Nov. 2006, New Delhi
Interviewers: Dr. Tapan Basu (TB), Vaibhav Iype Parel (VIP), Akhil Katyal (AK)
TB: We are interested in looking at the kind of Indian writing in English which has come into prominence over the last decade or a little more than a decade , that is not necessarily circulating in the markets abroad. Penguin India has been doing a lot of these. I personally feel that Penguin India in a way has been responsible for starting off this market and then of course other publishing houses have taken advantage and expanded the market. I remember that I went to the first book launch of Penguin India which was in… (V.K.:1987) at the Taj Palace Hotel. Ten first books were launched and since then so many books have been published by Penguin India. Many of them are clearly not targeted at the markets abroad. They are targeted at markets in India. That is the book publisher’s logic. What is this market all about? Why have foreign publishing houses like Penguin focused on this market and made this their arena of interest? What does it tell us about the publishing industry in general and about the publishing industry as far as literature in English is concerned? What does it tell us about middle class Indian reading habits? So these are the questions that we are interested in asking. So do you think there has been a growth in this kind of market, this internal market?
V.K: Definitely. I mean, there’s no question about it. Because, as you said, we started with six to ten books in the first year. We do more than two hundred now. Across the range. And I am not talking literature and fiction alone, but all kinds of genres from business to management to self-help to everything. And as the trends changed, we’ve kept in touch with those as well.
Also,retail practices have changed. Selling of books has changed so much. This has been in complement with production practices. Because if you have the books to produce but you don’t have the opportunity to sell the books, then of course it doesn’t work. So on the one hand the difference is also at the source, as in we used to have to create the books a lot, in the beginning, we used to have to come up with ideas, we had to think up the subjects for books. There was nothing, no precedent in the English Language market. So we had to tell ourselves , for instance, that maybe a book on P.T. Usha may have a readership, and then we found a writer for it, or we said, ok, who can write such a book, and then we had to decide who we were aiming this book at, which readership, it could be a children’s book, it could be an adult book, whatever. So we had to do all that work prior to producing a book and then find a way of selling it. Whereas now, twenty years down the line, there are so many manuscripts coming in, by writers who are confident about what they want to say and who they want to say it to, that we actually have to make a choice who to publish and not to publish.
T.B: Could you tell me one thing? Before ‘87, Penguin was here to sell books published in its units abroad. What made Penguin take this decision to start a publishing venture here?
V.K: The person at the top at that time was a person called Peter Meyer, who looked after the market in India as well as after Penguin U.K.and was also the international head. He was a visionary in publishing. He could see that this was the location for Penguin to set up shop at that time to be ahead in the game later. That here was potential. The numbers were very good. The English speaking world had reached that point twenty years earlier, markets like the U.K. and U.S. were then more or less at a steady pitch. They were not going to expand hugely. The numbers were not going to go up. But India was the biggest case in point for a constituency of readers in which the numbers were going up every year and every year the number of readers in English was going up. So obviously the big market had to lie here. It happened with Australia about ten years ago or fifteen years ago :Australia was also a market that was expanding. Now, it’s clearly India. So, it was just someone who could see that this was going to happen and decided therefore to set up business and exploit and expand the market. I suppose the number of books that Penguin used to distribute in India before 1987 was very small ; they could see that the numbers would go up if the price was right. Now when we are importing a book and it’s a foreign book, then we don’t actually manage to get a good price on it, because it is much more expensive bringing it in. We might have got a cheaper price and therefore a bigger market. So then Penguin started thinking about how it would be if they started publishing locally. And finding authors here.
T.B: Do you think the response has met the expectations?
V.K: Absolutely. Overshot the expectations. I think even they had never predicted that twenty years down the line India would be such a strong market for them.
T.B: Now that Penguin India is here to publish a particular book, Penguin units abroad won’t take a similar manuscript?
