We are going to study the spaces that review publications inhabit in the Indian market for Indian writing in English and in English translation and hope to assess their role, contribution and influence in this market. This paper will observe three review publications – The Book Review, a monthly review journal published from New Delhi from 1975 onwards, a bi-monthly review journal or magazine – Biblio published since 1995 and The Hindu Literary Review, the literary section of the Indian national daily The Hindu, published every first Sunday of the month.
To understand the role of these review publications in India we should take a look at the comments and expectations voiced by publishers and reviewers in the Indian book trade about the current trade of reviewing. These review publications are a site of many discontents in the contemporary unstable Indian English publishing industry, countering Rob Francis’s(2) tentative suggestion from yesterday that the media coverage and the spaces provided for book reviewing and discussing books in public forums in India are satisfactory. Opinions voiced by many publishers and reviewers themselves differ widely. Hirsh Sawhney3 of the Wasafiri team, earlier in the morning, asserted that there are not many platforms for reviewing books, especially for long-form reviews.
Nilanjana S. Roy(4) had written the article The Decline of the Book Review in the national daily The Hindurecently. She writes – ‘In India, the decline of the book review is especially frustrating because it’s happening just as the publishing industry has started providing more – more books, selling in more numbers, covering more subjects, more professional translations, more new writers.’ She says that the review space in India suffers from anorexia, here primarily talking of the newspapers where she notes the baffling brevity of the reviews. She laments that review spaces sometimes offer only the palest feuds, incestuous, gossip-ridden affairs, in lieu of genuine literary controversy. Elsewhere, they’ve become the extensions of page 3s. Considering the fact that we are discussing the constant expansion of this market, what accounts for such observations as Roy’s, who is a prominent reviewer with The Book Review and other publications? During the project workshop in Delhi(5), both Nandita Aggarwal and Renuka Chatterjee, publishers based in Indian publishing houses, commented on the lack and shrinkage of review space in the Indian media circuit which only covers big stories like Vikram Chandra or Manju Kapoor book-launches. The publishers expressed need for more libraries, book-clubs, retail spaces and organised review-spaces.
Simultaneously, the indispensability of these publications to the needs and growth of this market is more than evident. On being asked about necessities of media coverage and promotion and review journals during one of the interviews that we conducted in Delhi, V. Karthika(6), former managing editor of Penguin, India told us that they depend a lot on the media and review publications. She says that ‘we’ve discovered that whatever is the kind of attention the media gives a book, whether it’s a bad review or a good review, it shows up in your sales. At least the book hasn’t sunk. At least it isn’t indifferently perceived. Even if somebody disagrees with the book and says that it is lousy, our customer services will get a call from the distributors saying that we want this book because they anticipate at least some debate about it and some selling.’ Publishers like Penguin, India strategically send books to various review spaces to garner visibility and publicity for the newly published books. Karthika continues to say ‘We send about fifty books or more than fifty every year to newspapers, magazines, television stations that run book shows but we obviously can’t control the review space or the reviewer but we do try and build relationships with literary reviewers. Announce it to them that the book is coming out, give it to them early. Try and get extracts in newspapers and magazines before publication, after publication. So that is the one way you can reach out to people across India if you can cover all the newspapers and magazines.’
The review publications under our lens are located in this increasingly tense and complex market scenario. The sales of the review journals or newspaper popularity then definitely have significant correspondences in the visibility, popularity and sales of the published books. Both reviewers and readers were part of the book trade models that Bob Owens(7) talked about yesterday. Publishers, during our several interviews and during the project’s India workshop constantly voiced the need for an expanded and more dynamic review space which can help the market. The market of reviewers and that of publishers have important kinships which we need to look, particularly in the case of Indian writing in English and in English translation.
The August, 2001 issue of the Indian Review of Books, a review journal running from Chennai since 1992 and founded by K.S. Padmanabhan had arrived with an editorial headlined "End of a Dream": "it is with a deep sense of sadness," the magazine wrote, "that we announce the closure of IRB." Shashi Tharoor(8) wrote in his 2nd anniversary obituary to the review journal in 2003 that ‘India's best literary journal had finally been defeated by the hard mathematics of the market.’ Running for a long while primarily on the personal resources of Padmanabhan, and never managing enough of advertisements, the journal ended leaving a lacunae, which both Tharoor in his article and Meenakshi Mukherjee during the project’s India workshop felt, has not been filled by The Book Review which miraculously seems to remain afloat but caters more to an audience of professors by its academic writers and by Biblio, which during its eleven years has had erratic timings and idiosyncratically chosen subject matter. Thus, the review publications are as much open to the vulnerabilities of the market as much as they hope to negotiate this space of trade. This relationship, its complexities and fissures will occupy us in the rest of the paper
I would like to thank my colleagues Shivani Mutneja and Vaibhav Iype Parel(9) for their valuable contributions to this research paper. This paper is as much theirs as mine. For the purposes of research for this paper, The Book Review has been studied over a period of eight years 1998-2005, Biblio over nine years 1998-2006 andThe Hindu Literary Review over three years 1995-1997 and over another set of six years 2001-2006. Around 3,600 book entries were studied and tabulated for the purpose of drawing trends, observing different publishing houses’ respective densities in a particular journal, seeing the percent-wise division of various genres, like The Hindu Literary Review reviews more prose fiction, almost 50% while Biblio and The Book Review review more non-fiction prose amounting to almost 60% in Biblio and a little less than 50% in The Book Review. These three publications have differentiated roles to play in the market – whereas The Hindu Literary Review being part of a national daily caters to a far wider audience and a more varied taste, the two review journals are undeniably different in that they are shaped by the concerns and capabilities of its contributors, its financial hitches, its limited subscriptions/readership and form much tighter units to study than the literary magazine of The Hindu.
