When Manu S. Pillai was in school, every year he would visit his ancestral village in Kerala, where his grandparents lived. There he would ask questions about the paddy fields, temples, stories of yakshis, and the ruined ancestral shrine in their backyard. His curiosity about his region’s history and later, Travancore history, culminated in his debut book, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore.
Pillai, who has written four books of history, naturally reads a lot of non-fiction for his work. He consciously links leisure reading to fiction, which was what he primarily read as a child. But he also increasingly finds himself immersed in translated literature, especially of works written originally in Malayalam, Kannada and Tamil. Pillai regrets not doing this in his childhood: “Many of these books are superior to Indian writing in English. Reading a good translation like S. Hareesh’s Moustache (translated into English by Jayashree Kalathil) takes me back to the paddy fields of my childhood holidays,” he says.
Pillai’s reading habits might be indicative of an emerging trend. Over the last few years, while non-fiction has become king, commercial fiction, including thrillers, young adult books and historical fiction, has become less fashionable. This is a definitive shift from the early 2000s, when Chetan Bhagat became a publishing phenomenon, dwarfing all other best-selling authors. At the same time, translations have steadily gained momentum, buoyed by word of mouth and awards, as Indians search for relatable stories, themes and contexts.
The Indian publishing industry has also seen some other perceptible trends over the last few years: advances to authors have reportedly gone up; midlists (books that are between bestsellers and failures) have declined; frontlists (a publisher’s sales list of newly published books) too are falling. Crucially, the social media boom has dramatically changed the manner in which books are discovered, marketed and consumed. With our attention span shrinking like never before in this social media-driven world, for publishers, an age-old challenge has become all the more urgent: how do we build and sustain readership?
Rise of the literary agent
Perhaps the most noticeable figure in the Indian publishing industry today is the literary agent, who discovers and brings new talent to an appreciative audience, guides new voices, brokers deals and mediates between writers and publishers. While agents are indispensable in the West now, they have been gaining ground in India over the last 15-20 years.
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There are around 20 agents in India today and he is grateful for them, says Thomas Abraham, Managing Director of Hachette India. “The West operates almost completely through an agented submission process. At Hachette India too, we don’t invite direct submissions any more, preferring to deal through literary agents. We used to receive five-six manuscripts a day and it was not possible for a small team to spend that much editorial time on the ‘slush pile’. Agents do the first level of filtering; they knock the manuscript into shape and find a publisher that is the best fit while also managing the financials and rights for the author. So, the system suits both publishers and authors,” he says.
Fiction as indulgence
One of the foremost literary agents, or member of a “harassed species” as he calls himself, is Kanishka Gupta. Founder and CEO of the literary agency, Writer’s Side, Gupta, who has been an agent since 2010, observes that the commercial fiction space has mostly been monopolised by the big names over the last few years. “As a result, there are no new rising stars in this space. So, you’ll see many commercial fiction writers working more for TV, starting their own publishing houses, becoming brand ambassadors on social media, and so on,” he says. Bestselling authors such as Durjoy Datta and Ravinder Singh have turned to screenwriting and promoting brands on Instagram.
Abraham is unsurprised by the preference for non-fiction. “India is and has been an aspirational society. Non-fiction thus has a primary appeal from perceived necessity,” he explains. The interest in subject matter and fact over style and stories could also be a consequence of the unequal nature of work and leisure in India. According to an International Labour Organization report published last year, Indians are among the most overworked people in the world. A time-use study in 2019 by the National Sample Survey Organisation found that Indians use only one-tenth of their time in a day for leisure. Moreover, leisure also often morphs into work: the time set aside for recreation is often used to network with people and learn new skills that might result in better jobs. While non-fiction is seen as instructional and informative, fiction is viewed as an indulgence.
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Translations gaining ground
At the same time, readers are lapping up translations from the regional languages, and much of it is fiction. Gupta represents Daisy Rockwell, the translator of Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand), which won the International Booker Prize recently. “The huge interest in translations is not just thanks to Geetanjali,” he says. “Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar(translated by Srinath Perur), which became a bestseller by word of mouth in 2015, was a watershed moment in Indian translation.”
Gupta reels off the awards that translations have won in recent times (see above). However, it is no secret that most awards are self-serving and do almost nothing for sales. “Well, the good thing is that at least now publishers will never say no to a translation just because the book is not famous or the author is not a celebrity. A translated work can sell as much as a debut novel in English,” Gupta says.
Social media to the rescue
Apart from the shift in genres, the promotion of books has undergone a significant change in recent times. Books by well-known authors were earlier promoted at elaborate launch parties, but most of them have moved online now, especially after the pandemic. Swati Daftuar, Executive Editor, Commercial, HarperCollins India, acknowledges this shift but also points out its shortcomings: “Social media is now all about bite-sized content because attention spans have reduced. From having much longer YouTube videos or blogs earlier, we have reels and videos that are some 15 seconds long — a pretty short duration to communicate all the nuances, depths and richness of a book,” she says.
