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Posted on 19 May 2011

The corruption in Indian publishing

Poor and gutsy Indian authors don't seem to get published. Maybe a consortium of billionaires must buy half the industry and clean it up

illustration: Tim Tim Rose

The admirable and formidable David Davidar is back in India with new plans for the publishing industry. He is back in a country where the more things change, the more they stay the same. I am in the process of completing a book mainly about the Indian publishing industry, the voice of one-sixth of the planet’s population. The book is on the urgent need to encourage and revive the democratic and ethical heart of Indian publishing, without which it becomes just another racket.

Most Indian distributors and publishers have little love of or respect for books, literature, democratic and pluralistic values, or freedom of expression. Often, they are cunning, barely schooled businessmen; many of them thrive on reprinting successful Western books, selling spiritual books to goggle-eyed Western tourists, and buying container-loads of Western remaindered books for pennies and then reselling them at 500 per cent profit to Indian customers buying books by the kilo. As such, selling the books of Indian authors carrying just a 15 per cent to 25 per cent profit margin is of no interest to them. Indian authors, unless bestselling, are just a pesky nuisance according to their worldview.

By selling ridiculously under-priced remainders to these trader-publishers-distributors, the West finances the corruption of Indian publishing and the destruction of all but the bestselling Indian writers—just as it once financed the Nicaraguan contras or the overthrow of Chile's democratic government, or dumped cheap or shoddy Western goods in the undeveloped world, thus destroying local industry.


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Why is it that Salman Rushdie and his elite friends, mostly from the upper middle class or wealthy families and elite schools, hog 90 per cent of the sales and advances granted to Indian authors by Western publishers? They tend to present a synthetic literary picture of India, while a rainbow-variety of discordant and authentic voices is suppressed. There is greed and dishonesty here. The spokesmen Indian authors who pretend theirs is the only point of view, that they represent the hundreds of millions of Indians they have never met, never socialise with, and never could begin to understand—because they have never been truly poor and unprivileged, and only have learned how to copy the Western literary masters and to write snake-charming sentences. America would find it intolerable if all its authors were Ivy League products coming from privileged backgrounds, and the working class Americans who managed to squeak through community colleges were never heard from.

The clout of Indians is rising, or at least the power of a few elite, such that Rushdie still exercises godfatherly power over PEN American Centre, the powerful New York area writers’ organisation, which has rejected eight emergency fund applications from an impecunious Indian immigrant member-writer who Rushdie disapproves of. Globalisation can be two-sided indeed, and injustice does result from this.

But there are solutions. At least one or two Indian billionaires, or publicly funded companies, need to buy up half the Indian publishing, distribution, and bookselling industry, and install strong principles of ethics, democracy, and pluralistic representation, giving special consideration and favourable treatment to small, independent authors and publishers—and by doing this, save Indian publishing. At some point, it would be advisable that all top management of India’s sensitive and crucial professions—journalism, publishing, the judicial system, administration, and politics—pass a compulsory three-month course in ethics with a final examination conducted by impartial and incorruptible international monitors.

Preferably, such an intervention and cleaning up ought to be done by a consortium of more than a few people—some of the more enlightened millionaires of India are usually those who live in the West, and who made their fortunes in Silicon Valley—intelligent, and sensitive. The idea is that concentration of power in any one individual or institution, whether David Davidar, Penguin, Rupa, or Reliance, is detrimental to democracy, freedom, justice, and fairness for all. The intervention would act as a balancing force, along with the separate and independent institution of an Ombudsman for Publishing.

Unfortunately, with the present feudal system in place in India, these ideas will never be discussed or even heard by Indians unless the West takes notice. When the West takes notice of an Indian, other Indians sit up and notice. It shouldn’t have been this way, but this is the way it is. I believe a true writer and true lover of literature has no nationality: our loyalty is to humanity, and to the truth. There are rare and deserving middle class, self-made success stories—exceptions that prove the rules—that pride themselves on their fearlessness. But even they would not dare probe or attack corruption in publishing.

This is not to deny a few admirable aspects of Indian publishing: its size, its variety, its democratic range, its tolerance, its relative un-pc-ness, pc has shrunk the spine of most Western editors and publishers in the past 10 to 20 years, and its openness to the world—compared to America’s mild xenophobia— and of course how favourably it compares with the dictatorial sections of the Third World.

Corruption exists to some degree everywhere but at least most Western publishers start out with high ideals and principles— the starting salaries in Western publishing being among the lowest of any profession—and are gradually corrupted by power. Whereas in India, corruption is so widespread and universal as to swiftly turn every writer into a cynic. This is not a healthy state of affairs, even for a country that is admittedly corrupt across the board. To be fair, it is not just the semi-educated trader class, India's literati are far from being pure: cronyism, attacks by proxy, and score-settling and shoddy book reviewing, and the cocktail party factor—the book launch with the best cocktails and location gets the best press—all speak less than glowingly of them.

Occasionally, Indian publishing shows guts and spirit, but on the whole, the fear of being crushed by feudal overlords shuts up those who might even dream of speaking the truth. In the 2011 ebook edition of Impressing the Whites, I explain how, while every Pakistani winner of the World Cup is promised free land, every Indian Booker winner is automatically guaranteed an unlimited supply of free attack dogs. I do believe in loyalty or gratitude to people who have helped you rise, but not at the expense of ethics and principles—not, for example, by crushing, torturing, or being unjust to authors who have displeased your past or future benefactor, or by standing by silently while injustice is done.

Richard Crasta is the author of The Revised Kama Sutra: A Novel and What We All Need.

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Posted on 19 May 2011



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