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Contemporary Indian Literature, Workshop, Presentation 3

Presentation by researcher Vaibhav Iype Parel at the London workshop

The Market and the Reader: Five moments in the Indian Publishing Industry(1)

My attempt in this paper is to look at specifically five Indian texts (published in India), to see how they have done in the complex space that the Indian market is, which I hope will be an exercise that will help us to really get to the nuts and bolts, so to speak, of the Indian publishing scenario. I do not think I have attempted to come up with a specific set of answers to any specific set of questions, but through the analysis of book reviews, interviews and other such available material have juxtaposed various kinds of data to allow for a complex and heterogeneous picture to emerge. I have, by the end, thrown up some questions, which may help to shed some light on the mystery of Indian publishing. As part of my research, besides using data that was available, I have on an experimental and small basis tried to gain an understanding of reader preferences, reading habits and responses through a questionnaire that I circulated in around 6 Indian cities through friends via email to roughly around 40 respondents. I hope this kind of an exercise where I try to map some empirical findings on more theoretical kind of work, will provide for the precisely the fine intermeshing that is needed for gauging and understanding ground reality.

The Five Moments: A Brief Overview

Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans (December 1990), Chetan Bhagat’sOne Night @ the Call Center (October 2005), David Davidar’s The House of Blue Mangoes (2002), Sarnath Banerjee’s The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (2007) and Penguin’s 2006 book Dec 13 A Reader – will be the five books that will provide us with complex sites for discussion of market successes, marketing strategies, sales figures, bestseller secrets, author-persona creations, book cover designs and many more signs that revolve around the book in the contemporary context of the publishing industry in India.

Published in December 1990, The Inscrutable Americans forms an interesting case study as it has defied all market parameters(2). The book created a record in Indian publishing history for not only being the most-sold Indian book but also for being the only book to feature on the bestseller list for 11 long years. The book has doggedly stayed on the bestseller list, notwithstanding the media hype and success stories surrounding other books and went into its 29th impression in 2003. According to Mathur, it still gets him a royalty of two lakh rupees every year (approx GBP 2500). The book was never published in a hardbound cover and came into the market without any media hype, or even a launch and never won any national or international awards, the reason I mention this is that these are generally the factors which tend to influence the sales and even success of books. Obviously then, begging the question, what makes it sell?

According to the publishers, i.e. Rupa & Co, “the story of the book is such that it sells”. It is a story of a small-town 20 year old who goes to America with all kinds of illusions in his head about America and gets trapped in comical situations. For Mathur, “there are still a lot of people especially in the rural areas for whom America is a mystery …. America is a sex-crazy nation. It is a young nation where the focus and emphasis is on the youth. The youth are very much interested in sex there”(3). What is easily observable is that The Inscrutable Americans as a market variable and a cultural reference has taken over the author and the book defines or popularizes his name more than he does to that of the book.

The reviews for The Inscrutable Americans have a two-sided story to tell. While most reviewers rubbished the book as juvenile trash, calling it unreadable and a waste of money, the more academic minded (which is a minority) see the book as a reply – of a somewhat postcolonial nature – to the new imperial situation that America has come to occupy. They see the book as an attempt to bring out powerfully the racism, insularity and cultural snobbery that America has showcased over the years by exposing the Indian protagonist – Gopal – to unending ridicule. Interestingly, when Mathur was asked about the fact that many critics had trashed his book, he said candidly, “How does it matter so long as it sells?”.