V.K: No. No. They will. We are a completely autonomous company in that sense. What we publish, we publish with the brief that we publish it for the subcontinent. And the writers we represent are either Indian , Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Nepali, whatever and the subjects of the books are of interest to this readership. Therefore we never take a writer who is very good but whose books are anyway published by the U.K. or the U.S. Those we would import. Similarly if there is a book published here which has a market in the U.S. or the U.K., they would import from us or license from us, but they may not necessarily publish it.
T.B: You are concentrating on a market here.
V.K: Absolutely, because we feel that that is what we want to do; I think ,at core, our project is to develop good writing and good writers from this region ,and the more true they are to what they want to say and how they want to say it, the more difficult it is going to be to market them outside. Because the vocabulary, the language, the style, the imagery, the concerns, are not always the large canvasses that they need.
T.B: And you see a market already in readiness for growing?
V.K. Yes. And it’s a growing market. So if we can make our books find a market here, we do not really need to look to the west. Not at all. If they do it’s a bonus, but that is not our motive. That’s only a secondary thing if it happens.
T.B: So the Diasporic market is there, but over and above and simultaneously with the Diasporic market, which is circulating Indian books out there, you have developed an alternative market here.
V.K: I don’t even think the hierarchy should be there. (T.B: No, no.) Because those writers are living outside India and they are writing with a full awareness of a western audience. These people are not writing for a western audience. (T.B: They’ve no expectations.) No, they are writing for someone who’s like them in their neighbourhood, their readership, their children, and their family, whatever. But the writers, located in the west, are very clear that they want a western readership. So there’s a difference even in the way they approach the writing.
T.B: And from the point of view of the publishing houses, there is a difference in the way you promote a book.
V.K: Not in the way we would promote it here, because each one would promote it differently within their own territory, but their access to publishing power is different. If they are writers in the top league, they have agents who sell them in different territories and so on. But what you don’t see are non-Kiran Desai’s, the non-prize winning diaspora writers. There are hundreds of them who don’t make it. Who sell 2000 copies, or 3000 copies, in Virginia or Maryland, or wherever they are located and have a small readership but they never make it outside of that. And they would not be published in India, because we would see them completely inane. (T.B: non-relevant) Absolutely.
T.B: So, coming back, it’s a two way process in the development of this market – there are these books so there is a market, and because there is a market, there are these books. (V.K: Right)
When do you date this change? You know, this growth of the Indian market?
V.K: You know the more I think about it, the more I am determined that Arundhati Roy made the difference.
T.B: You think so?
V.K: Yes. Because of course there was The Suitable Boy, and there was the Salman Rushdie, and Midnight’s Children was definitely an awakening.
T.B: Penguin, India itself came out in 1987.
V.K: But there was a beginning. People were grouping, looking. So there was no guarantee of success. And the difference comes between 2000 copies and 200,000 copies.
T.B: Ok. But every book after Arundhati Roy doesn’t sell like this?
V.K: No, but we have seen a difference in the, I suppose ‘confidence’ is the word. Of writers who suddenly began to think that it can be done. Earlier it was a Salman Rushdie who was living somewhere, it was a Vikram Seth who was living somewhere else, and you could count on your fingers, the writers who had made it internationally, but then here comes Ms. Roy, wins the biggest prize of them all, becomes the most famous face of India, and all on a strength of a book. So, there’s a certain…
T.B: No, I don’t think that Arundhati Roy is such a good example because the hype around Arundhati Roy comes from the west
V.K: It does, but every other book which has had hype has had hype from there. Except that the writers have also been located outside. But here was a writer who was located here, who goes and does things like becoming involved in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, while none of the other writers have any claim to political interest in India at all. And they are fiction writers who live somewhere else. And so, however much you adopt a Vikram Seth or a Salman Rushdie or any of them, I don’t think they gave the same impetus to the twenty something writers who found an icon in her and they could identify with her success.
