Far From the Madding Crowd

The official blog of Dogears Etc., CinnamonTeal Publishing and fivex5


How I began writing

In April 2011, CinnamonTeal published Shruti Swaminathan, who was then and still is the youngest author we have published. Impressed by her command over the English language at such a young age, we asked her to tell us what inspires her to write. Here is her story.

I began writing at the age of six. It all started off like this.

When I had begun to read, at the age of four, I used to read small storybooks. When I could not pronounce a word in that book, I would completely lose interest in the book and keep it away. My mother saw this and then started rewriting all the fairy tales and Jataka Tales in simple language on the laptop with matching images on every page. I used to read them at first with my mother and then by myself. That’s how, today, I can read very well.

Soon, I started helping her in looking for suitable pictures for more fairy tales, on the Internet. I would also suggest sentences for the stories. I used to enjoy that a lot.

I shifted to Chennai from Mumbai when I was six years old. I started living in Madhuban Apartments. In the same apartments lived another boy – seven months older than myself. We made friends with each other and started making up plays. We enjoyed acting out our own plays and actually, it was quite a lot of fun. These plays were written down in a thick-bound diary by me in the form of prose and not drama.

My parents discovered my talent and encouraged me to type out my stories on the laptop. Since then, I have been writing many, many stories.

I’ve got a collection of hundred and more – but, there are some which have no ending, some which I have not even begun yet!! I am at the laptop for an hour everyday – even during exam-time!! I manage to type something everyday except if I have ‘writer’s block’.

I love to read and re-read books. My book-reading habit started off with Enid Blyton, went on to Charles Dickens, Ruskin Bond, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, RK Laxman and JK Rowling. My favourite personality is Anne Frank and I have read her diary (unabridged version).

I never knew I had a talent when I was six years old. Actually, I came to know of it only when I was in Class Three. And now, I’m quite proud of it. It’s quite special to me – it’s a completely different line.

I sometimes draw my inspiration from real life incidents and experiences. When I was traveling by air to Andaman and Nicobar Islands, I looked out of the window and saw the clouds and that inspired me to write a story on Fairyland. When I read about Libya and the protests against Gathafi (Gaddafi), I wrote a school story involving my toy-dog, Timmy.

My first book called ‘Straight from a Child’s Heart’ was published by CinnamonTeal Publishers, Margao Goa in April 2011 on my tenth birthday. My parents are planning the second book for this year, again with CinnamonTeal.

Before I dash off my signature below this article, I’d like to say something to all the young writers like me: Remember, writing stories is not a crime. You can always make it your career with something side-by-side, like being an English Literature Professor. Writing stories is a completely different line – so consider it special and never lose an opportunity to write!

Shruti Swaminathan

Her parents say…

She writes on a variety of topics – school stories, her father’s childhood memories, mystery stories, apartment stories and anything that kindles her imagination.

She continues to read voraciously. Her favourite books and authors include The Malgudi Days, Ruskin Bond, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Diary of Anne Frank, David Copperfield and The Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Sometimes, her writings display a combination of imagination and real-life incidents, experiences and news events, for example, the recent strife in Libya. This is, in great measure, due to her habit of poring over the newspaper before leaving for school and watching the news channel with us in the evening. Her interest in reading makes her literally pore over any printed matter. This has improved not only her vocabulary but also her levels of general awareness. Even her father’s office magazine is gone through thoroughly and scanned for interesting information.

We now find that her reading habits have helped her in her academic performance also. She doesn’t have to prepare for creative writing exercises in school (paragraphs, letters or articles) – her reading gives her sufficient material to write on any topic. Since her comfort levels with English are fairly high, it has helped her to move away from rote-learning, to understanding the subject and writing the answers in her own words.

Her writing skills have helped her to gain recognition in school and she is invited to contribute stories for the Annual Magazine and participate in story-writing contests.

The only area where we can take credit as parents is being always available as ready-for-reference dictionaries and encyclopedias for her. We have also actively encouraged her to read story books and not viewed it as a distraction. As a result, Shruti has had many teachers guiding her and helping hone her vocabulary and writing skills – at home, at school and authors such as Enid Blyton, Ruskin Bond, R.K. Narayan, to name a few.

A good command of the language has also had a positive impact on her levels of self-confidence and she is comfortable interacting with adults, both in the spoken and written form. Queenie Rodrigues, of CinnamonTeal, herself has been at the receiving end – Shruti sends e-mails to her very willingly even though she has never met her.

