Why book publishing is dying

A couple of years ago, I started writing fiction again. After writing about 30 per cent of the book, it seemed sensible to talk to a few book editors and publishers to know whether I was on the right track.

The first stop was (the then) Penguin India. The editor gave me a hard time meeting. Once we fixed a time, I waited 45 minutes before being ushered into a meeting room. A bored looking book editor heard me for about two minutes before she quipped, “Short stories don’t sell. But if you want to, why don’t you get it out of your system.” Next I was introduced via e-mail to the head of Random House (Penguin and Random House have since merged). My mail requesting to meet her came back with the response, “I don’t meet writers.” That is when I decided to ask friends who had written fiction successfully, on what to do. Their suggestion — get published abroad, that is when the local publishers will take you seriously.

No eye for the talent? Amish Tripathi (The Immortals of Meluha) went through scores of rejection before he published the book along with his agent

This rather longish anecdote by the way is true for at least three other people who claim to have met book editors who are rude, unresponsive and simply put you down. Two of these people are now having their books published through US-based publishers. The third has gone on to become a very
successful writer.

For an industry that is staring at annihilation if not extinction, this attitude towards discovering talent is alarming. This is exactly how the music industry behaved with raw talent for decades before the net pummelled it. It is only now, 13 years later, that the industry is reviving thanks to the Internet. Music companies are now working hard at cajoling artistes to share revenues from live performances.

This attitude to talent discovery extends to marketing, distribution and market development. It is the rare book publisher who is setting up book clubs or doing promotional activities around getting people to read more, doing content that works on newer formats such as smartphones, tablets or Kindle. Most wait for a celebrity to come and release the book, shovel it into book shops for three to six months and then junk it. Notice that all the hot-selling books in recent years have come from very small publishers or even self-publishing. Amish Tripathi (The Immortals of Meluha) went through scores of rejection before he published the book along with his agent. As retailers such as Amazon muscle in on their territory, the days of most traditional book publishers are numbered unless they reinvent themselves.

And that is why this arrogance about new talent is worrying. There could be three reasons for it. One, they really don’t care. Two, they do not have it in them to do the kind of work that needs you to run through several books a day. And three, there aren’t any well-trained book editors left who have an eye for talent. I suspect it is a combination of the three reasons.

That is a pity. Take a look at the film industry. Digital screens and multiplexes have brought in so much money back into the system that it has led to an unleashing of creativity in the business. India is making better films than it ever did, because digital hit us. The point is that the talent was always there but it never found release. This could be true for books too. If Amazon and Flipkart can offer better display and a long tail that can take a book to smaller audiences willing to pay a higher price for it, you have the equivalent of what music sites, multiplexes or even digital TV are doing to the media business — slicing and dicing the market to cater to each cluster of audience profitably.

For this to happen to book publishing it needs managers, editors and publishers who have the humility to recognise that talent could come from anywhere, to have an open mind and the patience to run through ten pieces of junk writing before discovering the one bestseller. Without that ability, the market will start becoming one dominated by the retailers not by editors.  

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at

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