Sunday, 16 February 2014

Don’t throw the book at the publisher

Shobha De in The Times of India

Am I offended by Wendy Doniger’s book? Hell, no! Am I surprised by what happened this week? Naaaah! Is it the end of the world? You must be joking. Do I think Hinduism is under threat or that Wendy set out to insult a great religion? Frankly, the answer is ‘no’ to both. Wendy Doniger is a professional scholar. This is her interpretation. She is entitled to it. Those who find the book objectionable need not read it. If you choose to read the material — and react — do it. Go ahead and write your own book. Or write to the scholar/author and refute the thesis. Hold a peaceful meeting and state your perspective. There are ways and ways to respond — passionately and spiritedly — without converting your views into an ugly, self-defeating pitched battle. Which is precisely what has happened with Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. 

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Now, let’s see it from the publisher’s point of view (I have to state here that I am a Penguin author). But this battle does not begin or end with Penguin Books and Wendy Doniger. Nor with those who asked for the book to be withdrawn and pulped — the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. The SBAS has been at it for years (remember how 75 paragraphs were removed from several NCERT textbooks?). They will be at it for several more. The thing is, this time their victory appeared easy. Was it really a ‘victory’? And how easy was it? What about the publisher? The rather facile argument is that Penguin should not have buckled under pressure. That in ‘the old days’ publishers were bold enough to stand by authors and books. Well, it’s time to state the bald truth and say it like it is (sorry, intellectuals!). Those old days are over. The world of publishing has changed. Knock off all the romantic notions surrounding the book business and what do you get? A business under financial threat across the world. A business trying to stay afloat in the face of competition from unexpected directions and in entirely unknown forms (come on, who could have anticipated ebooks and free downloads?). Survival itself is at stake given these daunting developments. 

Besides, let’s be candid, at the end of the day, publishing IS a business. And every publisher in the universe is a ‘baniya publisher’ (a term that has been thrown around a lot these days). And hello! Which publisher would actively back a book that has zero sales potential? Which publisher is willing to lose money on a book? Which publisher wants a book/author to get into trouble? Not one. Every book is a gamble. It is published in good faith. Publishers don’t consciously court controversy. They don’t enjoy facing criminal charges (as in this case). And they certainly don’t like losing money! If that makes them ‘baniya publishers’, that’s okay. And yes, in today’s aggressive environment in which everything is potentially a ‘product’ that has to be flogged in the marketplace, there really isn’t that much of a difference left between selling a book and selling a bar of soap. If that sounds awful, it is a reality one has to accept. Authors and public intellectuals taking a lofty view of the publishing industry should smell the coffee. It is likely to get still worse by the ‘old’ standards, as decisions whether or not to publish a book are taken by marketing mavens crunching numbers and not visionary publishers willing to back a tome they believe in. Yes, it’s that grim. Publishers with a book like Wendy’s on their list are particularly vulnerable. It is not about having financial resources to fight it out in court. It is about asking a basic practical question: is it worth it? 

Wendy’s controversial book will do just fine. More people will read it now that it has become a hot potato. The SBAS will no doubt, look for other soft targets, and gloat over this particular win. The ‘scholar dollars’ won’t dry up. So, relax. Hinduism has survived worse. And will continue to thrive — book or no book. Our various freedoms are definitely under threat. Make no mistake about that. It’s just a question of figuring out whose freedom scores in such wars. And whether there is something called absolute freedom in the first place. A difficult decision needed to be taken. And it was taken. It was not ‘fear’ alone (despite the rumoured death threats) that dictated Penguin’s decision, I imagine. It was a question of not hurting public sentiment. There really are no winners here. Least of all the much-loathed SBAS.

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