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Contemporary Indian Literature, Workshop, Presentation 7

Presentation by researcher Shvetal Vyas at the Delhi workshop

Negotiating Growth: An Analysis of Publishing Firms with Reference to Indian Writing in
English

This paper shall attempt to chart some currents within Indian publishing today, assess certain trends within the market for contemporary Indian writing in English, and attempt to explore certain directions in which this market could possibly go in the future. These assessments are based on the various interviews that we have had with publishers as well as some basic data, though in the absence of advanced data, some of these arguments are based on speculation, personal as well as that of professionals from the publishing industry.

I shall begin by attempting to assess the possible quantity of this market, i.e. how many people in India may constitute a readership for contemporary Indian writing in English. The population of India, as per the Census figures of 2001, was 1, 027,015,247 of whom 566,714,995 were literates, i.e. 65.38% of the population of India was literate(1). However, as far as Delhi, the focus of this project, is concerned, out of a total population of 13,782,976, the number of literates was 9,703,049, which makes for a high literacy rate of 81.82%(2). Within the same census, a high 93.01% of Delhi’s population was identified as urban population(3). In his 2003 survey of the publishing industry in India, Rob Francis notes that 21.83% of the books published in India are in English(4). While the high literacy rate as well as the identification of the population as urban suggests that Delhi is one of the biggest markets of contemporary Indian writing in English, Francis’ figure also indicates that one is looking at what is, ultimately, a relatively smaller percentage of the Indian market. This assumption is also supported by the figures available through the findings of the National Readership Studies Council for the year 2006. The Times of India is the most read English daily with 7.4 million readers, but still lags far behind the two top vernacular dailies, Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar, both of whom have a readership of over 20 million(5). Also, to this speculation of an estimated market, I would like to add a rider that not every reader of the Times of India or the Hindustan Times also necessarily reads books viz this readership of English newspapers does not automatically translate into a readership for Indian Writing in English. At the same time, most book launches and book events are covered by these two newspapers, which then ensures that information and/or hype around contemporary Indian writing in English is available to these readers. While creating awareness, the media also structures the nature of this awareness in that not every book that is published or released in India is launched or an event is scheduled around it. These are still for a select few books and it is the call of, the publishers to a large extent and of the booksellers to some extent, depending on individual cases, to decide which books shall benefit from the propaganda machine and which shall not.

While fully aware of the problematic nature of large generalisations, I would like to use them to present to you, in the course of the paper, some figures I shall call ‘Indian readers’. It is unlikely that any one Indian reader shall match these prototypes that I am tracing for you, but a majority will share similarities with the sets of characteristics that they enumerate. It is this reader, and variations of this reader, that the publishers are hoping exists, since it is her that they are keeping in mind when they decide what to pick for publication. In my paper I shall be looking at three different publishing houses in India, Penguin, Rupa and Zubaan. The reason I selected these three publishing houses is that they vary from each other in profile, orientation and branding while competing with each other in the same market.

Penguin, of course, is the success story of Indian publishing, though in narration it is also frequently recast as the success story of David Davidar. It is Penguin who published Arundhati Roy’s Booker prize winning text The God of Small Things(1997) while other prominent and more recent successes include The Argumentative Indian (2005) by Amartya Sen, The Last Mughal: The Fall of A Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (2007) by William Dalrymple, Shantaram (2005) by Gregory David Roberts and Ignited Minds: Unleashing the Power within India (2003) by the President A.P.J. Abdul Kalaam. Interestingly, Shantaram, perhaps the closest to fiction among these texts, is a reprint from Abacus, whereas Ignited Minds, a work of non fiction, is the only fully home grown title on this list. Amartya Sen was published simultaneously by Penguin India and Penguin UK and sold over 85, 000 copies, making it a whopping success in an industry where 5000 copies sold make for a bestseller whereas 1500 to 2000 sold is a decent success and ensures that the author will get published again(6). Penguin India’s tie-ups include Pearson, Dorling Kindersley, Bloomsbury, Time Warner Books UK, Faber & Faber, Ladybird, Rough Guides as well as the Penguin Group.

