Half-read books

Many people ask me if they should write a book. By all means, I tell them but be warned, it is an exercise in futility if you are looking for glory and fame. I know because between 1975 and 1980 I worked in a large British publishing house. It was an eye-opening experience. Until then I had been a wide-eyed innocent, thinking like everyone else, that books were special. It soon became clear that they were just like another bar of soap or packet of biscuits. Produce, price and sell. That’s all.

Anyway, after 30 years I forgot my own advice and wrote not one but four books. I waited anxiously for the reviews. Three were not reviewed at all but one was by several publications. It was then that I realised that I need not have written 90,000 words. Around 10,000 would have done because it seemed that people read only about a tenth of a non-fiction book. Flip, skip, and dip is the guiding principle. Most reviewers do this and write a review. But what is truly infuriating is that even then they don’t write about what is in that 10th but what is missing in the whole book.

I need not have written 90,000 words. Around 10,000 would have done because people read only about a tenth of a non-fiction book.

I then asked a friend who buys six or seven books a month: why do you pay several hundred rupees for a book to consume only a tiny portion of it? I mean, would you buy a large masala dosa or a bottle of scotch and leave it only half eaten or drunk and that on a regular basis? I told him people don’t walk out of a movie after 30 minutes or listen only to the first five minutes of a 30-minute CD. Once you have paid, I said, you want full value. So what is it about books? Why do people think it is perfectly all right to waste the money which they have spent on them? Indeed, I know of people who buy a book but don’t even open it for months, if ever. He told me, as only an old friend can, don’t be an ass.

So I asked an economist friend. He said a book has a peculiar characteristic: it is both a perishable and durable thing simultaneously and that this confuses its economics hugely. In the hands of the publisher and the bookseller, it is perishable because once sold, just like a fruit or a vegetable it will not be taken back. But in the hands of the buyer it is a durable because it can sit on the shelf even for a hundred years, read or unread. He added that since the publisher and the bookseller treat it exactly like a fruit or a vegetable, they prefer not to carry stocks for too long. They dump it on customers who can throw it away or keep it for a hundred years because it doesn’t spoil.

My books fell to half price within seven days. Believe me, it really shows you your place.

Next I asked a female friend who is an inveterate bargain hunter. She laughed at me and said the trick is to wait for the discounts. This is easy these days because discounts can begin within two weeks of a book being published. If you buy online, the discounting begins on day one. She was right: my books fell to half price within seven days. Believe me, it really shows you your place.

But that explanation inadvertently provided the explanation to the original question about why people leave books unread or half read or quarter read after paying so much: if you have paid less than the cover price you can afford to read only a tiny portion of the book — or not at all if the discount was large enough.

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