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The way forward: India’s publishing boom and its authors

28 November 2011

12:39 PM

28 November 2011

12:39 PM

In some ways, publishing in early post-independence India was like publishing in pre-sixties Canada: cautiously seeking native voices without much financial success. Take GV Desani’s
All About H Hatterr (1948), the first Indian novel
to ‘go beyond the Englishness of the English language’ as Salman Rushdie once said. It languished out of print for many years, despite critical acclaim. Anita Desai and VS
Naipaul’s classics may sell well today, but when they started out in the sixties, their readership was select and modest. In the seventies and eighties, new writers like Manohar Malgaonkar
and Aubrey Menon as well as the popular RK Narayan, came to prominence in journals like the seminal Illustrated Weekly of
. Its elite audience sought to supplement the Western literature they read with a cabal of Indian writers whose literary ambitions were tempered by low expectations
and tiny print runs. Everyone else made do with Mills and Boons and James Hadley Chase.

Today, the gap has closed and the average Indian reader is just as keen to read homegrown authors, particularly at the mass market
— and not only if they’ve won a prize. Indeed, dynamic economic growth has combined an increasingly vocal, upwardly mobile middle class readership with a refined literary
elite to create a solid publishing tradition. Some 25 years after Penguin first came to India, all the big international publishers have established Indian operations, and local and independent
presses abound. With 90,000 books and 19,000 publishers, India has the world’s sixth largest publishing industry, booming after the year 2000 when the Indian government allowed 100 per cent
equity in publishing.

It’s a good time to be an Indian writer. Hungry publishers and readers and increasing interest in the ‘real’ India have created a thriving enterprise which flourishes even as
traditional publishing in the US and UK declines. Not that Indian publishing is by any means advanced — functioning in a developing economy, it is young and still finding its own school of
literary criticism, quality editors and creative writing courses. Its scale — with 3,000 to 5,000 print runs — is relatively small. But the vitality of our books world is unmistakable.
Even ten years ago, only ‘big’ international authors got attention — now, new talent and forgotten classics are championed (Hatterr was reissued in 1998). Moreover, the
corporate world taps neatly into the industry’s visibility and glamour; literary prizes such as the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, one of the world’s richest, and a spate of
literary festivals indicate how swiftly Indian publishing is growing up.

When I left an independent publisher in New York to join Random House India in 2007, this surge had just begun. Soon, everyone wanted to enter the Indian literary marketplace, looking to
source talent and sell books. By the time of last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), the renowned lit fest had matured from cosy gathering to behemoth-like jamboree. For, the
writer has gone mainstream in India and, inevitably, changed in

First, the commercialisation of the Indian writer means that they must publicise themselves and their books. They now rush from Goa’s Think Fest to
Trivandrum’s Hay Festival to Mumbai Fully Booked in a way that is wonderful for
business and worrying for craft. Writers may be hard pressed to write new work while promoting current titles. At the recent launch of Pratilipi’s
fiction special (interestingly, the magazine publishes English and Hindi side by side), poet Alok Bhalla declared: ‘Authors should have bar codes, not their books!’ He was referring to
the cultish appropriation of writers by the media and wider society — only in India are writers (any writer) such a prized addition to the dinner table. Authors, of course, are complicit
actors in this Brave New World.

Second, expectations are high. I was astonished when an ambitious young debut writer casually mentioned his 10 lakh (roughly £12,000) advance earlier this year — several lakhs would
usually have done, even with his profile. The multi-million rupee advance Amitav Ghosh got for his Ibis Trilogy, or the legendary sums paid after Arundhati
Roy’s record advance in 1996 often frenzy writers. Only, not everyone receives the big fat advance: fees are much slimmer than in the US and the UK. Today’s Indian writers expect more
on every level. But what qualifies as success is the real issue here: innovation in marketing, improved production values and increased editorial attention should also be valued next to profit.

The most significant change is that different genres of Indian English books are now being written (the boom has not successfully extended to non- English publishing). Young journalists like
Aman Sethi and Sonia Faleiro are telling gritty, accomplished
stories of unprivileged India using narrative non-fiction. Authors are not restricted to Delhi drawing rooms or diaspora books; they and their subjects now hail from less privileged worlds. In
fact, distaste for limited perspectives has created a sort of Indian ‘dirty’ realism as seen in the un-shining India
of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger — criticized by some for its problematic authorial voice. And English, through which these stories are given to us, is now properly Indian.  

Today, writers can publish several books and still not actually become a writer, a journalist friend often quips. But all of this means that the literary scene has become more eclectic. There
are now Tamil translations, Kashmir memoirs, lesbian graphic novels, fantasy, dalit (a group of people regarded as untouchable, according to traditional notions of caste) poetry.
Even Indians writing of other peoples and lands — Rahul Bhattacharya’s delightful The Sly
Company of People Who Care
, about a young man adrift in Guyana, is perhaps one of the best ‘Indian’ books I’ve read in a while. Yet, like Hatterr, the book has
not found all the attention it deserves — possibly due to its non-mainstream appeal.

While a flowering industry creates many voices, it is still easiest to sell a Slumdog Millionaire that subscribes to the international view of India. A McSweeney’s-style literary
publishing house might be the answer — perhaps not too far off as new and
would-be publishers arrive. Till then, we have the grand, fecund mela that is the Indian publishing boom — no one can afford to pass it up.

Rajni George is literary editor at Punctum.

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