We turn to books for expanding our imaginative field of wonder, to makes sense of the world we live in. The power of words, of stories, of literature, sustains us individually and as a collective, encouraging a discourse, and championing important voices and languages. Books that move us don’t necessarily stay in the neat lines of genres that we sleight them into. In fact, some of the greatest books we’ve read defy categorisation. The only questions we ask of them are: are we compelled to read on? And after we’re done, do we want to re-read them?
These were some of the thoughts swirling in my head when it came to ensuring that the best of fiction, representative of the wealth of Indian storytelling, was under consideration for the JCB Prize for Literature. I also wanted to bridge the gap by learning what India loves to read.
The idea was to reach out to as many publishers as possible, in as many cities, from the commercial to the indie, each with their own strengths. We wanted to introduce these books and genres to a new readership. Intelligence from questions in different languages based on what readers are looking for or don’t particularly like, sales data, what our booksellers have to say on how a range of books is perceived by readers across India, the insights of sales teams of publishers, social media – all of these sources provided information.
The pandemic was not on the horizon when the focus of the Prize in 2020 was drawn up. This involved connecting with different groups of experts from writing, publishing, and advocacy; and sensitisation and promotion of storytelling in different languages in novel ways. We are curious to find out more about what publishers in different languages in India think about books that are truly representative of the current times. The idea was to initiate conversations with major players to find out their recommendations for translations into English.
The JCB Prize team works from Delhi, and some of our meetings had taken place between January and February. Jaipur is just a jump away, so a range of meetings were planned for the coming months of 2020 with our jury, publishers, partners, and collaborators. Just the way it had all happened in 2019.
While March is usually the month when jacaranda and hibiscus burst into colour, this year it came in with a grey pall of uncertainty. We started looking for new ways to start our emails about the grave, surreal times we were in, and face to face events and meetings gave way to Zoom sessions and webinars. Puzzled, thinking on our feet, paying attention to what the latest news COVID-19 blasted us with, each day rolled into another and a scheme of action started emerging. After all, we had a job to do.
Keeping in mind the impact of a global lockdown on the publishing industry, the JCB Prize made an effort to balance the interests of both the industry and the readers by collaborating with Kindle India to ensure that the longlisted books from 2018 and 2019 were made available in their original languages and English translations at discounts, and also aggregated on the JCB Prize for Literature page on the Kindle store.
The pandemic has actually changed how we read, what we read and our response to books and the lockdown gave us an opportunity to build on the JCB Prize’s vision of creating new readership. The faith in literature being a bridge and that it is storytelling that makes us survive made the JCB Prize carry on its work in a socially conscious mode, sensitive to a time that was making us feel that truth was indeed more bizarre and stranger than fiction.
What remained constant, though, was the JCB Prize calendar. Submission of entries, the reading process, the announcements of the long list and short list, and the award evening remained unaltered. What unfolded imaginatively was the foray into creating new activations and verticals to deal with the challenges the current times threw at us.
Since there was greater opportunity now for community, continuity and conversations, the “Catch Up!” series was crafted to renew contact with longlisted authors from the previous years. It was a way to challenge the enforced isolation. Two of the sessions were held in Tamil and Malayalam. A catch up session with Madhuri Vijay, winner of the JCB Prize 2019, was held six months into this year’s cycle.
One of the high points of the earlier editions of the Prize were the photo and video shoots of shortlisted authors and the jury. Naturally, these had to be adapted, with self-shot images and clips replacing those by professionals. The in-person Vogue photo shoot was handled differently to morph into virtual photo sessions. The outcome clearly belonged to 2020, the year of artistic self-service.
Nostalgia for summer breaks peaked in May and June, as vacations were impossible. This led us to curate the JCB Prize Summer Reading list, with well-known figures from the world of art and literature sharing their reading lists and recommendations.
The language and themes of global narratives were being reshaped by natural or manmade disasters. It was time, in some senses, to go beyond the literature in books to the literature in life. The Pass the Mic series was designed to back awareness and advocacy-conducive outreach activities. We joined hands with organisations in the social sector doing impactful work, addressing subjects pertaining to the pandemic and beyond – domestic violence, food scarcity, mental health, people with disabilities, etc.
It started with aligning with the Publishers and Booksellers Guild to support the cause of Kolkata’s Boi Para, which was hugely damaged by Cyclone Amphan, and was carried forward with several sessions with other organisations. Meanwhile, work towards converting this year’s shortlist titles under the Braille initiative that was launched in January 2020 at the JLF continued.
