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Indians would rather spend on shoes, not books: Publisher Ashok Chopra (IANS Interview)

IANS  |  New Delhi 

The Indian publishing industry is keeping the written word alive in different formats but the gradual decline in readership is posing many challenges for the industry. To reinvigorate this complex relationship, one of India's leading publishers says the trick lies in making readers fall in love with the solitary act of reading - something most Indians are literally scared of.

"An Indian is scared to be alone. So let's say my wife goes away for a holiday, the first thing I would do is call up my friends and ask them to join me for dinner. This attitude is because we don't want to give time to ourselves. Even when we have nothing to do, we will not pick up a book, but watch television instead," Ashok Chopra, chief executive of Hay House Publishers India, told IANS in an interview.

"We are not a nation of book lovers. We would rather spend Rs.5,000 on a pair of shoes, but not Rs. 500 on a book. It is a sad reflection of the society and a hard fact of life," he added.

This strong sociological observation about the reading habits of Indians explains why they have failed to cultivate reading as a hobby despite a rich legacy of writers like RabindranathTagore or Premchand to boast about.

And coming straight from the man who has spent many decades in publishing lends an air of credibility as Chopra, unlike others, doesn't attribute the decline in readership to the massive technological advancements that have taken place.

Instead, the Delhi-based publisher advised publishing firms to keep pace with changing technology to reach out to larger audiences and increase their footprint in India's heartland.

"Every 10 years, tastes change, mindsets change and the whole value system changes. So, reading habits invariably change. I would say e-books are the future as many youngsters are reading on Kindle. It is just a few old people like me... who are like fossils and want to feel the books," said Chopra who began his career as a journalist.

Chopra then shifted to the world of publishing and since then his resume boasts of work experience at prominent publishing houses like Vikas, Macmillan and HarperCollins.

Adding another feather to his cap is his new book, "A Scrapbook of Memories"(HarperCollins, Rs. 699) that offers fascinating glimpses of his professional life and the publishing industry in general.

Described as a memoir, the 416-page book is an encyclopedia of the world of publishing, where Chopra has gone down memory lane to pick out many memorable stories, including a few disappointments, some astonishment, everlasting friendships and complex working relationships.

It is a world Chopra shares with his readers by narrating stories of acquiring manuscripts, of several gambles that failed to mature into concrete deals and of the satisfaction for not burning his fingers in a failing project.

Chopra is honest while narrating each story. Without hiding facts, he has recollected countless moments that would stay in the mind for a while and might often come back when you see the book on the shelf.

In Dev Anand's chapter, Chopra candidly admits how he has not forgiven himself for losing the veteran actor's autobiography "Romancing with Life" by not bidding for it, given the fact he had been pursuing the actor to pen down one.

A similar shade of disappointment reflects in the Satish Gujral chapter in which Chopra elaborates on how he lost out on the book "A Brush with Life: An Autobiography" to another publisher because the artist had decided this would be so.

Perhaps the most shocking chapter is on Bollywood actor I.S. Johar, whose manuscript in those times failed to find any takers because of its explicit content, as Chopra puts it ".... it was like a blue film on paper - enjoyable for the first few minutes or so, sick after that".

Stories like these make the read interesting as they give an idea of power struggle, ego tussles and network building that form the bedrock of the publishing business. Chopra has woven the narrative in delicate thread that perfectly paints the picture.

As a hardworking and astute leader, he worked on this book for two years and 11 months, referred to his personal notes and revisited the places he has mentioned to be as true to the actual situation as possible.

Strangely, the man who has a vision for the publishing industry still writes in long form and the original draft of this book was 900 pages long. After ruthless editing, Chopra managed to bring it to 400 pages by deleting chapters on piracy and plagiarism, Javed Akhtar and Amrita Pritam, among others.

"I have written the story as I felt it. I didn't write it for any particular audience or readers. I wrote it the way I saw things happening in my professional life," Chopra said.

"I didn't even know I could write. Somewhere along the line, I felt I had a story that needed to be told," he concluded.

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at shilpa.r@ians.in)

First Published: Sun, March 22 2015. 10:04 IST
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