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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 24, June 4, 2011

Assembly-line Manufacture of Books, the Surest Way to Lose Readers

Thursday 9 June 2011, by T J S George


Like all the superluxury cars in the world opening showrooms in India, all the great book publishers of the world are opening branches in India. The pull of the Indian middle class is as compelling as the pull of the Indian millionaire class.

But the super cars ensure that they remain super; even if they sell only a dozen cars a year, the price tags will justify their overheads. Book publishers have to have large volumes to sustain the overheads. So the diligence that goes into the manufacture of cars cannot go into the manufacture of books.

There are publishers who decide, inside the majesty of their board rooms, that they shall publish 300 or 400 titles per year. Car-makers can put in more shifts, add more assembly lines and turn out more units. How do book publishers manage to get 300 or 400 titles to publish each year?

Well, many of our publishers simply put in more shifts and add more assembly lines. So books come out like cars coming out of a factory. The assumption is: Car-buyers, an unreasonable lot, will complain even if there is a stain in the upholstery. Book buyers, the world’s most reasonable lot, will not complain even if there are a dozen spelling stains on every page.

THE net result is that books get published in India that should not have reached a paginator’s screen. Many of them are about cinema and cinema people reflecting the quick-fix publisher’s hurry to get out easy books to hit an easy target. There is no other explanation for the recently published K.L. Saigal: The Definitive Biography.

Bad title to begin with. Because there is nothing definitive about this biography. There is not even a shred of new information. In the West, biographies are still coming out on people like Lawrence of Arabia and Princess Diana and they are lapped up because they present new research, new material, new insights. Saigal was great enough to deserve half-a-dozen books. But it cannot be done by shortcut artistes.

A.R. Rahman is nowhere near Saigal since he is more a synthesiser of music than an inventor. But he is a big success story and therefore deserves the attention of a serious archivist/curator like Nasreen Munni Kabir. Even so her A.R. Rahman: The Spirit of Music is not the study it could have been. How can you study a subject by merely recording conversations with him?

R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music is at least based on old-fashioned research, due perhaps to the two authors’ background; Anirudh Bhattacharjee is an IIT graduate and Balaji Vittal a bank employee. But music is unlike most other subjects. It has soul—an active, living force within. One needs empathy with that soul to bring a musician and his music to life. Admiration is not empathy. I want to live: The life of Madhubala also fails to connect with the soul of the tragic heroin.

Actually cinema is a vast and rich world that waits to be tapped by authors with the patience and the training to slog on, and by publishers with the patience and perseverance to keep the authors going. The instant success of Ambani and Sons should have inspired someone to plan a tome called Prithviraj and Sons on the unrivalled Kapur clan. The fabled careers of Mehboob, A.R. Kardar and K. Asif invite a study called The Movie Mughals. Johny Walker deserves a full-fledged biography.

But quickies won’t do. Perhaps the unhurried, purpose-driven “independent publishers” may yield more results than the brand-burdened big-timers with assembly-line production programmes. P. Lal’s Writers’ Workshop made history in its time. So did Katha and Seagull. The more recent Navayana, Queer Ink and Women Unlimited have been attracting attention in their own quiet way.

The reading public in India has become a magnet to publishers who are losing their fan clubs in internet-obsessed West. But if the reading public is taken for a ride, that last magnet will be lost too.

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