I, as a parent, have realised the immense potential of reading, having seen the tremendous progress that Shruti has made in six years. I believe that inculcating reading skills among children, an area neglected in most schools today, holds the key to an enriching education and would make our children a lot more successful than they are today.

eBooks: Digital immigrants vs Digital Natives and the Impermanence Debate

by K. Venkatesh

How much have you shifted online? Do you pay your bills online? Has it got to do anything with eBooks? Probably yes and probably no.

In 2001, Marc Prensky proposed the terms “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Those born after the introduction of digital technology are digital natives and those born before, digital immigrants. Digital natives are likely to embrace digital technology as if it’s their second nature, whereas digital immigrants need an effort to do that. But to what extent you are digitalized depends on your work. If your work requires the use of digital technology (as simple as a Word document as opposed to a printed paper document), you tend to move to digital, not out of choice but out of compulsion. Only those who have got off their active work are not affected by this digital shift. Sheer convenience drives the change sometimes. It is far easier to pay a bill online, say even at midnight, than to queue up for hours. But the paper as a source of records is on the wane, quite irreversibly. The “Search” function’s incredible convenience of locating data accurately and quickly definitely shifts the fence-sitter towards digital.

At the Hay Festival at Cartagena, Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom (which President Obama requested an advance copy before publication), warned of impermanence in eBooks. The Guardian quotes Franzen as saying “maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing - that’s reassuring,’ said Franzen, according to the Telegraph,” adding, “Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.” Henry Potter recorded his argument that digital is making us smarter. He questions, “If the printed word were the guardian of all democratic values, how is it that the country where, in 1439, a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press succumbed almost 500 years later to a totalitarian hell, in which books, and the knowledge in them, were suppressed with a relatively small number of bonfires? Ink on paper is no more a guarantor of good government than oil paint on canvas.” Arguing that oil paint on canvas has survived, he points out: “The point is that humanity goes on adding to the available means of self-expression and communication, and very few forms or techniques are eliminated in the process, which is one reason to celebrate the possibilities of this extraordinary moment in history.” Taking Potter’s argument further, our temples (churches or mosques) have survived centuries of change and no one razed a them to build a hypercity. Traditional forms of music and dance are still in practice and its later adaptations have not been able to wipe the older form altogether. The reason for their stickiness is “faith” and a puritan mindset. Often, it is argued that changing forms will not have the desired effect and so traditional music has undergone only mild innovations in form while the original is preserved to the maximum. Technology simplifies our mechanical effort and naturally we have found it helping us. It’s more of a fixed mindset rather than pros-and-cons thinking.

Will eBook take over print completely? There is no scarcity of debate on this issue. Those in favour of print talk about aesthetics of typefaces smell of paper, bedtime reading, and all that gives them a sense of enjoyment. Publisher income is still dominated by print. Those inclined towards eBooks point out the convenience of carrying hundreds of books on a single device, searchability, and bookmarking as benefits. Are these people digital natives and someone who stand contrary to Franzen and support Porter? Are print lovers digital immigrants and echo with Franzen’s point of view? May be and may be not.

Digital technology is shaking the very foundations of business models on which publishing has survived for centuries. The authenticate (editorial), publish (publisher) and distribute (bookstores) form of publishing is challenged by self-publishing and online bookstores. You don’t need all that you needed before to reach the reader. Interestingly, André Schiffrin (Business of Words, Navayana, 2011) does not discuss self-publishing, perhaps because self-publishing was not considered significant when he wrote Words & Money. Alan Rusbridger, in a lecture a couple of years ago, spoke of the breaking down of walls and the dilution of high position held by journalists in deciding what to say, thus challenging the monopolistic structure that has been in practice for decades, if not centuries. Social networks such as Twitter provide voice to the reader who was not heard before. Citizen journalism is a reality and all this is because of digital technologies. The growth of self-publishing could be attributed to authors eager to find their voice and name in a publication, going beyond the publisher and leveraging technology.

Publishers are in a momentous shift, and are increasingly finding ways to maximize profits. So Penguin USA has launched Book Country, a self-publishing imprint for new authors to publish without editorial intervention. It has gone ahead to acquire two titles from Book Country for its regular imprint. It is clear that publishers chase only profitable acquisitions and self-publishing was never on their radar till recently. But the success of Amanda Hocking has turned their attention to self-publishing as a viable source of their most important criterion - income on balance sheets.

