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THE CHAFF WITH THE GRAIN

It is not just a question of too many books chasing too few readers but actually chasing them away. Over- publishing and over- hyping have led to less reading, if you go by the number of copies that remain unsold within a year of publication. Is this merely because of a scatter gun approach that has taken over the publishing world? We hear about a new spirit of financial ruthlessness in publishing but it doesn’t seem to be reflected in the kind of book that would interest the serious common reader who would pay for it.

All publishing decisions are taken by a committee of three: the editor, the marketing manager and the accountant. The editor has the final say and must take the rap for failures. But editors today work under severe strain. In house after house, good editors have been fired and not replaced. An obsession with turnover has replaced the ability to distinguish good books from bad. The prevailing philosophy is: let the market decide. Just put the stuff out; something is bound to click. So bulk stocks are pushed out to wholesalers for distribution to retailers while the publicity machines provide the support system for the retail trade.

There are three reasons why large numbers come back. First, under the distribution arrangements with booksellers, there is an understanding that unsold copies would be taken back and the necessary credit issued for them. Second, readers unable to hack their way through the forests of junk literature, and made cynical by the language of hyperbole with which every books is garlanded, just give up. They buy a couple of bestsellers or books that have been recommended by word-of-mouth and move on. Third, Indian readers are very discriminatory buyers. They buy only if it serves a specific purpose and if the book will have a long shelf life with them. There is no impulse buying for entertainment as in the West.

Editors are over-publishing because of the financial pressure to increase turnover. That a higher turnover does not necessarily lead to greater profitability is a well-established fact but accountants argue that it helps to cover overhead costs. Hence the compromise to increase the number of new titles even if it means lowering standards. It is argued that the market will always pick up a minimum number of copies and with the right cost-price formula, the cost of production is covered with a little left for overheads. To clinch the argument, editors say that since there is nothing new under the sun, every book has an even chance of making it big in the uncertain market. This is a specious argument but it works when editors are under siege to produce more.

Good editing would get rid of the chaff in books, but this is easier said than done. Good editors are hard to come by and harder to nurture because there are better job opportunities in the mass media. For avid readers who have to take what comes, the only advice is stick to standards and reject the compromises being foisted on them. Hopefully, the publisher will correct himself when he comes under the pressures of the market.

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