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A new twist to India's publishing boom
 

 

James Crabtree, Financial Times, Saturday, 31st January 2015

 

A rising generation of local mass-market authors is just one sign of an industry in the grip of rapid change

 

Thousands packed on to the front lawns of the Diggi Palace last week to witness a touching resolution to the lengthy feud between VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux at Jaipur’s literature festival. The annual event, which attracted some 52,000 visitors to northern India’s picturesque pink city, began with a discussion of A House for Mr Biswas (1961), Naipaul’s breakthrough novel, which Theroux praised lavishly as the Trinidad-born Nobel laureate watched from the front row.

 

The two men exchanged a tentative private handshake a few years back but had not appeared together in public since their disagreement began nearly two decades ago, when Theroux discovered that a personally inscribed copy of one of his novels, given to Naipaul as a gift, had been put up for auction. Until, that is, the elderly Naipaul was pushed on stage in his wheelchair, offering a few quiet words of thanks in the direction of his one-time protégé.

 

Naipaul, although only ancestrally Indian and often critical of the country in books such as An Area of Darkness (1964) and A Wounded Civilization (1977), fits squarely with the image many global readers have of its literary culture: a high-minded lineage, awash with Booker triumphs for the likes of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga. Yet those seeking a glimpse of the future of Indian publishing might well have ignored Naipul’s Jaipur appearances altogether and instead joined the equally large (and much younger) crowds that gathered a few days later to listen to a writer largely unknown outside his home country: Amish Tripathi, author of a wildly successful trilogy of mythological thrillers inspired by the Hindu god Shiva.

 

Tripathi — or just Amish, as he appears on his book covers — is a central figure in a new wave of Indian commercial fiction, whose authors now easily outsell more renowned literary figures. Since the first part was published in 2010, Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy has shifted around 2.2m copies, making it the fastest-selling series in the country’s publishing history. At a packed session last weekend, he revealed plans for a new three-book collection, this time on the life of Lord Ram, another deity.

 

Tripathi’s success also tells a wider story about India’s thriving publishing industry. Book sales in mature economies such as Britain and America have stagnated; in India, by contrast, the market has grown 41 per cent since 2011, with 18m copies sold in English and other local languages last year, according to data from Nielsen Book-scan. If anything, those figures understate the market’s expansion, given that they measure sales in only a selection of bookshops and exclude some online retailers, notably Amazon.

 

Reliable estimates of the industry’s size are similarly hard to come by but Ananth Padmanabhan, a vice-president at Penguin India, puts annual revenues for books in English — a substantially larger market than those in India’s domestic languages — at around $2bn, and rising quickly. A growing array of book festivals, led by Jaipur, seems to confirm the industry’s vitality. Already the world’s third-largest English books market, according to the International Publishers Association, India’s economic rise is in time likely to propel it past Britain into second place — and perhaps, eventually, even first.

 

Yet Tripathi argues this period of robust health, and in particular the sales breakthrough enjoyed by India’s most popular authors, has come in spite of the country’s literary establishment. “The Indian publishing industry, until around 10 years ago, was Indian in name only,” he says. “It was more of a British publishing industry that happened to be based in India . . . a group that was highly westernised, highly anglicised, not really rooted in India at all. And this was reflected in the books they published. It was the presentation of Indian exotica to a westernised audience.”

 

This began to change in 2004, he argues, with the publication of Five Point Someone by the young novelist Chetan Bhagat, a crisply written romance set at a university in New Delhi. A string of further Bhagat books followed, each more successful than the last, touching on themes of love and professional aspirations and aimed at younger urban readers. Bhagat’s most recent offering, Half Girlfriend, came out last October. It has already sold more than 2m copies, making it easily the year’s top seller.

 

Tripathi and Bhagat share similar backgrounds, having been born in 1974 and begun their writing careers while working at banks in Mumbai. Neither had much of a literary background and both struggled to gain early attention. “I was told publishing was a fractious industry but on my book there was unanimity. Every publisher hated it,” Tripathi says. After 20 rejections, he decided to self-publish. Enthusiastic word-of-mouth reviews and strong early sales eventually won a mainstream deal.