According to the National Readership Survey(10) conducted in India in 2006, The Times of India is the most read English Daily with 7.4 mn readers, but The Hindu had taken the second spot with 4.05 mn readers, pushing Hindustan Times to the third spot. Hindi dailies like Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar far outnumber the English dailies – each has readership exceeding 20 mn. Review magazines like The Book Review and Biblio have readership on a much reduced scale. Uma Iyengar(11), the founding editor of The Book Review tells us that the circulation figures for The Book Review have gone up from 300 in 1975 when it was priced at Rs. 3 an issue to about 3000 these days when it is Rs. 50-60 an issue. Biblio presently sells at Rs. 80 an issue, while it was sold at Rs. 20 in 1997. Before its demise, Indian Review of Books had also stagnated at around 3000 as its circulation figure. Circulation figures of course are less than readership count. Antara Dev Sen(12), the founding editor of The Little Magazine told us at the project’s India workshop that though the circulation figures of The Little Magazine are around 5000; its readership easily stands at around 50,000. The Book Review also has a larger readership than its circulation figures due to institutional subscriptions, which as Uma Iyengar informs, far outnumber the over-the-counter individual sales of the review journal. Iyengar particularly stressed on the general popularity of The Book Review in the university libraries.
Review journals like The Book Review and Biblio provide the following information about each of the reviewed books: Title, author/editor name(s), publisher, publishing date, number of pages and most of the times, the price of the book. Each book is located in this dense grid of market signs and symbols which features prominently in the beginning of the article, or as has been the practice in the recent years in The Book Review, details about the book, its title, author, price etc. occupy prominent centre-space on the review page.
With these readership figures in mind, we can now look at which publishers occupy greater space and visibility in these review publications. Out of the total number of publishers whose books have been reviewed in The Book Review and Biblio, Oxford University Press and Penguin, India are the biggest players, accounting for 14% and 9% of the total number of reviews respectively in The Book Review and 19% for OUP and 24% for Penguin, India in the Biblio. Using two-year units the respective count of the reviews of books by these two publishers in The Book Review is as follows:
• Oxford University Press, New Delhi: 57(98-99) + 74(00-01) + 72 (02-03) + 90 (04-05) = 293 (around 14% inThe Book Review) [and 19% in Biblio]
• Penguin Books, New Delhi: 13(98-99) + 27(00-01) + 50(02-03) + 102(04-05) = 192 (around 9% in The Book Review) [and 24% in Biblio]
Other important players in The Book Review and Biblio are Sage publications, Manohar, Permanent Black, Harper Collins, Rupa and two publishing houses of the now split Kali – Women Unlimited and Zubaan. The Hindu Literary Review, which as we’ve observed reviews more fiction features Penguin, India books the most at 24.4% followed by OUP at 6.8%, then Rupa, Picador and Harper Collins respectively.
Generic division of reviewed books reveals interesting trends to study within these review publications. Over the years the number of reviews of novels in The Book Review has remained consistently high and shows patterns of steady increase; increasing from 41 in 1998-99 to 96 in 2004-05. The Book Review has also included anthology of writings, collection of short-stories, memoirs, poetry-anthologies, biographies and autobiographies, travelogues and anthology of letters. Biblio also reviews fiction averaging at 26%, poetry around 4% and biography, autobiographies and memoirs at around 10%. Undeniably though, the biggest chunk of reviewed books both in The Book Review and Biblio is that of edited collection of essays or non-fiction discursive writing amounting to almost 60% in Biblio and a little less than 50% in The Book Review. The striking observation in the interests of our project is seeing the high number of non-fiction books which find space in this review journal as compared to the lesser number of books conventionally and easily categorized as literature or literary writing, hence suitably overwhelming and breaking any limited category. As Vyas(13) has told us, Penguin, India is driven more by its non-fiction list and makes more money out of it rather than otherwise. Urvashi Butalia(14) of Zubaan publishing house in India states that the highest amount of creative new work and energy resides in the non-fiction being produced in the last few years. The Hindu Literary Review however reviews more fiction than non-fiction, averaging at around 50.2%. Translations from various Indian languages into English are also reviewed in these publications averaging at around 10% for The Book Review and 7.5% for The Hindu Literary Review.
