Chasing the novel in Jaipur
There is enough at Jaipur, you'd think, to keep anxiety afloat in this time of heightened outrage. As the literature festival comes around once again, this time yet more ambitious and larger, the voice of intolerance has again been audible. Get those who defended Salman Rushdie last year out of the programme. Get Pakistani novelists sent back. Get a rethink on the Dalai Lama's scheduled presence lest the Chinese take it as a slight. However, on balance, there is no doubt that the overriding message from the congregation is healthy. Pool together some of the best writers from India and abroad, and folks will flock to hear them speak. The republic of letters is robust.
But even as the organisers brace themselves for record attendance, this invitation to writers and the general public to assemble under the same tent occasions a question that will increasingly occupy those in the publishing chain — writers, editors, agents, marketers, booksellers — as well as us lay readers. How is the discovery of books changing? Put another way, how and where, already and in days to come, will we chance upon new publications and get an overview of what others are reading?
The question is posed amidst two migrations that are changing the way books are obtained. The bookselling trade has been upended by the consolidation of online booksellers, most dramatically by Amazon but also by local variants, like Flipkart in India. Coasting on discounts as well as on larger stocks, these behemoths have brick-and-mortar bookstores already rethinking their retail strategies. The chains have embraced diversification (with more space given over to stationery, accessories, gifts) and discounts on bestselling titles. Independent
and standalone bookstores are catering ever more narrowly to their target clientèle.
For example, you could have visited your high-street and highish-brow bookshop day in and day out for the past couple of years and completely missed the bestselling title, Ravinder Singh's Can Love Happen Twice? It is not just that the readerships of mass-market titles like this one (and the number of titles is growing at a phenomenal clip) are keeping apart from those inclined to "serious" reading, but the shopping styles of young and older readers too are different. So, in marketing Singh's book, his team at Penguin opted for an overwhelmingly online strategy, aware that the internet is where younger readers are more effectively targeted (as compared to old-fashioned book launches) and it's where they shop for books.