“Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. You never know who your readers might be.”
The world loves it books, even when it doesn’t. Yet, it’s a different story behind the scenes, and at times, even on this side of the screen. The printed word is sent to its own funeral every now and then. And it keeps resurrecting, stronger and brighter each time. Or does it? Himanjali Sankar, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster, presents an insight about publishing, pandemic, and more, in conversation with Shruti Kohli, Managing Editor, Kunzum.
Shruti Kohli: There was a time not very long ago when print was being written off. Newspapers were shutting down, fewer people were writing, publishing houses were getting sceptical… But suddenly, we see a boom in the publishing industry. More people are writing, more books are getting published, more literary fests are popping up. How would you explain this shift?
Himanjali Sankar: Writing off print altogether was a little alarmist and premature – it has been around for far too long and for too many good reasons to disappear easily. I am also unsure if what we are going through now can be called a publishing boom. Sure people are writing a lot but, then, they always have, the number of submissions in a publishing house (over the decades) will testify to that, and while it might be true that more books are getting published that might reflect new business models that publishers are experimenting with, rather than greater profits. It is also true that more awards and fests are popping up with corporate sponsorships which reflect an investment in art, literature and culture, which is good for authors and publishers but much of this is nascent and one doesn’t know what it implies in the long-term for the industry.
…the prestige associated with good writing continues to be held in high regard.
Shruti: As much as we wish this isn’t, but could this be a bubble? Or is it here to stay and get even better with time?
Himanjali: As you might gather from my reply to the earlier question, I won’t be surprised if this proves to be a bubble. But we can hope the bubble doesn’t burst but rather dissolves and reinvents itself in new ways that might lead to a better future for publishers.
Shruti: So there are more books, more literary events, more printed word. Do we have more readers as well? Because people are still seen glued to video games, movies etc. Parents are more worried than ever that their children would never know what reading is. If we do have more people reading as compared to a few years ago, who are they? Do they belong to a specific social background, educations etc?
Himanjali: In my experience many schools, and I’m not talking of only the elitist metropolitan schools, do promote reading and literature in ways that were not done before. Schools invite authors for sessions, they celebrate book week, and have activities targeted to promote reading habits. It is true that social media, movies, etc., have led to shorter attention spans for all of us but I don’t think any of those are going to replace reading anytime soon. Everyone recognises the value of reading at some level, how invaluable it is for the mind. In smaller towns the access will be more to regional literatures, but reading as a habit is seen as important and won’t disappear easily.
In the last couple of years, the genre that has been successful for us (and presumably for all publishers) is what we now call narrative nonfiction.
Shruti: People are reading more. But everything is now morphing into headlines…short text, to keep up with the fast life and retain readers. Even newspapers have ‘quick read’ sections. What does the future of long, textured novels look like to you?
Himanjali: The future of long textured novels is bleaker than it used to be for the reasons you have mentioned but the good news is there are more awards and festivals that celebrate and promote literary fiction today. So while the sales figures for novels might not be very high yet the prestige associated with good writing continues to be held in high regard.
Shruti: What is Simon & Schuster’s strategy on genres? Which genres do you focus on more as compared to other genres? And why? Are there some genres more popular than the others?
Himanjali: In the last couple of years, the genre that has been successful for us (and presumably for all publishers) is what we now call narrative nonfiction. Within narrative nonfiction what works well are biographies – of political figures, film stars, of the present era and the past. In addition, biographies of those lost in the footnotes of history, interesting characters that catch the popular imagination. True crime has also been doing well and books that deal with contemporary political and cultural events. Popular science is also read widely now, especially with the resurgence of interest in the medical sphere during the pandemic.
Shruti: How has Covid affected publishing, reading, writing…in general? And how has Covid influenced Simon & Schuster’s strategies?
Himanjali: It is too soon to tell, with Covid still snapping at our heels. I imagine, with less socialising and more time spent at home, people have been reading and writing more. I can’t say we have been publishing more though. Everything came to a standstill in the first few months of Covid. After that, things did improve and last year was quite decent for publishing. Any strategies that have been employed were to counter the changes happening because of Covid, don’t know yet what the lasting effects of Covid will be.
It is true that social media, movies, etc., have led to shorter attention spans for all of us but I don’t think any of those are going to replace reading anytime soon.