Nuts and bolts
Meanwhile, the jury members were forging ahead bravely, reading all entries in the form of e-books since physical copies couldn’t be dispatched. Midway through the reading cycle, though, we did manage to courier books to the jury, much to their relief. They sportingly took selfies in their cosy reading corners and spaces to shorten the distances between us. While the jury in the past also met virtually at times – dispersed as they are in different corners of the world – this year the difference was that we didn’t meet, as planned, in Delhi at all.
So meetings meant trapeze acts between three different time zones – one member had to delay her dinner, while one always met us with his first cup of tea. A series of video calls and meetings led to realigning all our collaborations. The publishers responded with alacrity, and so did all our partners. The Prize found a new life online.
So it was that the longlist announcement was no longer made in a hall with an invited audience. Instead, anyone and everyone who was online could join us. It was our first digital event with a panel comprising the members of the jury, coming together from three countries and time zones. Of course, not even a pandemic could shift their goalposts about prize-worthy literature.
The jury said, “As we read through the large number of entries for this year, we established a comparative framework for evaluation which included these criteria – the texture, the plot of the narrative, how compelling the book was, its readability, the point of view of the characters and if the language of the character matches that point of view. In the end, the issue that remained with us during our final discussion was that of memorability. Whether it was the memorability of the plot itself, the memorability of the writing or that of the characters, which of these books do we remember?”
The longlist saw an increased presence of debut and women writers, alongside two translations. The challenge that followed was, of course, of shining the spotlight on the books. At a time when posters, bookmarks, standees, book piles, and backlit book boards – the usual elements of real-life promotion in bookshops – were not an option, we joined hands with book bloggers to champion the longlisted writers and present them to the world through the “JCB 10” live video sessions, using augmented reality filters, among other things.
The shortlist announcement was done via a simple video. The five shortlisted authors were celebrated on the JCB Prize Tea, where the authors went live on Instagram, each in conversation with a thought leader from a field of the arts. Collaborations with the media saw original pieces written by them, besides interviews, roundtables, and photo-features. Book giveaways through popular online names also kept the interest burning. The Prize partnered with Amazon to promote the longlist and shortlists once announced.
The grand finalé
Over the past two years, the Prize had built an aura around the tastefully unique final award ceremony. The manner and sequence remained the same, but naturally, the whole event had to be moved to the digital space. Since the winner would not be able to make a live acceptance speech – the logistics were too complicated and risky – all the five possibilities were pre-recorded and kept ready, even as the jury made its final call shortly before the actual announcement.
Until the announcement video was aired at 5 pm IST on November 7, we worked in a nano-precision mode. While a lot of logistical effort goes into planning an event on the ground, planning for a series of virtual events demanded a different set of skills, trials runs, storyboarding, coordination, and, of course, acting as our own art directors and producers to shoot our video segments. The final video was scripted much as a film might be. Before Lord Bamford, JCB Chairman, announced the winner, the five shortlisted authors read passages of their choice from one another’s books, and the editors for all five books spoke about what the books and the editing experience meant for them. Each frame was composed meticulously, and detailed instructions were sent to everyone involved.
And at the end, the Prize brought the same joy to the winner as always. As S Hareesh, whose debut novel Moustache, translated from the Malayalam Meesha by Jayasree Kalathil, won the prize, said, “Despite its being a year that gave so much torment to humanity, the year, unlike any other, has brought on an occasion of great joy for me. Meesha faced tough challenges owing to various factions and groups in society when it was launched. For it to be given a recognition and attention with the winning of the JCB Prize was a moment of sweet reprisal. For my writing to be recognised by an eminent jury is utmost recognition of my craft and a show of great faith in me. While I am more cognizant of my increased responsibilities as a writer, this recognition has given me a great amount of confidence and an assurance to my responsibilities as an author.”
The silver lining, as it turned out, was the significant widening of reach for the Prize as all efforts were concentrated online. Propelled by social media, 37.2 million people were reached over the year. The engagement level went up to 2.4 million people with 2099 organic shares for the three digital events. The longlist announcement saw a jump of several thousand viewers, leading to a 35% increase in followers. When we return to the physical world, these gains will not be frittered away, and our online presence will be even more active in the post-pandemic years.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.