Frontlist Article | For publishing houses, it’s about catering to captive audiences, managing bottomlines

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Public discourse around a book should not determine editorial lines, especially if it is backed by a robust mechanism of data verification.

In the DEBATE over free speech and whether Bloomsbury India’s withdrawal of its book, Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story by advocate Monika Arora and Delhi University professors Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra has hurt freedom of expression, one thing that has mostly escaped scrutiny is how publishing lists are curated, based not on altruism or rectitude but on commercial calculations. In the last decade-and-half, as massive changes have overhauled how the industry functions, reading is no longer dependent on browsing through dusty shelves in one’s favourite bookstore, getting drawn in by a blurb and deciding to buy a book on an impulse. Digital bookstores have made reading an algorithm-based activity, where your past browsing history determines future recommendations, narrowing the boundaries of your interest. There is little leeway in this for whimsical reading, and, subsequently, limited scope for biblio-diversity. For an industry already floundering, for every breakaway literary talent, publishing conglomerates are also in search of easy hits. If commissioning and promoting a particular genre of books make mercantile sense, there is little doubt over what publishers will choose to go with.

From shrill television debates on an actor’s complicity in her partner’s death by suicide to WhatsApp forwards on guaranteed homemade remedies to beat a virus behind a global pandemic, the rise and rise of social media and its successful amplification of majoritarian narratives have shown that it is entirely possible to create a marketplace for viewpoints that are not backed by scholarship or credible data. In such circumstances, catering to the demand created by echo chambers makes for rewarding returns. And, so, for a publishing house that has in its ranks fine fiction writers such as J K Rowling, Ann Patchett or Howard Jacobson, whose recent international non-fiction publications include well-researched books such as Propaganda Machine: Inside Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry by Emma L Briant or Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists by Julia Ebner, the decision to take on a book such as Delhi Riots 2020 or sign up a string of establishment voices in India, is not about a commitment to freedom of speech or an error in judgement, however one chooses to look at it. It is simply about managing its bottom line by catering to a captive audience. What it is attempting to do is to replicate the successful business model of commercial fiction, that made stars of writers such as Chetan Bhagat about two decades ago, into a commercial non-fiction mould, with buy-back policies and some calculated lapses in fact-checking thrown in.

Censorship has always been a tricky issue across countries and cultures and publishers have recalled books on various grounds, ranging from establishment pressure to plagiarism accusations to erroneous facts. Mainstream publishing houses, with bottom lines to protect, have often resorted to self-censorship over speaking truth to power. That fight has mostly rested with indie publishers, with their more determined commitment to diversity. In 2014, when Tamil writer Perumal Murugan faced moral outrage over the publication of his book, Madhorubagan (One Part Woman), its publisher, Kalachuvadu, stood by its author every step of the way. In February this year, in a landmark judgment, Juggernaut Books won a civil defamation suit filed by Sanatan Sanstha in 2018, seeking Rs 10 crore in punitive damages for the publication of Dhirendra K Jha’s book, Shadow Armies: Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva (2017).

When a publisher takes on a book, however unpopular its theme, it is well within its right to do so. Freedom of speech works both ways and given the plethora of publishing platforms out there, books and authors of all shades can, and do, find homes. Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story immediately found a platform with Gurgaon-based Garuda Books, whose publishing goal, its website mentions, is to further the cause of “India’s civilisational narrative”. Like Bloomsbury India, it has, in its list of authors, filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, whose book on “Urban Naxals” was published by Garuda in 2018.

But just as the onus of engaging with a book or not lies with the reader, the liability of defending its editorial decision is entirely the publisher’s prerogative. Public discourse around a book should not determine editorial lines, especially if it is backed by a robust mechanism of data verification. A non-fiction book that is supposedly an investigation into one of the deadliest communal riots in the national capital in recent times needs stringent fact checks, commensurate with the publishing house’s claims of a “deep sense of responsibility towards society”. In shrugging off that responsibility and quietly shifting the burden of its decision to rescind the book on those questioning its editorial judgement, Bloomsbury India’s defence appeared like a facile cop-out, that played right into the hands of those who have weaponised the freedom-of-expression argument. But that’s not where this conversation should end. If anything, it should invite introspection on the link between commerce and ethics in publishing and how publishers can and must negotiate both better to uphold freedom of expression on either side of the spectrum.

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