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Bootleg classics

By April 8, 2019No Comments

Source : Business Standard

Traditional publishers and authors might rail against this open violation of intellectual property rights, but many authors appreciate the compliment embedded in piracy



How do you know if a book is selling well? The bestselling lists and reviews are two indices but we know how those can be suborned. One unexpectedly reliable and underestimated indicator: the market for pirated books.

“Serious” readers dismiss these roadside booksellers as purveyors of the superficial, and publishers rarely take much notice because the level of piracy is reasonably small. Popular novels, romances and self-help books certainly bulk up their offerings. Sidney Sheldon and his successors are permanent fixtures as are Rhonda Byrnes, Nicholas Sparks and Ravinder Singh. All Paulo Coelho and Chetan Bhagat books find their way into this market almost as soon as their latest books are published, as do Amish Tripathi and his mythology series. No surprise, insta-books on Padmavati saw some brisk trade at the height of the absurd controversy over the movie. Robin Sharma’s 1997 hit, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari makes regular comebacks.

But anyone who fancies herself an “intellectual” may want to take a closer look at the selection displayed by street hawkers. Under a mushy Sparks romance it is possible to spot books that do not readily lend themselves to the “popular” genre as is commonly understood.

For the longest time, for instance, Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian featured in the selection. So did Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time , the latter, like Sharma’s Monk Who… making several re-entries until it was replaced by his last book Brief Answers to the Big Questions.

Among other surprises: all three of Yuval Noah Harari’s books to date — Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century — and Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s 2012 big seller on decision-making, Thinking Fast and Slow. Other recent unexpected entrants to this market are Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Malala Yousafzai’s memoirs and a 2017 thriller written by a former Israeli commando (turned peacenik) detailing 30 of the special forces’ boldest missions.

In fact, pirate producers appear to have a fine understanding of the broader reading public’s taste, which appears to be more discerning than it is given credit for. Some years ago, Random House (which had not yet merged with Penguin) published a 50th anniversary edition of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Within weeks, the pirates had churned out copies. But Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s heavily marketed but disappointing “prequel”, did not figure in this market.

Among novelists, Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things enjoyed a longish innings. But her long-awaited underwhelming second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness never figured. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels from The Namesake on made regular appearances but nothing after her 2013 novel The Lowland. Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls flew off the hawkers’ stands.

These pirated copies do not pretend to have high production values. Cheap paper, smudgy ink, the type set slightly awry on the page. Photos (if there are any) are clearly run off a photocopy machine. To be honest, it’s a bit like reading a slightly inferior version of a Kindle edition. At the going rate of between Rs 100 and Rs 250, no one’s expecting top quality stuff anyway.

Traditional publishers and might rail against this open violation of intellectual property rights, but many appreciate the compliment embedded in piracy. “Pirated books are like a medal to any writer who understands there is no better reward than to be read,” Coelho once said in an interview.

Perhaps that is why books on politics and politicians are notably rare. Reprints of Nathuram Godse’s Why I Assassinated Mahatma Gandhi was one of them. The other significant exceptions have been two uncomplimentary accounts of two successive prime ministers. Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister, about his stint in the PMO under Manmohan Singh, had a longish run when it was first published. And Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s The Paradoxical Prime Minister, an unfriendly assessment of Narendra Modi’s leadership, sold briskly till recently.

Which raises an intriguing thought. Few prime ministers have had as many admiring books written about them while in office as Modi. Yet none of these books is readily available in this popular market. Among Indian statesmen, in fact, it is the late APJ Abdul Kalam’s many inspirational tracts for young people that still find a prominent place.


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