, through their work, writers, authors, journalists
and artists draw a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world.
Journalists and other authors write despite
intimidation and threats. Like Shahidul Alam, they are driven by a mixture of love
and anger. For that, they deserve our highest esteem and respect.
Writers and journalists are being intimidated and
forced into silence all around the world because of their political and social
engagement, something we condemn in the strongest possible terms.
As discoverers and disseminators of ideas and free
thought, we, as a community, have a greater responsibility to uphold freedom of
expression. At the same time, we cannot withhold our criticism of its misuse.
I hope to have the chance to speak with many of you
about these issues in the coming days.
The Jaipur BookMark 2015 Where South Asia meets the world
21-22 January 2015, Narain Niwas, Jaipur
(JBM 2015 will run for two days parallel with the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival on the 21 and 22 January)
Day 1: 21st January 2015
Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale, Oliver Moystad
1:30 PM-2:30 PM- INAUGURAL LUNCH hosted by NORLA
2:30 PM-3:30 PM- SESSION 1
IS PUBLISHING “UNBANKABLE”?
A business like no other, publishing finds it notoriously difficult to raise finance: a session on the business of publishing; discussing the structural issues concerning publishing, bank finance, volume and scalability etc.
Speakers: Dr Shubhada Rao, Henry Rosenbloom, Bikash Niyogi, Manas Saikia, Atiya Zaidi and Aditi Maheshwari Moderator: Naresh Khanna
3.30 PM – 4.00 PM TEA
4:00 PM-5:00 PM-SESSION 2
DIGITAL PLATFORMS: THE UNTAPPED TERRITORIES
From social media to distribution, what should publishing professionals be aware of in their rapidly changing industry? Kindles, Kobos, iPads and audiobooks; what does all this new technology mean for the industry from writers to editors, marketers to consumers?
Speakers: Nicolas Idier, Niyam Bhushan, Rajiv Mehta, Ajit Baral and Vishal Anand Moderator: Arpita Das
Session Supported by: NewsHunt
5.00PM – 6.00PM – SESSION 3
LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES: TIME TRAVELERS EXTRAORDINAIRE
An IGNCA supported Open Forum, on the convergence of Libraries, Archives and Museums. With more access to information available online than ever before, regardless of location, what new role could and should libraries and archives play in making information accessible to all?
Speakers: Dipali Khanna, Alberto Manguel, Nicholson Baker, Dr. Venu Vasudevan and Shantanu Ganguly Moderator: Bharti Sinha
Session supported by: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts
6:00 PM-7:00 PM DRINKS
Day 2: 22nd January 2015
10.45 AM – 11.30 AM – SESSION 1
WHO IS THE BOOK?
‘More than 48 printed pages and bound within 2 covers’, is that the book or is there more to it? On the changing format and technology of the book in an increasingly interactive environment.
Ralph Mollers in conversation with Sirish Rao; introduced by Ute Reimer-Boehner
11.30 AM- 12.30 PM – SESSION 2
RETHINKING TRANSLATION: RELOCATING THE CENTRE
How do we translate content across multi-media and digital borders including e-books, audio books, graphic texts and cross-media conversions?
Speakers: Vera Michalski, Satti Khanna, Mahua Mitra, Rick Simonson, Shona Martyn and Manasi Subramaniam Moderator: Renuka Chatterjee
12.30 PM-1.30 PM SESSION 3
SOUTH-SOUTH COLLABORATIONS: A CONVERSATION WITH AUSTRALIAN PUBLISHERS
Increasingly, publishers in the global south are beginning to work directly with each other; literary festivals and bookfairs in southern countries are now choosing to focus also on southern authors. In a free ranging conversation, Australian publishers and literary entrepreneurs talk about new collaborations and new relationships.
Speakers: Ivor Indyk, Terri-Ann White, David Ryding, Kate McCormack, Wendy Were and Meredith Curnow Moderator: Urvashi Butalia
1.30 PM-2.30 PM LUNCH
2.30 PM-3.30 PM SESSION 4
CONTENT IS QUEEN
The book is no longer just a book–it is now a basis for film, video games, interactive reading, collective writing and so much more. With book formats morphing and mutating how will content adapt to survive?
Speakers: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Prasoon Joshi, Sandip Sen and Renu Kaul Moderator: Karthika V.K.
3.30 PM-4.00 PM TEA
4.00 PM – 5.00PM-SESSION 5
TOWARDS A NATIONAL READING POLICY
A viable reading policy involves encouraging reading, creating an infrastructure to make books available and finally providing books. What role can States and private actors play to overcome the gap between policies and their implementation?
Speakers: Oliver Moystad, M A Sikandar, Prof. Apoorvanand and Prof. Avdhesh Kumar Singh Moderator: Manisha Chaudhry
Session supported by: National Book Trust
5 PM CLOSING CEREMONY
6 PM-7 PM DRINKS (those who wish to leave for DSC South Asian Literature prize at Diggi Palace may proceed)
Participants are free to network in the Rights Chaupal.