Amidst reports of robust eBook sales quarter after quarter and the monopolistic attitudes of Amazon and Google in dictating market forces, the reader is caught in a time warp. A sensible reader always weighs the costs against the pleasure of reading. If the digital form will provide more pleasure at low cost, in their opinion, the readers will embrace it willingly. Certain mindsets that favour only print as authentic, like Franzen’s, and their bias towards the smell of print will make them take to print. Reader habits will be increasingly defined not by reader tastes but how disruptive technologies like Amazon’s self-publishing take prominence. Economics is important in this globalized world and anyone in publishing will pursue only those endeavours that give them maximum returns, with total disregard for reader preference and the reader will be forced to consume what is on offer. The publishers will try to influence the readers’ minds in favour of technologies that are cost-effective for them. Seeing that the reader has not outright rejected the digital forms, the publisher will push them more.

But all those apart, you will read either printed book or on an e-reader depending upon what you like and what is convenient to you. Jonathan Franzen’s concerns will be countered and forgotten, and digital natives will place the argument in their favour. As long as you read, why bother about these debates? Any way you, the reader, can hardly influence it, whether you are a digital native or a digital immigrant, agree with Franzen or disagree with him.

K. Venkatesh is founder of VirtualPaper, a freelance copyediting firm and writes on entrepreneurship and publishing. 

A Bonanza of Goan Books

By Augusto Pinto

Goa has had a love-hate  affair with books. It has suffered the trauma of book burning during the Inquisition. But it is also the first place in India  to print the modern book way back in the 16th Century.

Nowadays though things are looking up for book publishing. Every year there are around 200-250 books being published in Goa mainly in Konkani (in both Romi and Devanagari scripts), Marathi and English.

The stream of publications in English over the last few years has been especially swift. Goa 1556, Broadway Book Centre, Rajhans Vitaran, CinnamonTeal and Third Millennium among others publish a stream of books to feed the hunger for Goa related books.

For instance, Goa 1556 Publishers have over the last 2 years have come out with an astonishing  33 books on Goa or by Goans, with a new one or two being published every month.

The books are on a variety of subjects and genres and are written by people of different backgrounds and interests. Remarkably a 14 year old boy from Sharada Mandir School, Vivek Nayak had his  science fiction novel Inhuman published by Broadway Book Centre recently.

Among the notable books that have come to the bookstores recently are The Last Prabhu by Bernardo Elvino de Souza and In Search of Tomorrow and The Tulsi by Edila Gaitonde.

The Last Prabhu: A Hunt for Roots: DNA, Ancient Documents and Migration in Goa is the outcome of Bernardo Elvino de Souza’s curiosity  about his ancestry. A gaunkar of Aldona he is a retired Chemistry scientist in Switzerland. Using Communidade records contained in the Tombo de Aldona that had been translated and published in Gajanan Ghantkar’s History of Goa in the Goykanadi Script  he found he was a descendant of a Saraswat brahmin family of Prabhus. These Prabhus became Souzas in the 16th century.

But how did those Saraswats come to Aldona? Souza followed the work of Chandrakant Keni in The Saraswats (V.M.Salgaocar Foundation, Goa, 2008) which suggests that they migrated here after the River Saraswati, on whose banks they lived, dried up.

And before that? To find the answer Souza uses the research of IBM & the National Geographic magazine’s ongoing genographic project which maps human DNA to trace the deep ancestry of people around the world.

What emerges is that Souza’s ancestors travelled from Africa where man first emerged and migrated over the period of several millennia towards an area called ‘the Fertile Crescent’, an area that is now occupied by present day Israel, Palestine,  Syria, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, South Eastern Turkey and West and Southwest Iran.

These findings seem to find support in the archaeological findings of A. R. S. Dhume in The Cultural History of Goa: 10,000 BC to 1352 AD (2nd Edition, Broadway Book Centre, 2009). This suggests that around 4000 years ago descendants of Sumerians settled in Goa and introduced such changes as land ownership by the village god or goddess, dedicated places of worship (temples), and the village commune system. Could his  Saraswat ancestors have been those Sumerians (who belong to the Fertile Crescent)?

On caste, Souza suggests that the caste divisions in Indian society could possibly have been just a matter of luck as different castes often share the same DNA. But he is also rather indignant that some Hindu Saraswats do not acknowledge the common caste ancestry they share with Catholic Brahmins!

