Friday, December 30, 2016

The ‘Intolerance’ of the Book That Wouldn’t Sell

hat makes a book? What makes an author? And, what makes a bestseller? The obvious answer, if one is a journalist in India, would be - the ability to use one’s influence and connections to get a publisher to publish it. Getting a book published is for such people the easy part. The content few care about, since the purpose of such books is neither to inform nor entertain - it's mostly the fulfillment of an unsatiated ego, and many a times an unstated agenda.
Books written by controversial journalists in recent times

One such book is "2014 - The Election That Changed India", written by controversial journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. Why "controversial"? Several reasons spring to mind.

  • Copies of Rajdeep's book at Blossom Book House, Bengaluru.
    October 31, 2016
    Sardesai was the journalist who left the equally controversial channel NDTV in 2005, not because of artistic differences, but because he allegedly came to find out he was not as well paid as some other journalists. He got to somewhat satisfy his appetite for money when he joined the Raghav Bahl promoted channel, CNN-IBN - "According to market sources, Rajdeep has received a huge amount -- about five times his NDTV salary -- as the signing amount from TV 18, along with a brand new Toyota Corolla." [link]
  • Sardesai is the same journalist who was involved in the infamous cash-for-votes scam of 2008. Amar Singh, a politician, was allegedly caught on tape bribing Lok Sabha MPs of the BJP party to abstain from voting against the Congress government in a no-confidence motion in July 2008. According to an August 2011 story carried out in India Today, Amar Singh allegedly "had organised cash to buy support of three BJP MPs, Ashok Argal, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Mahavir Bhagora, during the critical no-confidence motion on July 22, 2008?

    The officers said they had statements from the BJP MPs to this effect, that Amar Singh had promised them Rs 3 crore each to go against the BJP whip and vote for the motion triggered by a split in the government over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The BJP MPs also said that Sanjeev Saxena, who worked for Amar Singh, told them that they would be given a total advance of Rs 1 crore. Saxena, they added, had also been filmed handing over cash to MPs. Further, on July 22, 2008, in a dramatic moment, these three MPs had rushed into the well of the Lok Sabha displaying the Rs 1 crore to show they had been bribed. They then deposited the cash in the office of the Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. The entire operation was planned by current leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley and executed by L.K. Advani's former aide Sudheendra Kulkarni. It was to be broadcast on CNN-IBN whose editorin-chief Rajdeep Sardesai went on air outside Parliament on July 22, 2008, announcing the impending telecast of his scoop.

    The sting was not shown that day. In the evening, Sardesai went on air again saying he had withdrawn the broadcast in the "national interest". He deposited the tapes with the Lok Sabha Speaker and broadcast them 20 days later. The broadcast on August 12, 2008, did not have audio or video evidence of Amar Singh or any Congress leader either handing over cash to the MPs or promising to do so. All it had were visuals of Saxena depositing money on a table in Argal's house and then making a call to Amar Singh, saying "kaam ho gaya".
     [also see these tweets by veteran journalist Kanchan Gupta: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
  • Rajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief of CNN-IBN when Sagarika Ghose - an anchor at CNN-IBN, daughter of former head of state broadcaster Doordarshan, and also Sardesai's wife - passed off a pre-recorded interview of spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Sankar as a live one, and when caught, attempted to brazen it out by claiming those were 'technical issues' [see this, this, this, and this].
  • Rajdeep Sardesai was also involved in an ugly incident in New York in 2014, where he first provoked a crowd of Indians supporting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and then allegedly assaulted a person, and for which he had to express 'regret.'
The list goes on and on.
Unsold, unopened copies of Rajdeep's book,
at Blossom Book House, Bengaluru.
October 31, 2016
So when Rajdeep Sardesai wrote a book - "2014 - The Election That Changed India"- on the 2014 general elections that saw the BJP sweep to power and Narendra Modi sworn in as India's Prime Minister, few expected it to be an honest or revealing account of one of the most dramatic elections in several decades. They were not disappointed. The book got uniformly poor reviews on sites like Amazon and pro-forma laudatory reviews in mainstream media - a classic case of you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-your-back. In any case, what was not in dispute was the fact that the book sold reasonably well, well-enough for it to climb up the bestseller lists for a few days.

But was it a book that sold well, or was it a book that was sold well?

On October 31, 2016, on a visit to the Blossom Book House, a famous used-bookstore in Bengaluru, I came across unopened, clingwrap-sealed copies of Rajdeep's book. Not a few copies, not by a long shot. Stacked were heaps and heaps of unsold, unopened, unread copies of his book that had been dumped at a used bookstore. I counted at least eleven stacks, with each stack containing about 18 books - about 200 books. 200 books that the publisher could claim to have sold, that had been dumped at a used bookstore. At one bookstore, in one town.
Rajdeep Sardesai's book,
at a discounted price of ₹120
On Dec 27th, 2016, I happened to visit the store again. This time I was curious to see if the stacks of Rajdeep's book had finally sold, or not. The book had been marked down to ₹120 - a discount of 80% off its ₹599 list price (this is the price of the hardcover, and these were all brand new hardcover copies). And they were still not selling!
The piles were exactly where they had been almost two months ago. They now had communist historian Bipin Chandra's book for company, but little else had changed.

Video of stacks of unsold copies of Rajdeep Sardesai's book

Take a reasonable estimate of the number of used bookstores and towns where copies of his book would have been dumped at, and a figure several thousand copies is not unreasonable. Several thousand hardcover copies that were never bought by genuine readers. Bought off in bulk - by who is an unanswered question - only to be dumped within weeks or months. Is this a standard operating principle in Indian publishing - where sales of books by authors who must have a "bestseller" tag to boast of are manipulated in this manner?
I wonder.
I wonder if I should wonder.

2016, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.