T.B. There is Amitav Ghosh whose every book was published (V.K: by Harper Collins there and by Ravi Dayal here)
V.K: Again it’s the numbers game that I am talking about; while an Amitav Ghosh might sell a 10,000 to 20,000 copies, we are talking about someone who is routinely selling 10,000 copies a year, after ten years. So, to me it is a landmark in terms of providing an internationalism to the Indian writer. Now young writers write in to us all the time; 18 years old, 25 years old, with a manuscript and a confidence to say that I want to go to the world with it, not just India. And I think that a lot of that has come from seeing that it is possible.
T.B. So if we were to talk about the nature of this change which has come about in the Indian English writing book market. One is a quantative kind of a change, 10,000 or 20,000. Would you like to comment on the qualitative change as in what kind of genres, what kinds of writing have been affected most by this change. Is it drama, poetry, discursive writing etc.?
V.K: I think the biggest difference that I would mark out for the last decade or so, would be in non-fiction actually. Because early on the only genre attempted seemed to be fiction. Everybody was writing a novel based on their lives and their experiences and the books were soaked in the autobiographical element. And there was a tedium which came by reading the same story told by ten different people. Thus ,non-fiction seems to have provided that point where you got really good narrative writing, but it became interested in memoir, biography, autobiography. In taking stock of India; during the millennium for instance, we saw a lot of that happen. India – from midnight to millennium, what is India about, India books, you know.
T.B: Am I wrong when I say that most of the books that you still bring out are fiction? Or no?
V.K: No. Only about 35-40% of our list is fiction. 60-65% is non-fiction.
T.B: Quite a lot of fiction still.
V.K: It is, but if you look at a list of 200 books and in which there are 60 novels and compare this to 30 novels in a list of 50 books, increasingly the fiction is becoming less – we are becoming more selective for one thing, because we can tell that the readers just have so much choice, then why would they read an indifferent book if they can get the best of international writing in the shop. On the other hand , in non-fiction there is nobody else sitting elsewhere writing about you, here. You need the local writer whom you trust, who has the credibility to write your non-fiction for you. And there is always topical interest about events around Indianness.
T.B: These local writers of non-fiction are not necessarily specialized academics?
V.K: Not at all. In fact a lot of them are journalists, people who’ve been working with media. A lot of journalists have been writing books for the last few years.
T.B: How do you account for these changes in the Indian market?
V.K. I think your third reason is actually one of the simplest reasons but probably the most effective. An English reading public that has expanded so much. [T.B: But wasn’t there always a middle-class which…] yes, but the middle-class is expanding in numbers, The moment they are expanding in numbers your retailer has more interest in selling to them.
T.B: You know, this expansion could also be [shared], like there are other media like the T.V. etc.
V.K: Yes, but we have noticed that it doesn’t affect reading…I would say that. Because once there is a growth in the market and everybody sees it, they start finding the gaps in it, filling them, which is how retail becomes such an important part of this. You see the big Landmark , Crossword, Oxford sort of chains coming in, they are selling to the middle class and they are selling not just books but toys and music and lifestyle to them. Therefore what happens is that along with the success of Indian writing the media picks up on it. Because the English language media – the newspapers, the magazines – are also talking to the middle class. Their readers are from the middle class. So they start giving visibility to books. So pg 3 includes writers now and book launches are glamorous events to go for. It says that this is valuable, this is glamorous, this is what you want to be a part of. So every second person who’s a pg 3 person also wants to write a book. So everyone says oh everyone is talking about it. I must take it back to my book shelf.
T.B: One reason is that once upon a time the production of books was low and of low quality.
V.K: Now you get world-class books here.
T.B: So you feel like picking up a book.
V.K: That is all to do with the packaging. Just as the publisher of the book is making it more attractive, so is the retailer demanding a more attractive package and so is the reader. So a more value addition we give the reader, the more there is going to be the market. So to me the expansion of the English reading middle class is the basic reason.
T.B: You talked about promotion and packaging being very very important factors. So are these books [contemporary Indian English writing] packaged differently from others?
V.K: I think each segment carries its own way of selling. So that your big fiction titles which are sold with a lot of readings in cities and author tours across the metros and pg 3 events. That is one way you would do that.
T.B: Does Penguin India operate like that?
