Commonwealth Writers Prize: Commerce or art?

CNNGo,12th April 2010

Commonwealth Writers Prize: Commerce or art?

As the Commonwealth Writers Prize steals into Delhi, we look at what’s required to push high quality writing to the Indian masses

Literature and book marketing can be strange and uncomfortable bedfellows. Commonwealth Writers Prize nominees and publishers discuss how to make the lie-in more comfortable.

On Monday, Rana Dasgupta (originally from the UK) won the Commonwealth Writers Best Book prize for “Solo”, while Australia’s Glenda Guest won Best New Book for “Siddon Rock”.

Also from South Asia, Pakistan’s Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, was in contention for Best New Book.

Before the awards were announced, these regional winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2010 were in town to take part in a jam-packed schedule of talks, readings and panel discussions featuring nominees from as far afield as Samoa and Nigeria.

It usually takes the promise of top-shelf whiskey to prompt Delhi-ites to grab their Vuittons, hop into their 7-Series and head towards a cultural event, be it books, or music, or art. But this was too good an opportunity for culture spectators to pass up — even if there wasn’t any Black Label on offer.

The commerce of literature

Thursday evening last week saw a handful of nominated writers and publishers discuss the confluence of literature and marketing in India. Aptly held on a private terrace at that cathedral to capitalism, Select Citywalk shopping mall, organisers were clearly wise to the needs of Delhi’s socialites, with white-gloved waiters briskly handing around finger food.

When it came to addressing whether writers feel corrupted by commercial demands made by publishers, Rana Dasgupta points out the collaborative nature of publishing. “Particularly in Delhi, where there’s not much public funding, publishers are how we eventually get paid for our work,” he says.

“In a country of a billion people, you’re really just talking to yourself. Publishers try to work out who are these people, these readers, and what do they want to read?”

But that lack of information can be refreshing, says Shruti Debi, editor at Picador India. Publishers in India really have very little data on audiences to go by, unlike the UK, she said, where pie charts are pinned to publishers’ walls showing every last detail of reader breakdowns: age, political leanings, sexual orientation and so on. “And what you get out of that are boring, genre books. I think it’s better not to know the market too well, it’s better for writers and for publishers.”

Although India is certainly not immune from that particular taint, she added, pointing out that it produces vacuous, trite fiction that is simply written, badly edited and poorly packaged and designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

“Publishing has a cultural responsibility,” she says. “[If you publish bad books] you can cut yourself off from the future of a good market.”

Communicating the word

Apart from the difficulty of understanding the audience in India, there are also the logistical challenges involved in selling books in a country as vast as this one, according to VK Karthika from Harper Collins. “How are you going to tell one billion people about the new book you’ve got out when there are new books everyday?”

She says they’re becoming more creative, “working out what Facebook and Twitter are all about.”

And, contrary to popular opinion, she points out that publishers often quite relish the blank slate they’re handed, marketing-wise, when authors aren’t keen to be involved.

“When you don’t have to spend most of your minuscule marketing budget on alcohol at a book launch, it opens up many other promotional possibilities,” she says.

That might be good news for authors and publishers, but certainly not what Delhi’s whiskey-swilling, book-launch-going denizens necessarily want to hear.