At the end of a pallid day in office, having stared at the computer screen relentlessly for inspiration, there isn’t anything more reaffirming of that coming light, than books and the limitless world they exist in. Compared to theirs, ours is significantly limited. So it only makes sense, when events like the Delhi Book Fair, serve as much of a getaway as it does, to an escape we so desperately need from routine. Even if it means going to the fair just to buy that customary copy of Anne Frank’s diary or an edition of the more-discussed-than-read Mein Kampf; you know because it is all very catchy being able to say it in front of someone, ‘have you read this and that’? But amid that rush there is also the reader, immutable and resolute, not only with his money but his (or her) sense of place and occasion. As much as literary festivals are quixotically unsure about what they achieve that isn’t already done through books, book fairs seem astutely designed to serve a set purpose: TO SELL; posing a few questions worth considering, because the average Indian publishing house evidently isn’t.
Book fairs are unique, in the sense that they are perhaps the only platform where the publisher comes in contact with the reader. While one of the objectives of setting up a stall in the first place would be to get the middle-man (websites, stores, pavement sellers etc) out of the way, and also bring a few new projects to light, one can’t help but think there is so much more that can be done that publishing houses simply fail to put their mind to. Forget about literary festivals, with the biggest of the lot around the corner in the case of Jaipur. For it is the author’s platform. All other formats or channels: launches, media, readings, publicity etc are mostly author-driven as well. Readers couldn’t care less for the publisher, except in cases that make an individual proposal – self-publishing, controversial books etc. In that sense, the Indian publisher probably never gets to develop a relationship with the reader, or acquaint him or her with the method of creating a book, from the cover to designing and curating editions that we buy, almost always for the way they look, without caring to think how it was done in the first place.
For example the centennial edition of James Joyce’s A Portait of An Artist as a Young Man, which I happened to come across on a shelf of the Penguin Classics section, is an absolute joy: a book so beautifully put together it deserves perhaps its own pedestal and stall. But it is not only the cover that needs to be told besides being sold.
Consider yourself a publisher at the fair. You have for years complained that India produces bad books in bulk and masala fiction because that is what the masses want. The fair is probably the only place where masses flock the scene of publishing and tomes, unlike regular readers who prowl around websites and media pages for deals and books the year round. Surely, then this is a rare opportunity to not only set up a new front for the average bookstore, but educate this unapprised reader of what he could and perhaps even should look for. And the road should go both ways. Because what do publishers do differentlyfrom bookstores at a fair other than perhaps make a few rare editions available, and offer discounts that usually wouldn’t be imaginable? The answer is nothing, really.
It seems like the Indian publishing scene is bent on establishing buyers, rather than establishing readers. Surely, the latter ensures better profits, and a readership willing to experiment and stay loyal to the general exercise at the same time. For starters, the publisher decides what book sees the light of day and the extent to which it can be thrust into public conscience. Debut writers, or second, third-timers simply do not have cachet to pull in people on their own, except the outright exceptional or exceptionally publicised.
It only makes sense that people who decide the worth of book, also make an attempt to reach out to the other side, maybe even to convince people that the baton is also theirs to hold. As the recently deceased John Berger said at the end of Ways of Seeing, ‘To be continued by the reader’. Perhaps, that is true of every book. But the reader is also the beginning. It then only makes you wonder why when the opportunity to interact and engage with this nucleus presents itself, publishers are content with stacking books in shelves and treating all comers (as) worth their card swiping capacities. Not the romantics at heart who’d give so much more, if you made an offer — at the least the idea that you care.
Updated Date: Jan 14, 2017 09:34 AM