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Delhi Workshop Presentation 5, Contemporary Indian Literature Project

Presentation by researcher Arunima Paul at the Delhi workshop.

Packaging the 'Literary': Promotional Ventures for Contemporary Indian Writing in English by Arunima Paul

The following analysis will try to draw attention to some of the tacit as well as provocative strategies by which books in the Indian book-market are made to recommend themselves to the reader's notice, judgment and purse. The final stages in the long journey of a book from being the germ of an idea or a set of ideas in its author’s/authors’mind to a reader's perusal and /or possession--- the processes of publishing, promotion and sale ---involve the production of very consciously put together materials in and around the book. These include book-jackets, fliers, leaflets, pamphlets, catalogues etcetera that anticipate and address the readership(s) a book is certain to have as well as that which it may potentially garner. These materials are usually both adaptable to existing forms of visual media (for instance, they are often reproduced within the pages of newspapers, magazines and review journals, on websites of bookstores and publishing houses), and themselves function as publicity instruments that can be disseminated and distributed at various fora such as showrooms of bookshops, libraries and publishing houses among others. Frequently, the goal in the production of these materials is to expand a book's appeal beyond the expected readership. In this process, the author, theme or genre –- any or all of these--- might be foregrounded.

This paper shall be looking at the ways in which Indian Writing in English books, as a broad category, are packaged for the book market within India. Often, the marketing strategies adopted in case of these books draw upon existing Western categories or sub-categories of books to emphasize how a book may fall into one such sub-category or category. A book may then be touted as the first 'Indian' version of or addition to a ‘Western’ literary form. Such a strategy would then also debunk any notions of ‘Western’ and ‘Indian’ book-markets as insulated entities, and would instead work to show how domestic markets are invariably shaped by foreign markets. This is especially so in the case of a country such as India in which English education was introduced under the British colonial regime, with European literature being upheld as the sole touchstone for literary merit and taste, this in turn ensured that the English reading circles were very conversant with Western literary productions. However, building up on the prevalence of such literary inclinations, one also finds a reverse strategy in operation in the marketing of books which strikes a more nativist note by accentuating an absolute 'uniqueness' of theme or style in the books being marketed.

It is interesting to note the differing strategies of promotion that are adopted for different kinds of works--- from works of prose-fiction to discursive writing to verse-creations. In order to illustrate some of the ways through which various kinds of books within the broad category of Indian Writing in English are currently marketed, I shall be looking at publicity materials used as a means of advertising books of a particular kind by Rupa Publications over recent years. Rupa uses nearly two-and-a-half feet long, multi-coloured posters while advertising a single work by an author who may be an easily identifiable or well-known public personality such as Jaswant Singh, one of India's former defence ministers. The poster for his book A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India, published in 2006, includes a large photograph of him and a slightly smaller photograph of the book cover(1). The cover picture of a soldier taking aim, along with the title of Singh’s book, establishes the ideological tenor of the work. Jaswant Singh's own identity as a former minister of defence is enough to establish his expertise in the subject. The poster has no recommendatory blurbs by other writers, thinkers or critics, apart from the one by the publishers in bold letters which describes the book as: 'a book one can't afford to miss!' Another equally large but double-sided poster publicizing Rupa's low-priced editions of works by Rabindranath Tagore under a series titled Rabindra Rachnavali,started in 2002, has merely a large photograph of Tagore on one side beneath the name of the series. On the reverse is exhibited the covers of all the works by Tagore brought out under this series. This poster is again conspicuous for the absence of blurbs, which seems to suggest that none are required considering the 'classic' status of the author concerned.

The questions that arise with respect to the smaller posters used to promote primarily one work by one author are: Who writes the blurbs? Who are considered authorities on a book's subject or its genre? The poster for Arun Shourie's Falling Over Backwards: An Essay against Reservations and against Judicial Activism, which was released in June 2006, brandishes comments by leading daily newspapers and weekly magazines such asIndia Today, The Indian Express, The Tribune, Deccan Herald, The Hindu among others, each pronouncing the book to be a 'compulsory', 'mandatory' read and 'painstakingly researched'(2). Interestingly the comments are borrowed from those newspapers that are commonly understood to represent serious and ethically-committed journalism within the spectrum of Indian newspapers. The topicality and political orientation of the book is announced by a highlighted blurb that credits the book with presenting 'the most compelling arguments against reservations'. The poster also provides pictures of the covers of other books by Shourie.

What is also remarkable among these marketing strategies is the representation of books which may otherwise have been passed over as appealing to a limited ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ constituency of readers now being projected as quality material for general reading. Shourie's books, for instance, may have been classified as falling within the academic disciplines of cultural politics or political science. Another case in point is the recently released work by the historian Ramachandra Guha titled India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy published by Pan Macmillan and Picador India(3). This book has been purposefully packaged as eminently suited for general consumption– well-researched yet very, very accessible . Similar strategies of marketing are also visible in the ways in which very high turnovers have been achieved for the semi-fictional historical works of William Dalrymple.

