May 25, 2020
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Of coctails — 'the real business' of book launches, and book thefts — the real events at book sales

If anyone had any doubts about what is the real agenda of a book launch, Khushwant Singh set them to rest at the release of his and Raghu Rai's coffee-tabler, The Sikhs. "I hope," he advised the minister who had been invited by the publishers, Roli Books, to be the chief guest, "you will keep your speech short so we can get down to the real business of the day." The minister, Arun Jaitley, obligingly curbed the mike-hogging tendencies of his ilk, and released the remarkably unbookish crowd for "the real business" of unlimited cocktails provided by Le Meridien.

But if the guests showed little signs of a reading habit, the impromptu stall displaying copies of the book on a table in the hotel's banquet room was unusually crowded. "They all wanted free copies for publications I've never heard of," confessed a harassed Roli employee. Others merely wanted to look at the lavish spread of pictures in the book.

That book lovers are rarely book buyers, and not necessarily even readers, is a truth Indian publishers ruefully acknowledge among themselves. When Shauna Singh Baldwin, for instance, did a reading from her What the Body Remembers at an elite book club (possibly the only one of its kind in Delhi that meets regularly for author readings of new writings), it was hugely attended. What was more satisfying, especially for the publishers, was the unusual stampede towards the makeshift book sale counter immediately after the reading and q&a session was over. To publishers accustomed to stampedes towards food counters or cocktail bars, this was a pleasant surprise indeed. But when the day's sales were totted up, they discovered that the book thefts outweighed the book sales.

Book thieves are also a disappointing lot. So you imagined a book thief as this impoverished lover of learning, who steals a book into his bedraggled coat jacket to read under the street lamp? Perish the thought. He is usually a well-dressed young man who goes not for the world's most exciting literature but what will fetch the highest price in the secondhand market. Thus, what book burglars really covet are dictionaries and other thick reference manuals.
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