When books and controversy made strange bedfellows

By Shilpa Raina,

New Delhi : It was an unusual year for publishing as many legal and marketing decisions of publishers snowballed into controversies and were widely dissected and debated in public forums that criticised curbing free speech and questioned the timings and intention of the book, author and the publisher respectively.

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It was American author Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” that tilled the ground for a controversial crop that grew in abundance this year. Its publisher, Penguin, went for an out-of-court settlement with an organisation called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (SBA) that found the book insulting to Hindus.

The angst against the publisher was that it didn’t stand by Doniger’s book and succumbed to SBA convener Dina Nath Batra’s demand and pulped the book from the Indian market.

The move irked many who extensively wrote and deliberated on how Penguin’s decision posed a threat to “free expression” in India and “crippled” the publishing industry.

As memories of this incident started to slowly fade away and India was busy following the political developments with the Narendra Modi government coming to power in May, there was a ticking time-bomb. “The Accidental Prime Minister – The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh”, penned by his former media adviser Sanjaya Baru, kicked up a political storm with its revelations that rattled the top leadership of the Congress, especially party chief Sonia Gandhi.

The controversy was seen by many as a “marketing gimmick” to accelerate its sales, which it did as the book wasn’t easily available at bookstores for a few days after the controversy broke.

“Controversies definitely push the sales of a book. People start thinking that the book will be banned and would not be easily available. So they rush to buy it,” Mithilesh Singh, floor manager at Bahrisons book store, told IANS.

“In such cases, publishers give orders for a reprint in 15 days of the release of the book after seeing the demand,” added Mithilesh Singh, who has been working with the prominent chain for almost two decades.

Soon after this, former coal secretary P.C. Parakh, in his book “Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths” raised questions on Manmohan Singh’s ability as a prime minister.

There was a brief lull thereafter that was broken by former central minister Natwar Singh’s “One Life is Not Enough” in which he claimed that Sonia Gandhi declined the prime ministership in 2004 at her son Rahul Gandhi’s insistence.

The controversies not only created a buzz about the books, but publishers also gained from it. It was estimated that Natwar Singh’s book managed to sell 65,000 copies within a week of its release, while Baru’s book got 75,000 takers within the first few weeks of its publication.

However, Caroline Newbury, vice president (Marketing and Publicity) at Random House India, contended that publication houses provide the “very best” and “most intriguing” essence of a book to attract readers and generate interest about the work.

“This year has seen some incredibly strong, out-spoken and, in some cases, revelatory publishing which has caused a large amount of debate and discussion,” Newbury told IANS.

“It isn’t necessarily that we look to publish a book that is controversial, but look to give a voice to the untold stories from those right at the heart of events,” she added.

Unfortunately, what happened was that the intent with which the books were written or even the aim of providing meaty, insider and observant information was lost in a “deluge of controversy” and the content wasn’t properly discussed.

So does this mean an extract can change the fate of a book?

Priyanka Malhotra, director, Full Circle and Hind Pocket Books, didn’t agree.

“Tell-all books are an emerging trend in the Indian book publishing industry. And they tend to be bestsellers in most cases. Playing up sensitive issues or controversies are tactics that definitely surge book sales unless, of course, they are banned,” Malthora told IANS.

But she was quick to give an example of journalist Rajdeep Sardesai’s “2014: The Election That Changed India” and said the book “is doing very well in the market, despite not having controversies attached to it”.

“The content is entirely on its own merit without any gimmicky crutches. Perhaps this will make it a steady seller rather than a one-off book wonder,” she added.

The year ended with President Pranab Mukherjee’s “The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years”, which was dragged into unnecessary trouble with its publisher signing an exclusive deal with an online-retailer that left the bookstores fuming.

“In the past, many books have created controversy, but this year there were many books that grabbed the limelight. Probably, this year there were many because people who wrote were government officers and what they said might be obvious, but not written before,” Mithilesh Singh concluded.

Books that created a controversy in 2014:

* “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger

* “The Accidental Prime Minister – The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh” by Sanjaya Baru

* “Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths” by P.C. Parakh

* “One Life is Not Enough” by Natwar Singh

* “Playing It My Way” by Sachin Tendulkar and Boria Majumdar

* “The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years” by Pranab Mukherjee.

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at [email protected])