The flier for each title in the “Contemporary Indian Writers in English” (CIWE) series brought out by Foundation Books India (on Amitav Ghosh and Mahesh Dattani were the earliest to be featured in this series), provides another enlightening instance of how books which have a largely specialized readership are promoted for readerships beyond it as well. The fliers emphasize the utility of these titles, with their 'user-friendly format', to not simply a 'student seeking... critical material' but to 'the general, informed reader' also. They also give a list of the essays in each book and the price of the book. The fliers validate the need for the series itself by citing 'the high visibility of Indian writing in English in academic, critical, pedagogic and reader circles'.

The poster for a debut novel such as Trust Me by Rajashree prints acclaim for the book from eminent Indian writers such as Chetan Bhagat, Gulzar, Kiran Nagarkar as well as one from Michele Roberts who is introduced in the poster as 'an author and former Booker judge'(4). In this case then, the book seems to derive its value from the eminence of its recommenders. Often, when the price of the book is low, it is mentioned on the poster, Trust Me is priced at ninety-five rupees. Also a description of the plot is given where it is thought to be capable of arousing interest. This novel is described as: 'A romance set in the Bombay film industry'.

The rhetoric deployed by the blurbs to describe the books are also a crucial part of the book's fashioning. Rupa's blurb for Arvind Nayar's novel Operation Karakoram identifies it as 'India's first thriller with an authentic replication of the Indian political scene'(5). Thus, while the appeal of the novel is suggested by the label of a 'thriller', the promise of a merely titillating read that the label offers is overcome by emphasizing upon the 'authentic' political context in which the plot is set. A similar emphasis upon novelty and originality can be seen when Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone is described as 'the first novel to successfully capture the unique ethos...of India's elite institutions'(6). Likewise, the foreword by celebrated BBC journalist and writer on India, Mark Tully, for Adam Clapham's Beware Falling Coconuts: Perspectives of India by a BBC Producer is advertised on the poster for the book. Tully's own eminence as a journalist for the BBC is expected to bolster the value of this book on India by another 'affectionate outsider', gesturing of course towards Clapham(7).

In the case of Shomshukla's collection of poetry - I Have Seen that Face Before, the genre itself is treated as its unique selling point(8). Pritish Nandy rather than commenting upon the quality of poetry in the book, observes that 'One has to be brave to write poetry in today's times'. M. Veerappa Moily's novel, The Edge of Time, translated into English from Kannada , with its specific range of socio-political concerns, is seen fit to address a primarily academic audience and is therefore recommended by Dr. B.A. Viveka Rai, the Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University(9). Various academic audiences are evoked and addressed by the blurb – '[in this book] folklore, political experience, and legal knowledge... are wedded to Dalit and feminine sensibility'. The endeavour here, quite conspicuously, is to make the book appeal to all the readerships that lie within a larger academic constituency.

By contrast to the strategy deployed in the case of Moily's book, certain books are rather presciently promoted in ways that target a very specialized audience. The blurb for a book such as History of Rajasthanby Rima Hooja, keeping in mind the largely foreign or tourist customers it is likely to be picked up by, does not speak of the quality of research in the book but instead promotes Rajasthan itself as 'a treasure-trove of ancient lore, music, dance, ballads and myths'(10). Keeping in mind again the lack of familiarity with the subject matter with which the audience may approach the book, the blurb on the poster explicates the subject of the book instead of commenting upon and vouching for the book's engagement with Rajasthan. The poster for this coffee-table book also mentions the total number of pages and the number of photographs in the book.

Book-jackets have come to constitute an integral part of the physical form of a book. They include cover design, book description, publication details, blurbs from fellow-authors, experts and newspapers, photograph of the author; and each of these elements explicates the subject of the book, rates and recommends the book to the customer/reader. For the collection of essays called New Concerns: Voices in Indian Writing,edited by Sushma Arya and Shalini Sikka, the description provided on the jacket posits a very broad and all-encompassing notion of the Indian writer as one who 'has a dual command over the idiom of standard English, as well as over its Indian colouring'(11). It is a category that includes Shashi Deshpande, Geeta Hariharan, Girish Karnad, as well as 'expatriate writers' such as +Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri, and 'naturalized Indians' like Ruskin Bond and Christina Noble. It also engages with most contemporary debates within English literary studies in India today such as the relevance of the Indian epics today, of feminism, the figure of the Anglo-Indian child in postcolonial India, the question of identity in the work of diasporic writers etc. Thus, both the book and its jacket, as in the case of Moily's book discussed previously in this paper, try to project an ideological catholicity of concerns and topics. The jacket also gives extensive information about the editors, their institutional affiliations, their teaching and research interests as well as other publications. Apart from all this, the name of the publishing house, the price of the book and its ISBN numbers are also provided.

