About five months ago, Nielsen Bookscan, the international data-tracking service for book sales, arrived in India. This is of course, good news for us Indian publishers (particularly trade publishing in the English language) – Bookscan will provide the first properly audited sales figures for Indian titles, something that is much needed. But it is also a sign that the industry is mature enough for English-language general books, and has sales that are significant enough, for Bookscan to enter.
India is currently the third-largest publisher of English language books in the world after the US and the UK in terms of volume. There are over 17,000 publishers in India who either publish trade (ie, books for the general audience) or academic books. It is estimated that over half of these publishers are in English-language publishing. The entry of Bookscan will help this industry to mature further by providing proper data about the books published in India – although I should mention that Bookscan at the moment only covers the major book chains, circumventing the small bookshops across the country out of which you get a vast amount of sales.
Now each Monday morning, I pore over the Bookscan charts to gauge what the trends in book sales are. The results are fascinating. Over the last six months, the top ten books in this market have largely come from Rupa, one of the oldest Indian publishing companies and one of its largest book distributors. Rupa’s golden goose is Chetan Bhagat, India’s bestselling novelist; his many books, about young, middle-class Indians, are scattered across the top ten, month after month. Till March (when this article was written), no multinational publishing company was in the top ten, apart from Puffin’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid (an international sensation) and Random House India’s two health titles, Rujuta Diwekar’s Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight and Payal Gidwani Tiwari From XL to XS. Rujuta’s second book, published by another Indian publishing company, Westland Books, was also in the top ten.
To see Chetan Bhagat on the top ten wouldn’t surprise most of us publishers but Bookscan also confirms other trends. First, it shows that the companies creating the real bestsellers are not necessarily the big multinationals. Indian publishers such as Rupa, Westland and Roli are in robust health, and Rupa in particular remains an amazingly successful publishing company creating hit after hit. Second, the books that are really selling, on the whole, are the homegrown commercial titles, whether fiction or non-fiction. According to the publisher, the last Chetan Bhagat title, 2 States, the Story of My Marriage, sold about 500,000 copies in its first year; Rujuta Diwekar’s first diet book, Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight has sold about 200,000 copies in total, and the new one too is flying off the shelves. Payal Gidwani Tiwari’s yoga book has sold more than 40,000 copies in four months.
These numbers far outweigh the sales of the international literary heavyweights – Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Aravind Adiga, Salman Rushdie – whose books tend to dominate the region’s media and reviews, and whose successes have given Indian writing its great reputation. Of course, this is not really a surprise. Commercial titles usually always outsell literary books all over the world; take for example the global phenomenon of The Secret, Twilight or the Harry Potter series. But this growth in locally sourced commercial writing, and the kind of numbers they sell, has been a major trend in Indian publishing over the last four to five years. India is now the country that has produced Chetan Bhagat and Rujuta Diwekar as well as Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth.
Alongside this, however, I believe that there has been a decline in the quality of serious Indian fiction in English. I can think of very few new Indian novelists who match the talents of the Pakistani triumvirate – Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin – or the Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam. This year, Random House India has published an extraordinary Sri Lankan novel – Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka – about an alcoholic, cricket-mad sportswriter, which is being hailed by the Indian press as one of the most outstanding debuts of 2011. Perhaps it is Nepal’s turn next. And if I were asked to forecast the next big thing in Indian writing, I would probably be more likely to put my money on us producing a homegrown Stieg Larsson rather than another Rushdie. For the latter, perhaps, we should look to regional-language writing in India and the rest of Southasia.
In contrast to this, there have been some exciting new non-fiction books in English by young Indian writers based both in India and abroad. The trend can be traced back to Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, a book that has been as great an influence on Indian writers as Midnight’s Children was for an earlier generation. To my mind, the two most extraordinary new books by Indians last year were Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish, a marvellous collection of essays in which the young journalist followed the Indian coast and its fish-eating communities; and Siddharth Mukherjee’s seminal history (or biography, as he called it) of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, which the New York Times included in its list of the ten best books of 2010.
In fact, over the past few years the new writing in India that I have been most excited about have all been non-fiction – these are books that open up hidden worlds with all the emotion and colour of a novel and they deal with a rich variety of subjects. Some of them are Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer’s memoir of coming of age in conflict-ridden Kashmir, the first account of living through the war by a Kashmiri Muslim; Smoke and Mirrors, Pallavi Aiyar’s wry account of living in China; Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro’s moving portrait of a Mumbai bar dancer; and Music Room, Namita Devidayal’s memoir of the Jaipur Gharana.