 

The rise of this new generation of mass-market authors is just one of the most obvious symbols of a decade of rapid transformation for Indian publishing, according to the historian William Dalrymple, a co-organiser of the Jaipur festival. “When I put out my first book [in India] in 1991, sales of 4,000 put you at the top of the charts, and publishing was a pretty amateurish affair, with books with blurry covers, printed on paper more fit for the toilet,” he recalls. Bestsellers now shift more than 50,000 copies a week, he says, while even niche titles often sell enough to support their authors through writing alone.

 

Three factors explain this upsurge, beginning with India’s rapid economic and demographic growth, and the effect of this on the consumption habits of an expanding middle class. Potential younger readers are now plentiful in a country where half of the 1.2bn population is under 25. Literacy rates have increased too, rising from 65 per cent to 73 per cent in the decade to 2011. The world’s largest publishers have all now established local divisions, in the expectation that these trends will underpin further rapid expansion.

 

Second, and perhaps more important, has been the belated development of new genres to suit the tastes of this growing domestic audience. Catalogues now bristle with campus romances or crime novels set in white-collar workplaces. Mythological or religiously themed titles are also common, tapping growing interest in India’s cultural history. “Commercial fiction, a decade ago, would have been dominated by foreign authors like Sidney Sheldon or Jeffrey Archer,” Tripathi says. “Now you’ll find it difficult to find a westerner on the bestseller list.”

 

Online retailers such as Amazon and its local rival Flipkart are the third factor behind India’s publishing boom. In the west, such businesses are often viewed with trepidation in the book trade. In India, however, even large cities often lack more than a handful of book shops and internet retailers have therefore tended to expand the market.

 

There is also little scope for online stores to undercut offline rivals. Popular books already tend to be cheap, with paperbacks going for as little as Rs99 ($1.60), mostly to head off competition from pirated copies sold through kerbside stalls. Internet retailers pay publishers more quickly than traditional distributors, too. This benign relationship may not last, especially when sales of ebook readers increase. But for now publishers are sanguine: “We see Amazon and Flipkart as a force for good, they have helped us grow,” says Chiki Sarkar, head of Penguin Random House India.

 

On the face of it, the shake-up ought not to be surprising. Thrillers and romances tend to outsell serious offerings in other markets; India is now simply no longer an exception. Yet this has still forced a sometimes wrenching commercial rethink. “People are starting to break away from that old, rather silly strategy of publishing as many literary novels as you can, and hopefully one of them will win the Booker, and this will make your budget for the year,” says the head of one major publisher, who asked not to be named.

 

Some dispute the idea that publishers have obsessed over highbrow fiction and ignored populist genres. Instead, argues VK Karthika, head of HarperCollins in India, the industry has responded smartly to the arrival of new middle-class readers. The literary market has chalked up notable recent successes too. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland , a political novel set against the backdrop of India’s Naxalite insurgency in the 1960s, is one example. Last week at Jaipur it won the annual DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, adding to the author’s Booker shortlisting, and has sold strongly both in India and internationally.

 

The rise of the new titans of Indian commercial fiction may not be entirely benign, however. “The problem is that these stellar numbers are enjoyed by only the few, few authors at the top, while the rest of the market is struggling to stay alive,” Karthika says, noting that few newer literary authors have managed to repeat the commercial success of the likes of Lahiri or Amitav Ghosh. “Good literary writing is just not keeping pace with the growth in the market.”

 

Either way, there is an undoubted swagger to these publishing superstars. On the final day of Jaipur’s festival, another huge crowd gathered to watch Bhagat take to the stage in the early morning chill. Those unable to secure a seat stood 50-deep at the back, or clambered up to watch from nearby rooftops. Often accused of ungrammatical or clunky writing, the author played video clips of critics attacking his prose style, cheerfully mocking his detractors to roars of approval from the crowd.

 

Such popularity is only likely to grow, Bhagat says, as more authors write with India’s youthful mass-market in mind. It is a process that is gradually marking an end of what the author describes as the old “class system” of Indian publishing. “There tend to be a lot of people in the industry on the editorial side who have a preference for literary fiction,” he says. "But on the business side there is pressure to be commercially successful. So that is what is driving it now."

 

 
 
 

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