The second selected moment, for the purpose of this paper, in the Indian publishing industry was marked by the arrival of Chetan Bhagat on the literary scene. We are dealing with his second book, One Night @ the Call Center – easily called upon as another ‘historic’ sales moment in the industry(4). He had published in 2003 his first novel “Five Point Someone – Whatnot to do at IIT”. Published in October 2005, One Night @ the Call Center was only issued in paperback and was priced at a very affordable Rs. 95. Bhagat's writing is all about offering inside views, via plots intricately tied to the novels' settings. The stories move quickly, the dialogue never stepping out of the colloquial. His debut,Five Point Someone, was about three friends unable to cope with their lives at an Indian Institute of Technology. As for One Night @ the Call Center, it is rather self-explanatory. Both novels have smaller tales strewn liberally about, which contributes towards making them such quick, easy reads. Writing for the metro plus pull out of The Hindu – one of India’s leading national dailies – Aditya Sharma is of the view that the “sales figure[s] are … largely due to the hype that has been created around his books as also the aggressive marketing strategies of his publishers”(5). When aggressive marketing strategies are talked about, what comes first to the mind is Chetan Bhagat’s official website. He claims for himself a title which says, “Author of two contemporary classics”(6). The website is a collage of several Bhagatisms which are both amusing and skilful, even if a trifle presumptuous. It has several sections on Bhagat the author, the books, where you can buy them, information about them and other trivia like cover designs and information about call centers and IITs. Elucidating on the staggering sales figure achieved by Bhagat's books, Kapish Mehra of Rupa says, “I'll put his writings under the slot of commercial literature. Such sort of writing is able to capture popular interest”. “It's not high literature,” admits Bhagat, “both of my novels portray the aspirations, mindset and problems of the present generation in a very simple language. And since I belong to the young generation, I feel I have been able to strike a right chord with my readers. When they read my books they are able to relate themselves to the characters and the plots”(7). Bhagat is not entirely off the point, one might say, since just Five Point Someone has sold around 10 Lakh copies. Moreover, Bhagat’s “IIT Book” has led to a proliferation of the genre as a more writers, like Harshdeep Jolly and Amitabha Bagchi, are now writing in the genre(8).

The commercial story is not the same for all the authors that I’ve chosen for the purposes of this paper. The opposite is also true within the complex mechanisms of the Indian publishing scenario. One of the other recorded moments for my paper is a collection of essays on the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament where the cover of the book proudly states, even above the title of the book, ‘With an Introduction by Arundhati Roy’(9). Here a popular name ushers the book into the vulnerable precincts of the market to assure some sales. The genre of non-fiction, according to Urvashi Butalia during the interview we conducted in the first phase of the project, has been the biggest beneficiary of the growth of the Indian English industry in terms of numbers and variety(10). Popular non-fiction books like Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta and of course Freakonomics from foreign shores have done very well in the Indian market as also confirmed by the current Crossword bestsellers list. Most of the books reviewed in the Indian review journals The Book Review and Biblio belong to the genre of non-fiction. This collection of essays on the Parliament attack attempts to tap into this increasing market for the genre of, as its back cover states, ‘Non-fiction/Current Affairs’. An introduction by a popular novelist who also has a penchant for controversies and is a social activist, like Arundhati Roy, helps in lending a celeb name to the book, which I personally believe, is plagued by an otherwise unbearable repetitiveness otherwise. But this where, I bring in the responses to the questionnaire, the picture assumes darker shades. Not a single person within the age group of 17-30 to whom the questionnaire was circulated, has read the book. Most have on the other hand, read The God of Small Things, which is the book that won her the Booker Prize in 1997, making it all the more commercially tactical to put her name on the cover.

A young and experimental author or rather the progenitor of the new genre of the graphic novel in India – Sarnath Banerjee – said at the India workshop of the project that he writes in a marginalized genre(11). The comment of course has uncanny kinships not only with his chosen form but with the figures of his sales, much lower than that of a Bhagat or a Mathur. Banerjee is quoted as saying that his book, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, has done well in Europe and he hopes that his new genre, whose future growth in India is part of his dream, catches up in his own country(11). Doing ‘well’ for Banerjee has entirely different proportions and meanings from the Bhagat or the Mathur phenomenon. The back cover of the Banerjee paperback attempts to turn the newness of this author’s selected genre into a card for commercial success – by quoting the Indian weekly Tehelka, saying that the book is ‘A hip, self-assured take on urban life, Corridor [by Sarnath Banerjee] is a great debut for the graphic novel in India’. In an interview with Sulakshana Gupta, Banerjee had given expression to his market anxieties at the launch of his first graphic novel. He said “I’m very nervous about the sales of the book. Its success or failure will decide the fate of aspiring comic artists in India”(13). Further, talking about the larger concerns of the comic artist in India, Rahul Pandita makes some very interesting observations in a recent article in theFinancial Times. He says, graphic novelists “want to think beyond images and stories which Indians were so used to reading in the Amar Chitra Katha publications”(14). Thus, gesturing to the new space that the graphic novel wishes to carve for itself. In order to promote the creation of this new space, Banerjee set up a company called Phantomville – with his friend Anindya Roy – with the aim of producing and promoting graphic novels in India. Banerjee is of the opinion that in the next five or six years, the idea of the ‘graphic novel’ will catch up in a big way, resulting in a rush of conglomerates who would want to get into the business of bringing out graphic novels. It is a fact that graphic novels are slowly making inroads in India. Currently, the Indian comic book industry is under Rs. 100 Crores but is expected to grow four times. A few years ago, asking for a graphic novel at a neighbourhood book shop would have invited nothing but blank looks. But an increasing number of book shops now have shelves dedicated to graphic novels and adult comics.

