In the month of May in Delhi, when temperatures routinely touch a high of 45 degrees Celsius, more than 600 people turned up to listen to Vikram Seth read from his new work, An Equal Music. The book launch, hosted by his publisher, Penguin India, made to all the major newspapers (and even some of the television networks). Aveek Sarkar, head of Penguin's India part, the Ananda Bazaar Patrika, flew down from Calcutta to welcome the author to the reading.
The Everest Hotel
In July, India Ink, the most recent entrant on the Indian (English) publishing scene, and best known as Arundhati Roy's publisher, launched a (yes!) reprint of Allan Sealy's book The Trotter-Nama (earlier published by Penguin India). The launch —also with a reading —took place at a five star hotel and was followed by the mandatory cocktails. Attendance was once again in the hundreds. And publishers are hoping that the book, in its new and attractive cover, will once again be reviewed in newspapers and magazines. Good sales are expected, and the strategy is to catch the "new reader", more so in the wake of the success of Sealy's The Everest Hotel.
The Everest Hotel was the first recipient of the new, and prestigious, Crossword Literary Award for fiction written in English. And certainly, the award boosted sales. But the question remains: is there a new reader around? Has the book buying public actually increased? Are people buying more variety of books today than they used to, say, 10 years ago? Is there in fact a boom in Indian writing in English? Difficult to say. Does writing ever undergo a boom? Writers write. Sometimes they get published. At other times, they don't.
There are all sorts of reasons why writers get published and why they don't. For example, in the 1960s, as African nations became independent, a number of African writers appeared on the international (mainly British) publishing scene. These included N'gugi wa Thiongo, Sembene Ousmane, Chinua Achebe, to name a few. Most of them were brought out by Heinemann, a British company with subsidiaries in Africa, which published mainly for the growing educational market. Many of these books were used as texts in Africa.
Some years later, the publishing house was bought by a British tyre company. One of the first casualties was the African Writers Series: very few new titles got picked up. Only those which had already been contracted, were published. As a result the myth spread that African writers had 'dried up', that they had stopped writing. Nothing of the sort had happened, and years later, as the political and economic context changed, new and different writers came on the scene, bringing with them books that had been written in this supposedly fallow period. So too in India. Writers have been writing, but it's only now they have more opportunities to publish. This, however, is only valid for the English market. For writers in other Indian languages, the opportunities to publish (especially in book form) are still rare. This is not to say that things have not changed.
First of all, the conditions of publishing: India has traditionally been one of the largest markets for English books. For British and American publishers, the two most important markets are Australia and India — and not necessarily in that order. There are reasons for this: large numbers of foreign books can come freely into India because of a simultaneously enlightened and loophole-ridden import policy; and Indian book importers have been more reliable than most in paying for what they buy (this is partly because, barring the odd glitch, they have not had too many problems with foreign exchange). This is why, a decade and a half ago, if one walked into a bookshop in Delhi or Bombay, one would have seen piles of mostly imported books — bestsellers or books that are known as "remainders" (leftovers, usually from abroad where their shelf life is over, which are then dumped, at huge discounts, in Third World countries). One would have been hard put to find many Indian authors among these piles.
Today, things are different. Bookshops have many more books by Indian authors. But if you dig a bit, you'll find there are some very mundane, practical reasons for this. One of them is the falling value of the rupee, against the dollar and the pound. When the value of the dollar, for example, rose from INR 15 to INR 30, the price of a one-dollar book doubled. Indian importers began to find it difficult to import in quite the same quantities that they could earlier. And a sort of space (what publishers call a "window") began to open up. It was into this space that books by Indian authors made an entry.
But how did these books get there? Where did they appear from? Around this time a small group (or more correctly, a number of individuals) of young and not-so-young publishing professionals made an independent entry into the market. Among the first of the small publishing houses were Seagull, Ratna Sagar and Kali, followed soon after by Ravi Dayal and Mandira, then Penguin (small at the time, now no longer so), Katha, Tara, Tulika and gradually many more. For many of the moving spirits behind these houses, publishing was not necessarily just a family business. It was something they believed in. To them the importance, indeed the necessity, of publishing good books, books that were good not only to read, but a pleasure to look at and handle, books that could take their place alongside others anywhere in the world, became a credo.
It was the entry, not so much of these publishers, but of this kind of publishing, that brought about a major change in the English publishing scene. The received wisdom (which still holds good today because of a good amount of truth in it) in Indian publishing is that the bulk of the market (estimates put the figure at roughly 80 percent) is taken up with educational publishing, that is, textbooks and supplementary readers for use in schools and universities. A couple of decades ago, the most 'successful' publishers would have been those who published textbooks. And not many publishers would have bothered with what is known, in technical terms, as the "trade" market, the market for general books (fiction, non-fiction) which caters to the individual reader.
