Or why home-grown self-help books have become huge money spinners for the publishing industry.
Our world has always been full of agony aunts. From within their wise pages, Dr. Spock and Dale Carnegie have dispensed valuable advice, John Gray has solved the mystery of the sexes, and Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo have told heartbroken women how he’s just not that into them. The self-help corner has had ready advice for everything from an empty wallet to a broken heart.
As we browse the stacked shelves, though, solace seekers would have noticed one big change. From looking to distant lands for help, we have now moved to home-grown advisers. The growing pile of books on life, love and relationships has more Indian names than ever before. Shiv Khera, with 16 bestsellers and one of the pioneering Indian voices in this genre, wonders if India hasn’t always been a huge producer and consumer of self-help books. He points out that the writings of spiritual leaders like Swami Vivekananda “show the path to positive living and success and can be classified as self-help books.” Clearly, the concept of books offering life lessons has never been an exclusively foreign one.
What’s new is the explosion in subject matter and number of volumes. And, of course, in the number of readers picking them up. From addressing spiritual queries or concepts like yoga, today’s authors are doling out relationship tips, diet advice and much more. In the light of fast-disappearing joint families and shrinking personal universes, these become important. Popular Western series such as Chicken Soup for the Soul have been altered to suit Indian readerships. Westland Publishing, which owns the rights, is constantly churning out Chicken Soup for the Indian Teenager, for the Indian Armed Forces or for the Indian Bride.
The sudden increase in both the production and consumption of self-help books is indicative of a shifting readership, one that is willing to get advice on saving a marriage or rearing a child from the pages of a book. The unique blend of traditional values and a constantly changing modern lifestyle can often put the modern Indian at odds with his social setting. Their issues are often too rooted in their cultural context to be addressed by Western authors.
Dr. Amit Abraham, psychologist, author and academician, says that context is very important for people looking to find answers from books. “It’s easier to believe that you will find answers when you can relate to the book.” He adds, “Life is busier and tougher today, and we want quick fixes, books that will tell you how to live your life, give you step-by-step instructions, or success stories. It’s like trying to find a short cut to happiness.”
As sociologist Dr. Patricia Neville explains in her paper on the ritual of self-help books, “I would contend that contemporary society has become enraptured by a distinctive formulation of the self, namely the psychological self… Contemporary society appears to have developed a new lexicon for talking about the subjective experience: people have ‘issues’ that they must overcome, they wonder if their friendships and relationships are ‘dysfunctional’, ‘damaging’ and ‘toxic’ to their intimate self, whether they are an ‘enabling’ or ‘co-dependent’ partner, if they are in touch with their ‘inner child’ and if they have ‘let go’ of life’s disappointments and betrayals,” she says.
Rukmini Chawla, who handles Harper Collins India imprint, Element, talks of the complexities of the modern Indian life. “With the fast-paced lives that people are leading, with the intense pressures that people have to contend with — professional, social, economic, personal — there is a proportionate need for books that help you deal with various issues. People are looking for subjects like parenting, marriage, relationships, health, diet and fitness.”
Caroline Newbury, VP, Marketing and Publicity, at Random House, agrees. “The number of self-help books across the broadest spectrum of the genre does appear to be on the rise. The greatest growth is in the health and diet sector but areas such as parenting, beauty and relationships are also seeing increasing sales. It mirrors the trend seen elsewhere, as people become more interested in their health and wellbeing.” An increasing number of professionals, with both credentials and experience, are cashing in on the trend as authors. Lina Ashar, educational pioneer and founder of Kangaroo Kids Schools, and Gouri Dange, family counsellor, have become popular bestsellers, Ashar with Who Do You Think You Are Kidding and Dange with More ABCs of Parenting. Says Dange, “Indian self-help books are warmer, more accessible and tuned in to our needs.”
Interestingly, while not every avid reader will pick up a self-help book, a great number of non-readers will. Kriti Jain, a college student who doesn’t often visit bookstores, claims that when she does, it’s usually to pick up a promising volume of non-fiction. “I have read Who Moved My Cheese and The Monk who Sold his Ferrari. I haven’t yet read an Indian author but if I could find a similar book with an Indian context, I’d definitely pick it up.” Alisha Singh, stay-at-home mother, swears by Namita Jain’s Fit Pregnancy. “It’s great to read something during your pregnancy that you know has been written with the Indian woman in mind. It doesn’t feel alien,” she says.
Numbers tell their own story. Rujuta Diwekar’s Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight (Ebury Press, Random House) sold over four lakh copies in five languages, while Rashmi Bansal’s Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish (Westland) sold over 300,000 copies, and was translated into eight languages. Other bestselling titles include From XL to XS by Payal Gidwani Tiwari, Beating the Blues by Seema Hingorrany and The Beauty Diet by Shonali Sabherwal. Harper Collins India’s Beautiful Children by Tarika Ahuja, celeb nutritionist Pooja Makhija’s Eat Delete and Kalli Purie’s Confessions of a Serial Dieter are other notables. The last two were Number One on the national bestseller list and continue to sell steadily. Says Newbury, “Later this year, we will publish Seema Hingorrany’s How to Keep Your Man Happy.”
Publishing houses are seeing the dollar sign clearly. Almost all of them have one or more imprints solely for the self-help genre. Random House has its Ebury list, Harper Collins has both the Collins imprint and a new mind-body-spirit imprint called Element. Penguin has Ananda and Portfolio. The list is long and getting longer, and the pace at which these books are being churned out is increasing, with monthly additions to the pile. Bloomsbury India recently acquired Khera’s entire backlist (in all languages) along with all upcoming editions and titles.
Along with this phenomenon, self-help titles by international authors continue to do well. Random House continues to see strong sales from perennial classics such as Who Moved My Cheese and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Chawla, however, points out that this could be set to change. “Foreign self-help authors did well in the past because there were no Indian options. The Indian book market is no longer about distributing what’s successful in the West, but about discovering Indian bestsellers.”
In the end, that’s what this phenomenon taps into. The fact that Indians are looking for kindred souls who will guide them through what is increasingly becoming a very complex urban life; peers who could hand-hold them through issues that broadly resemble those faced by people in other countries but which are uniquely located in their own cultural context.