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TWICE AS MUCH IN HALF AS LITTLE

As sales of national newspapers and magazines continue to rise, volume sales of books have steadily declined over the last five years. Mainstream newspapers and magazines have recorded sales of over 350,000 copies, while first printings of new fiction and serious non-fiction have declined from 1,500 to 750 copies, and even less. Two questions: Why has this happened and what could be done to make the future of the book better'

Take the pat answers first. High prices, too many books already, the lack of distribution outlets which makes books difficult to access, the short-attention span of the television-watching generation and so on. Each of these reasons, and all of them put together, provide only partial answers to the phenomenon of declining book sales.

High prices (largely because of low print runs that prevent economies of scale) have affected purchases of the middle class, the only segment that reads for pleasure and greater understanding. But, contrary to popular opinion, prices have never been a significant factor affecting volume sales because most book purchases in India are dictated by the relevance of the book for immediate needs. “Relevance” is hard to define and could mean anything from pure entertainment to passing examinations and getting on in life.

Of course, TV does disorient, especially with the remote control in your hands. We channel hop, so that nothing one sees is consecutive, everything is inconsequent, everything jumps out of strange corners. There is a loss of narrative that results in short attention spans which leads to those 10-minute programmes that further cuts into our concentration levels. It is an endless road downhill. But, not all of us are couch potatoes glued to the TV for want of better things to do. In fact, most readers (at whatever level) watch TV for news, sports or some favourite programme and then switch off.

The other two or three reasons—that our lives are too crowded and leave little time are lame excuses for not reading at all. The real reason is that reading requires solitude. It is a state of mind that has to be acquired over time, in fact, since childhood. Most of us have not done so out of sheer laziness or because our moribund education system does not make too many demands of us.

But what is the reason behind the phenomenal growth of newspapers and magazines' Primarily, three reasons: photojournalism, topicality and sensation. There is little doubt that the most avaricious reader would like a break from the text with some pictures on the page; story-telling requires some form of topicality; and sensation and gossip adds spice to the mundaneness of our day-to-day existence.

There is another reason that reflects the tenor of the times: “copy” is short, sparse and cut close to the bone. It gets readers to at least look at the page. Publishers have to take a leaf out of the print media: half the number of pages by purging sentences of useless words and paragraphs of useless sentences. Price and production time would also be cut by almost half.

Here is an example. In a short story competition, Italo Calvino chose as the winning entry a one-sentence story by the Guatemalan poet, Augusto Monterroso: “When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”

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