Over the last year or so, V Karthika, editor in chief at HarperCollins India, has actively sought writers to write the kind of books that Indian writers haven’t written in English so far – or at least not in volumes.
She’s looked for writers who’ll do chick lit, who’ll do thrillers, who’ll do contemporary urban stories, who’ll write for young adults… In short, writers who write the kind of books that the majority of us like to read. Books that are not highbrow, that tell a good story without necessarily probing the murky depths of human experience, that entertain and are simply a damn good read. She’s succeeded at least to the extent that, in the space of one year, HarperCollins India has 50 new books to offer the reading public on a wide variety of subjects. A greater variety than Indian writing in English has ever had at one time before. But Karthika hasn’t found a good crime writer as yet. So there’s still a hole in HarperCollins’ determinedly put-together list of commercial writers. Crime. Hmm. When it comes to crime stories by Indian writers in English, there’s a body missing. A body of work, that is.
Fill in the blanks: Actually, there are bodies of work missing in practically every genre of writing in India, except, perhaps, in the category known as ‘literary fiction’. And that, say publishers, is a crime.
“It baffles me that we haven’t developed enough really good pulp writers, we haven’t managed to encourage worldclass writing in various genres,” says Nilanjana S Roy, former literary critic and now chief editor of EastWest and Westland Books, the new publishing arm of Landmark Ltd, the largest book and music retail chain in India. “I’d like to see the emergence of local Stephen Kings as well as future Salman Rushdies.” In a nation of people who’ve taken to travel like birds to the sky, there aren’t many travel books written from an Indian perspective. As sci-fi and fantasy emerge from their cult status, only two Indian writers are available for readers. Agatha Christie’s crime novels set in a country foreign to us, with lifestyles and attitudes that haven’t existed since World War II, sell in high numbers. But only one or two writers here remind us that we, too, may find a body in the stairwell. We mutter about “the foreign hand” in our country’s affairs, but we have few spy stories and thrillers. Not much humour beyond joke books. Limited food writing as opposed to recipe books, though as a nation we have more cuisines than continents can boast. And pitifully few stories about people like us, even though, at the rate our population explodes, people like us will soon outnumber all the other people in the world.
It’s not as though books in these categories haven’t been written and published here ever; they have. But, as Thomas Abraham, CEO of the international publishing group Hachette Livre’s newly set up Indian arm, says, “We need a lot more local writing in these genres before we can say we’re a complete market.”
The great divide: More local writing in these genres is certainly on its way. Aside from HarperCollins India which, according to Karthika, has made commercial fiction its mission and the discovery of new writers its quest, all the publishers in India have begun to actively encourage what is known as ‘genre writing.’ That is, writing that caters not just to a single group of people who consider themselves readers with a capital R, but to people from different age groups and backgrounds, with different wants and tastes.
This fragmentation of the market is not just good for readers, says Ravi Singh, publisher of Penguin India. It’s actually vital if publishing as an industry is to survive. “Publishing isn’t about pleasing one kind of reader with all your books all the time,” he says. “Editorial judgement and literary taste are subjective. If you’re only going to publish books that you as a single publisher or a small group of editors believe is exceptional, you should get out of publishing because you’ll do the book trade and the reading culture more harm than good.” If that’s the case, then why hasn’t this happened in any significant way before? Was it that the market for books in English, particularly fiction, is minuscule? After all, that’s what booksellers constantly lament. But given that at least three new publishing houses – Hachette Livre, EastWest and Westland Books, and Bumblebee – have been set up in the last year or so, that can’t be true. If there weren’t at least a potentially big market, they wouldn’t be here. And even from a purely retail point of view, says Nilanjana Roy – and because EastWest and Westland Books is owned by book retailer Landmark, we can take her word for it – that argument doesn’t hold any more. “The prevailing wisdom has always been that distribution has never been large enough,” says Roy. “But what we’ve seen as a group in the last two years – and it really has been just the last two or three years – is that supply does create demand. The readership has widened, and we’re now seeing an appetite for a far wider range of books than before.” So did this not happen before because years of reading inconsistently written and produced books with over-used themes such as the diaspora’s multicultural problems have made us wary of Indian writing in English? Well, says Ravi Singh, when Penguin India launched 20 years ago and made writers like Anees Jung, Ruskin Bond and Shobhaa De stars, Indian writing in English didn’t get the respect and attention it deserved. And he is not sure that situation has changed. “Even today, few Indian writers, especially of fiction, sell huge numbers or get respectable media space unless they’ve been celebrated first in the UK or the US,” he says. “But I have to say the resistance was greater among those who rarely bought or read books published in India but had opinions.” Then was it because the only people who read in India are people who wouldn’t touch ‘genre books’ with a 20-foot bargepole? Given that all bookshops stock international books from all categories, and in fact it’s the literary types who complain that they don’t get the books they want, that’s a ‘reason’ that fits only in a joke book. “The fact is that we’ve always had a slightly snooty attitude to commercial writing,” says Karthika. “So the best minds were never turned to it.”
Turnaround: So what changed this situation? Why did we stop looking down on commercial writing?
The answer, say publishers, can be found in two words: Chetan Bhagat. When Rupa & Co published Chetan Bhagat’s first novel, Five Point Someone: What Not To Do At IIT, about three hostelites and their struggle to cope with life, it became a bestseller. The book had no literary pretensions; it had a specific target audience consisting of students and young urban professionals not long out of college; it was written in the language that its readers actually speak; and it told a story that many of its readers really live. And it was priced at an easy Rs 90. It was the first genuine mass market book in India and it turned even young non-readers, people who had previously made publishers and booksellers despair, into readers. “There are three generations of English-speakers in the country, and the second and third generations’ lifestyles are different from each other,” says Kapish Mehra, publisher of Rupa & Co which began publishing in 1936. “Because the third generation is willing to experiment, the scope of reading has expanded.” Generation 3 speaks English their own way. They have experiences that are unique to them and come of age in ways that are different from their age group in other countries. Naturally Generation 3 wants books that make sense to them – books by Indian writers set in India. And that goes for chunks of Generation 2 as well. “One sees this most in the new non-fiction writing that has emerged over the past three-four years,” says Thomas Abraham. “Remember, we have a middle class the size of an Argentina being added on every year. And this new middle class, I believe, wants to read books that address its concerns, written in voices it can understand and language it can relate to. That’s the case with fiction too.” “We have unique concerns and passions,” says Karthika. “Such as Bollywood and cricket for instance. So why look for a V S Naipaul when we should look for film writers instead?”
Stand and deliver: But a formula alone can’t work. It needs a good story, so the search for new writers who’ll write new kinds of books goes beyond merely filling the lists. Publishers and literary agents are flooded with manuscripts, but chances of finding a good story among these are about one in 100, says Renuka Chatterjee, senior vice president, Osians Literary Agency. “There is no shortage of talent,” says Jayapriya Vasudevan of the literary agency Jacaranda. “But there is a shortage of writers who know what is required of them by publishers.” However, many first time writers have figured out markets, says Nilanjana Roy, so editorial hand-holding is not always necessary. And the joy of working with first timers today, says Karthika, is that they’re aware of publishing realities. They know they will not get record-breaking advances and they don’t aim for awards. Instead, they’re job-holders who write because they have stories to tell and they want to write, that’s all. Still, as Vasudevan says, with so many publishers mushrooming in India, there is a shortage of ‘ready’ writers. New writers must be found. Which is why when publishers are asked, “Are you desperately seeking writers?” the answer is “Yes.”