Trend: Publishers are taking their gloves off, placing titillating and even risqué titles on shelves

Here’s an interesting anecdote from a profile of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a political journal in 2011. Singh’s daughter Daman recalls that in the 1970s he would take them to bookshops on their birthdays, and gift them any book they chose. Singh may hesitate to take his grandchildren to bookshops today. They would have to choose from titles such as F?@K Knows, Massage No Boom Boom and Love And That Bitch Called Life.

But then, the bulk of book retail has moved online. People search for the books they hear about and read reviews that their friends share on social media. There’s also a new breed of readers who are willing to engage with simpler language, new ideas and darker themes. The cuss word is in and the titles are ones he can relate to.

Recall value

Explains Arcopol Chaudhuri, commissioning editor of Fingerprint Publishing, “The title of a book should register quickly and it should be easy to remember to search online. A quirky or suggestive title is an interesting ploy to attract readers. It will work if the title is true to the book and the audience.” He attributes the trend of risqué titles to the social context in which these books are set. “A few years ago F?@k Knows would have been taboo. But a lot of changes have taken place in film censorship norms and advertising too.” Book names are decided in brainstorming sessions, says Arcopol. “Usually the author comes up with a catchy title. Or, we suggest names that are mutually agreeable.” Fingerprint recently published Salil Desai’s collection of stories Lost Libido And Other Gulp Fiction. “He had suggested … And Other Urban Tales. But Gulp Fiction was catchier.”

Jayendra Dubey, author of Romantically Screwed, says, “People see the title and ask me what it is about. It isn’t a simple college love story. My father’s friends and professional contacts say they have to be young to enjoy my book. But my friends love it. They say they can relate to it.” Jayendra says he had proposed the name and his editors agreed. “‘Screwed’ makes perfect sense to young people.”

Anand Prabhu is the author of Massage No Boom Boom — a book on the massage industry. The title, he says, is the common request to taxi drivers in South East Asia to go to a massage parlour and not a brothel. Anand says: “If it is a good story, well-written, entertaining, fresh and original, then a work of literature is a work of literature. Any hierarchy of subject matter is merely the result of the brainwashing and prejudice instilled in us by the Victorian education system, whose originators died long ago, and lived in a completely different world.”

F?@k Knows has topped a recent rating of bestsellers in non-fiction in India. In the book, ad guru Shailendra Singh gives readers wisdom he’s gathered from life, in a light-hearted way. It is being promoted as an unconventional self-help book by someone who’s “been there, done that”.

Singh recently concluded a tour of nine small metros, including Jaipur, Indore and Chandigarh, to promote his book. “The philosophy I grew up with as a child was ‘bhagwaan jaane’ (God knows). I did not meet god. It is the unknown that intrigues us,” says Singh.

Arcopol attributes the success of such books to word of mouth. “Readers enjoy discussing books and most buyers buy the book because a friend is reading it, and not specifically because they want graphic undertones or that the book is very good. It’s a lot to do with herd mentality.”

He adds that F?@K Knows, due to the special characters, may make it difficult for searching online. Yet the success of the book may see it being replicated in different forms by other publishers.

Older readers, however, are still apprehensive to give risqué titles a share of their literary budget. As literary critic Latha Anantharaman puts it, “As a reader and book buyer, I personally feel it is a gimmick to get me to buy the book, so just to be contrary, I wouldn’t buy the book even if curious.”

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