The Mag This Week

Here’s what’s in the Books page today:

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, reviewed by Advaita Goswami.
Shadow of the Titanic by Andrew Wilson, reviewed by Joanna Lobo.
Of Birds and Birdsong by M. Krishnan (ed. Shanthi and Ashish Chandola), reviewed by Bijal Vachharajani.

And in other news, I talk to Indian publishers about English pop fiction in India. 

The Hunt For The Next Chetan Bhagat

Last year at a literature festival held in Mumbai, author Chetan Bhagat raised hackles when he claimed he’d changed Indian publishing by writing stories that ignored the foreign market and India’s Westernised readers. “If 50 intellectuals read my book at a lit fest and enjoy it, that would be impure to me,” said Bhagat. He stressed he was the first to write English novels for the masses. It took Bhagat’s fiction, which critics have savaged, to wake Indian publishing up. “Publishers are not as interested in Booker prizes now,” Bhagat said smugly.

Bhagat’s take isn’t completely baseless. “I think the turning point has to be Chetan Bhagat’s success,” said Saugata Mukherjee, publisher of Pan Macmillan India. “Of course one had authors like Anurag Mathur, but their success was not anywhere close to Bhagat’s phenomenal rise. I can’t say if publishers ignored mass market books before Bhagat, but there certainly was an apathy towards such writing.”

The bestselling novels that Bhagat wrote delivered an epiphany: one need not be well-versed in literature or display sophistication in one’s use of English to write a book. This led to writers coming out of the woodworks. Most had no literary background, no agents and no big publishing houses to back them. But their books became quick bestsellers, much to the delight of small publishers like Srishti, which entered the fiction market in 2006 and cheerfully accepts unsolicited manuscripts.

Like Rupa, which picked up Bhagat after his manuscripts were rejected by several publishers, Srishti benefited from pricing the novels at around Rs.100.

“The price point was made keeping in mind a specific target of consumers, namely the youth,” said Arup Bose who handles publishing at Srishti. “We have a huge young population, which is not only English literate but prefers to communicate in English. Also, the rising numbers of young Indian authors using easy, colloquial language and identifiable situations in their books have played a huge part behind the boom.” A parallel literary plane had been established and its celebrities were hitherto unknown names like Ravinder Singh, Karan Bajaj and Amish Tripathi, among others. The sales figures for their books were substantial enough for the big guns of Indian publishing to sit up and take note of popular fiction.

Literary fiction isn’t always a dud and prizes can help drive up sales. Booker prize winner Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, yet to be released as a paperback, reportedly sold 25,000 copies within months of its launch. Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, has sold over 500,000 copies (which is almost five times as much as Twilight’s sales figure). Bhagat’s 2 States: The Story of My Marriage also sold 500,000 copies, but within a year whereas Shantaram was published in 2003. No wonder Indian publishers are intent upon finding the next popular fiction superstar.

Pan Macmillan recently published Jaal, which attempts to tap into India’s fascination for mythology. Random House India has titles like Girl Plus One and The 6pm Slot, which hope to encourage a chick lit readership. The emphasis is on quick, pacy, low-priced reads rather than elaborate plots and literary flair. “The key thing in the mass market category is that the sales are driven not just by the metropolitan reader, but by the mofussil and upcountry reader and, in many instances, first generation English readers,” said Mukherjee.“Audiences of the prime time television shows have finally started reading – hence a barrage of rom-coms and mushy stories in the bestseller list.”

At a time when most industries are weighed down by gloomy projections, publishing in India is optimistic about the future. Today, India is the third-largest publisher of English language books. Whereas once Penguin was the only big player in the business of fiction, now it enjoys healthy competition from companies like Harper Collins, Hachette India, Pan Macmillan, Random House India, Westland and Aleph Books. The likes of Srishti Publishers have made their presence felt and self-publishing is growing in popularity. All this means more books, more variety and more buyers. Just three years ago, a bestseller was a book that sold approximately 5,000 copies but today, to be considered a bestseller, a book has to sell upwards of 10,000 copies, which shows a robustly growing market.

“Fiction until a few years ago was restricted to ‘literary’ fiction and foreign fiction, enjoyed by and perhaps even accessible to a smaller demography,” said Poulomi Chatterjee, managing editor of Hachette India. “But more people are reading home-grown popular fiction now – younger generations that would not have read fiction perhaps. And look at the genres that are being written or at least attempted now.Apart from the campus novel and chick lit, there’s romance, humour, crime and thrillers, adventure, even science fiction. Not that it’s all proficient or prolific, but at least the attempt is being made.”

Earlier this year, Penguin introduced Penguin Metro Reads, whose catalogue comprises only cheap paperbacks. Vaishali Mathur, senior commissioning editor at Penguin, handles this imprint. “I think the publishing world was very smug about publishing only literary fiction,” she said. “Indian authors writing commercial fiction, doing huge numbers, have shaped today’s market for the better.” Penguin Metro Reads is her attempt at righting the previous wrong. “The idea behind Penguin Metro Reads is to bring in good commercial fiction with the Penguin brand quality,” she said. “It is also a platform for newer genres and styles of writing, and introducing new authors.”

Despite the publishers’ insistence that quality is of critical importance, most of the Indian popular fiction titles are examples of sloppy storytelling and trite plots. Chatterjee conceded that often “the writing is not down pat”. Mukherjee was more forthright. “Very few of the bestselling books today in the mass market category are really ‘original’,” he said. However, even though these books are not examples of good writing and are unlikely to make any mark globally, at a local level, they mean good business. So for the time being, literary fiction can sit on the back burner, while Indian publishers desperately seek the author who will give Chetan Bhagat a run for his money.


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