Enter the small —and also the slightly larger —publisher, armed with books for the general reader, and armed as well with the conviction that somewhere out there, was a market waiting to be tapped. So the tapping began: it consisted of a search (still ongoing) for new authors and new subjects, new 'niches', new markets, new methods of distribution, promotion, sales.
Books began to look better: if they were to catch the attention of random readers, casual browsers, they had to be colourful and attractive. The old approach of simple, two-colour covers lay crumpled in the dustbin. Pressure was mounted on the increasing number of television channels to introduce book-related programmes. The 'new! improved!' book launch made its appearance. Authors were invited to read from their books, to answer questions about the art of writing and their choice of subject and language, to sign copies of books for readers. Not only were markets being tapped and 'created', but they were being 'developed'.
So far, the strategy has worked. Not only are books in English by Indian authors more visible, they also sell more (even if the term is only relative) than they did earlier. Perhaps the best evidence of this is in the increasing number of bookshops that are opening up all over the country. R. Sriram, the brain behind the Crossword chain of bookshops, says that he hopes to have 30 Crosswords in different parts of India very soon. "Last year's sales," he says, "crossed the 30 crore [300 million] mark. Two thirds of these sales were from books."
Sriram is optimistic about the future of general books in India. "There is so much potential," he says, "so many areas publishers still need to venture into properly. For example, there are certain kinds of non-fiction titles, such as books on health, fitness, cookery, that could be really successful. Or there are books for children. We do well with these — and the market is usually made up of young couples who are looking for interesting books for their children."
However, Sriram cautions against complacency. For young and old people today, there are so many things on offer, and many ways of spending their time. For them to be attracted to books, publishers and booksellers need to put in quite a lot of effort to make books "not only sexy but also stylish, something that is in vogue, something that is 'happening'". It is precisely this that the new promotional strategies help do: for when Arundhati Roy or Vikram Seth go on a reading and signing tour, or indeed when Kapil Dev does so, the crowds come to listen, to see and hopefully even to buy.
Although for the moment the crowds are there, and publishers and booksellers are happy that the market is expanding, it's just as well to remind ourselves that nothing lasts. Certainly Indian writers writing in English are much more visible in India and elsewhere today than ever before. This is not because they are more numerous. Nor is it because of the dreaded hype that everyone complains about. Instead, at least one reason is that the nature of the book market has changed, pretty much all over the world. Rather than working on a steady stream of (hopefully good) books, many publishers have adopted a pattern of peaks and plateaus.
The God of Small Things
The publishers concentrate on the "big" books —the ones that form the peaks and on which publishers go out of their way to spend money on selling —and then publish the "ordinary" ones which they do publicise a bit, but which mostly move into the market on their own merit, and are sometimes successful and sometimes not. The hierarchy that this sets up goes all the way: the biggies are automatically considered better books and get more coverage. The others suffer because of the comparison, though many of them may be better.
So, books in languages other than English don't get as much coverage as those in English. The net result is that while writers in, say, Hindi or Malayalam or Marathi or Telugu continue to write, and also occasionally publish, the pecking order sets them somewhere below even the most mediocre writer in English. Or, if a publisher is not willing to promote a particular book as a "big" book, then chances are it will sink without a trace.
There's another aspect to this publishing hierarchy that is important — and that is the advantage that comes from being published outside of India: advantage in terms of money, of importance, of coverage, and, of course, of sales. For no matter how rapidly Indian markets are expanding, for general books they are still minuscule in comparison to markets abroad. The best example is Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, which sold close to 100,000 copies in hardback in India — something unprecedented for fiction sales of an English book in India. However, it sold far more copies in the UK, the US and even in European countries where it was translated.
That's one way of looking at it. To try another, more cautious approach, look at this figure in terms of the potential size of the Indian market: we talk of a middle class that's roughly 200 million. If even one million people of this supposedly well-to-do, literate middle class can make up the country's reading public, and if even half of these potential readers are actually book buyers, one is talking of a much, much bigger market than we've actually been able to reach.
That's why, even though it's good news that Indian writers are getting noticed and some of them are earning fantastic amounts of money, it's a little early and unrealistic to talk of a 'boom'. Rather, one should understand that books are never produced in a vacuum, where "good" writing miraculously finds its way to the top. Instead, there are very many different conditions —social, economic, cultural — which enable certain types of books to become important at certain times.
That is what we are witnessing today: it's the moment of the Indian writer in English. And I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before the day of the Indian writer in translation will be upon us. Let's now start to look forward to that time — for if such a small (and excellent) output is being seen as a boom, what lies in store can only be an explosion.