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Delhi Workshop Presentation 6, Contemporary Indian Literature Project

Presentation by researcher Akhil Katyal at the Delhi workshop.

The Market and the Review: Analyzing ‘The Book Review’ by Akhil Katyal

I Inception/Growth

The basis of my research was the Indian monthly review journal The Book Review which has been in circulation for 32 years now. For the purposes of this phase of the research project, samples of The Book Review over eight years, i.e. 1998 – 2005, have been analysed.

I have attempted to address the following issues in this research paper: What is the publication history of The Book Review? Which publishing houses find their books featured in The Book Review and in what proportion in relation each other are their books represented? What is the correlation between review space earned and the retail space earned as far as books published in India are concerned? Is the success of a book in the retail-market determined in any way by its success in the review-market? What is the target readership of such review journals – and which mode of sales exceeds the other – institutional /individual subscriptions or magazine/book stall sales? What is the criterion/principle of selection of books to be reviewed? Is the selection of books manipulated primarily by pro-active publishers who push their respective books for reviewing? Or, are the chances of a book being reviewed prompted by the ‘merit’ of the book, its ‘relevance’ and/or its sales statistics? Or is it primarily concerning the coincidental availability of an apt reviewer, the reviewers’ adherence to the deadline for submitting the review and other such fortuitous factors? What is the break-up of this review-journals’ readership in terms of big towns/small towns, male/female, and academic/non-academic, male/female divisions?

In 1975, Uma Iyengar,one of the founding members of The Book Review Literary Trust, and her companions,Chandra Chari and Chitra Narayanan, felt the absence in India of book review journals devoted to the reviewing of books published in English. The launch of The Book Review was an endeavour on their part to fill this gap.

The Book Review which is now a monthly journal, with each issue priced at Rs. 50, started off as a quarterly costing Rs. 3 per copy. The annual subscription was Rs. 10. In the year 1990, it had become a bi-monthly journal. The sales of The Book Review are primarily through subscriptions. Uma Iyengar believes that constituency of The Book Review is large, as it is subscribed to by school/college/institutional libraries apart from being subscribed to or picked up across a counter by interested individuals. The revenue garnered through institutional buyers far exceeds revenue garnered through individual buyer of the review journal.

The number of readers (much more than the number of subscriptions) can be gauged by noting that the monthly circulation figure of the journal is around 3000. In the years nearer its inception, the number was around 300, perhaps because its founders lacked the resources to adequately promote it in the market. Uma Iyengar states that the primary mode of publicity for The Book Review even now remains the word-of-mouth method.

II Comparative Figures Over the Years: Publishing Houses/Genres of Books Reviewed

The books focused upon for the purposes of the present research project are books written originally in English as well as English translations of books written in the Indian languages, produced by publishing houses in India or the Indian divisions of foreign publishing houses. Books which fall under the categories of cultural studies, area studies etc. have also been included since these form a large chunk of the number of the books reviewed in the review journals.

Books that have been excluded are the books which fall beyond the range of poetry, drama, fiction, autobiographies/biographies and non-fictional cultural studies/area studies---- -text-books, professional books, technical books, for example.

The total number of reviews analysed for the purposes of this research is a little more than 2000. These are drawn from over an eight year stretch in the existence of this review journal. The classification of the books reviewed (into those inside and outside the purview of our project)using two-year units, looks like the following: 328(98-99) + 451(00-01) + 602(02-03) + 675(04-05). Thus, over the years, the books that fall within our project’s purview have steadily increased, which is (a) to a small extent responsible for the general thickening of The Book Review, and (b) to a greater extent indicative of the aggrandised presence of the kind of books which interest us most within this project.

Out of the total number of publishers whose books have been reviewed in The Book Review, Oxford University Press and Penguin Books in India are the biggest players, accounting for 14% and 9% of the total number of reviews respectively. There has been a steady increase in the number of reviews of books of these publishing houses over the span of these eight years.

• Oxford University Press, New Delhi: 57(98-99) + 74(00-01) + 72 (02-03) + 90 (04-05) = 293 (around 14%)

• Penguin Books, New Delhi: 13(98-99) + 27(00-01) + 50(02-03) + 102(04-05) = 192 (around 9%)

Other important players are Sage publications, Manohar, Permanent Black and Harper Collins, in that order.

