We’re living in a fictional world if one is to claim more people are reading books in English today. It’s a myth, a giant bubble and, sadly, only a few are talking about it. With Jaipur set to light up once again with heady discourse and the parade of few chosen authors with the famous literature festival starting on Thursday, perhaps it’s fair to ponder — why are we not asking who’s reading, instead of who’s writing?
If anything, the last decade has seen the rise of the publishing industry in English books with almost ‘anyone and everyone’ getting a title under their belt. We have begun to herald this the golden age of Indian publishing, having scant or perhaps no evidence of how reading books for leisure is of so little relevance for the youth today.
Unfortunately, there are no conclusive statistics available to prove this. It is only a hunch, given the way bookstores are folding up and inflated perceptions of how well book sales from online stores such as Flipkart take root. When the truth is, books are selling in limited quantities. This trend, however, is not true for the Hindi and regional languages market.
There is also no way of estimating the size of the publishing industry, some say the margin is as wide as R1,200 crore to R7,000 crore. It is, however, clear that books are being published in huge numbers. Every other book can be easily touted as a bestseller because it takes as few as 10,000-15,000 copies in India to make one.
Each year, I am confronted by young literature and journalism graduates applying for an editorial job at the Hindustan Times. When asked if they read books, they usually look dismayed. When probed further, they say they lack the time and fill the need by reading links online. If at all they read, they admit picking up stray standalone bestsellers — 50 Shades of Grey, for instance — pushed by an effervescent media. These are books that are read to show, which don’t necessarily initiate them into avid reading.
While it is widely known that India has a very low per capita book consumption, it is time to ask what has been the margin of growth in the sales of books despite the jump in literacy and urbanisation seen in the last two decades.
Literature festivals may glorify writers and give them rock-star appeal, but how much of it is for style and glamour? Do they help make books more appealing to a younger audience? If one is to even assume that the youth are reading more books, a habit hard to acquire unless one is self-motivated or harbours designs of becoming a writer, when will it begin to become a culture?
It’s about time we start asking these questions before we, too, are lost in the din of blowing our own trumpet.
India, as the West sees us, may appear as a gleaming market, but it’s fragile and delusional. It is slowly losing its argumentative roots. While the clutch of writers, publishers, agents and reviewers grow more insular, intense and incestuous. If you read books, you already know this.