Historically speaking, Republic Day (January 26) has been a big day for the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). In 2013, I was sitting in the first row when a prominent academic and writer’s statement about corruption in India (namely, that it sometimes worked to the benefit of the marginalised) was twisted out of context by a rookie politician (who was plainly out of his depth and did not understand what the writer was saying). And before you knew it, opportunists of various political hues were attacking the academic, alleging that he blamed Dalits and Muslims for corruption in India.

That, at least, was a debate between two people — a disagreement based on ideas. On the afternoon of this year’s Republic Day, the visuals coming out of JLF were very different: Burly private security guards dragging peaceful protesters out of the venue, literally silencing them (by clapping a hand over their mouth).

This difference between the Republic Day talking points in 2013 and 2020 is a useful marker by itself — at the JLF, once upon a time, we argued about nerdy things in peace.

The JLF today is bleeding and they know it. It’s not merely the discomfort over its sponsorship by the media company Zee Entertainment Enterprises, whose news channel ZEE News has been repeatedly accused of airing fake news and stories targeting and/or mocking Indian Muslims.

The truth is that the idea of a literature festival itself has become stagnant and templatised in India. Increasingly, panel discussions tend to be weary rather than thought-provoking. More often, shrinking audience numbers are shored up by inviting Bollywood stars, cricketers and so on.

For someone who has followed the JLF all these years, there is no escaping one vital heartbreaking realisation. Even five to six years ago, there would be readers sprinkled throughout the venue — Diggi Palace. Reading by the poolside in the sun, reading by the front lawns, reading newly acquired books right outside the festival bookstore. Children reading with their parents. Fellow journalists reading on the media terrace.

In 2020, this had all but disappeared. Readers — real readers — have left the JLF and gone elsewhere. It’s that simple.

It could be argued that the decline of the JLF is intimately linked with the larger problems affecting English-language publishing in India. To understand this connection, one has to look at the fundamentals of this famously opaque world.

How do English-language trade publishers go about creating their lists?

The sieving process

In publishing each week, potential new projects are discussed in an ‘acquisitions meeting’, where commissioning editors (the folks who acquire new manuscripts and make structural edits) sit down with representatives from the sales, marketing and production wings — plus the CEO, of course. Having shared manuscripts/outlines with all of these people well before the acquisitions meeting, it’s in this room that commissioning editors fight for the books that they believe in.

Here’s the thing — if you’ve already written a few books for trade publishers and you have a history of commercial success, acquisitions is generally a breeze for you. You’ll get an offer soon; this is a foregone conclusion. But this accounts for a small percentage of the manuscripts/outlines received by publishers.

For almost everybody else, the questions are generally led by the sales and marketing team. Is the author legitimately famous? No? Are they popular on social media? No? Do they have any other form of social capital which we can piggyback on? No? Well, sorry then. Is it a book about rape or sexual harassment or the #MeToo movement? Will men read it? No? Well, sorry then. Is it a book about the government stealing adivasi land? Will ‘regular people’ be interested in adivasi issues? No? Well, sorry then. (It’s important to note that the individuals who run sales are not to blame here; in my experience, they’re often the firm’s ‘first in, last out’ workhorses — unsung, tireless folks who keep circling the wagons during tough times. They are only asking the terrible questions that CEOs and other higher-ups expect them to ask.)

Basically, English-language publishers have no idea how to sell books anymore, so a vast majority of their decisions come from a thoroughly defensive/conservative attitude.

‘What will be easiest for me to sell?’ is a far more important question than ‘Is this worth reading?’

The number of cricketers, Bollywood stars, and, now, Instagram celebrities getting lucrative book deals is increasing year by year. A lot of these books are sloppily written, to put it mildly.

The publisher’s copyediting desk (typically understaffed and overworked) ends up rewriting these books on a war-footing.

