If, say around this time last year, someone had told you that 2020 would be a time when it wouldn’t be possible to go out and meet people, when to venture out at all you would need to wear face masks, when you would be working from home indefinitely and meetings would be on virtual platforms, when author events and on-ground literary festivals would have to be cancelled…and, in the larger scheme of things, that mankind would be faced with a deadly virus that would result in over a million deaths, they might well have met with the retort: “What have you been smoking?”
But these things did come to pass; truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.
Like so many other things, the mechanics of publishing – which are derived from the time of the Industrial Revolution and are therefore driven by machines and human labour – were severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. This was true especially in India. As printing presses, warehouses and bookshops had to be shut due to the lockdown and transport systems ground to a halt, it became impossible for publishers to print new books or get books out to shops, and for readers to lay their hands on them. Most people in India prefer to read printed books rather than e-books; it had suddenly become difficult to get hold of these.
Readers to the rescue
For publishers, it was a very frustrating time – just as it was for readers; the only thing that stopped us from tearing our collective hair out in anguish perhaps was a recognition of the fact that these truly were extraordinary times, and there weren’t going to be any easy solutions. Most publishers in India were not able to publish any new print books from March to June; that was a third of the year’s sales lost. At any other time, this would have spelt d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r. But what was different in 2020 was a realisation that everyone was in the same boat, and there wasn’t a blessed thing any of us could do about it.
The other thing that prevented a feeling of despair from setting in was the affirmation that there most definitely was a community of readers, of book-lovers, out there. Perhaps we couldn’t see them as much as we used to be able to, for bookshops were shut and book launches a thing of the past, at least for now – but they were there. In a time of isolation, of uncertainty, of fear and depression, people turned more and more to books for company.
They read the books they had put away for a rainy day. They re-read old favourites. They bought books (these might not always have been new publications, but for many readers they were new discoveries) and read these. They turned to e-books, which of course were easily available. For many, reading became a habit again.
When the lockdown was eased and new books became available again, people ordered them in large numbers. We were realising afresh something that has been true for a long time – well, at least since the Industrial Revolution – that books bring to readers a kind of engagement, a kind of pleasure, a kind of fulfilment that most other forms of entertainment are hardly ever able to approximate.
This sense of community is I think the lifeblood of publishing. Reading is a solitary activity, so is writing. Individuality shapes an author’s work, and personal preferences shape the list of books a reader picks up as well; somewhere in between sits the publisher, applying EM Forster’s words in an altogether different context perhaps to say, “Only connect”. It’s through publishers that readers find the writers they want to read, and authors find readers who want to read their books.
It was a time when, internally, communication was disrupted somewhat in small ways – you couldn’t walk over to a colleague’s desk and chat anymore, meetings were on virtual platforms that posed their own challenges, phone conversations had to conducted under fluctuating signals, resulting in dropped calls, you had to depend mostly on email to talk, which thus became more loaded with significance than they used to be.
But in these unprecedented times, it was wonderful to know that publishers were still connecting strongly with readers. Books, their stories, ideas and emotions, were continuing to reach and touch readers. Book-lovers let each other know that they were there, talking about the books they read and loved, showing up on social media, on webinars, their interest reflected in the volumes of books sold in the time of pandemic. As readers, we were not alone: we were never isolated from the human community.
Publishers are readers too
This was a vital sign of life for me personally as a publisher – for publishers are readers too; I would even argue that they are readers first and foremost. The first couple of weeks after the lockdown was imposed and our office space was shut indefinitely, I felt a desperate need to try to reassure myself that I’d be able to stay on top of things: I found myself calling for more meetings, double-checking publishing schedules, following up on every little lead.
Then, as the reality of an extended period of time when I would be working from home became apparent, I realised that my waking hours needed to be re-calibrated: with a four-hour daily commute taken out of the equation, there was going to be significantly more time on my hands. In the olden days, I had read manuscripts in the evenings and over the weekends. Now, suddenly, there was more time available: say if I devoted all afternoon to reading manuscripts, I would still have time left over. What did I want to do with all the extra hours? Why, to read some more, of course.
I started off by reading a lot of “cosy crime”, which is my favourite genre: these books would relax me like nothing else could after a few hours spent negotiating Delhi traffic. Now I returned to them with a vengeance, perhaps because they were set in a world – of tea and scones, village gossip, the occasional murder, its amiable detection – whose normalcy could seemingly never be disturbed.
I read Clara Benson’s Angela Marchmont series, Alan Bradley’s Flavia DeLuce mysteries, TE Kinsey’s Lady Hardcastle books, Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes (now, of course, on a screen), MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, Emily Brightwell’s The Inspector and Mrs Jeffries series, several books in the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes set, and an author who was this year’s sudden discovery: Nicholas Blake (that’s Cecil Day Lewis writing cosy crime under a pseudonym).
And then, of course, there were manuscripts to read. As a publisher, one of my most heartening observations in this pandemic year was that more and more authors were finding the time and the inclination to write books, to embark on new writing projects, to finish manuscripts that might have been pending for some time. I’ve been in publishing for 24 years now and 2020 has turned out to be perhaps the most rewarding year in memory, in terms of the books, both fiction and non-fiction, that came my way.
Only a small percentage of the books that are being written in 2020 have to do with the actual experience of the pandemic; but in a larger sense, the way in which people are looking at themselves and engaging in their creative pursuits today is most definitely fashioned by the pandemic and its fallout.The Covid pandemic is one of those life-changing occurrences – like the Great Wars, the Holocaust, or 9/11– that impact the way in which we look at human existence, individual agency, and the world around us; like these defining moments in history, memories and resonances of the 2020 pandemic will most certainly recur in narratives that we fashion for a long, long time to come.
Whether one looks at the richness and variety of content, the strength of narrative, or just the sheer quality of writing, there are some wonderful books that have been written recently, which were such a pleasure to read. Many of these books will be published over the coming year, and it would be best for me not to talk about them just yet; but this I can safely say, readers have some seriously good reads to look forward to.
A book: It’s a place you can always go, even when travel isn’t possible; it’s a door that’s always open, when other doors are shut; when the rest is silence, it’s the one thing that’s waiting to speak to you, if you’ll only let it. If there’s a truth that the pandemic brought home to me, it’s that there’s just one thing we can do that can make sense of the world around us and, at the same time, take us away from the things that we don’t like about that world.
When all is said and done, there’s just one word for it really. Read.
Udayan Mitra is Publisher – Literary at HarperCollins India.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.