Souza’s book raises as many questions as it answers. Who were Goa’s first settlers? Could they be modern day Mhars or Kharvis? What implications does it have for our perennial ‘insider-outsider’ controversies?  Perhaps further DNA research is needed, as the data that Souza uses is confined mainly to a few Saraswat Brahmin converts to Christianity who come from the Bardez and Tiswadi talukas in Goa.

Edila Gaitonde’s In Search of Tomorrow (Rajhauns Vitaran, 2009) is a reprint of a fascinating autobiography of the first Portuguese woman who married a Hindu, the late freedom fighter Dr. Pundalik Gaitonde.First published by Allied Publishers it quickly went out of print and has been freshly reissued by Rajhauns Vitaran, Goa.

The book tells of her eventful social and political life first in Portugal  and later in Goa. In Goa, her Hindu in-laws and the society around her were quite bewildered as to how to deal with a firanghee bride. The Catholics were equally scandalised.

The book recounts the arrest of Dr. Pundalik Gaitonde after he impetuously burst out,”I protest!” when he heard a Portuguese apple polisher rapturously describe Goa as,“Here too is Portugal!”  After being subsequently deported to Portugal, the Gaitondes moved on to England.

Now Edila has come out with a new book of stories, The Tulsi (Goa 1556, 2011) where she once more dwells upon her cross cultural experiences. The stories are very easy to read and they mock at the barriers of culture and religion. The  book has an Introduction by Selma Carvalho which succinctly introduces the reader to Edila and her times.

All the tales have an anecdotal feel. Dressed as fiction they sidestep the problems of hurting real life people or their relatives as an autobiography might.

The title story, The Tulsi, poignantly  shows how an American daughter-in-law who is eager to please her Hindu in-laws cleans up the overgrown weeds in her house’s courtyard. But in doing so, to the horror of her mother-in-law, she also chops off the sacred tulsi plant!

Author Ray Bradbury wrote,”You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” In spite of the onslaught of  new technologies it is a good thing that the book culture is alive and well in Goa.

This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of Goa Today and has been reproduced here with the author’s permission.

No easy answers

The dangers of losing out to e-book piracy is a real one. It can mean hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars in lost sales and little to show for the author’s efforts. In situations where the authors themselves have seen rampant piracy affect their books, a debate on whether or not DRM should be employed is in itself a futile exercise. Employing social DRM or the complete absence of DRM makes little sense in such a context.

At CinnamonTeal we have advocated the absence of DRM and have partnered with channels like Smashwords that think likewise. Our belief is that DRM is a costly investment that will, in any case, be tampered with and rendered ineffective. If a hacker wishes to get a book pirated, he/she will find a way to do and the presence of DRM will be but a mere irritant. In the case of people who have genuinely bought an e-book and wish to read it on multiple devices, the presence of DRM might actually dissuade sales.

Therefore the space between a rock and a hard place is a very real one for exponents of digital books. On the one hand, digital book sales are expected to grow manifold judging by the sales of e-book readers last Christmas. e-Books also present new authors with a very real chance of reaching out to new readers at a fraction of the cost it might take in the case of printed books. However, the threat of piracy negating all such expectations is equally real and must be dealt with.

An author once told me how she thought that her friends would each buy a copy of her new book only to discover that they had bought just one copy and passed it on among themselves. One man’s sharing is another man’s piracy (which is how ebook publishers would describe it). Effective DRM means that a father reading on a iPad cannot share a book with his daughter reading on a Nook. Expecting users to agree to such controls is maybe expecting too much. There has to be some middle ground found.

This debate over e-book piracy has certainly questioned some age-old assumptions we have had. While it seemed okay to borrow printed versions of the book at the library until they were tattered and torn and forced the purchase of another copy, publishers have questioned the logic of extending this practice to e-books (whose condition does not deteriorate over time). HarperCollins recently announced that libraries could lend an e-book only 26 times before they had to purchase it again. How the publisher arrived at that number is anyone’s guess.

Borrowing and sharing aside, piracy has always been a thorn in the publisher’s side. Music industry veterans will remember an eerily similar situation that occurred when digital music, originally seen as an additional sales channel, proved to be a menace that allowed easy piracy.