Interestingly, we were able to interview two different people from Penguin, V. Karthika, Managing Editor at Penguin India and later, after she had left Penguin, Ravi Singh, her successor as Editor-in-Chief. While both agreed that there is an Indian market for Indian writing in English which has grown in size over the last decade or so, their assessment of this market differed. While V. Karthika dated this growth in the market from Salman Rushdie and later Arundhati Roy and asserted that reading habits survived competition from other media, Ravi Singh was more circumspect about this growth, ascribed it neither to Rushdie or to Roy and argued that books were not really selling a lot when compared to other consumer products, that the growth was proportionate to a growth in the economy and in disposable incomes and hence was not actually a growth in reading habits or in the market. However, both agreed that Penguin publishes more non fiction than fiction and speculated that it may be in analytical non fiction similar to Sen, or in imaginative non fiction, similar to Dalrymple or Roberts, that the future of the market lies. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Penguin’s latest release, which is backed by a respectable amount of its publicity budget, is Confessions of A Swadeshi Reformer: My Years as Finance Minister (2007) while its latest fictional offering is a recycling of an already published text, namely a new three volume edition of Ashok Banker’s six book rendition of the Ramayana, Prince of Dharma, (2007) Prince in Exile (2007) andPrince at War (2007).

It is not as if Penguin does not publish Indian writing in English, in fact, from Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate (1992) to Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (2007), Penguin has most consistently published what I would term ‘high-end’ fiction. At the same time, this fiction is not what constitutes Penguin’s commercial success, and the money to run the firm may still be coming from Ignited Minds. Once it is established that their fiction need not necessarily be where their efforts or revenues are located, let us then still go ahead and explore this limited but dynamic field, the fiction that Penguin publishes. I would argue that, as far as fiction is concerned, their market is primarily located in urban centres and among the upper sections of the bourgeoisie. This is suggested not just by what they publish and how they publish it, but also how they price it, with most of their ‘literary’ fiction such as Vikram Seth or Vikram Chandra falling in the 395-695 category, with individual variations. This price range, while low when compared with the costs of alternative sources of entertainment, is nevertheless highly priced, especially when one factors in the variable that very few Indian consumers are willing to pay this much for fiction. While a lot of their fiction is oriented towards a ‘literary reader’, Penguin has also, in recent times, identified a younger generation of readers that it needs to now cater to, to entice those who would consider themselves a notch above the Chetan Bhagat but not literary enough to read Seth or Roy. The profile of this reader, I would argue, would be as follows: young, educated in English medium, having a certain cosmopolitan and urban aesthetic sensibility, a preference for slickness and stylisation, deriving from a preference for stylisation in both English and Hindi cinema, and having the purchasing power to spend on products of entertainment, which may include books for such a consumer. It is largely for readers like these that Penguin publishes books like Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novels such as Corridor (2005) and The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (2007).

Rupa’s profile, on the other hand, suggests a reader who is slightly different from the one outlined above, two steps lower in the class hierarchy. While readership profiles are not available, I would venture to argue that Rupa’s market lies as much in what are called the B centres as in the bigger cities of India. This audience, belonging largely to the middle and lower sections of the bourgeoisie, is exposed to metropolitan sensibilities through the media and has an aspirational attitude towards them – the same audience, in fact, which is also making Rupa’sFive Point Someone: What Not to do at IIT (2004) a national bestseller. Rupa’s brand image is similar to the readership profile that I would outline for it: nationalist, unashamedly materialistic and aspirational. While the owner and team at Rupa remained impervious to all requests for interviews, I would reasonably speculate that in the case of Rupa too it is the non fiction that makes more money for them, especially the self-help and the ‘life has a deeper meaning’ variety, thus again making fiction a limited but dynamic field for them(7). At the same time, I would argue that as far as fiction is concerned, it is Rupa which is driving the market and not Penguin, namely that it is Rupa which is pushing the boundaries of what will be successful and to what extent, thus constantly changing the way the publishing industry is negotiating this growth in the market.

