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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Wednesday 31 December 2008

Some practical reasons that could have marred sales in Britain for Evening is the Whole Day

December 31, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Malaysia: I read recently in the Guardian that sales for Evening is the Whole Day written by Malaysian writer, Preeta Samarasan and which was first published in the US, had been deemed poor in Britain, despite the writer's talent.

I would fall into the exact category of London's typical book-buyer of South Asian literature or rather that of Indian writers published in the West. I once lived in London and even while having moved to Dublin, have continued to buy almost all of my books that feature Indian stories either published or found in London from the main bookshops on Oxford Street, Charing Cross & Piccadilly. I have a few hundred novels in this category alone in London for at least 6 years now.

As you purchase much of the fascinating literature from the Indian diaspora worldwide, an interested book-buyer would always tend to study the displays, to know where to seek out selected titles or to know how well a title does from its display alone. After awhile, an astute observation becomes telling and it is easy to forsee a prediction of how well a book is likely to do.

These are some practical reasons why I think, sales for Evening is the Whole Day in Britain is currently poor, something I had suspected would happen from way back in July 08. :

  1. Wrong timing for its release. Evening is the Whole Day came out as a chunky paperback in the summer in Britain. It had to contend with scores of paperback stories, holding lighter prose. I remember being a holidaymaker in London last summer. I was on my way to Liverpool and Wales and wanted to purchase a few books for the ride up. Just opening the pages to Evening is the Whole Day at Borders left me exhausted on that hot afternoon. First, it was the weight of the book. Then it was the elaborate prose held at every juncture. Perfect, I would think for a warm evening on a cold winter's day but it seemed sadly out of place at the time, for people on the move. What is it about a holiday that always demands a carefree mood... The hardback would have taken space and weight, enough I'd say for 2 average-sized paperbacks. I wouldn't have been the only visitor to have felt this way. Plus, in Blackwell's, the novel had to vye for attention with generous rows of of newly-released classics in paperback. This made up for a highly-decorative assortment of reads specially tailored for vacations. And what ravishing covers with which to lure the eye at that! I didn't think that Evening is the Whole Day stood much of a chance at all, with tourists milling in a bookshop in the middle of July. By the time September came along, the book would have been properly overshadowed by the many autumn titles - then suitably in hardback - with which to line the shelves. This would have signalled fresh competition.
  2. The title. It's too long and abstract to stay memorable. It also fails to say anything in particular. The titles I'm familiar with in Asian literature that have sold well in Britain, are often more streamlined and well-defined. The words hold tighter together. Straightaway, a book's name may hint at a definite plot like say, Elife Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul and Roopa Farooki's Bitter Sweets and Corner Shop or The Peacock Throne, The Kite Runner, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Bookseller of Kabul. For example, other Malaysian writers who did well on the London scene commanded titles for their books like The Rice Mother, The Harmony Silk Factory and The Gift of Rain. A reader would straightaway picture a clear story in the mind and is more likely to remember an easy title even when browsing elsewhere.
  3. A superlative blurb by the writer's friend and tutor, Peter Ho,who described her writing as that of Salman Rushdie's and Arundhati Roy's and so did her no favours in Britain. First of all, not many book-buyers in Britain I daresay, are likely to believe an over-the-top blurb. You only have to glance at the Guardian Books Blog every other day to pick up the easy cynicism, especially on the subject of cover blurbs. The British reader is not naive. Those who read Rushdie will prefer the real thing and not want to settle for an imitation. Those who don't read Rushdie will shy away from the book altogether. Most people find it easier to talk about Rushdie rather than to read him. It's been years since Arundhati Roy wrote anything significant in the way of fiction. She is seen as an activist and essayist rather than a novelist. By the way, even Rushdie got wise with The Enchantress of Florence as it was released in the spring. The sunshine cover with its sublime design knew how to tickle tenses. Also the first chapter was mostly a narration and stayed away from excessive descriptions.
  4. Readers and buyers in Britain of South Asian literature - many know of Malaysia only only in a vague sense -. At first glance, a book buyer would straightaway place a name like Samarasan's as that of a South Indian writer and especially too, as the story opens up to one of a South Indian family in Malaysia. However idealistic, Malaysia may want to applaud its literature, having met many Indian readers in Britain at odd times, this observation stays the reality.
  5. Limited distribution. I remember that Rani Manicka's The Rice Mother was displayed in several countries all at once, when it was released in September 2002. And it's still easily visible here in bookshops in Ireland. But Evening is the Whole Day couldn't even be found in Dublin where so many other Indian writers being published in Britain sit comfortably on the book-shelves. So once more, Samarasan has lost out.
  6. The publisher should have to woo the British book-buyer separately as loyalties will be different from that of the American book-buyer. At the moment, there is such a saturation of Indian stories in the marketplace in Britain. It's hard to even remember the names any more. Many readers in Britain would be familiar with the many of the earlier writers on their own homeground and also writers from India. Big names from America would include just a sprinkling. Jhumpa Lahiri of course, spots that universal touch. But otherwise, Indian writers who are published first of all in America are little known. In a way, Samarasan would have had to earn her place and not take an audience for granted. Only public awareness and a vast distribution and publicity drive in Britain - not America - could have granted her this.
  7. Also, many Indian writers who sell their novels are internet-savvy. They hold active websites and updated blogs of their own. Britain also charts up of the highest numbers of internet book sales in the world. Samarasan besides the usual introductory website, and odd web article, is not internet-savvy. In this aspect, she is easily engulfed by a host of livelier authors, who would be pushing their books but always graciously I'm sure, at every opportunity they could muster. Indian novelists are also naturally prolific at penning analytical essays on the web. This would have been Samarasan's everyday competition that would have easily contributed to robbing her of book sales - and all in the natural event of things - except that such a tendency would not have been immediately obvious.
  8. The mistaken notion and often one bordering on deception; that Evening is the Whole Day stays one of the few works of South East Asian literature to have hit the often-used phrase world map and so will sell easily. I have lived in Australia and West Europe long enough to know that nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Evening is the Whole Day has to industriously compete with Indian writers in the diaspora, writing their Indian stories from all round the world! Samarasan's competition is not with South East Asian literature at all but with Indian literature worldwide. That's where potential book-buyers and interested observers to her novel's theme, would have been nestled.
I'm sure that there is still time especially with an impending paperback. If just two or three of these reasons cited above could be seriously tackled with, I daresay, that there would be a significant improvement in sales in England.

In this case, I wouldn't specifically state the UK, as I'm not sure exactly how the distribution is based considering that I couldn't purchase the title when it mattered, in Dublin.

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