There are no easy answers. As e-books proliferate, sometimes at the expense of printed versions of the book, publishers will try and err in their quest to find what works best for them. One only hopes that publishers take decisions that are in everyone’s interest, those of the publisher, the author and the reader.

Canoodling the Customer

In a rather interesting blog, Jürgen Snoeren, Manager Operations and Digital with Amsterdam-based publisher MeulenhoffBoekerij, exhorts small publishers to establish relationships with their customers rather than with retailers. Obvious as it may seem, it is a step not too many publishers think about. In this blog, Snoeren asks publishers to focus on developing a digital infrastructure so that they can publish quickly and in all formats and to exploit every sales channel available to them.

There are two aspects to this, though both may not be altogether mutually exclusive. One is to develop a digital infrastructure, the other to engage directly with the customer. Indian publishers would especially do well to heed the latter. Most retail chains follow volumes and ignore niche markets. The books they stock also follow bestseller lists, which is in itself a self-feeding phenomenon. It becomes important, therefore, for publishers, especially those who publish non-fiction and forms of fiction that haven’t quite found their feet in India, like horror, to engage directly with its audience. There seem to be several ways to do it:

a. Experiment with retail: Be in places that your readership frequents. New Horizon Media has tried this approach and seems to have enjoyed success. Book stores are currently, for the most part, cluttered with many other products vying for the customer’s attention or too crowded to facilitate leisured browsing and purchasing. fivex5 is one such experiment that we intend to pursue in 2012.

b. Develop a good website: In these days where the natural inclination is to “go and google” for every sound we hear, having a website has become a non-negotiable imperative for every publisher. Publishers should consider it as an investment rather as an expense and be involved in its development rather than allowing website developers a carte blanche in its design an execution. Publishers must decide what they intend to achieve with the website: whether they intend to make their audience aware of its list or if they intend to extend the purpose of the website and also offer sales. They should also be aware that customers are an impatient lot so it is important to get the information to them in as few clicks as possible. Understanding and developing metadata is also important as it allows information to be accessible when the customer uses a search engine to find a book.

c. Work with schools: Unfortunately, perhaps because of the logistics involved, schools and children haven’t figured much in publishers’ plans to market their books. PTAs provide a conduit to reach out to parents for books that are not suitable to market to children. Books pitched to children might result in larger sales when done in schools as children might buy what their friends are buying. Besides, such activities will help achieve the longer term goal of attracting children to the joys of reading.

These are the obvious steps a publisher could take. I am sure the marketing whiz kids at the publishing behemoths have better ideas. It’s the independents who, short of resources, need to be creative about their marketing. And, for the most part, they have managed to do a good job there.

The call to develop a digital strategy must, however, be carefully examined. With all the buzz about e-books and the prophesies that publishers who don’t invest in them might soon sink, many such publishers feel compelled to develop a strategy for e-books. A hasty approach might be equally disastrous and publishers should therefore examine their markets before investing. E-books, by virtue of being easily accessible, do allow access to widespread markets but the readers in those markets have to be an advanced stage that allows them to properly “consume” these books. If they primarily prefer the print version, an investment in digital content development might be unnecessary. So also if e-books form a minuscule portion of the market and can be developed by outsourcing rather than developing in-house. Publishers should behave like business houses with a well-defined business plan that includes a comprehensive marketing strategy while deciding whether or not to develop digital content. In many parts of India, literacy itself is an issue that can best be tackled by the tactile experience of an e-book and publishers might do well to understand and address that need. While e-book channels do offer direct access to the reader, through fewer intermediaries than those for printed books do, the very nature of the end product does not, in our opinion, serve the larger purpose of inculcating and sustaining the reading habit among those for whom the book is a scarce resource.

Does Size Matter?

In a world where attention spans seem to be on the wane, the wisdom of publishing thick volumes has often been questioned. Do people have the time to devote to these large tomes? Do these books, that typically run into 500 pages or more, fit in with the average reader’s daily schedule. With the Kindle and the iPad around and with people perpetually on the move, is it wise to ask someone to lug these books around? Is the era of fat books over?

Photo Credit : National Media Museum - Kodak Gallery Collection

The jury might still be out on that one. In the meantime, some innovative entrepreneurs have tried to address the demands of those more comfortable in a world where 140 characters are the norm. This is a space that Daily Lit quite made its own before others appeared on the scene. No novel was too big after Daily Lit made itsits presence felt. Everything could be digested - in amounts one was comfortable with. Daily Lit made it easy to access these “bits” too as they were delivered directly to one’s inbox.

