11 October 2010

Crossovers - the stepping stones

[ This is in response to Aditya's very interesting post in the Literary Review <<< kilick there]

To begin with, I think his concerns are all understandable and genuine. I also think they are too ideal, given  the current scenario.

At the moment, I feel that there is a definite choice in front of most writers aspiring to be the next phenomenon in the Indian literary world. They can either choose to write good books OR they can choose to focus on making it a best seller. Hold your horses, folks, let me explain that a bit.

Getting both the factors right is what makes a great writer - totally agree, but we know that we have a minority there (relative to the size of the market). The majority, on the other hand, have to choose between the two - based on several factors...their principles, necessities, aspirations, abilities etc.

...and yea, why do people have to choose between these two factors and not any other?

Because that is the mindset of the Indian readership, or so it seems. I get this strange feeling that writers like Amitav Ghosh are more famous outside India than inside. Seven out of ten people I know wouldn't know him. On the other hand, books that are in the 'light reading' category have proved to be far more penetrative in the Indian market in the last decade or so. I feel that a mature market should not only have had an inverse trend, but should also have made it a no-contest in favour of the former (if it comes to a fight). The right question to ask here, I believe, is not if 'light reading' is a healthy trend, but if this is a trend that is here to stay.

Publishing houses want their books to sell - after all, they run a business. So, they choose to publish books that could cater to the 'reading masses' and not the elite. It is the responsibility of publishers to take the industry forward, yes, but is India ready to absorb serious lit? Publishers feel that we are not ready (going by their decisions) and I can only agree. Very few people in our country buy Nietzsche, but a lot more have bought 'the monk who sold his ferrari' (pathetic choice of books, sorry)

But will this new trend last? Will the generations that grow with this trend stick with the same forever? I think it is obvious in a sense that this will not be the case. These questions sound more to me like Justin Bieber taking on the Beatles... or something equally silly. The point is, they are different markets, and one leads the listener to another, in one or more ways.

What we witness now, according to me, is the transition from a non-market to a mass-market - and only a transition, to reiterate. It is a part of the growing up phase and a very necessary one at that. I am not saying that 'light reading' will fade out eventually - it will not, but as we go further down the road, people will want to read better books. Stepping stones are very often failures, yes, but they are the ones that lead us to success. The current phase has the potential to make that grown up phase a lot more attractive for everyone.

Transitions have never lasted forever, and here's hoping that the Indian Publishing industry will not be an exception.


"It suggests a basic lack of belief that quality books can be written by Indian authors — or an inability to recognise them. "

I really don't think so. The statement looks at the supply side alone. The availability of quality component does not mean that a manufacturer will go for them. He will go for them only if the market is ready to acknowledge and buy them.

"To try to ‘bridge the divide' is to get on a bridge to nowhere. The galling element here is not that you are arriving at mediocrity — there's no shame in that — but that you were aiming at it."

There is no point expecting people to buy a heavy reading, when over the years, they have not. If it's really that bad a book, it wouldn't sell at all, yes? If anything, seeing mediocre books on the shelves can only encourage the good writers out there to come out of their shells, which is good.

PS: All this is based on the fact that publishing, today, is just another business and not a medium that shapes generations and histories.


  1. Anonymous3:40 PM

    nice post ashwin. the problem is defining what is quality content. who gets to decide? is content that is appreciated by a certain set of people with the designation of 'literary critic' enough to qualify? if not, then we only have sales figures as a proxy and publishing houses as the gatekeepers. with digital publishing, maybe the barriers for aspiring authors will reduce and we'll have access to hundreds of ebooks at nominal prices. then maybe we won't be limited by the 'bestsellers' display at book stores.

  2. At the current security levels on the net, ebooks making break-even is still way head in the future, don't you think?

    I m not sure about the tech in a kindle etc. Just saying,