V.K: For a certain kind of books. Now tonight we are launching William Dalrymple’s new book. Now that’s going to be a pg 3 event. We don’t have to do anything to make it that. The media will do that. So that’s one thing. But another is that we do an annual reference year book which is like a Manorama year book sort of thing, which we started about two years ago. Now that does not even get into these segments. It just comes into the market but do a lot of pre-selling bit. We prepare the market; we announce that this is the date we are coming out with it. We make sure that the trade knows, so that the retailers know, the distributors know, we take orders in advance. And we try and get our timing right. We send flyers to schools and colleges and mailing lists are made out. So there you are trying to reach the reader directly and telling them you need to buy this book, you can use this book. And then you have books like business/management books, where your aim would be to get into the airport shops, railway shops, to get into the higher end bookshops also because they are higher priced books. Primarily you are saying that make it visible in the right places. Because your business executive is likeliest to pick it up while traveling or off the net maybe. They are not the ones who’ll go and browse in the book shops. You need to tell them that it’s coming and need to make sure they know. So we send out flyers to management schools. We need to say that we have this book and this is where you can get it. So we try and sell these differently and package it differently for that reason. For reference year books for instance pricing is a very important part of the package. You have to price it really low. Business books, pricing is not the point, you need to give it a perceived value, so if it is something you could do at 200, you might choose to do it at 300, because you cannot have it been seen as too low brow. This is going to be bought by somebody who’s going to flash a credit card and buy it. They are not interested in the Rs. 200 book. They are interested in the higher end books. So you vary your pricing according to that. Fiction titles, you just go by basic profit margins, and that’s not an issue. But, in some segments, pricing becomes a key to selling.
T.B: Penguin’s strength has been that it always had a distribution network in place, but I’m thinking of lesser publishing houses. Do you think from what you know that they have different strategies for promotion and publishing?
V.K: You know, I think we do a range and a number that require that kind of differentiation. The market itself does not necessarily call for this differentiation. If you go into a bookshop then you’ll see Indian writing, which includes just about anything. You’re not going to see books which say young adult or chick lit or business or whatever. Most of these bookshops just club everything together and put them all down. So we’re trying in fact to make that difference a part of the way they sell. Because it’s better for the reader.
T.B: You mean that you’re telling the bookshops how to go about promoting and selling.
V.K: I won’t go as far as that because they don’t listen to us anyway.
T.B: I intend that you give them a roadmap?
V.K: We’re trying.
T.B: That’s very interesting. Is it meeting with some success?
V.K: No. It’s meeting with success not actually because of our efforts. The chains are making the difference. Places like Landmark and Crossword, for instance, where they have the space to actually differentiate. They don’t have one room. They’re spreading themselves out, they’re year marking, there’ll be a travel section.
T.B: An interesting publisher-retailer partnership?
V.K: Once they are doing that we are happy to fall in with that and supply them along those lines. So if you go into a bookshop and say oh the travel section looks really bare then you know as a publisher that that is what you need to fill. Maybe that’s where you’ll get a better readership. There are people looking for those books but there are only so few. So, in an unspoken sort of way, the more the selling improves in differentiation, the more the publishers (T.B: will try and fill those gaps) Correct, and do something specific to the readership.
T.B: So you have personnel who actually look into bookshops and all.
V.K: Yes. We have sale representatives around the country.
T.B: No, sales reps are the people who distribute your books. I’m talking about people who do research on how shop displays are and so on.
V.K: That’s our job. That’s how editors who commission would look. People who are acquiring manuscripts will think of what to publish. Those are the people who’ll go into the bookshops and explore, see the gaps and try and find what to do. And the head of sales would do that for instance.
T.B: Has this always been there or is it now with the big change now coming in bookshop chains?
V.K: I think it’s always been there but there is more to discover and more assessment is possible now because of these chains and because you can see the whole range of books. Otherwise you had to go to the distributors’ place to see all the books, not the retailer. And the distributors usually just pile up books and you are not looking at them on shelves. Now you have large spaces where you can look at them.
