Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. Contemporary Indian literature
  3. Workshops
  4. Contemporary Literature Delhi Workshop Report

Contemporary Literature Delhi Workshop Report

A Report on the Workshop of 8-10 March 2007 in Delhi

Akhil Katyal

The Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies, Open University, U.K., in collaboration with the Independent Publishers’ Group (IPG), Delhi, organised a three-day workshop – from 8th to 10th March, 2007 – at Jamia Milia University, Delhi, to mark the conclusion of the first phase of their collaborative research project on Contemporary Indian English Literature and the Indian Market.

Beginning the proceedings of the first day, Suman Gupta made welcome remarks and introduced the various resource persons. The first panel for the day consisted of Harish Trivedi from Delhi University, playwright Mahesh Dattani, poet Keki Daruwala, graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee, and Editor-in-Chief of Penguin India Ravi Singh. Trivedi discussed the importance of having a complicated and differentiated view of the market for Indian writing in English, and voiced the need to view this market in relation with the market for other Indian languages and that of translations. Mahesh Dattani maintained that he catered to an Indian market first and only secondarily to the foreign market. He felt, he said, no qualms about thinking of and developing his books as commercial products. The established poet Keki Daruwala and relatively new author of graphic novels Sarnath Bannerjee drew upon their experience of writing in marginalised genres, and considered the importance of books’ shelf life. Bannerjee, while observing that he is not writing ‘cinnamon scented papaya writing’ or ‘arranged marriage writing’, acknowledged that the market constructs a certain persona for the author and creates expectations of a distinctive style which are readily saleable. Penguin-India’s Ravi Singh extended the discussion of the market by warning against the false triumphalism of the ‘boom’ theory (that there has been a rapid and profitable expansion of the literary book industry in India). He observed that the growth of sales for Indian writing in English has been phenomenal only in a few exceptional cases. Most of the mid-list books still run the same number of print-runs as they used to ten years ago. He talked about the growth in the variety and number of fiction titles and particularly the new-found importance and flourishing of the genre of non-fiction. Concluding with a discussion of the term ‘literary’, Singh advocated (on the assumption that this isn’t a neutral term but is associated with ‘high brow’ writing) the expansion of the limits of ‘literariness’ or jettisoning the idea altogether in view of the market developments, and recent success-stories like popular novelist Chetan Bhagat’s.

Later in the day, the panel of publishers included Nandita Aggarwal from Roli Books, Renuka Chatterjee from Harper Collins, and Ritu Menon from Women Unlimited. Menon, in her bid to contextualise and historicize the discussion of Indian writing in English, began by observing that, in her view: ‘The book trade in India as a whole is a very depressed trade’. She commented on the low percentage share of Indian writing in English to the total amount of trade in English books which is dominated by imported books. She stressed on the lack of adequate retail outlets for books in the country, and argued that the reading public in India is primarily a book-borrowing public, not a book-buying one. Menon also noted the lack of a sufficiently developed library-culture or a practice of recycling second-hand books in India. She concluded by repeating that the Indian market is not one single entity either for the reader, writer or publisher and lamented the lack of concrete data in studying this market. Nandita Aggarwal and Renuka Chatterjee, in talking about market-savvy strategies revealed how far the publishers ‘author’/organise the book, particularly if the author is new. Both commented on the shrinkage of review space in the Indian media circuit, which only covers big stories like Vikram Chandra or Manju Jain book-launches. The publishers expressed need for more libraries, book-clubs and retail spaces. In their search for a bigger and expanding readership, they talked about various strategies to create and co-opt new readerships.

The last session for the first day had the project research assistants Arunima Paul and Shvetal Vyas presenting their studies of promotional strategies/material used by the publishers of Indian writing in English in India. Talking about book-jackets, flyers, posters, catalogues, pamphlets, even tea-coasters, both tried to establish the various ways in which English publishing houses in India aim to tap greatest visibility for themselves and their books in a media-saturated market. Their presentations made clear that books are being exhaustively marketed as lifestyle products, with a sophisticated differentiated system of advertisement/promotion for different kind of books. The research assistants also talked about the difficulties in obtaining archived promotional material from the publishing houses. Both had discovered that publishing houses in India seldom maintain an archive of their promotional materials.

The first session on the second day of the conference included Antara Dev Sen, the founder and editor of ‘the little magazine’, and project research assistants Shvetal Vyas, Arunima Paul and Shivani Mutneja. Sen said that ‘the little magazine’, set up in 2000, brings together social and literary concerns, established and new writers, English writing and translations, essays and various other genres. She mentioned that the readership of the magazine was about 50,000 though sales through subscriptions and over-the-counter sales were around 5,000. Paul and Vyas presented a survey of the review space of ‘the little magazine’ and located trends of the multiple-books review and the theme-oriented review. Vyas argued that with its price at Rs. 75, ‘the little magazine’ competed as a book in the publishing market, both contributing and participating in it. Paul highlighted the interesting use of their website and several local initiatives by the TLM team. Mutneja in talking about other ‘little magazines’ like ‘Yatra’ and ‘Civil Lines’, which are now dormant, extended the spectrum of such publications and their presence in the market.

