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March 02, 2017

Are The New Dynamics Of Publishing Changing The Way We Read?

Text by Nittal Chandarana. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

Also, is the digital world eating into the realm of the paperback?

I’m told stories evolved from the spoken word, gradually appearing as funny little hieroglyphs on cave walls until they finally made their way to Gutenberg’s press. From then till now, the publishing industry has seen a sea change. Today, it has taken on varied and unconventional forms, changing the very definition of the word ‘writer’. From IIT graduates who have achieved overnight success to crowdsourced candidates contributing six-word stories to popular social media platforms — everyone claims to be a writer and loosely uses this coveted title as an extension of self. Then there are those who self-publish. Quite an investment initially but with the internet taking over, even publishing one’s own work has become less risky albeit more indulgent than it ever was. Take column compilations and graphic novels making their mark in the literary environment for instance and it’s clear that the digital space is biting more and more into the territory of paperbacks.

Should one classify this opening up of the literary world for writers en masse as a positive development — I can’t seem to decide. Literature is for whoever seeks it. But whether everyone must write with the goal of becoming a published ‘author’ is debatable. Chiki Sarkar’s Juggernaut Books welcomes aspiring authors to pitch their stories through a simple online procedure which is revolutionary, considering one is published alongside greats like Arundhati Roy or William Dalrymple. And one can read a novella for the price of cotton candy. This may be an incredible move in making stories accessible but does reading still garner the same emotional response? Now, I can almost see those who believe in the magical powers of the sight and smell of books shake their heads in disbelief, but consider this: maybe it isn’t supposed to.

Devices like Amazon’s Kindle and online writing communities like Wattpad have long taken over. Even the most old-fashioned hoarders have begun to do away with their collections when they see the practicality of having all those goodies in one basket online. With low revenue cuts and lesser risk of the experiment failing, digital self-publishing seems like a viable option for many.

There’s a silver lining here if one really wants to see it: authors are sudden celebrities, with Chetan Bhagat garnering eight million followers on Twitter. He is said to have brought reading and books back to a vast majority of Indians. Considering J.K. Rowling is credited with doing the same in the UK, it is disappointing to see how quantity and not quality is the yardstick for measuring success at home. No, this is not another piece of writing pointing a finger at Bhagat’s writing — but him being considered the most popular writer in India can’t be a good sign.

Bhagat brought with him a spate of fellow IIT alumni authors. Others like Amish Tripathi made a fortune with mythological writing. Readily accessible to the media and his fans, he amasses a full house at literary festivals. The publishing world, like any other, is not devoid of trends. IIT authors, mythological fiction, self-help books, autobiographies, compilations — it’s all been done. Remember when monks were selling Ferraris? And then inspiration took on another form. Life stories of sportsmen, political leaders and actors fuelled the competitive spirit. Overcoming odds and unlikely success stories made for much better drama like with Agassi’s wild career reflected in Open or Sachin’s humble reign in Playing It My Way. Tried and tested column compilations make for great reads. Khushwant Singh’s radical views shone in Why I Supported the Emergency and Twinkle Khanna’s Mrs Funnybones presented an equally rebellious view of the times.

Quite recently, photobooks for adults were all the rage. The ‘Humans of New York’ series saw staggering success. So did Theron Humphrey’s Maddie on Things: A Super Serious Project About Dogs and Physics, which captures Humphrey’s dog posing on top of things like trees, tractors, fences, and anything else that catches its fancy. While trends exist for a reason and no writer is belittled, the likes of Siddharth Chowdhury, Janice Pariat and Mira Jacob are still lesser known. These are excellent authors who certainly don’t need championing, but to sustain in the world of writing today, they must do the rounds of more than just the literary circles. However, one trend that is exciting and here to stay is the one where authors take on more than just the writer’s role. Many illustrate their own graphic novel. And yet others write scripts. Neil Gaiman appears to be living in an idyllic literary world writing short stories, poetry, novels, graphic novels, radio plays, and the like. The new Harry Potter book, as everyone discovered and wasn’t too happy about, was the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. A hardbound script of a play, its charm immediately diminished. But this variety is probably the best part about writing (and reading).

No doubt, the publishing industry today faces tough competitionfrom television and the internet. During the 1700s and the 1800s, writers had the luxury of commanding a completely loyal audience whereas today, literature is silenced by notification pings. That said, there is no excuse for not having a story to read. Self-published or backed by a literary giant, non-fiction or fabrication, there are multiple options for every age group in every genre. The power dynamic may change between publishing houses and authors but the reader will always have the last word.

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