First, the lack of unanimity between competing lists. We all have our favourites, and so do those who compile these round-ups of the year’s ‘best books.’ Therefore, there are few common titles that appeal to all.
But, not surprisingly, many of the titles in these lists are not from the bestseller lists that are hyped by mass-circulation magazines. Editors take their decisions based on their own assessment of which are the best ones, and this need not necessarily be their assessment of the market; aesthetic factors loosely defined as language, style and relevance of subject matter also play a part.
Second, quite a few deal with the leading issues of the day such as climate change, globalization and its discontents, the global financial crisis, terrorism and fundamentalism, and so on: they serve as backgrounders with some analysis thrown in. The line between up-market journalism and book publishing is becoming very thin now, partly because newspapers and magazines cannot afford to carry long articles with the background and the pros and cons of every issue. Besides, the common reader rarely reads editorial pages where ‘underlying causes and their consequences’ are discussed.
Third, since the digital age gives readers a wide variety of choices, clarity and definition, knowing what or who is the potential audience is the only way to break into the market. As a result, general interest is out, niche is in. This goes for fiction as well as for areas where the audience is ‘targeted’ according to readership surveys by market researchers.
Formula books that had been the main domain of publishers such as Mills and Boon have been extended to general fiction now, with editors telling authors what to put in or keep out according to the trends of the day. Of course, there are exceptions, but the general rule is to give readers want they are looking for.
Fourth, mass-market publishing is now a sub-division of the entertainment industry. So, an important consideration for a book to be published is its potential to spin off into television serials or sitcoms, or even full-length films.
Along with this is the growing realization that people are similar in their prurient interests — even though they may be sharply different in their civilized concerns — and the best way to capture market share is to cater to the lowest common denominator of sex, glitz, romance and violence. This formula had been in the making for quite some time, but has achieved much greater sophistication with the advent of computer graphics and digitalization.
Hence the question: Will these four factors provide the guidelines for future publishing programs? Where will celebrity books, which always make a big splash to begin with, fit in this world of hard-nosed business philosophy?
The answer to the first question is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. It is ‘yes’ because these four factors have always been key to publishing decisions. In one way or another, they are all related to the market potential of the book, which is the main reason for the book’s existence.
It is ‘no’ because the emphasis is now changing with greater public interest in contemporary affairs that are not adequately covered by the media, and also because technology or the communications revolution has made the market that was hitherto out of reach more accessible. Editors can afford to take greater risks with proposals that were non-starters earlier. This is reflected in a slew of books on remote subjects that prima facie would have few takers. But India is a vast market and there will always be a few hundred interested readers provided one could reach them — which one can now. And once publishers succeed, celebrities will simply wither away.RAVI VYAS