Book Value

March 12, 2012 7:41 am by

Chetan Bhagat's books help drive book sales in India.

Remember the coin that the Batman villain Harvey Two-Face flipped to decide his course of action? If recently-gathered statistics are to be believed, then the world of publishing looks a bit like that coin. On one side—the scratched one—would be the traditional strongholds, like America, which are reporting declining revenues. Earnings slumped in 2011 and if research agency Forrester Research is to be believed, then 2012 and 2013 are likely to be significantly worse. “In reality the decline hasn’t hit yet,” said James L. McQuivey, Ph.D., the principal analyst at Forrester, in an interview. “And when it does, it comes in big drops, not gradual tapers—that’s what we learned from music and DVD, both of which tapered down until they hit big drops and shelf-space disappeared rapidly. The same will happen in books, probably by late this year and certainly in 2013.”

Now let’s take a look at the Indian statistics, which is the shiny side of the two-faced coin.

Nielsen BookScan India reported that the Indian market grew by 45 per cent in the first half of 2011. Adult fiction was the fastest growing segment, which isn’t to say non-fiction or children’s books did badly. Every area has shown growth. Chetan Bhagat, Steve Jobs and the Wimpy Kid series are the best performers for fiction, non-fiction and children’s fiction respectively. Anyone who has ever snorted contemptuously at Chetan Bhagat should know that the “steep growth” in the fiction market in the second half of 2011 is credited to the sales of his latest novel, Revolution 2020. A British indie publisher was quoted in this article, saying, “India has become one of our strongest markets since moving our distribution to Penguin India last year, with sales increasing 500%.” Apparently, the net sales from our fair motherland are challenging those from the entire Middle East region.

Everyone who bought at least one book last year, give yourselves a round of applause.

When I was growing up, writing in English wasn’t really considered a profession in India. It was something you did in addition to the real job that earned your rent. To be taken seriously as an English novelist, you had to take the advice of the Village People (or Pet Shop Boys) and go West. For some, it was a figurative journey. R. K. Narayan got his break when a friend in Oxford showed Narayan’s manuscript to Graham Greene. Many went abroad to study and were discovered by the English-speaking literary establishment during their years there. Even now, a large percentage of the famous names of Indian English writing are based in foreign countries. This is something that Bhagat has referred to repeatedly in an effort to present himself as the true Indian author, as opposed to those (fakes?) who live outside India and presume to understand the minds of Indians without actually living among them. However, the variety of writers in the Indian publishing arena has grown considerably in the past few years and Bhagat can no longer claim this as his USP. Whether you look at pulp or literary fiction or any other genre, we have homegrown authors who don’t want to take flight. They’re happy to live and write in India.

Which makes me wonder if there’s a reversal on the cards. In a recent interview, when bestselling author Seth Godin was asked what advice he had for an author who didn’t want to distribute his books for free because he needed to make a living, he replied, “Who said you have a right to cash money from writing?” This is the kind of question that I heard as a child when I said I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. The fact that Godin—and not my straitlaced uncle who walked the straight and narrow path of pragmatic convention all his life—is raising such a point goes to show the ground rules of publishing are changing in the West. Does that mean we’re looking at a near future where writing will be a respectable and stable livelihood in India while people will moonlight as novelists abroad?

As someone who still wants to be a writer when she grows up, my heart leaps joyfully at the idea. It lands with a thud when I remember how little respect is accorded to writing in this country. No one anywhere becomes a writer with ambitions of becoming a millionaire but in India, writing is a terrible profession. Unless you’re doing technical writing of some sort, it pays abysmally. More importantly, the prevailing belief is that anyone who went to an English-medium school can write in English. It simply involves stringing a few words together. Aptitude and training are both irrelevant terms.

When the market for Indian art boomed in the early noughties, there was a situation similar to what we’re seeing in publishing now. Like writing, art had not been considered a serious source of livelihood until the international auction houses started to make a killing with the works of masters like S. H. Raza, M.F. Husain and, of course, Tyeb Mehta, who was the first Indian artist to break through the million-dollar ceiling. Suddenly, contemporary art became lucrative, instead of being a largely-dismissed cultural aspect. Not only were there people willing to buy art for large sums of money, there were more young artists who entered the fray because art could now be a living. It was making money and consequently, art became respectable because it had proven to be a good investment. The Indian art market is still a small fraction of the international pie and it is very dependent on foreign buyers, but despite all the uncertainties, the absence of infrastructure and the economic slowdown, Indian contemporary art has established itself both as viable and reputable.

The question is whether Indian publishing will work as hard to discover talent and nurture it (as well as the Indian galleries have done for Indian art), in order to make it a good business without losing sight of the aesthetics. Or will it be satisfied with sales garnered from paperback pulp and reprints of foreign titles?

Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.