Indian publishers are looking forward to 2021 with a sense of cautious optimism

Cookery, self-improvement and newsy non-fiction books are predicted to rule the roost this year

January 09, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated January 10, 2021 02:45 pm IST

Like a lot of industries, English-language publishing in India is in the middle of a slow recovery following a drastically lean patch in the summer of 2020. December is typically a strong period for sales across sectors (thanks to Christmas and New Year gifting), and publishing is no different. Because of this, Indian publishers are looking forward to 2021 with a sense of cautious optimism.

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In the second half of 2020 we saw a number of writers releasing books written during and about the lockdown; Zadie Smith and Slavoj Žižek, among them. There were also books by medical experts, breaking down the science behind COVID-19 to its basics. According to Udayan Mitra, Publisher (Literary) at HarperCollins India, this general trend will continue in 2021, and even expand in scope. Mitra says: “Many 2021 books were written over the pandemic-hit months of 2020. Since, contrary to some early estimates, it now appears that 2021 is going to be as COVID-impacted a year as its predecessor, the topicality of these books will be a main feature.”

Publishers are readers too; indeed, as Mitra wrote in an essay, they are readers first and foremost. But for many publishers, 2021 may well be the year where they see their lists diverging from their usual spaces and often, their personal tastes.

In the news

Teesta Guha Sarkar, Senior Commissioning Editor at Pan MacMillan India, says: “I’d like to see (and publish) more fiction that pushes the boundaries of the craft.” But, Sarkar adds, it is likely that there will be more non-fiction than literary fiction in 2021. “To an extent, our tastes are influenced by the state of the world. Personally speaking, I have been reading a lot of political non-fiction and books about other pandemics like the Spanish Flu.”

Sarkar, of course, is well aware of the way current affairs influence the amount of interest a book generates. In January 2020, she published Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma’s The Deoliwallahs , the story of 3,000 Chinese-Indians who were taken from their homes in various parts of India just after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, and packed off to an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. While the book deserves many readers in itself, it can’t be denied that it grabbed the limelight when the Indo-Chinese border conflict started in May 2020.

How-to volumes

During the months when lockdown measures were at their strictest, a lot of people had to acquire basic cooking skills on a war footing. In 2021, self-improvement will continue to be a big publishing trend. And food books (already a robust sales category for Indian publishers) will be a sizeable part of this. Krish Ashok’s Masala Lab (published by Penguin Random House India) and Claire Chambers-edited Desi Delicacies (published by Pan MacMillan India) were both big-ticket December releases in this category — expect more of the same. Aman Arora, Deputy General Manager (Marketing) at HarperCollins India, says: “Broadly speaking, self-improvement books have received a huge response from readers in 2020 and we expect this trend to continue in 2021 as well. This includes spirituality and self-help books, but also titles that have an element of skill enhancement — how to read and write better, how to manage your finances, how to be more productive on a day-to-day basis.”

Creating conversations

In general, creators across media are adapting to the new economic realities of a post-COVID world — which is why we can expect more collaborations in the publishing space. Performers — musicians, artists, comedians and so on — will be seen at digital book launches, since in-person launches are not an option at the moment. This shift will also cause publishers to take a long, hard look at the expenses incurred in hiring large, expensive launch venues, for example. A digital influencer-led strategy may find more takers, especially if the author in question does not have a significant online presence. Literature festivals, a reliable time-bound promotional tool for marketers, are also moving online, which is another aspect that readers, writers and promoters have to adapt to.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about creating conversations around the new book. It’s just that we will have to achieve this through a different platform now. I don’t think the basic marketing plan will change a lot,” says Arora.

One thing is clear: in this era of unique and unprecedented challenges, English-language publishing in India is prepared to make some tough choices and weather the storm, so to speak.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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