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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Rearranging the bookshelf

As technology changes,readers are best served by a mix of old and new players

Written by Mini Kapoor |
July 20, 2013 1:42:01 am

As technology changes,readers are best served by a mix of old and new players

The week now ended has left behind questions about reading in the digital age,in a manner yet more open-ended than even the unusually tumultuous last few weeks could have prepared us for. Coming soon upon Apple’s setback in trying to make a dent in Amazon’s unfettered liberty in setting prices for Kindle e-book editions,and the official merger of Penguin and Random House — both developments whose full implications are not yet clear — you could ask,what’s the big deal about a ridiculously bestselling writer being found out to have published a detective novel under a pseudonym? That too,a lightly,if favourably,reviewed book that,without the magnetism of her real name,sold less than 1,500 (perhaps even as little as 499) copies in three months.

Of course,we’d be expected to confront our shallowness,our flakiness,our brand-consciousness,as it were,our love of a spectacle. I confess. I had lined up outside a bookstore in Delhi to get copies of her last Harry Potter book,hot off the delivery van. I had shown no such enthusiasm for her first novel for adults,Casual Vacancy. But once Robert Galbraith was revealed to be the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling,I had to read The Cuckoo’s Calling. Like many hundreds of thousands of others. And it is a good book,though it does not push the envelope as so many other novels in the crime genre do. But it’s a page-turner,full of finely drawn profiles,with the keen sense of place so crucial in detective fiction. Given that it explores the corrosiveness of the culture of celebrity,knowing the writer’s identity,with Rowling’s consistently unconcealed exasperation at the intrusiveness of the media,helps.

But it does raise concerns,which are already being voiced,about the reader’s difficult process of discovering new writers,at a time when retail is fast shifting to online vendors (behemoths like Amazon with a global footprint,local variants like Flipkart) and to the e-reader platform. The financial model of bricks-and-mortar bookshops is being challenged by the sharp discounts offered by online retailers. And were it to be just a struggle between these retail models,we the consumers (readers) could have shrugged and limited our regrets to nostalgia for the neighbourhood bookshop. But books are products apart,and the retail model is seen to have deep implications for the content that could be on offer.

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It is interesting to scan the Galbraith/ Rowling development alongside points raised in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century,an encyclopedic survey of trade publishing by sociologist John B. Thompson. Look how the price of The Cuckoo’s Calling has tumbled just in the past week. When I downloaded it on my Kindle on Sunday,within hours of Rowling’s admission,it cost Rs 595.70. By Thursday,as it became a bestseller,it cost Rs 419,less than the price it is expected to retail at in bookshops in India and much below its hardback cover price. An American court ruling has validated Amazon’s ability to offer discounts,to spurn the so-called agency model,whereby publishers would set the price of e-books and give online stores a predetermined cut. So it can crash the price as it likes to corner a large share of the demand for a bestseller — and no reader is likely to complain. As Thompson sums it up: “In the view of many publishers the great danger is that Amazon’s aggressive pricing strategy will create the impression in the minds of consumers that most of the value of a new book priced at $25 is accounted for by the paper and print,that is by the physical container,and that the value of the content is only worth $9.99… The more widespread this impression becomes,the greater the risk that this devaluation will lead to a haemorrhaging of value in the publishing industry — a draining of value out of the industry that would be greater than the savings that could be achieved by moving into a world of electronic content delivery.”

The herd-like frenzy of advance orders for the paperback edition of The Cuckoo’s Calling at bookstores,and with online vendors,is also an indication of the rupturing of another link in the old retail chain. Thompson reminds us that unlike online competitors,a bricks-and-mortar bookstore stocks actual copies of a book it aims to sell,it takes a calculated decision on how to display it and how many copies to keep. It encourages the discovery of a book. It takes a chance on a book. There is enough anecdotal evidence that readers browse many of the books they order online in bookshops first. But if the big bestsellers,which would have given them financial cover to keep an eclectic mix viable,are going to have to be discounted,the consequences are obvious.

The point is that at this time of technological change — in the delivery of content and the retail of books — the reader is best served by a co-existence of old and new players. How it may go,however,is still anybody’s guess.

The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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