We are aware that the book industry plays as much with matter as it does with packaging. The cover designs, review quotes, colour choice, genre identification, front cover and back cover photographs, author information/photograph are the signs which envelop the content of the book and form the medium for its interaction and survival in the market. The fifth moment which this paper has chosen is David Davidar’s The House of Blue Mangoes which when first published in 2002 and priced at Rs 425, goes back to capitalize on the success of another popular Indian diasporic author quite unabashedly(15), and as I believe, quite undeservedly. (It should be mentioned that when published, Davidar was the CEO of Penguin India). S. Prasannarajan is quoted from India Today which reads thus: ‘Davidar’s pages (are) the boldest and the biggest after Midnight’s Children’(16). Marketing a book is an infinitely strategic process of pushing the book into a wide matrix of recognizable cultural and literary references. Davidar attempts to latch onto the success of Rushdie, the back cover even calls him ‘Tolstoyan’. As far as the content of the book is concerned I believe that Davidar wants to consciously place himself in the lineage of authors like Rushdie, Seth and Ghosh who have successfully attempted the genre of the epic social saga with multiple family generations, extensive etching of the locale, and the lush temptations of tradition and nature. Unfortunately, going by the content, Davidar constructs a nostalgic home-coming as the basic theme of his novel. It comes across in well-written prose, but fails to match up to a Ghosh or a Seth. Moreover, the first three pages of the book are dealing with excerpts from interviews across India, UK, US and Canada. While most of the reviews have trashed the book for its content and characterization, others have praised it for its picturization of southern and eastern India. Is that what the book is selling? An exotic India caught in the struggle for independence, where home-coming attains a double-layered meaning, including independence as well? The book sells nostalgia which is packaged as a commodity for consumption. This is when we are ushered into another domain that demands reflection – when an Indian author writes is s/he writing for the Indian market specifically, or for a global audience only? If this sounds too polarized, then, how does the content of the book negotiate these two different markets?

The Readership Survey : An Analysis

In order to fruitfully engage with the chief concerns of the project, besides just the main fields of interest like bookselling, publishing, reviews etc, we realized that some basic idea about the readership that these books addressed themselves to was wanting. This need was addressed by the conceptualization of a basic questionnaire that would allow us to gain an insight about basic readership patterns in a small way(17).

For the purposes of gathering a semblance of patterns of reader input we sent the questionnaire to around 60 people, primarily comprising of the young men and women between the ages of 17 and 30 in cities like Delhi, Ahemdabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Bubhaneshwar. We received around 40 completed response sheets. The majority of the respondents were undergraduates, followed by a large number of postgraduates(18). Of these 18 people are professionals, who are working now; and the rest are at various stages of school/university.

The questionnaire demanded from the readers, among other things, the amount of time they spend in reading during a day, their favourite author, where do they buy or borrow their books from, what attracts them to a book, whether they’ve read the five books which this paper looks at and what they think about these, and finally their responses to Indian Writing in English as compared to Foreign Fiction in a brief manner(19). From the responses gathered, certain tentative suggestions could be made which do not have pretensions to comment on wide readership analyses but are helpful to assess the variety of readership habits and opinions even within a small set of readers who primarily belong to the category of students or young professionals.

The favourite authors of this set ranged from – Stephen King to J.K.Rowling to Jeffrey Archer, to Amitav Ghosh. The average amount of time they spend reading in a day was an hour. Among the five novels that we are discussing, while most had read Chetan Bhagat and Anurag Mathur and praised them for their humour and simple writing; Davidar, Banerjee and the non-fiction collection of essays were largely unpopular with most of the respondents expressing non-familiarity with these books. What was also observed was that most of these readers borrow their books, the rest buy them from the bookshops while a very small minority of the survey respondents used the Internet for their book shopping. I’m aware that modes of shopping wary with the region and class position of the readers; also as V. Karthika pointed out the rich airport-frequenting business professional just buys the book of the net or flashes her/his credit card to buy it off the shop whereas humanities students would frequent the dark libraries or rely on a never ending borrow bazaar of similarly infected friends(20).