Former CEO of the Crosswords Book chain R. Sriram, head of the Zubaan publishing house Urvashi Butalia, and the owner of the Delhi bookshop ‘Fact and Fiction’ Ajit Vikram Singh were part of the next panel for the day. Sriram stated that the top 2-3 players in the Indian book industry are growing at a rate of 25-30%, which could be regarded as more at a cottage industry rather than a boom phase, and which is yet to become significant, sophisticated or very large scale. He stressed the need of looking at the book-market as a consumer goods business. The book product should be made affordable, Sri Ram argued, by what he called the ‘movie-ticket’ index, ideally reducing the price of books to that of an average movie ticket. He drew attention to the need for more outlets, growth in the number of print-runs, long-tail marketing and talked about the significance of location along with relevant pricing. Singh, an individual bookshop owner since 1984, lamented the lack of a reading culture among the Indian youth, who, as he said, rely on the internet now for functional knowledge. He located the problems of the publishing industry in its extremely weak distribution network and lack of innovation in terms of quality. Butalia began by reiterating that there is a lack of reliable data on the Indian book market. She discussed the appearance of small and big publishing houses in the last quarter century and the significant changes that the industry has seen. In view of the backdrop of dramatic devaluation of the rupee against the pound/dollar, she located the difficulties in importing books. She concluded by mentioning the Zubaan-Penguin tie up whereby Zubaan uses Penguin’s expansive distribution network to bring greater visibility and sales for their publishing house.

The next panel was comprised of reviewers (who are also academics and authors) who write regularly for review journals published in India – Shobhana Bhattacharjee, M. Asaduddin, Nivedita Sen and Susan Visvanathan. Bhattacharjee began by attempting to unlock the mystery of the relationship between the review and the market, and asserted that she often reviewed in order to sell the book, Asaduddin, and particularly, Sen and Visvanathan felt on the contrary that the market space had little bearing on the process of their reviewing. They talked about the isolated pleasures of reading and discoursing on books. Visvanathan said ‘A reviewer likes the detachment of the act of reviewing’. During the audience response session Meenakshi Mukherjee observed that the review is a form of advertisement and hence works as a factor within the market. Ajit Vikram Singh lamented that the late timing of reviews frequently affected the sales of books adversely. Suman Gupta stated that the very language of the reviewers implied a market and a readership and hence questioned their apparent resistance to the commercial side of reviewing practices.

In the next session three project research assistants Akhil Katyal, Vaibhav Iype Parel and Shivani Mutneja presented individual papers analysing the nature and impact of review journals on the Indian market. Katyal’s presentation on The Book Review mentioned its monthly circulation figures (around 3000), dominant mode of sales (by subscription) and also surveyed the presence of various publication houses within the journal in proportion to each other. Penguin, India and Oxford University Press, India emerged with the densest presence in the journal. Replicating the same model of research, Mutneja’s presentation on Biblio also reviewed the price, history and percentage-wise allotment of review space to books of various publishing houses within Biblio. Parel’s study of the national daily The Hindu’s literary magazine revealed peculiar patterns of allotment of review space to small, blurb-like reviews, full article reviews, a survey of the author’s works or his/her interviews or even photographs of cover-jackets of new books with basic details like publisher and price.

In the final session of the conference on the third day, academics from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Milia University and Delhi University (DU) – Meenakshi Mukherjee, Shyamala Narayan, G.J.V. Prasad and Anuradha Marwah formed the panel. Mukherjee presented a brief historical overview of Indian English literary production and academic interest therein since the 1970s, a decade in which the fewest number of English books appeared in India. She stressed on the immense variety of new fiction currently available. Her answer to whether the growth in the Indian English publishing industry has affected university syllabi in India was not an unqualified affirmative. Like G.J.V. Prasad later, she mentioned that academic freedom to change syllabi was available at very few sites like JNU, DU or the University of Hyderabad. Even in these Indian English writing entered syllabi at a late stage, mainly at the beginning of this decade. Shyamala Narayan argued that the climate for syllabus renovation across the board has now been created by Indian English literature. Both Harish Trivedi and G.J.V. Prasad brought attention to the OUP edition of The Shadow Lines as a publication effort which made its placement in syllabi almost inevitable. Anuradha Marwah, in her presentation, talked about the recent development of a creative writing course in English at DU. She stated that such a course would not have been possible ten years ago and is a signature of the recent success of Indian writing in English and the particular climate of writing that it has created. She also spoke about the unwieldy processes of syllabus change in DU.

In the round-up discussion Tapan Basu stated that the conference had been a ‘most sobering workshop’ and destabilized any initial search for a ‘boom’. Suman Gupta countered by stressing on the wide promises held within the very analysis of the ‘change, even a sea-change’ in the publishing industry producing Indian writing in English in India. The project would hope to expand its research ambit covering the scene of marketing, publishing, distribution, review spaces, statistical readership/circulation figures, and even analyse particular book success cases. It will attempt to view patterns of growth in publishing of Indian writing in English along with other Indian language publications and translations into English. Detailed presentations by participants during the London workshop to be held from 25th to 27th June, 2007 would give particular signs of this expanded scope of the project, which would then seek to broaden out of Delhi into other metropolises in India.