Other than book reviews all three review publications also feature articles on authors and artists, interviews with scholars and authors, bigger articles on the history of a certain genre or art, advertisements by various publishers and corporate companies, subscription invitations, latest range of books, event and seminar reports and book club packages. Both Biblio and The Book Review have several specialised issues like South Asia special, Regional Languages special, World Book Fair special, Gender and Women’s issues special, Art special or Cities and Travel special. Shaf Towheed(15), in talking about the Indian reviews of the ‘Colonial Library’ edition of Hardy’s novel, reasserted yesterday that review journals have a literary/political agenda of their own. These special issues are a strong indicator of the political leanings of the review journal because the act of compilation and book selection is of primary importance in these issues, hoping to partially overcome the contingencies of other usual issues which work by the composite and often chaotic, mixed process of getting books from the publishers, or requesting them, and then finding reviewers from them or accepting offers of reviews. Uma Iyengar informs that the specialised November issue on Children’s literature of The Book Reviewis very popular among The Book Review readers and registers greater sales than any other issue of the review journal. The print space in the literary section of The Hindu is used in a strategically differentiated fashion. This section uses most of its space to talk about and review the fiction that is currently being produced in the market. Among the smallest sizes that come, are the “Eye-Catchers”, where usually 3-7 covers are printed with a line or two about them. Books are also reviewed in another specific column called, “First Impressions”, where around 3-6 books are reviewed with about 80-120 words being devoted to each book. It serves in giving the reader a very brief outline of the plot, and usually one-line judgement about the book. It is generally in this column that first time books/authors are reviewed. The other columns are 600-1000 word columns and usually vary from 5-9 in number. Here substantial information about the book being reviewed is given. Generally translations, criticism, sometimes poetry and fiction, and short story collections are also reviewed. Each of these columns has a title derived from the genre of the book that is being reviewed. The number of books being reviewed fluctuates depending on the other important components of the literary review section which are interviews and articles about authors and publishers from around the world.
These review journals in English and the trends therein should be viewed along with similar magazines in other Indian languages. Harish Trivedi(16), during the project’s workshop in Delhi, stressed on the importance of having a complicated and differentiated view of the market for Indian writing in English, and voiced the need to view this market in relation with the market for other Indian languages and that of translations. In an article Journals of Resurgence published in 2005 Annie Zaidi(17) studies new trends in Hindi literary magazine publishing. Zaidi quotes Sudhish Pichauri, Professor of Hindi at Delhi University, and a media critic in the Hindi-speaking world, who puts the figure of Hindi literary journals at ‘anywhere between 700 and 1,000…Each town, even the B centres, has a Hindi literary magazine.’ He says that it is a golden time, in terms of numbers. Hans which was started by Premchand, and restarted by Rajendra Yadav in 1986 as a monthly has now touched the 17,000 circulation mark much more than The Book Review or The Little Magazine. Though conclusively Pichauri asserts that this positive trend will continue, ‘…the numbers will increase. But I cannot see the big idea that could launch them into the big league [like similar magazines abroad]. Without planning, marketing and distribution networks, they will simply fill a cultural-literary vacuum, on a voluntary and unorganized basis.’ The case of The Book Review is similarly voluntary and relatively unorganized. Also the retention of a particular brand in the mind-space of readers may not be proportionally reflective of its market share.
The archives page of the well-made and fancy website(18) of Biblio states that ‘The birth of Biblio coincided with the coming of age of Indian Writing in English…Biblio devoted review essays to all major fiction and indeed a biography of Indian Writing in English can be gleaned from the pages of Biblio from 1995 to the present. Reviews of translations of significant works from Hindi and other Indian languages have also been covered. It has also carried profiles of and interviews with important writers and poets from the subcontinent.’ Over the eight years that The Book Review was studied the number of books that fall into the constituency of Indian writing in English and in English translation has consistently increased. Division of these book entries (using two year units): 328(98-99) + 451(00-01) + 602(02-03) + 675(04-05). Over the years, the books that fall within our project’s purview have steadily increased, which is (a) partially indicative of the general thickening of The Book Review, but only very partially, and (b) due to the increase in the number of this constituency of books which we are studying under the purview of the project.
The panel of reviewers at the Delhi workshop – Shobhana Bhattacharjee, M. Asaduddin, Nivedita Sen and Susan Visvanathan included only one reviewer – i.e. Bhattacharjee – who partially attempted to unlock the mystery of the relationship between the review and the market. Apart from her, who claimed that she reviewed in order to sell the book, Asaduddin and particularly Sen and Visvanathan expressed a relative ignorance of the market space in the process of their reviewing. They talked about the isolated pleasures of reading and discoursing on books. Visvanathan said ‘A reviewer likes the detachment of the act of reviewing’. She also stated that she reviews for The Book Review more because she shares with the TBR team a ‘legacy of friendship’. Meenakshi Mukherjee, during the audience response session said that the review is a form of advertisement and hence works as a factor within the market. Ajit Vikram Singh, an individual bookshop owner based in Delhi, volubly lamented that the late timing of the review adversely affected the sales of the book. Suman Gupta stated that the very language of the reviewers implied a market or readers and other reviewers and hence questioned their apparent resistance to the commercial side of the book affairs. The review space is undeniably and increasingly felt to be an important part of the market of writing in English in India. Its organised development and its simultaneous proliferation both in kind and number are indispensable to this market’s growth.
Notes and References