Why has our fiction become less interesting? What accounts for the rise of this new non-fiction? While discussing the crisis of American fiction in a session at the Jaipur literature festival this year, the American novelist Jay McInherney observed that the US during the 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of long-form journalism and a corresponding decline in serious fiction. McInherney wondered whether it was because non-fiction was the only medium that could adequately capture the flux and change in the country. Perhaps this is the case with India today. It is hard for a writer to able to capture so much political and social change without giving up the sublime human possibilities of the novel. And while the turbulence in Sri Lanka and Pakistan gives authors from those countries a kind of ‘ready’ politics to engage in, perhaps it is harder to locate and portray conflict in India for a young, middle-class, urban, English-speaking writer; to effectively merge the public and private that has made current English fiction from other parts of the Subcontinent so interesting.
If long-form journalism is finally coming of age in India, so too is serious, accessible history, although this is happening more slowly. The coming years will see some pathbreaking political biographies and narratives. Ramachandra Guha’s biography of M K Gandhi will be published in the next few years and will undoubtedly be the definitive book on the subject. The young historian Srinath Raghavan will be working on what promises to be the great account of the Indira Gandhi era, and this year we will see the publication of the seminal biography of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by the Harvard professor, Sugato Bose.
The state of Indian writing today is thus in a curious way: full of activity and energy in most areas, moribund in the place where it all began. Trends in Indian publishing, luckily, reflect only the growth. Most publishers will tell you that sales on their top books are increasing year on year, although the average book still sells only around 2000 to 3000 copies a year. And, as mentioned earlier, this exuberance is not limited to the multinationals. Not only are the local Indian publishing houses thriving, but the last few years have also seen the rise of small, dynamic independents, which are publishing books on niche subjects – Blaft in South India is translating regional ‘pulp’ fiction; Navayana focuses on caste issues from an anti-caste perspective; and Queer Ink is the first publisher in the Subcontinent to focus exclusively on gay fiction.
Many of these publishers are creating good-looking books with superb production values and have strong marketing and publicity campaigns for their titles, a preserve traditionally of the heavyweight multinationals. Navayana has a slick website, trendy book design and brought Salvoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, to India for a five-city tour; Blaft does fantastic film-poster covers for their books, while Seagull’s books often seem like works of art.
The international publishing community has responded to this energy. Usually Indian authors and India-related books are sold directly to Indian publishers, but all other books (be it Coetzee or Dan Brown) are distributed by their UK or US publishers into India. Now some literary agencies are separating Indian rights for their international writers. In the last few months, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Prize winner for literature, and the Egyptian novelist Alaa-Al Aswany have both sold their upcoming books separately in India. Seagull Books is buying up the world rights to many works by European philosophers. Navayana too buys Indian rights for international authors such as Zizek. Will there be a time when Indian rights for most books will be carved out, as has happened for, say, Canada and Australia? This will be a fascinating trend to watch.
While most of the multinational publishers have already set up shop in India (Simon & Schuster is the last one out), other international book-related businesses will be likely to open here in upcoming years. Aitken and Alexander, the highly reputed literary agency, have opened an office in India, the first agency to do so. International retailers are also entering the scene. W H Smith, the UK book chain, has opened its first stores at the Delhi airport and is planning to launch in multiple cities as well; Amazon will be coming in shortly, and I have already noted the arrival of Bookscan.
The only spanner in the works is a proposed amendment to India’s copyright act, currently under revision. The new clause, if it comes through, would turn India into an open market, one where all editions of a book can enter. This would have severe repercussions on Indian publishing. Navayana might not decide to buy the India rights for Zizek, for instance, knowing that the author’s foreign editions could now flood the market. For the same reason, Indian publishers would not sell rights to their books abroad – and for many independents, this is currently a valuable source of income. The growth of Indian publishers will be affected, with their sales being cut into by infringing editions. In turn, such changes will undoubtedly affect how Indian authors earn and the ways in which they are published and promoted.
The proposed amendment comes at a time when the publishing industry is finally gaining legs, and all of us Indian publishers are collectively fighting to ensure that the clause is removed. Wish us luck. The last few years have seen a real boom in Indian publishing. It should stay that way.
~ Chiki Sarkar is the editor-in-chief of Random House India.