Given this industry-wide push for signing celebrities, commissioning editors are encouraged to pursue celebrities every single day of the year. Their work targets, appraisals and so on, depend upon the number of big names they can bring to the table.

There is seemingly no use for a literary aptitude or editorial skills in this world anymore. Like with talent agents in the movie business or business developers at ad firms — the single-most important metric of success for a commissioning editor is the number of famous clients. Everything else is window-dressing.

This, of course, means that the older, better-connected and more privileged commissioning editors are, the better their chances of success.

At the firm I worked for until last year, there’s not one Dalit or Muslim commissioning editor; it’s no different at most other English-language publishers in Delhi.

An elitist process can never give you egalitarian results — elitism can only beget more elitism.

This is perfectly illustrated by the recent controversy around the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The book was pilloried not just for the clumsy, condescending way in which its author, a white woman, tried to capture the struggles of Mexicans migrating to America — but also for the tone-deaf promotional events for the book, one of which featured decorations resembling barbed wire.

In just these last few years, Delhi publishers have given us shockers such as: A book about transmen that misgendered and deadnamed (referring to a trans individual by their pre-transition name) some of the transmen interviewed for the book, topping it off with an insulting and bigoted introduction by a well-known transphobe writer. There have also been several books by authors (including a smattering of godmen) known for historical revisionism and academic plagiarism. After all, no publisher would want to lose out on the hordes of readers that a godman or other polarising individuals typically attract.

The JLF connection

How does all of this tie in with the JLF, you ask? The litfest, with its bevy of panel discussions, concerts and publishers’ parties, is the perfect conduit for a publishing model that rewards cronyism and strategic networking over literally everything else.

One moment you’re drinking chai, attending a panel discussion, and trying not to nod off at yet another audience-essay disguised as a question. The next moment, you’re introduced to Mr Famous Double-Barrel Name, author of clichéd, unbearably purple novels, whose legion of uncritical fans may well get you that bonus cheque next year.

It’s true that B2B interfacing is one of the primary objectives of any large-scale literature festival. In fact, I would applaud the JLF for officially bifurcating the festival — the B2B sessions are all held under the banner of Jaipur BookMark.

However, the problem is more of a cultural issue than a procedural one.

Delhi publishers can keep making the right noises in carefully controlled interviews. They can keep pretending that literary worth and inclusivity still lead the agenda.

But as long as they do not move on from their antiquated networking, celebrity-chasing, elitism-riddled model, nothing will change. Young commissioning editors will continue to attend literature festivals as though they were career-making/breaking auditions (I have seen commissioning editors breaking down in tears due to the high-pressure arena that is the JLF).

Writers will continue to privilege public appearances and social media clout over actual work (because all of their experienced, older friends have told them that’s how publishing works in Delhi).

And because of all this, we will all continue to be bombarded by a sea of lousy books by famous people.

Meanwhile, an incredible new avant-garde novel will languish in the ‘rejects’ pile. It will be joined by an essential new study of caste discrimination in Indian schools and colleges, maybe a powerful autobiographical account of a Bihari Dalit childhood.

These stories will not be told because someone with an MBA and an inflated salary has decided they’re not worth telling.

It’s a domino effect that is triggered, ultimately, by the people at the top, bigwigs who have decided to run English-language publishing like an FMCG company: Sell what’s hot, sell hard and fast, steer clear of Politics ™ and let the numbers take care of the rest.

No commitment to finding and nurturing new voices, no interest in anything that even slightly disturbs the status quo. But if you’re going to behave like Big Corporate, you’re going to be judged like Big Corporate.

The JLF and English-language publishing in general are labouring under the delusion that they can continue to be progressive/liberal darlings while behaving like corporate centrists — profiting off low-key controversies (while ignoring much larger, urgent, human rights-adjacent ones), cosying up to those in power, making editorial choices that keep perceived ‘outsiders’ and ‘undesirables’ at an arm’s length.

But as the wave of criticism directed at the JLF this year shows, the game’s up.