T.B: Media coverage and media promotion; now one is how your coverage and your promotion; what about media? How much do you depend on the media?
V.K: A lot. Because we’ve discovered that whatever the kind of attention the media gives a book, whether it’s a bad review or a good review, it shows up in your sales. At least the book hasn’t sunk. At least it isn’t indifferently perceived. Even if somebody disagrees with the book and says what a lousy book, our customer services will get a call from the distributors saying ok you publish such a book because you anticipate at least some debate about it and some selling so distributors are interested.
T.B: Now for instance this book Penguin book of New Writing in English [gestures to the book kept near by], I would have thought that this is a very risky venture. These are unknown names. (V.K: They are, most of them. All there writing is in unknown genres) I looked at this for instance, lots of unknown names, very young writers, I would have thought that this is a risky venture.
V.K: See the thing with Penguin is that we’ve reached that stage that practically any book we publish we can sell two thousand copies of it. (T.B: Thanks to your distribution network) Thanks to the distribution network, thanks to the credibility the brand carries and the certain following it has. And the fact that in a country of a billion people out of which five percent read English, two thousand is a hardly a number.
T.B: But that says something about Penguin, not about the market.
V.K: Absolutely. Not necessarily about the market. But those two thousand we will sell. We can afford to take risks like that because we only print three thousand copies of this. So if we sell two to three thousand we’re covered.
T.B: Books produced for the Indian market; are they marketed simultaneously outside India or are there some inhibitions?
V.K: No, Pakistan is supposedly the only problem and the Middle East.In Pakistan for instance you can’t get certain sorts of books, the customs authorities stop it, and in the Middle East also, there are laws about fiction and things like that, but other than that anywhere else in the world there is no problem legally.
T.B: Do you collaborate with Penguin abroad?
V.K: On the one hand we send our books to Penguin companies around the world and the sales teams pick up what they think they can sell in their territories, what is of possible interest and those they’ll distribute. On the other hand, in the UK for instance, we have an independent distributor, Motilal, who distributes a lot of Indian publishers’ books in the UK.
T.B: And it’s financially viable?
V.K: It’s not huge numbers yet.
T.B: Financially, it’s more productive to sell here rather simply to aim for selling there.…
V.K: No, not simply, because the cover price there is higher. So if we are selling a book through Penguin, U.K. in the U.K. we would get a percentage of their cover price, which is invariably much higher than our cover price, because the market there is differently shaped. So we would end up earning money in it also.
T.B: But there are no trade laws?
V.K: There are no issues. Books are exempt from things like VAT and sales tax and stuff like that. So there is no problem here with that.
T.B: Ok, this is again a very broad question, can a common stylistic or thematic orientation can be identified as a feature of this writing. One is, we just discussed it, India matters.
V.K: Correct, and I suppose at one point the flavor would have been from exotica, exotic India, even in fiction ritual centric, difference centric, because you were talking to the west and you were explaining India and trying to show it. Now we seem to have come to a point where it is the other extreme. What we get from the younger writers is much undiluted, raw, experiential, India of the moment, where they refuse to explain, without translation, without italicizing…
T.B: Because maybe they are aware that the large amount of readership is going to be Indian.
V.K: That ,and there is the whole political response to English being ours as well, we’re not writing for the foreign reader, we’re writing for the reader here, but even if the foreign reader is going to read it somewhere else then it is up to them to find a way to read it. We’re not expecting them to explain their culture to us, they tell a story, if we have a problem, we’ll try and read enough to understand the story, so let them do the same. There is a self-conscious confidence that ties up.
T.B: You think this phenomenon of the increase in the market is…
V.K: It is completely abiding. I think, (T.B: we won’t go back?) I doubt, seriously. There will be a point where we’ll saturate but I think it’s going to be very far away. (T.B: There are so many players in the market) There is enough space for many more players. Because there is so much to do. The Indian market is in a sense unique because despite the growth of the conglomerates and the MNCs, the small ones continue to be quite strong in the presence and in brand memory and so on and so forth. So it’s nicely balanced which is why I think it’ll last.
