trend Publishers are taking their gloves off, placing titillating and even abusive titles on shelves

An interesting anecdote, from a profile of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a political journal in 2011, says a lot about the changing clientele of bookshops. Singh’s daughter Daman recalls, in the ‘70s he would take them to bookshops like the New Book Depot and Galgotia at Connaught Place, New Delhi, on their birthdays. He would 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 their friends share on social media. There’s also a new breed of reader who’s willing to engage with simpler language, new ideas and darker themes. The cuss word is in his lingo and the titles are ones he can relate to.

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 risky 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. No longer are words like “g***d” or “ch****a” beeped out. The success of ‘MTV Roadies’ was because they talked in the language of that audience.”

Book names are decided in brainstorming sessions, says Arcopol. “Usually the author comes up with a good catchy name. Or, we suggest names that are mutually agreeable.” Fingerprint has recently published Salil Desai’s collection of stories titled Lost Libido and Other Gulp Fiction . “He had suggested … and Other Urban Tales . But Gulp Fiction was catchier. It ended with a gulp.”

Jayendra Dubey, author, Romantically Screwed, echoes Arcopol on connecting to the author. “People see the title and ask me what it is about. It isn’t a simple college love story. It’s about young people who get screwed in different parts of life. 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,” he says. 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 o n 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. ‘Boom Boom’ is a euphemism for sex.

On the suggestive title of his book, Anand says: “If it is a good story, if it is well-written and entertaining, if it is fresh and original, then a work of literature is a work of literature, and 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 has 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. You need to read the book to understand why I gave it such a title,” says Singh.

Arcopol attributes the runaway success of books like this 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 in its name, makes it difficult for buyers to recall it while 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 risky 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.”