Another such venture is Penguin Shorts. As claimed on their website, these books are “designed to fill a gap”. Perhaps of having something to read, on a device that is portable, during time that is too large to while away yet too small or inconvenient to engage in serious work. Like while waiting for a flight at an airport, perhaps. These books are available exclusively in digital form, which allows readers to download these books on their devices and read them that instant. An impulse purchase, if you will.

An earlier exponent of this idea was, of course, Amazon with Kindle Singles (seems like there is little creativity when it comes to naming these imprints!). It was positioned as a form that was “much shorter than a novel, but longer than a magazine article”. It attempted to appeal to those with little patience for the long form and that in turn spawned counter efforts such as longform.org and The Atavist.

In between them are services like Instapaper and Read It Later. These services allow you to mark content for future reading. Although this service is primarily available for mobile devices, hence subscribing to the idea that readers want their information to travel with them, it stems from the belief that readers prefer details.

In the end, one would take a risk making too general a statement. Books will still be bought based on one’s choice of reading matter and even by the service accorded to the reader at the bookstore. In this aspect, perhaps, online stores, especially those selling e-books, hold an edge. On such platforms it becomes easier to pitch the story to the buyer and prevent knowledge of the number of pages. Ultimately, content will remain king.

Boom in Indian Publishing?

While attending the Goa Art and Literature Festival, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, invited to a panel discussion on the future of publishing. The panel’s brief was to examine if the publishing boom, that is currently being experienced, can be sustained. Others on the panel included Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Penguin Books India, Nirmal Kanti Banerjee, Director of K K Birla Foundation, New Delhi, Frederick Noronha, publisher of Goa 1556 and S. Anand, publisher of Navayana.

Chiki Sarkar was the moderator and she began by asking whether there was credence to the belief that there is currently a boom in publishing. Most answers to that question were in the affirmative but came with riders, that referred to the abysmal state of distribution as a major factor that dampened growth. So while sales were increasing and there seemed to be a visible increase in the number of people reading, many more readers could be had if there was indeed a well developed distribution system. Frederick, who publishes books that appeal to a relatively small audience, hastened to say that sales were not a benchmark, rather the variety of titles he published. Similarly, Anand and Nirmal pointed that although readers were buying more books, books bought per capita was a low, abysmal, figure of 1 book per person per year and then too this figure was even lower among some languages.

What was most interesting, though, was Chiki Sarkar’s answer to her own question. She said that while books were indeed selling in large numbers, they belonged to a few categories. So the best sellers included diet books, cookery books, books that documented success stories like Rashmi Bansal’s Connect the Dots, self-help books and maybe books that belonged to a few other such categories. Among fiction, the books that have captured the readers’ imagination are books that are not necessarily well written but those that “connect with the reader”, now often collectively called the “Chetan Bhagats”. Suffice to say that the publishing boom did not point to an increase in readership over all kinds of books, or lead to an increase in literary output, but led to mounting sales of just a few kinds of books. These categories are now considered safe bets and publishers bet on them because they seem to reflect contemporary readers’ tastes.

The implications of this fact are many. For one, the sales of such books might lead publishers to concentrate on them alone much to the detriment of other types of books. At best, it might cross-subsidize the publication of these other types but a publisher would have to justify his/her decision to publish such a book. Moreover, the success of these diet and cookery books might lead publishers of books in the languages to mimic their English counterparts and concentrate on such books alone. This could indeed be harmful as these “language publishers” have so far been doing an excellent job giving expression to disparate voices and offering insights into the lives of a large percentage of the population.

Secondly, like Anand pointed out, the huge bookstore chains are concentrating on these “bestsellers”. Under pressure to improve their margins and increase returns on large real-estate investments, many of these stores have begun reducing the inventory they hold. More often than not, this reduction manifests itself as fewer titles being stocked. This while large numbers of the bestselling titles are kept in inventory for fear of stocking out in the face of large demand. On this blog we have often argued that the fact that online book stores have unlimited inventories mean little to publishers in terms of revenues since in most cases books are used as loss leaders.