But social media is equally useful. For one, it enables the promotion of midlists. “While well-known and popular authors have an existing and growing readership, the challenge with relatively newer or debut authors is discovery. The market is flooded with great books, so our challenge is to do as much as possible to ensure visibility for these titles,” Daftuar says. She also believes that special, customised promotions are important for the experimental writing that authors are attempting now. For instance, Nikhil Pradhan’s Cold Truth and Yesterday’s Ghosts, both published by HarperCollins India, cannot be neatly categorised as thriller or horror. Daftuar says that while Cold Truth reads like an open case file, with emails, transcripts of interviews, FIR reports and more, Yesterday’s Ghosts is written entirely in the format of a cross-examination.
“While online events do make it possible for people with professional and personal constraints and those with disabilities to participate in ways they could not earlier, the digital space has many negative effects,” says Sharanya Mannivanan, author of seven books. “On Instagram, you have many people DMing authors arbitrarily, asking for money to post reviews. It is hard to know which accounts are from authentic readers or from people who have really engaged with the book. Critiquing books is a skill and many don’t possess it.” Publishers were guilty of encouraging this trend, especially before the pandemic, she says. “They would send free books to anyone who claimed to have a Bookstagram account instead of ensuring that reviewers, critics, libraries and institutions received the books. If 80 out of 100 books by an author are sent to Bookstagram, that is not proper marketing. It doesn’t create a reading culture.”
Competition from OTT
In a small market for English books such as India, the challenge of building readership has vexed publishers, especially with the growing strength of OTT platforms. While there is scant data on the highly fragmented Indian publishing industry, the observed trends on readership are worrying. “Nobody is paying attention to this problem — not educational structures, not the government, not even publishers,” says Abraham. “There is a critical need to build leisure readership from school onwards. Unlike in the West, in India we seem to lose children to screens from the time they are 14-15 years old. Then, we get them back when they finish college, but they don’t read for leisure. And doing that is important both for the individual and the country’s cultural development. Without bestsellers in different streams, there is a loss of ‘bibliodiversity.’”
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There have been some efforts in this direction, however. Chiki Sarkar co-founded Juggernaut Books to provide writers a physical and digital platform. Her aim? To encourage a country full of mobile phone addicts to read stories. “If India is going to live on the phone, if we’re going to become a one-device population, then Indians will also read on the phone,” she said in an interview back in 2016. Have there been more such efforts ever since? “I think people are trying in different ways to increase readership in India,” she says. “There are now audio players and online platforms.”
Regional drive for audiobooks
While audiobooks have not really taken off in India, publishers are not giving up. Arcopol Chaudhuri, Executive Editor, Rights and New Media at HarperCollins India, says, “There were numbers that suggested an uptick in audiobook listeners in India during the pandemic, though not at the same level as in the West, where audio comprises a significant part of the book’s sales.” Genres such as self-development, self-help, religion/spirituality, finance and history perform well in the audio format.
Encouraged by this, in 2020, HarperCollins India began producing its own audiobooks in collaboration with studios and artists instead of merely licensing the rights of audiobooks to platforms like Audible and Storytel. It translated the self-help book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, into Malayalam and Gujarati during the pandemic. This remains among the highest selling audiobooks from Harper Audio till today, Chaudhuri points out.
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“The total listenership is constantly increasing, which means we will keep investing in this format. While we mostly have single narrators now, we would like to try out multiple narrators, and even full sound design, like we did with Chandrima Das’s horror anthology Young Blood,” he says, adding, “But the growth in audio in India is going to be driven by regional languages, not so much by English.”
Reinvention of bookshops
While brick-and-mortar stores were shut during the pandemic, independent bookstores quickly learnt to re-invent themselves. Bookstores such as New Delhi’s Bahrisons Booksellers, The Bookshop, and Champaca in Bengaluru have colourful, engaging and active social media accounts and websites where they not only sell books online, but also make recommendations across genres to attract new readers. Some have subscription boxes and gift boxes with carefully curated books.
Radhika Timbadia, the founder of Champaca, rues the fact that publishers have “no connect with either readers or booksellers”. Much can be done to bridge that gap, she says. “We need more conversations among publishers, booksellers and authors. We need more booksellers, even in the big cities. Publishers have links on their websites directing readers to Amazon but not to bookstores. Amazon has access to new books even before booksellers do.” But she is encouraged by the fact that this is slowly changing, with a few round-table conversations and more willingness on all sides to communicate better.
Other problems too are dogging the publishing industry today, says Gupta. Primary among them is the tendency to overpay writers. “Initially, it was literary writers, but now it has gone beyond literary writers. There is no justification in paying a writer whose previous book didn’t sell. If there is a big debut author, advances go up to ₹10-15 lakh; for non-fiction it can go up to ₹10-20 lakh; and for celebrity books, it can go up to ₹40-50 lakh. The big MNCs have been able to sustain this model because of their giant import lists. They make a lot of revenue from books that they have been distributing by virtue of their being part of a big conglomerate. But if you sign on a big author, you end up spending a lot money on marketing, publicity and author management,” he says.
Given these challenges, he expects a lot of churn in the next decade, whether for the better or the worse. “The current models cannot be sustained,” he says. “The number of readers has to grow organically. We cannot have unrealistic vanity-fuelled advances to authors. Nor can we have high-salary publishing professionals and clueless publicists. The publishing community must do some soul-searching.”