Reading patterns, I also realized, depend not only on the intellectual background of the concerned person, but the job profile that s/he has. Many of the respondents noted with gloom that they were unable to read as much as they wanted to for the simple reason that they did not have enough time. One also pointed to the infrastructural need for libraries to remain open for much longer than they usually do, (or open earlier) to allow for people like him to spend more time reading. The categories of what people understand by ‘reading’ are also varied, and need to be understandably broadened. Many people noted that the questionnaire had not given comics and self-help books a legitimacy that rightfully belonged to them, which were the genres in which they invested most of their ‘reading time’. 

As far as the responses to Indian Writing in English compared to Foreign Fiction are concerned, the responses throw the most light on some commonly held presumptions. Indian Fiction as most people noted did not offer the variety and choice that was offered by foreign fiction. Moreover, many genres where IWE is painfully lacking like comic/funny writing, science fiction, verse writing, thrillers, self-help books were pointed out and cited as reasons for people preferring foreign fiction (where these genres were easily available).

A number of people, mostly students, were of the view that the “anglicized existence” that schools made students lead was responsible for a painful lack of awareness of IWE. Some of the other common responses are best quoted verbatim. Many saw IWE as “unimaginative”, “exoticiz[ing] Indian reality”, “not affordable”, “only deals with postcolonial and identity issues”, and that there was a “constant attempt to translate IWE on a foreign register to make it palatable to a Western audience”(21). While on the one hand, a small group of people openly confessed that they did not read Indian Writing since there was a complete lack of awareness about this genre, on the other hand, a small number also noted that the critical acclaim that Indian Writing in English is receiving, and the increasing role of publicity in making it visible were factors which were getting people interested. It was a minority which either did not distinguish between Indian and Foreign writing, or focused more on the story or content rather than the nationality of the author concerned.

Conclusion

The book, therefore, is an unstable event which comprises of several major factors like sales, marketing, pricing, controversies, reviews and looks; this extreme intermeshing interface precludes any simplistic or ivory-tower type discussion of the book as a simple literary artefact. These select moments of the Indian publishing industry have been useful for highlighting what individual books and authors can do to the image of an entire industry; people like Ritu Menon and Ravi Singh, publishers both, warned against looking at individual authors/books cases to make predictions or dream dreams about the whole industry which is very dynamic and equally inconsistent. But the attempt of this paper has been to not only acquire five separate lenses to view the extreme variety and complex processes of a market, but also speculate about the future of such a market based on the responses we received to our survey.

The book market and the publishing industry work closely tied with each other. But, as becomes evident, in India which is a growing market, a large number of factors come in to influence the growth and the directions in which this market will grow. From questions of exposure through schools, syllabi and reading interests, to questions of how a book is marketed strategies used in promoting it, to the logistics of distribution, they all invariably influence not only the actual market, but also the potential market. The reason I venture to make such a pronouncement is that (as some of the responses made clear) there is a tendency within some minds to generalize about Indian Writing in English. While on the one hand, it has been seen as inferior in content and style, and moreover as a category that is far too caught up in trying to actualize theoretical debates like postcolonialism; on the other hand, there is – owing to the national and international publicity that IWE is receiving – a renewed faith in the permanence, quality and standards of Indian Writing in English. This movement has been verified empirically by not just the number of books that are being published every year, but also by the fact that international publishing agencies are coming to India in greater numbers than before and are far more willing to experiment as far as genre, technique, content, and style are concerned(22). And moreover, as we have noticed, the increased space that IWE is receiving in review journals reflects this confidence in the new writing that is emerging. Without doubt, the market allows for and dictates the new parameters that allow for this proliferation, and to thus cast the market as the villain of the piece would be unfortunate, for in many cases the market acts as a catalyst that helps publishers to push boundaries and enter uncharted territories. On the whole, then, it can be said that heartening and exciting times lie ahead for the Indian publishing industry, if nurtured with prudence, wisdom and skill.