Pamphlets are also used extensively for generating interest and hype about the release of a book by an already established writer. For example,eight-sided, colored pamphlets were used by Penguin India to promote Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games which announced that 'the wait is over...the master storyteller returns'(12). It throws in tantalizing details about the plot at the reader, lists the eclectic mix of resources the novel draws upon (from 'Bollywood first-hand research') and then credits the novel with reading like 'a potboiling page-turner [while having the] depth of the best of literature'. The pamphlet not only carries the details about Chandra's previous works and the various awards they have won but also provides blurbs for each. One blurb proclaims Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay to be comparable to Rushdie's Midnight's Children since each in its respective moment of arrival makes it 'necessary to reevaluate stories from and about India'(13). Thus, quite transparently, the pamphlets and other promotional material for a current book are almost utilized for re-introducing to public view and knowledge earlier works by a particular author. Often, the shelves displayingSacred Games in a bookshop would also stack copies of Love and Longing in Bombay. Provided on the final page of the pamphlet are details about Chandra's educational career, the awards won by him and his present affiliation with the creative writing program at the University of California, Berkeley, and these details seem to be arranged together to vouch for the value of his writing and the necessity of perusing 4his works. The authorial persona has now become an indispensable, even mandatory, element in the construction of a book as a product. The inclusion of details regarding the author's educational background and current institutional involvements help in the creation and consolidation of this persona.

There has been, of late, considerable discussion within mainstream print and television media about the increasing and therefore disturbing degree of emphasis upon the packaging and promotion of books, a development which is viewed as an impediment to letting the content of books speak forthemselves. A recent article on the subject published in a national newspaper comments on how big publishing houses like HarperCollins, Picador, Rupa and Roli have come to invest very heavily in 'chic book covers and snazzy jackets'(14). This tendency can be seen as part of the expansion of the modes of marketing that operate within today's globalizing and consumerist market, within which the look of a product is a vital factor in its commercial success. The commercial success of the Harry Potter series worldwide and within India as well, has indicated both the astoundingly great volumes in which books, in particular children's fiction and the fantasy novel, may sell, and the critical role that promotion can play in engineering such a phenomenon. With the revelation of these commercial possibilities, cover-designing has come to be recognized as an art form, with covers being expected to offer their own reading of the work and professional graphic designers being engaged in this final packaging of books. Many older works, the above-mentioned article informs us, are also being 'makeovers' with new covers, for instance, Shadow Lives which is a compilation of articles by Uma Chakravarti and Preeti Gill(15).

To conclude, this paper has tried to trace the ways in which particular kinds of rhetoric are deployed for impressing books upon the attention and memory of potential buyers and readers. It has also tried to indicate what within these strategies are utilized, constructed and presented as knowledgeable, expert or critical opinions on any particular kind of book. It has attempted to make visible the ways in which the fact that there is now a growing market for books is further utilized by players within the same market to create an ethos and momentum for further purchase and reading. However, while these strategies constitute a crucial aspect of the retailing of books today, it is also important to acknowledge that promotional literatures like posters, fliers, jackets and pamphlets do not operate in isolation. In fact, they feed into many newer modes and idioms of publicity and promotion that are being used today like book releases/launches, book reading sessions, authors' dialogues, theatrical adaptations etcetera. And it is the concatenation of these strategically designed materials with innovative promotional events and activities that have together come to characterize the art and craft of book-selling, in particular Indian Writing in English in urban, metropolitan India today.

  1. Singh, Jaswant. A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2006.
  2. Shourie, Arun. Falling Over Backwards: An Essay against Reservations and Against Judicial Activism. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2006.
  3. Guha, Ramachandra. India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy. New Delhi: Pan Macmillan, Picador India, 2007.
  4. Rajashree. Trust Me. New Delhi: Rupa & Co, 2006.
  5. Nayar, Arvind. Operation Karakoram. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2005.
  6. Bhagat, Chetan. Five Point Someone. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2004.
  7. Clapham, Adam. Beware Falling Cocomuts: Perspectives of India by a BBC Producer. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2007
  8. Shomshukla. I Have Seen that face Before. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2006.
  9. Moily, M. Veerappa. The Edge of Time. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2006.
  10. Hooja, Rima. History of Rajasthan. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2006.
  11. Arya, Sushma and Shalini Sikka eds. New Concerns: Voices in Indian Writing. New Delhi: Macmillan India, 2006.
  12. Chandra, Vikram. Sacred Games. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2006. 
  13. Chandra, Vikram. Love and Longing in Bombay. Penguin Books India, 1997. Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. United Kingdom: Jonathan cape, 1981.
  14. “More than Words”. Indian Express Newsline, New Delhi: Tuesday, May 15, 2007.
  15. Chakravarti, Uma and Preeti Gill eds. Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2001.