As a publisher, Rupa is constantly attempting to be all things to all people. This is indicated in their catalogue, which includes sections such as astrology, folklore, new age, philosophy and religion, philosophy and sex, poetry, politics, quiz, public relations, the Rupa France series (which has translated titles where copyright has lapsed) and the Rupa SitaGita series, its series for women which includes titles on social etiquette and good parenting. This lack of a certain kind of sophistication works for it in dual ways: on one hand, while derided as a ‘lala relict’ in publishing circles, it allows Rupa the freedom to lower its standards of production(8). One example of this is their use of a shoddier quality of paper and editing, for some editions, which I would argue must also mean more profit for the company by bringing down production costs. At the same time, this apparent lack of sophistication enables the company to build a comfortable relationship of identification with its readers.

While this may not necessarily be a consciously thought out strategy, it is Rupa’s difference from other publishers like Penguin, Oxford University Press or Zubaan that also make it the publishing house who may ultimately conquer the market that we are looking at, the market for contemporary Indian fiction in English. It is Rupa who sprung the Chetan Bhagat surprise and threw publishing circles in a tizzy; it is Rupa who have on board the one book that has been on best selling lists of most booksellers since its publication in 1991, Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans (1991), making it one of the longest runs on a bestseller list in India and it may very well be Rupa who continue to come up with books that receive unfavourable critical reviews but then go on to make publishing history in the Indian market. Their major authors reflect this tendency to cover every domain possible, with the catalogues constantly choosing to highlight Ruskin Bond, Arun Shourie, Gulzar, Chetan Bhagat and Rabindranath Tagore. In the case of Tagore, Rupa is of course benefiting from the lapse in copyright for his works and he too becomes part of Rupa’s ‘Indianness’, which I shall now discuss.

A feature which I would argue augurs well for Rupa’s future is its appropriation of a nationalistic tone. They have separate series called Eternal India and Classic India, with individual titles that seem almost interchangeable, and another related serious is rather ambiguously titled Culture. Their tendency to push an author aggressively coupled with their nationalistic leanings, are also partly responsible in the establishment and later appropriation of Arun Shourie as a pre-eminent Indian intellectual. In fact, it is this very nationalistic tone that Penguin is trying to locate for itself when publishing a Yashwant Sinha. Rupa also claims the space of being the quintessential ‘Indian’ publisher, not just by publishing a lot of political writing, biography and autobiography in non-fiction, but also by publishing a lot of unknown, first time authors coming from backgrounds both urban and semi-urban. As far as publicity is concerned, Rupa demonstrates an ability to synchronise book launches with celebrations of anniversaries or milestones for the publishing house, thus ensuring better brand recall for the readers by ensuring that the publishing house features as prominently in the publicity campaign as the book on offer. In fact, among the publicity material that we collected, Rupa is the only publishing house whose publicity material included a pamphlet that featured a profile of the company and its history.

The third publishing house to be explored in this paper is Zubaan, an independent publishing house which came into existence after the split of Kali for Women in the two publishing houses of Zubaan and Women Unlimited in 2003. Zubaan, founded by Urvashi Butalia, works with a definite feminist ideology and is frequently precariously placed, with Rob Francis’ 2003 report declaring Kali for Women in danger of closing in the near future(9). However, both the publishing houses have survived and are, through the Independent Publishers’ Group, also among the collaborators of this project. Zubaan’s readership is primarily alongside and within the academia and her reader is someone who is feminist, usually with an advanced educational background and ideologically committed to or placed within the left-liberal framework. Most of their publications are therefore academic and non fictional, with recent titles including Locked Homes, Empty School: The Impact of Distress Season Migration on the Rural Poor (2007) andPoster Women: A Visual History of the Women’s Movement in India (2006). So does Zubaan publish fiction? Frequently, with recent titles being Phosphorous and Stone: A Novel (2007) by Susan Visvanathan and Inner Line – The Zubaan Anthology of Stories by Indian Women, (2006) edited by Urvashi herself.

