Earlier this month, actor Sushant Singh Rajput had passed away. He is believed to have committed suicide. Even as his death triggered an outpouring of grief from friends, family members and fans, it has brought with it the topic of nepotism in the film industry.
Many, including actor Kangana Ranaut have spoken out on the topic -- with the latter going as far as alleging that it was a "planned murder" brought about by the 'cruel and unforgiving' nature of the industry and its flagbearers.
Now, the conversation has shifted to a different industry which, if some well known Twitter users are to be believed, harbours a similar problem.
"Perhaps it is time for an honest discussion on this issue in the context of publishing (although there has been some improvement in last 10 years)," wrote writer and economist Sanjeev Sanyal recently in a lengthy Twitter thread. He said that while it was "very difficult" for an outsider to get published, the childen of well known writers and journalists "with clearly no talent" routinely had their works published. Not only that, they also managed to get gushing news reviews and invitations o literature festivals and so on. Many writers with no initial connection with the publishing industry had started out with self publishing, he points out.
"And, then there is the murky world of 'awards'. This is handed by a tight clique to each others," he adds.
Sanyal cites author Amish Tripathi as one of the individuals who made their way to the top charts via the self-publishing route. And the writer seems to agree with this assessment, even as he mentions that not every publisher is like this.
"Yes, there is an elite which controls publishing; just like an elite group in every industry. In Indian publishing, to be a part of that group, you have to be from the Indian-anglicised elite. They publish each other, give each other awards, run the "esteem industry" as @manujosephsan calls it. Many of them can't even name the 4 Vedas, and they call those who quote from the Upanishads low-brow. And we have to agree, because they insist," he writes.
In a lengthy Twitter thread Tripathi adds that while his publishers have always worked with him, not everyone is quite inclined to adhere to the wishes of the author.
Fellow Twitter user and author of five books, Arnab Ray, agrees. "Ten years ago, there were very few major publishers, all of them, except one, foreign origin. Their steady revenues came from legacy titles: classics, dictionaries, books of knowledge," he begins his own Twitter thread. With no hard revenue targets editors of the time were focused on finding "the next Rushdie" and landing a Booker.
"So big parties, cocktail book events, and authors in the “circle” like Tejpal prompted, no matter what they wrote. If the author looked Booker-worthy, money poured," he says. This however changed when CB came into the picture -- bringing in "marketing plans, strategies and PR".
"The traditional world of long stemmed champagne drinking editors were repulsed and fascinated, they couldn’t look away. Reluctantly, they started patronizing commercial authors, children of a lesser god, who be taken for drinks to Qba, and not the Taj, book events with sandesh. Bosses were happy, old revenue streams were augmented, and this would subsidize the oversized advances of Booker-bait, he writes.
But more changes were yet to come in. The internet, as Ray puts it, "killed the dictionary, the atlas, the classics, and all the legacy cashcows". Against this backdrop, there emerged books with lower quality printing and the "romances of the i too loved someone but she is still a friend genre".
"Coupled with this bookstores started shrinking, people started reading less, the Bookerbait sold even less, so they moved to the next thing, Bollywood and captain of industries biographies and vanity projects. The bookerbaits were no less formulaic than the love stories, “punching up” at those considered privileged, and they were aggressively promoted through awards. These awards existed only to make these books awarded, a self fulfilling prophecy," he adds.
Over time, the scenario has devolved further to fall into two newly favoured categories. While some took to publishing "popular" fiction, others welcomed authors who could "pay their way to success, buying shelf space in bookstores, hire PR etc".
"So either it was celebrity biographies, or “you pay your way we affix our logo” popular authors, and all of this subsidized for the bookerbaits. Book stores close, shelf space becomes more expensive, and none of this seems sustainable any more revenue wise," Ray summarises.
But even if you make your way beyond the acceptance stage, there are further hurdles to surmount. "Then there is the relentless ideological policing. Even if you get past the "liberal" gatekeepers, the text will be censored at the editorial stage. Copy-editors will routinely replace the word "Hindu" with "Brahmanical" for instance," writes Sanyal.
Now, we've been talking thus far about books that strive to provide entertainment, after a fashion. What about academic writing? Well, according to Sanyal, things are not drastically different there.
"If you think mainstream publishing is dodgy, wait till you wade into academic publishing. Here the gatekeeping is done with the zeal of Stalin. At least for social sciences and humanities, the term "peer reviewed" means ideologically purified," he tweets.