Youth, books and authors – a new love affair

Harish Bhat | Updated on March 10, 2018

Millennials are thronging literature festivals and rediscovering the pleasure of reading

Last weekend, I spent a lot of my time at Tata Literature Live!, Mumbai’s international Literature festival. Now in its eighth edition, this year’s festival featured a brilliant line-up of writers, including Thomas Friedman, AC Grayling, Javed Akhtar, Shashi Tharoor, Keki Daruwalla and Jeet Thayil. The sessions I attended were most engaging and stimulating, and it was a real pleasure to see and hear these wonderful creative minds speak and debate, at such close quarters. I also had the privilege of handing over, on behalf of the Tata Group, the Festival’s Lifetime achievement award to the playwright Girish Karnad, who is a literary legend of our times.

Millennials and lit fests

The response to Tata Lit Live! was amazing, with unending queues of people waiting to enter each session. If you looked at the length of the queues, you may even have mistakenly thought that there was an international cricket match being played here. What surprised me most, however, was the large number of young people, in their 20s and 30s, who attended this literature festival. At every session I participated in, more than half the audience were millennials, including college students, and they stood up boldly towards the end of each debate or panel discussion, to ask most of the questions. Youth also thronged the book store, and the unique book swap venue, where you could exchange your books.

Many of us may think that youth are drifting away from books and authors in today’s digital age, but this literature festival is a clear signal that we may be entirely wrong in reaching this conclusion. Here was an event which showed me that there is a significant segment of youth falling in love with books and authors all over again. And why is this happening ? One good way to find out is to ask these millennials why they attended the Tata Literature Festival, and here is what some of them said:

“I love books. I came here because it gave me the rare chance to meet the authors themselves.”

“I am interested in philosophy and books on this subject. I loved the session by AC Grayling, and The God Argument (his book). I even had a wonderful little chat with him after the event.”

“I went for Shashi Tharoor’s session and it was a very good decision. A great debate, featuring a wonderful writer and speaker.”

“A lot of my friends and I loved the book swap booth. In fact, many of my friends went back to their places and grabbed their old books to exchange.”

“This was a super opportunity to buy a book, and get it signed to my name by the author himself.”

Ideas and debates

In essence, millennials and youth may be constantly engaged with their digital devices, but they are also hungry for new ideas in areas of their interest. They view books and authors as seminal sources of new ideas, and the powerful debates and discussions featuring these authors at literature festivals help them actively toss around and internalise these ideas. This is why sessions such as AC Grayling’s talk on God and religion, or Girish Karnad’s speech on the complexities and joys of writing plays that will be performed in twenty different languages, or the play called XY featuring a unique script linking mathematics and life, or Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s views on masters of Indian classical music, attracted so many youth at Tata Lit Live! this year. In addition, youth view authors and literature festivals as platforms for liberal, no-holds-barred debates on matters that mean a lot to society and to them. Given that there are few platforms available in today’s society for such free, frank and meaningful discussion, and given that many distinguished authors are known to speak their minds without fear or favour, it is no wonder that young people are gravitating towards literature festivals in such large numbers, to hear and evaluate both sides of the argument.

There is also the appeal of being able to meet other like-minded people, who are interested in books and ideas, at these events. As one young person said: “Talking to the person ahead of me in the queue, or sitting beside me while waiting for the author to speak, that is a wonderful feeling too. She may be a complete stranger, but she shares the same interests in books and ideas that I do.”

Authors and book swaps

And of course, some authors are rock stars, so getting to meet them in person at such festivals is a rare opportunity that many people, both young and old, find very appealing. Writers such as Shashi Tharoor, Chetan Bhagat, Javed Akhtar, Amish Tripathi, Girish Karnad, Gulzar and Thomas Friedman are increasingly received with the same decibel of applause that is normally associated with Bollywood stars and cricketers.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see huge numbers of young people gathered at the book swap booth, where you could exchange your old books for other old books. In the age of Uber and Airbnb, comes this sharing platform for books. But no surprises here, I thought, because public lending libraries were the original sharing platform for books, predating Uber and Ola by a few decades, though these libraries appear to have virtually vanished today. What brings all these diverse streams of appeal together is a love for books and authors, which young people are fast rediscovering. Books and writers are cool, once again. A statistic that supports this is the respectable increase in sales of physical books including paperbacks in India last year, as well as the rapid 80 per cent rise in sales of Amazon Kindle e-book readers. This is wonderful, because good literature and the habit of reading cultivates a well-educated, knowledgeable and liberal society that understands other human beings better, and is respectful of diverse points of view.

Marketing opportunities

Let me conclude by highlighting some opportunities in this space for marketers. Brands that wish to be youthful and cool could consider associating themselves in myriad ways with good literature festivals. Uplifting novels with storylines built around brands can captivate young people and be a powerful method of building brand stories. Publishers can profitably look at books that speak to millennials, focusing on people, ideas and storylines which appeal to them.

Marketers can consider enlisting rock-star authors as brand ambassadors – some of them are likely to be worthy alternatives to actors and sportspeople, and perhaps will carry a different sort of credibility too. Start-up entrepreneurs can evaluate the viability of building sharing platforms for books. And there may well be a promising market for youthful brands of tea or coffee or biscuits themed on books and literature. After all, on many days, there is nothing better than a good book and a hot cuppa to keep you company.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons, and author of The Curious Marketer. He acknowledges valuable inputs from Hiteshwar Gaur, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article.

Published on November 30, 2017

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