The third implication leads directly to the surge we have seen in recent days, of authors increasingly interested in self-publishing. The ease that technology provides to allow easy self-publishing notwithstanding, we at CinnamonTeal have ourselves witnessed an increase in the numbers who have come to us with a wish to self-publish. While some may argue that these are not books that would have been taken seriously by publishers anyway, we have seen trends that show otherwise. Among our books, we have had a lot of poetry, sci-fi, paranormal thrillers and studies of mythology and oral traditions. Perhaps, this surge in self-publishing, and in subjects as varied as these, is because mainstream publishers just aren’t interested in some kinds of books anymore. Self-publishing aside, the increase in the number of independent publishers and a glance at their lists paints a different picture, of the need for platforms that will allow different voices to express themselves.

Surely a measure of the publishing boom would be a discussion on what is being written rather than what is being read.

Before we celebrated the boom in publishing, therefore, there certainly seems to be a need to introspect on the quality of our literary output and the means available to us to improve it.

Update: In related posts, Shobit Arya, founder and publisher of Wisdom Tree, argues for a balanced and nuanced approach to bookselling while predicting an increase in what he calls “paisa-wasool” (money’s worth) literature. David Davidar, founder of Aleph Book Company, sounds very optimistic when he states that Indian writers are charting their own course and are spoilt for choice with many genres yet to be fully exploited.

Last Mile Issues

Today, a rather interesting commentary on the distribution system in India, was made in an article on The BookSeller:

Examining the Indian market, Pan Macmillan Asia m.d. Daniel Watts, who is based in New Delhi, said the main challenge for publishers selling in India was payment collection, with distributors under pressure from retailers to provide better service, availability and prices, and retailers wanting to deal directly with publishers.

He said: “The market has also opened up and the retailers have multiple choices from where they can source their books. This has facilitated a credit culture. The retailers will take 150-210 days credit. They’ll withhold payment for impending returns which are usually made within three months. They’ll withhold payment as it suits them because there is always another source ready to supply books. The backlog in payments goes all the way up the chain. Most publishers operating in India are not able to collect inside 210 days and they face the same challenges with regards withheld payments for pending returns.”

He said there were ongoing talks between the major publishers operating in India, including HarperCollins and Pan Macmillan, over whether to work together through a central warehouse to supply retailers directly, a move which may be a possibility within the next “two to three years”.

He estimated that the online bookselling market, led by Flipkart.com, currently has a 15% share of the market, with physical book chain Crossword c.o.o. Kinjal Shah telling him that his board of directors no longer have the confidence to open new stores.

That the distribution system in India needs a revamp is a no-brainer. Publishers across the spectrum will tell you that the distribution system is an evil they have learnt to live with. Payments are slow, discounts are high and books are almost always taken on an SoR (“sell or return”) basis. All that might have been bearable if books travelled the last mile and reached the eager reader. Poor road infrastructure and distributor apathy ensures that that does not happen.

Photo Credits: Flickr

What is interesting is the comment made by Kinjal Shah on the reluctance by his company to open more stores. If other bookstore chains, like the one he oversees, also feel that way, that leaves the field wide open for online stores to take their place. The increasing internet penetration in the country will only help their case, already buoyed by features such as Cash on Delivery (COD). That cannot be good news. Most online bookstores also carry other products and, more often than not, use books as loss leaders. That means many books are often sold at extreme discounts, a practice that does not bode well for publishers.

The archaic distribution system that exists in India has prompted many publishers to engage in retail, Penguin included. Other models are also being attempted, like the book club model by LeftWord Books. These are desperate attempts, and the degree to which they succeed will ultimately decide whether bookselling in India goes the Amazon way.

For publishing to truly thrive in India, efficient and viable bookstores are a must. Online platforms simply do not have the reach that physical stores can potentially have. Even these stores will not fulfil their potential if the distribution system does not ensure that the reader’s wants are met. That means distributors have to understand reader tastes and preferences and study the market for certain types of books. Books in the languages (other than in English and Hindi) must be available not only in the states that these languages are spoken but also elsewhere, where a diaspora speaking that language exists. Unfortunately, such a scientific approach to book-selling isn’t taken and books are moved to markets going by just instinct.

The my-way-or-the-highway approach that retailers seem to have taken will not help the industry. If publishers will ultimately suffer because of these practices, they will be loathe to bet on books that serve a niche market and whose demand might materialize over a period of time. Only “blockbusters” will be published, dumbed-down fiction that appeals to all. The more intelligent reader, not to be impressed by such titles, will seek a good read elsewhere. All to the detriment of that cocky retailer.