Much of the responsibility for this phenomenon must be shared by publishers. They deliberately watered down their standards and lists. At the turn of the 21st century, they discover that the middle classes are ready to use it to achieve dreams they have long harbored. Newly well-to-do Indians were willing to pay vast sums to trek to Everest Base Camp with a Seiko mountaineer on their wrists, to descend the Nile in khaki Seersucker jackets, document the Serengeti with their Leica M-3s, scout the Lochness Monster with a flat tweed cap on his head and an Ardbeg dram or two in his hand. And write novels with their matte black Mont Blanc Meisterstucks to be published by houses that once had Rushdie, Narayan, Nagarkar, Roy and Naipaul on their list.
In addition, this lot was ready to finance the entire print run of 500 copies. They, in turn, would receive 50 copies to gift to their “loved ones” and host a book launch at a Bandra or GK-1 jazz bar.
Many new publishers have multiplied and minted money. Older, more reputable houses have also opened thinly concealed vanity publishing divisions. These vanity books, mostly novels, have all but killed the literary novel in India. These novelists were loyal customers, and when, 20 years from now, their sons and daughters also wrote novels and collections of poetry, they funded them too, as they would fill out their CVs for admission to American and Australian universities. .
Novels have lost their mystique, their dignity. And in turn, the publishers too. The publishers who published these novels lost their ability to appreciate storytelling, as they sought ever simpler narratives. Every nuance was sanded down and complications frowned upon. Marketing departments quickly adopted POD – Print On Demand – to reduce storage costs. ‘Why print 3,000 copies when you can print 300 copies and publish the book on Amazon? We can always print more on weekends when all the copies are sold out. Soon, these marketing and sales mandarins lost their ability to assess risk, to sell books.
These bogus novels and their hired publicists have also killed book review in India. As these novels flooded publishers’ desks with book reviews week after week, with understandable disgust they stopped reviewing works of fiction and focused on nonfiction where this infringement was less apparent. But editors have also lost their relevance. Most newspapers simply deleted their review pages.
Publishers and writers are equal partners in the creation of a book. Without a publisher, no writer can become a true author. In turn, without writers, publishers might as well sell soap. Publishing can’t be run like an FMCG business, as shown by the collapse of Amazon-promoted Context – which released some fantastic non-fiction titles – earlier this year.
Editors are vitally important to writers and society as gatekeepers and opinion makers. So, it’s my fervent plea to them to only publish novels that they truly believe in. And not dross they hate but hope to sell thousands of copies, or a book from an academic who will make sure his college library buys the full backlist.
Always be more elitist. As for my comrades – the novelists and storytellers – please stop palming off your memoirs, travelogues, news reports, diary entries, psychiatric case histories and doctoral dissertations as novels. You are a service provider. Provide stimulation if not pleasure. Otherwise, like a sniper, you’re just removing drives, one by one.
(The writer is the author of The Time of the Peacock)