( The latest edition of my column, PubSpeak, has been uploaded on BusinessWorld online today. The link is http://www.businessworld.in/news/economy/rules-of-publishing-be-on-the-move/1246485/page-1.html. I am also c&p the text below. )
Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone’s ‘The Everything Store’ is about Jeff Bezos and his baby, Amazon. After the book was published, Bezos distanced himself from the book. Significantly his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, gave the book a one-star rating on Amazon saying it contains “numerous factual inaccuracies” and is “full of techniques which stretch the boundaries of non-fiction”. The book is based on a number of interviews that Stone conducted with Bezos, his staff and ex-colleagues to get a sense of the firm. What is very clear after reading the book is that Amazon is significant because it has the advantage of being a first mover, it is a game-changer, certainly for publishing.
There are three points worth considering:
1. Bezos was the first to exploit the potential of the internet and collaborate with start ups with new ideas. For instance, his acquisition of a firm that specialised in digital books, with the .mobi format, resulted in his insistence on making the files uploaded on Kindle to be DRM protected.
2. He knew that sales ranks would be like a drug to authors, so he insisted that it change whenever a new order came in: thus influencing the gradual shift in publishing houses laying more emphasis on marketing and promotional activities than on editing and commissioning. (Whereas it cannot be an either/or situation, it has to be a combination.)
3. Finally Bezos’s famous analogy of comparison that publishing firms are like gazelles and Amazon is a cheetah. This belief was integral to his strategy in agency pricing. He had to persuade publishers to give him the digital files to the books they published. (It required time since many publishers discovered that they did not have the rights to the digital formats from the authors.) He was convinced marking the books at such a low price was rational since there were no printing and warehousing costs involved — a misconception that has come to be associated with the entire system of publishing. But Amazon is able to achieve much of this due to the ‘technological moat’ it has dug for itself, that is, of low margins. It ensures that with the creative vision Bezos and his team have they are able to expand their business into uncharted domains, effectively keeping competition out.
At BookMark, the B2B space for publishing professionals at the Jaipur Literature Festival there were a number of fascinating conversations about the business. Most significantly the resistance in original publishing to digital and the disruption it would cause in the publishing ecosystem was no longer making news. The presence of technology to facilitate, produce and disseminate books is now an accepted norm. It is here to stay. It was interesting to see how the industry was responding to the rapid changes taking place in the environment, necessitating a rapid pace of evolution by adapting and adopting new methods.
Take Penguin Random House CEO John Makinson’s comment at the event, for instance. The coming together of Penguin and Random House was a “strategically delivered merger” since it was the only combination that changed the game, said Makinson. He was confident that the industry would consolidate itself in a bit of time. At a time when the global industry is reeling from the massive presence of Amazon, the formation of Penguin Random House catapults it to the first position with 25 per cent share of the global market. In October 2013, Jüergen Boos, Director, Frankfurt Book Fair, at the opening of the fair, warned that companies like Amazon, Apple and Google were “logistics magicians but are not publishers”. It stands to reason since online recommendations are purchase based and not behavioural. It does not tell you what people want to read since much of the online purchases are for gifts.
There has to be serendipity in publishing. It is the smarter way of keeping the ecosystem alive, creating newer readers and shifting away slightly from being only a writer’s space.
The overwhelming presence of Amazon, Google, and the iBook store of Apple and closer to home, Flipkart, has resulted in the “disturbing dominance of content” as John Makinson put it. It is inevitable that online retail platforms will require large volumes to remain sustainable. They are not discerning and curate content as booksellers are known to do with their stocks. So, it is fairly common to find on these websites second hand, and out-of-print books, or those titles that belong to backlists but are not readily available. In fact, Paul Yamazaki of City Light Booksellers and this year jury member, DSC South Asian Literature prize is clear that he will retain titles on his shelves that are worth recommending, not necessary that it is the latest title creating waves in the media. City Light Books, is a landmark independent bookstore and publisher that specialises in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. It was established by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin and synonymous with the ‘beatniks’.
Of late, publishers have been a worried lot since their traditional forms of publishing are not giving them the benefits they have been used to; in addition the sales of ebooks have plateaued, falling far short of the forecasts. The reliance on frontlists is making publishers an anxious lot since author brands only work for a limited time and within a given framework. For instance, commercial fiction authors are a brand unto themselves, a specific market who only read the specific author, but do not guarantee sales with every title. Ever since publishing houses were established they relied on a formula of 80:20 where 20 per cent was reserved for experimentation or the mid-lists, to discover and nurture new writers, which sometimes became the bedrock of the future for the firm. This is now happening less and less. Instead it is easier to offer authors a contract once they have proven themselves in the market. Many new voices are being discovered via the self-publishing route and traditional firms recognising the business potential of this are offering self-publishing services. This is in trade publishing. But even in academic publishing, technological advances and the presence of agents such as Apple, Google and Amazon have had an impact. For instance, material in a digital form for classroom and assisted teaching, teacher resource material and even the rent-a-textbook model, like Coursemart, have proved to be successful.