T.B: We talked about pricing a while earlier, now pricing in the Indian market seems to be quite a determinant for the growth of the market, it’s a middle class pocket which has to be accommodated whereas books published abroad, even paperbacks, cannot be accommodated to the middle class pocket, therefore is pricing a very very important factor?
V.K: It used to be I think, even more important. But now we’ve realized that if somebody wants to buy a book then the price difference between 250 and 350 is not putting them off. (T.B: higher salaries and so on) Higher salaries, more money to throw away, surplus cash, so it’s more about convincing them you need to buy this book. I think pricing will always be major just as any product has to be priced right. If you get it wrong then obviously nobody is interested. But if you have a book that is attractive, that is a good book, that has a value of its own, then we’ve realized that a 50 or 75 rupee difference is not the clinching factor. They would buy it. But for mass market it is very important, like if you’re doing a Chetan Bhagat sort of novel, now if you sell that same book at 250, no way you would have sold it at the numbers you’ve sold it now…But Arundhati Roy, today you’re selling her at 350 maybe, tomorrow you might say that the paper costs have gone up. I need to change 350 to 450; I think no body would bat an eyelid. Because that is the thing they want to buy, of course they’ll moan that it’s gone up but they’ll buy it. I think it’ll make no difference.
V.I.P: What is your take on the notion of the review/ review journal and how does it get connected with your business?
V.K: Reviewers, we’ve discovered, are also looking for the big story. They also want to cover the Dalrymples and the Seths and give them more and more space because for them finally it is, he sells, so the more space we give to them, the more readers we’ll get to the review journals, whereas if they review the smaller books, it’s almost like of academic interest to a specialized reader. So I think to the mainstream media, reviews are a way of, I mean for instance you’ll notice that the books they review mostly are political non-fiction books plus say the fiction coming from us or from Harper Collins or some of the bigger publishers. You’ll rarely see the reviews of the smaller presses, the smaller books, the younger writers, it’s like they don’t exist. I think it’s because they are not looking at what exists in trade but what their readers might want to look or read about. And that’s how the choice of the subject and the book and the writer seems to work. Which is why it is so disappointing because all the really exciting writing which could come out in this kind of space. The Hindu is very good in the sense that it has much more space and it tends to divide it up between different kinds of books. I can’t even speak very highly of the reviewers we have in this country. It’s a small circle. It’s an incestuous circle.
T.B: But if a new book by a new writer is reviewed. What about the quality of the review? How does…at least it gets noticed?
V.K: It gets noticed. It has some sort of impact. At least, as I said, anything being reviewed, good, bad or indifferent means extra copies being sold or at least ordered from us. Whether it actually gets bought in the market we don’t know but the distributor at least notices it. Say in India, reviews in a week, three books, whereas we ourselves must be doing three books a week in terms of putting them out in the market. So a very small percentage of books actually gets into the review pages. There is not parity there. It isn’t like the TLS or something which has pages of reviews so that you manage to cover at least some portion. (T.B: We don’t have that kind) We don’t. I mean, Biblio doesn’t do that. (T.B: But The Book Review reviews more books) Yes, but what I’ve noticed that when a book gets reviewed, it tends then to get reviewed by everybody.
A.K: Also I was interested in knowing in the case of translations; that you commission translations, you have certain translators in mind, or do people come with certain authors, like the fiction manuscripts which reach you, and offer to translate these books?
V.K: Yes. Lot of translators. Lot of ideas for translation. More than writers it’s translators who come to us in that section. Writers do of course say that I’d like my work translated.
T.B. What about anthologies?
V.K: Anthologies we figured was one way to get people to browse and dip and read and gift. And travelogues to certain areas. If you are traveling to Delhi then you wouldn’t mind reading an anthology of Delhi. It’s like a crash course in what’s going on, who are the interesting writers.
T.B: Well Thanks a lot.
V.K: Oh you’re welcome.