I would like to tell you a story.
A story of ambition, hard graft, exhilaration, and tragedy.
In February I had my last meeting with my publisher and editor. It would be fair to say that the mood veered towards the self-congratulatory. After all, we had been working almost continuously over the last six months, minutely editing my third book.
The rights over miniature images had been hustled from various museums around the world, metaphors had been wept over, and compromise reached over the appropriate use of the comma and now, at last, years of research and writing had morphed into its final, glorious avatar- an actual physical book called Akbar: The Great Mughal.
Dozens of advance copies were printed out and sent out to reviewers, historians and thinkers, many with accompanying hand-written notes, by myself and my publisher. A series of public talks had been worked out over a languidly long time-span of almost eight months, seguing neatly into the winter literary festival season, and eminent writers had been roped in to chair the sessions.
Lectures and seminars had been planned in half a dozen Indian cities. Small teaser video campaigns began to be released on social media platforms in March, in anticipation of the April launch. My publishers had meticulously planned the release of the book – it would become simultaneously available at all major bookstores around the country in addition to (and here the irony does not escape me) all major airports.
But alongside our careful plans, another thing was spreading too – malevolently, rapidly and silently. In March of 2020, my book was sent for printing at a press in Mumbai. I have no mental picture of a modern, digital press and in my mind’s eye, the press is a Dickensian place, full of blackened, sooty figures cranking on huge levers to release sheets of glorious print.
But as the sheets floated gently in perfectly backlit heaps, motes of dust sashaying delicately into golden light, (still in my mind’s eye) a virus, novel and deadly, was hitch-hiking a ride from China to the Alpes, on to France and the UK and the rest of the world, uninvited and unloved. With dizzying speed, in a series of decisions and events well known to everyone, a complete national lockdown was announced in India in the last week of March just as the last pages of my book were cranked out onto the dusty floors of that Mumbai press.
For the next few days, in a haze of confusion and uncertainty, it seemed as though we might still be able to remain on schedule for the official book launch, planned for the third week of April. Pre-orders were available on Amazon and already a couple of positive reviews had prompted a satisfactory number of books pre-ordered. But as the restless days turned into anxious weeks, it became clear that world had wobbled on its axis and that nothing would be as planned for the near future.
The lockdown was extended and there would be no launch event for the book, no promotional tour, and no book signings. And then, after the mandatory period of denial came the realization that there would be no book at all, not a physical one, for a while to come.
Grief may seem like a strong word to use when talking about a book, its presence or absence. But the writing of a book, like any creative endeavour, demands a great price from anyone foolish enough to undertake the challenge. And writing a life of Akbar, one of the greatest monarchs the world had ever known, well recorded and studied, had proved overwhelming.
I had spent years grappling with primary sources, puzzling over translations, trawling through seemingly endless academic papers and visiting archives, museums and libraries. I had visited some of the main sites of Akbar’s life – Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Amer and Ajmer. My fingertips had grazed the rough sandstone of Fatehpur Sikri’s enigmatic buildings, wondering about the desires and ambitions of their creator. I had shivered in the sudden cold of Akbar’s Sikandra mausoleum, not sure if I should ask for benediction or forgiveness.
But now, due to a crisis entirely beyond our control we were caught, as my publisher succinctly and scarily put it, in a perfect storm of circumstances. We could not wait for after lockdown to announce the book because it was too late for that – reviews, snippets and news had circulated about the book. Nor could we actively promote the book as physical copies were not available and would not become available till the printing presses were re-opened and the books were bound and then sent out.
As a result, an unhappy compromise of sorts was reached – the book would be released first as an e-book, till such time as the world reverted to normal, or what would pass off as normal, in a post-pandemic world.
In an ideal scenario, the e-book would have been made available only much after the physical book. E-book sales generally are very low in India and books such as mine, historical non-fiction with images, maps and genealogies, are not ideally suited to be read as e-books.
It is much more satisfying to have the hard copies, to refer back and forth to the relevant images, to feel the weight of the tome and to occasionally glare accusingly at the confusingly long list of characters and personalities listed in the beginning. At some point of time, perhaps a year after publication, an audible version would have also been made available. But this was not an ideal situation at all, these were desperate times, and so Akbar was first released as an e-book on April 10, aka day 17 of the national lockdown.
Having the book available online solved the immediate problem of providing the book to those who had read about it in reviews and the news and wished to read it at once, but with all readings and physical interactions cancelled, it still felt alarming, like having sent a child to primary school for the first time without accompanying it to the gate, unbolstered and unarmed. But obviously, I wasn’t the only writer in lockdown, or the only person who needed to share ideas, thoughts and suggestions on books.
I soon realised that writers had adapted with admirable resilience to an online world and were arranging for Instagram live discussions, zoom webinars and Facebook chats. I spoke about Akbar to a live audience for the first time through a zoom chat, to 160 people invisible to me and completely silent, with no discernible responses, a most disquieting experience to begin with. But the people were listening, I understood, when after 45 minutes of my illustrated talk questions from the audience started to light up my laptop screen, and a new world was born.
My publishers also started a social media campaign for all their writers, promoting one particular book a day for a number of weeks. They also continued to promote the book through online videos and other promotional materials. The focus, however, remained on waiting for the physical book to be made available, because e-book sales remain a tiny fraction of overall sales, especially for historical non-fiction.
Now that most businesses have been allowed to operate again since May 18, somewhere in that press in Mumbai, a robot who looks a little like Wall-e, i imagine, is collecting the pages of my book together and binding it, with the gorgeous image of Akbar on an elephant, crossing a stormy river. Once that is done, and a physical book finally ready, we will be able to start marketing the book actively again.
But what happens afterwards?
The world will remain altered for the rest of the year, to a greater or lesser extent, and this will certainly impact the world of books and festivals too. There will be fewer literature festivals this year, and their configuration may change drastically. A few festivals have shifted at once to online platforms, with JLF Brave New World being a frontrunner. With international travel uncertain for the rest of the year, most winter festivals will face challenges, perhaps opting for a mix of small physical talks broadcast to a larger international audience.
It seems unlikely, however, that in a post-pandemic world readers will have opted for e-books in large numbers. In India the percentage of e-book sales is around three percent, so even a doubling or trebling of that figure is marginal, with monetisation of e-books being negligible. The challenge, I feel, will be capitalising on enhanced reading habits developed during the lockdown.
So perhaps, for a book like mine, it would be useful to offer a small online video to accompany the physical books, something that explains miniature paintings, for example, to increase the value of the reading experience. It would also be sensible for the publishing industry to actively promote reading habits, perhaps through reading fairs, not just in the big cities but even in the smaller ones, where numbers can controlled and readers are keen to meet authors.
The pandemic has also exposed the rather scattered nature of the publishing industry in India. it would have been useful to have had an organised body, so that the industry could have acted en bloc, to perhaps persuade the government to add books to the list of essential activities, as other countries did. If India does in fact represent a huge number in terms of total book sales, then the industry should reflect this. All parts of the industry should be working together-the distributors, the retailers, the publishers, the translators, the writers, the festival owners etc.
As for my own particular book, this is clearly a dynamic, constantly evolving situation and it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen in the coming months or how we will be able to market Akbar to a large audience. However, even as online sales become important and hopefully physical stores also pick up business,
I feel that added content in terms of social media videos and talks will probably remain a part of the overall plan. It is beneficial both to writers and to readers. It democratises access to ideas and people, and allows writers to share a lot of interesting additional material and information with readers. It enforces the contact between readers and authors.
As for the future of books, themselves, I believe they are here to stay, as long as human beings remain invested in the lives of others. After all, here I am, still telling you a story.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.