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Updated: March 4, 2010 18:13 IST

Boom time for English-language books in India

Guardian
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Writer Chetan Bhagat alongwith Bollywood actor Vidya Balan, launching his new book 'Two States : The Story of My Marriage', in Mumbai. File photo: PTI.
Writer Chetan Bhagat alongwith Bollywood actor Vidya Balan, launching his new book 'Two States : The Story of My Marriage', in Mumbai. File photo: PTI.

In among the slightly decrepit halls and the rubbish strewn grass of New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan conference halls is a stand decked in pink and powder blue. Beneath the posters for Ruthless Magnate, Convenient Wife, and Accidentally Expecting, Manish Singh, Mills & Boon’s country manager for India, is doing brisk business. The popular romantic novels were launched in India exactly two years ago and doubled their sales in the past year. “We are looking to expand still further in 2010,” Mr. Singh says.

The publisher, Harlequin Mills & Boon, is far from the only beneficiary of a boom in book sales that is sweeping India. Dan Brown’s sequel to The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, has already sold 100,000 in hardback alone. Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker winner The White Tiger has sold more than 200,000 copies since its publication in 2008.

Driving the demand is the country’s continuing economic boom — 6.7 per cent growth in 2009 despite the global crisis — and the tastes of the new Indian middle class.

“It is a forward looking generation,” said Mr. Singh. “The low hanging fruit for us is the single working woman who has money in her hands, the liberty to read, no responsibilities yet, no husband, children and so on.” In the next decade, publishers forecast that India will become the biggest English language book-buying market in the world. New distribution networks and an increasing presence of chains of major bookstores are also fuelling the expansion.

“At the moment the market is probably about 5 million people,” said Anantha Padmanabhan, Penguin’s director of sales in India. “That is set to increase dramatically.” India has a history of producing internationally successful prize-winning authors who have enjoyed huge popularity at home. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in 1997 was a breakthrough, according to Mr. Padmanabhan. Since then there have been two more Indian winners of the Man Booker prize. What is on the New York Times bestseller list will be a hit too in India, Mr. Padmanabhan said.

However, the real popular success is independent of the taste of international readers for the relatively highbrow. In a recent survey the four most popular books in India were all by Chetan Bhagat, a former investment banker turned author who has sales totalling more than three-million in the last five years and whose most recent work, Two States, has shifted a million copies in under four months.

Writing about the lives of India’s aspirant middle class young, Bhagat has “pan-Indian, pan-age group” appeal, said Kapish Mehra, the managing director of his publisher, Rupa. The author himself explained that one key to his success was the “huge aspiration for the English language”.

“This is not like the mature English literature market. Instead it needs an English that is highly accessible, simple, and with stories that are still interesting and relevant,” Mr. Bhagat said.

The sales of both Mills & Boon books and those by Mr. Bhagat are helped by the fact that each book costs between 95 and 125 rupees — between GBP1.25 and GBP1.80. Though still a lot of money when rickshaw pullers earn 50p a day, they are affordable for the class they are aimed at. And although at 699 rupees (GBP9.50), The Lost Symbol in hardback is more expensive, it is still affordable among India’s middle class.

According to Simon Littlewood, international director of Random House, publishing in India is so fragmented that talking of a single market makes little sense. “There are all sorts of niches and people doing all sorts of different things in different languages,” he said.

One emerging trend is local interest and loyalties. The Tehelka survey revealed that authors had strong readerships in their home regions or in the places where their novels are set. Meanwhile, few were reading those once seen as classic of the Indian market: Agatha Christie and P.J. Wodehouse.

One booming area is local Indian “chick lit”, said Priyanka Malhotra, director of Full Circle Publishing. The surge in sales for Mills & Boon came after they set up printing and marketing operations in India and focused more closely on what local readers wanted.

A recent competition to find Indian writers provoked an “overwhelming response” said Mr. Singh, though until the four selected local authors are published later this year, readers will have to make do with Harlequin’s A Trip With the Tycoon, the story of a love affair “under the summer of the Indian sun” set at the Taj Mahal.

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