Zubaan’s most recent major commercial success, though, is the non-fictional A Life Less Ordinary (2006) by Baby Halder, translated again by Urvashi and published by Zubaan in collaboration with Penguin. This narrative of misery, exploitation and ultimate escape to freedom and empowerment with institutional help was a remarkable success and became, for its middle class readership, the right cause to support, the right narrative to lament. It went beyond the typical Zubaan readership and appealed to people outside it, people who may not otherwise read Zubaan titles or to whom this book may not have been available without Penguin’s substantial distribution network. Ironically this commercial success, conceptualised and attained by Zubaan, is not an entirely comfortable one, neither for its regular readership nor for its publisher. The source of discomfort is not that Zubaan is successful and one realises that this success will aid in keeping Zubaan afloat as an independent publishing house but the grey area outlined by the politics of packaging and selling misery to fund feminist scholarship is a question that every academic-activist has to negotiate for herself. Urvashi Butalia’s statement at the conference held at the Jamia Milia Islamia University as a part of this project in March 2007, ‘Misery sells’ demonstrates that it is a question that she too is exploring for herself. This is not to take away any credit from Zubaan for surviving in what is ultimately a limited market.

Incidentally, of the three publishing houses that I have explored, Zubaan is the one, I would argue, whose constituency is located firmly within the specific geographical area that the project is looking at i.e., Delhi. It is difficult to obtain a Zubaan book in other parts of India and it is highly improbable that a reader outside Delhi would come upon a Zubaan title by chance. It is only a reader who is looking for a specific book who will find one.

Finally, part of the reason why Zubaan survived and may well survive for a long time is similar to the reason why The Little Magazine (henceforth TLM) survives – the presence of a reading constituency in India that is engaged with issues and that is interested in debate. It is also equally true that this engagement arises from a variety of motives, including the fact that a Zubaan text or one of Penguin’s ‘high-end’ fictional texts may be purchased simply for its display value and for the cultural capital that it represents. Inspite of this, however, I would assert that the survival of Zubaan, of Kali for Women, of Sage Publications, a publishing house that extensively publishes Left political thought and theory, and of TLM as well as the possible entrance of Wasifiri, an international political journal of new writing, are all indicative of a certain level of commitment to argument and intellectual questioning. This commitment is not limited to a geographical area though it may be limited to a certain percentage of the population which is fortunate to have attained an education: people emerge unexpectedly at booksellers to ask for books that are not easily available, books that they may heard of by word of mouth or through reviews and now want to read for themselves.

This paper is titled ‘Negotiating Growth’ and it is with the idea of negotiation that I wish to conclude. These three different publishers are negotiating what is a volatile and fluid market, and are, in their own ways, coming up with short term strategies and simultaneously evolving long term practices, ideas and philosophies of publishing. Penguin will tie up with Zubaan and also publish a Yashwant Sinha to tap into newer markets, Zubaan will venture into more immediately and visibly successful territory while alongside publishing books that feel ought to be published irrespective of a market and Rupa too will try to find an author like Vikram Seth that will grant it literary respectability while still deriving its revenue from Chetan Bhagat. It is in this conflict, this dynamism that exciting times lie ahead of Indian publishers.

References:

(1) Census of India, 2001. “Provisional Population Totals”. 12 July 2007, <http://www.censusindia.net/results/statedata.html>.

(2) Census of India 2001. “Provisional Population Totals: Delhi”. 12 July 2007. <http://www.censusindia.net/profiles/del.html>

(3) Census of India, 2001. “Rural-Urban Distribution of Population-India and States/Union Territories,2001”. 13 July 2007. <http://www.censusindia.net/results/rudist.html>

(4) Rob Francis, Publishing Market Profile: India (n.d.).

(5) “NRS 2006 – Key Findings”, The Hindu, 29 August 2006. 13 July 2007. <http://www.hindu.com/nic/nrs.htm>

(6) These figures of sale are the lowest among the various estimates that came up in conversations with various publishers. In the absence of official figures, these may not necessarily be the most accurate ones but are offered here as the most conservative estimate and also to emphasise the spectacular success of Amartya Sen.

(7) I fully admit that a certain cultural bias operates in my labelling such texts as ‘life has a deeper meaning’, especially when they help to help satisfy the very real needs of a large audience in an alienating world.

(8) The ‘lala’ is a colourful term for the older generation of book publishers and book sellers, who are always cast as merchants of books and not connoisseurs. Like all stereotypes, this has a grain of truth but has also been exaggerated over time into an image of an unthinking vendor of books.

(9) Rob Francis, Publishing Market Profile: India, 31.