Among some of the other responses to the changing environment were that established businesses know the only way forward is to recognise that their expertise is limited; collaborations with new ideas or new startups is the only way to keep the business afloat; exploring a subscription service to deliver books/content to users/customers as indicated by the tie-up between Scribd and HarperCollins; looking to create a market beyond English-language readers (since it is a limited market), moving beyond viewing English as a functional, operational and legal language, translating content and creating a base of readers in the mother tongues to increase readership. The fact is that when markets are volatile and competing forces are at play and with 40 per cent of the population online it is not easy to forecast what will happen in the near future, save that a certain amount of realignments will happen through mergers and acquisitions, new systems will evolve and it will be survival of the fittest — big or small, who knows for now!
(My interview with Romesh Gunasekera was uploaded on the Hindu Literary Review website on 1 Feb 2014 and published in the print edition on 2 Feb 2014. Here is the url to it: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-literaryreview/of-war-and-peace/article5643819.ece I am c&p the entire text below. The review of the book, Noontide Toll, will be published in the first week of March 2014.
I met Romesh Gunasekera at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014. The photograph was taken at the Penguin Random House reception on 17 Jan 2014. But this interview was conducted via email.)
Romesh Gunaseekera, interview
Born in 1954, Romesh Gunesekera grew up in Sri Lanka and the Philippines before moving to England in 1972. His first novel, Reef , was shortlisted for both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize. In India recently to launch his latest collection of short stories Noontide Toll, Gunasekera took time out for an interview.
1. What was the gestation time for this book and how long did it take to write it? There is a reference to the killing of LTTE founder, Prabhakaran, so it seems to have been finished recently.
I started thinking about this book in 2009 but didn’t start writing it until 2010 after I had travelled around Sri Lanka and visited some of the places in the north that had been difficult to get to during the war. Most of it was written in 2012 but I only finished the final draft towards the end of last year. So the gestation was about 4 years and the actual writing and rewriting 2 years.
2. Why do you have a driver as a narrator?
Vasantha, the van driver, was a natural choice when I realized the story was going to involve journeys around the island. The appropriateness of the character grew as the metaphor of the road grew. A passenger on a road journey is in the hands of a driver; a reader embarking on a book is in the hands of a narrator. Vasantha is both.
3. Why did you call the book Noontide Toll?
The title has particular resonances at this point in time and also has some links in meaning and sound with the titles of my first two books: Monkfish Moonand Reef. As this book like those two has a strong Sri Lankan connection it seemed to be the right choice.
4. The mode of a journey as the spine of a narrative are as old as the epics. Why did you choose this mode for Noontide Toll?
The story of this book is the story of a journey from the past to the future. It is the journey the narrator Vasantha makes but it also the journey we all make as human beings. A journey through time. A story of being on the road seemed a natural way to tell the story of these times. Vasantha is trying to understand how we should live in a world that is fast-changing and has a difficult past. Whether we live in Sri Lanka, or Malaysia, or India, or Britain or America we face similar issues of understanding the road we are on, remembering the past that has made us and seeing the future we want.
But in this book there is also a more specific reason. Vasantha is travelling to parts of his country that he has been unable to visit before because of the war that had been going on for nearly thirty years. So the journey was the way he would balance the north and south of his world.
5. Can you talk about issues of war, memory, and language in relation to the book?
The book is all about how we deal with memory. Vasantha is in a country that has seen a very long and bloody war. He wants to move on from that past and is trying to find the best way to do it. He doesn’t know how much of the past can be left behind and how much is a part of him. Language is the means by which we negotiate our relationship with time. For Vasantha language is a means of communication, of touching someone, and of remembering. All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.
6. For a book that deals with war, “>Noontide Toll is surprisingly very calm and structured in its sentences. Is this how you composed it in the first draft or was it “refined” later?
I believe if a sentence is to retain its strength over time it needs to be carefully made. In fiction the structure of sentences matter. In this book I have tried to make sure the narrative flows as naturally as possible, but that doesn’t just happen. It has to be made to happen.
7. Is there a South Asian Literary identity?
I have just been to a literary festival in Kolkata where there was an hour long discussion with a panel of writers on this subject. From that discussion it seemed as though there wasn’t a clear identity. Obviously there are ways in which you could identify some commonalities between South Asian writers but the problems begin from the moment you try to identify and define the terms e.g. who are South Asian writers? Those born in south Asia? Those who live in South Asia? Those who write about South Asia? Or those who are all three? The language used by the writer is perhaps the more important factor. People who study a wide range of writers would be in a better position to decide whether a geographical term is the best way to describe an identity. I think the idea of a specific geographic literary identity might be too restrictive and constraining to be helpful. I would like to think that South Asian literature (in whatever way it is defined) is as varied and surprising as any other kind of interesting literature.
8. You have been teaching creative writing for many years in Great Britain. Recently you have begun to collaborate on workshops in India as well. What would be your critical assessment of the writing pool/talent in India/South Asia?
I’ve only run one workshop in India and that was in Kolkata last year. We had an excellent group in the workshop and although they were mostly from India we did have some international participants too. I couldn’t generalise from one course, but as far as I can tell there are plenty of aspiring writers and the ones I have come across have similar talents and ambitions as workshop participants I have worked with in many other countries around the world. The prospects for writing in India, and indeed in the region, are good. But then, surely, we all know that.