While one absorbs these facts, one should keep in mind that the decrease (or increase) in the number of books of a particular publishing house being reviewed in The Book Review is not an index of its larger sales figures or, for that matter, of its general popularity. Nonetheless, it is a marker of the visibility of the publishing house within the review journal; and comparing its statistical count to that of other publishing houses may be helpful in knowing its relative position in the market of reviewers, which may or may not faithfully reflect the trends in the market of readers. (it gets read institutionally)

Rupa, Orient Longman, Tulika, Zubaan, Women Unlimited, Roli Books and Katha, in that order, form the next set of publishers with the biggest number of books being reviewed in The Book Review.

Indialog, Shrishti, Macmillan India, Rawat and Indiaink are other publishers which have featured in The Book Review over the years, though have a lesser presence in the review journal than publishers previously mentioned.

Now we come to the generic classification of books.

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.

Undeniably though, the biggest chunk of reviewed books in The Book Review is of edited collections of essays or of non-fictional discursive writing, amounting to 931 books within eight years.

The Book Review has also included reviews of other kinds of writings, such as selections of short stories, poetry treasuries, biographies, memoirs and autobiographies, travelogues and aggregates of letters.

In the context of our project , it is interesting to note 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.

Also, The Book Review has reviewed several books in translation from other Indian languages. The number of translations in any given year of The Book Review averages at 10%.

III The Reviewers and the Journal

A word about the reviewers on the panel of The Book Review:

The reviewers contributing to The Book Review form a wide and a continually expanding family.This is a testimony to the longevity of this review journal. Most of these reviewers, one can gauge from a very cursory examination, have had some sort of academic training during their careers. Even the semi-academic reviews, as Shobhana Bhattacharjee said earlier in the workshop, are like from the university college teachers’ hands. The language of many reviews is pitched ‘high’. Susan Visvanathan gave this connection between reviewers and the review journal a poetic name, calling it the ‘legacy of friendship’. There are specialized reviewers and specialized article writers in The Book Review as well. But several reviews, particularly in the children’s book special every November, are written by the readers.

Several kinds of ‘niche’ publishers/books can get visibility through The Book Review, regarding the simultaneous shrinkage of the book-review space in newspapers. Review-articles most certainly function as advertisements, which also make the timing of the review crucial. Uma Iyengar says that there is always an excess of books coming in for reviewing, and they can review only a portion. Many a times the reviewers sit upon the book for an ‘intolerably’ long time. Getting the review published depends as much the review journal’s capacities as the reviewers’ timing.

The Book Review regularly comes up with special issues like South Asia special, Regional Languages special, World Book Fair special, Gender and Women’s issues special, and the quite popular Children’s Books special every November.

The advertisements featuring in The Book Review are of several publishing houses. Several pages are also devoted to new books in the publishing house lists, latest range of books, or perhaps a single important book recently launched. Also, event and seminar reports get published regularly.

The Book Review team also has a venture called TBR Book Club which offers special discounts to subscribers. 

The steady expansion of the market of contemporary Indian literature in English and in English translation is more or less reflected in the statistical patterns of such books being reviewed in The Book Review. These graphs, if extrapolated, show positive signs, which can be viewed along with the increasing innovation and importance of the advertisement/publicity strategies of publishing houses and book sellers. It is also indicative of the steady expansion of the English reading class which is the target of the market which this project explores. But picking up a particular book for reviewing might have a bunch of political, ethical or just practical reasons which are often not hugely operative in the reader’s market. This way The Book Review also subscribes to a certain politics of (bringing) attention, considering their several special issues and use of review space.

IV A Few Final Questions and Promises

The biggest players, as mentioned earlier, in this market are Oxford University Press, India and Penguin, India. Penguin, India’s production is more than that of OUP, India, as far as the constituency of contemporary Indian literature in English is concerned. The number of discursive writing/collection of essays books being reviewed also shows a marked increase and forms the biggest chunk of this review journal, exceeding the number of books which fall under the constituency of our project.

The trends in the review journal have remained more or less imitative of the ‘significant increase’ we’ve been talking about, as it seems to emerge, though the relationship of the market of reviews and that of the book market, as has been said, is only partially reflective, and is useful to offer insights about the receptive spaces for the books, rather than be concrete signals of their commercial destinies.

The important questions that remain to be asked about The Book Review and review journals in India then are as follows:

What is the impact of the book reviews on the market? Can we begin to fruitfully trace such an impact? Nilanjana S. Roy 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?

Answering all these questions can give us a semblance of an answer about the role that the review journals like The Book Review, Biblio and The Hindu Literary Review play in the contemporary Indian market for literatures in English and in English translation.