The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Take a look at Sunday’s bestsellers’ lists or last week’s, or next week’s, and you’ll easily conclude that mediocrity is the key to success as in films and music and just about everything around us. The occasional appearance of a novel by Saul Bellow or Gunter Grass or a serious text by Amartya Sen in the list is a happy reminder that it is not a universal truth. But by and large, lists are dominated by hack writers who have figured out how to appeal to the masses — with The Bridges of Madison County, Chicken Soup for the Soul, One-Minute Manager — and do so with numbing predictability.

Those who say that it was not always so are being sentimental and incorrect because the down-market has always attracted buyers. It is true that not so many years ago there was a large enough readership for serious novels and academic scholarship. Their numbers have dwindled and the big question is why. First, eliminate the multitude of reasons usually provided by those who have stopped reading after completing their formal education but who believe that their “stock” is enough to comment on the general intellectual climate — high prices, the onslaught of television and the entertainment industry, “we’ve heard it all before;” “we’ve more significant fish to fry;” “we have no time;” besides the distractive private and public lives. These may be true but there are far more fundamental factors for the rapid descent into the mediocrity abyss.

The basic reason is the dominance of the market philosophy. The notion that, instead of catering to the general public taste, publishers might seek to improve that taste has been tossed aside as too antiquated, absurd and patronizing to be practised in business.

Success is what counts; and success equals money that comes from the maximum number of copies sold in the shortest possible time, at the highest margin of profit. Dumb down the language and content, throw in the pictures, jazz up the cover and then hype the book into the market. From the sheer experience of bookselling, publishers have learnt a few home truths.

First, there is not much love lost between literature and the marketplace. The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium, wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement (read: reprints and/revised editions) and offers some marginal gain with each improvement. To such an economy, serious literature is not merely an inferior product; it is unprofitable. A classic work is infinitely reusable, and worst of all, unimproveable, making it a recipe for a business disaster.

Second, publishers know that people are similar in their prurient interests. When the lowest common denominator is the determining factor, the end product is such that almost every user is able to get something from it. Quality is not abysmal keeping long term image in mind, all you need to do is to make it look nice and user-friendly.

Pressures of the market and the publishers’ efforts to reflect market tastes aside, the most apparent factor is the rapid decline of educational standards. In a market where the bulk of publishing caters to the educational market falling standards will ultimately be reflected in the quality of books we produce. There is little that publishers can do on their own.

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