Appendix 1

The Questionnaire that was circulated for the Readership Survey

QUESTIONNAIRE

About Yourself

1. Name (Optional):

2. Age:

3. Student/Professional:

4. Educational Qualification:

5. Name of Institution to which you are affiliated/working in:

Reading habits and preferences:

1. What do you enjoy reading the most?
a) Magazines
b) Newspapers
c) Fiction: Short Stories
d) Fiction: Novels
e) Non-fiction

2. How much time do you spend on reading (average):
a) Daily:
b) Weekly:

3. Subjects that you generally like reading:

4. Do you borrow books: From friends or libraries?

5. Do you buy books: From the Internet?
From Bookshops? (Please name a few you visit most frequently).

6. What would be the most convincing reason for you to browse through or buy a book? Please arrange the following in order of importance: Pricing, cover design, storyline, print size, size of the book (number of pages), or content.

7. Have you read any of the following authors, (if yes, a line about what you liked or disliked about his/her writing):

a) Chetan Bhagat (One Night at a Call Centre/Five Point Someone)

b) Anurag Mathur (Inscrutable Americans)

c) Arundhati Roy (The December 13 Reader/The God of Small Things)

d) David Davidar (A House of Blue Mangoes)

e) Sarnath Banerjee (The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers)

8. a) Two favourite authors:

b) Two books that you have finished reading most recently:

c) Your all-time favourite author/book:


9. Does Foreign Fiction appeal to you more than Indian Writing in English? Why?

10. Anything more that you would like to tell us about your reading preferences, authors you like etc.

References:

(1) This paper was first presented at a workshop – “Contemporary Indian Writing in English and the Indian Market” – at The Open University, Camden Town Campus, London (25-26 June 2007). I am grateful to Prof Suman Gupta and Dr Tapan Basu for the opportunity to be part of this project, and the sagacity and kindness they brought to it. To Akhil Katyal, I owe a especial debt of gratitiude, for his many critical insights that helped to give direction to the paper, and initiate the process of writing it.

(2) Anurag Mathur, The Inscrutable Americans, (New Delhi: Rupa, 1991).

(3) Sanjay Austa, “An Inscrutable Success”, The Tribune 27 Oct. 2002: Spectrum.

(4) Chetan Bhagat, One Night @ the Call Center, (New Delhi: Rupa, 2005).

(5) Aditya Sharma, “Simply Saleable”, The Hindu [New Delhi] 29 Apr. 2006: Metro Plus.

(6) The Official Website of Chetan Bhagat, 16 June 2007 <http://www.chetanbhagat.org/>

(7) Aditya Sharma, “Simply Saleable”, The Hindu [New Delhi] 29 Apr. 2006: Metro Plus.

(8) Anuj Kumar, “The Inside Story”, The Hindu [New Delhi] 31 May 2007: Metro Plus, 1.

(9) 13 Dec The Strange Case of the attack on the Indian Parliament: A Reader(New Delhi: Penguin, 2006), front cover. This book becomes an interesting case for it is anonymous. The front cover only states “With an Introduction by Arundhati Roy”.

(10) This was pointed out by Urvashi Butalia in an interview conducted in September 2006.

(11) Sarnath Banerjee at the preliminary project workshop conducted at Jamia Milia University, New Delhi in March 2007.

(12) Sarnath Banerjee, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007).

(13) Sulakshana Gupta, “A Funny Business”, The Indian Express [Mumbai] 15 Apr. 2004; Newsline.

(14) Rahul Pandita, “Spiderman, Superman, Hanuman”, Financial Times 6 May 2007; Dateline.

(15) David Davidar, A House of Blue Mangoes, (New Delhi: Penguin, 2001).

(16) Ibid., front cover.

(17) I would like to thank Arunima Paul for the generosity and enthusiasm with which she helped me in sending out these questionnaires and all the respondents for taking time out to fill them in. This survey was done on a small and experimental basis (via email) and the respondents are people known to us in informal ways. We are aware that such reader response research has a much greater scope and wider field that lies open to be tapped into.

(18) Out of 39 respondents, we had 10 undergraduates, 13 graduates, and 16 postgraduates.

(19) A copy of the questionnaire is attached as Appendix 1.

(20) This was pointed out by V Karthika, who was the commissioning editor at Penguin India, when we interviewed her in late 2006.

(21) These responses are taken directly from the responses that we received as part of the survey. The copies of the completed questionnaires are available as part of the project archive at the Ferguson Centre, Open University, UK.

(22) See Kushalrani Gulab, “Universal Cities”, The Hindustan Times [New Delhi] 22 Apr. 2007; Brunch, 6. The growth of the city-novel in India is noted and discussed at length.