Oped

Indian publishing and Nepali writers

  • Where does Indian publishing currently stand, and how can Nepali writers benefit from it?
- AMISH RAJ MULMI

Nov 10, 2017-In Vasant Vihar, Delhi, was a bookstore called ‘Fact and Fiction’, a veritable Delhi institution. The owners shut it down two years ago after more than 30 years of recommending the best of writing to anyone and everyone who came to the store. Landmark, a legendary bookstore chain from Chennai, ‘reoriented’ itself after being bought by Trent, Tata group’s retail enterprise, in 2008, focusing more on other consumer products like DVDs, games, children’s toys and apparel, closing some of its stores. There are regular reports that book sales are falling, especially for literary fiction titles.

And yet, Indian publishing, by all standards, is healthy and growing. There is optimism: multinational publishers like Simon & Schuster, Bloomsbury and Pan Macmillan have recently started local publishing units; Amazon will invest $5 billion to expand its operations over the next five years, and has started a local publishing division; and book fairs and literary festivals are more ubiquitous than ever, with both the number of visitors to these fairs, and the number of books being published annually, increasing year-on-year. There are technological disruptions too—Juggernaut (where I worked previously), with its mobile reading app is betting on digital publishing. Ebook sales are yet to rise to the West’s levels, but as internet and smartphone penetration increases, one expects more ebooks to sell too. 

So where’s the discord in Indian publishing? And why, if sales are falling, are new multinational publishers entering the market? 

High potential

There’s a simple reason why, despite the collapse of physical bookstores, multinational publishers are still optimistic about India: because Indian English language trade publishing hasn’t reached its full potential yet (note my use of ‘English language trade publishing’, which this essay focuses on, and not on the vibrant language publishing in India). After all, a Chetan Bhagat novel may sell a million copies (in a market where selling 10,000 copies is a potential bestseller), but there are over 125 million English speakers in India. Take this in: India’s highest selling English language novelist is read by less than 0.8 per cent of English speakers in India, a number that’s increasing every year. Of course not many of them may be readers, but one can always hope. 

Bookstore chains are failing because of over-expansion and high rentals. Does a bookstore need to be in a mall, even as independent bookstores are surviving? Struggling to survive, yes, but they’re surviving the onslaught of the ecommerce giants with their huge discounts, the bane of physical retail. However, smaller, more focused bookstores have also opened up and have sustained themselves, basing their operations on low rentals, a core, loyal readership, and/or events. 

Ecommerce isn’t necessarily the root of all evil in the book retail business, even though industry estimates suggest it’s already overtaken physical retail in market share. Ecommerce has allowed a reader sitting in Tinsukia, Assam, to order Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which her local bookstore would never have carried.

Ecommerce has taken reading to a new audience starved of bookstores. If anything, I credit ecommerce for bringing in new readers. 

But ecommerce is at the heart of the most disturbing trend in recent years: that of the death of midlist writing in India. 

A vicious cycle

What is midlist, exactly? As an ex-publisher, a midlist title—fiction or nonfiction—for me would be one that peaks at about 3,000 copies in sales. This is not a statement on the quality of the work—in fact, most ‘literary’ authors sell within a range of three to 5,000 copies—but a wholly quantifiable one based on sales. And why do sales matter? Because publishing is, after all, a business. However much you like to think about it in ideal terms, a publisher needs to pay her bills, her suppliers, her employees, and her authors. And then, there is the ‘advance’: if authors insist on higher advances, publishers will need to be more market-aware, because all this boils down to the revenue that the book will bring the publisher. 

And why is the midlist important in a time of bestsellers?

Midlist writing was the foundation on which all publishers conducted their business. Bestsellers, as all publishers know, are tempestuous mistresses. They can strike twice, even thrice in a year, and there may be years a publisher won’t have one. But it was the midlist—when you know a book will sell its print run without little effort—that sustained publishers during lean times. The reader went to a bookstore, browsed through her books, and finally bought a few. The midlist novel was there to stay, a sign of literary vibrance, an encouragement to new writers.

Unfortunately, ecommerce is largely responsible for why the midlist is dying. No one ‘browses’ for books any more on Amazon; everyone is straightaway led towards the perennial sellers—why does a God of Small Things sell in the thousands 20 years after its launch?—or the new bestsellers—Bhagat’s new novel with some number in the title. So unless you are a Lit grad overdosing on Camus, it’s rare you will choose a new Partition novel over the new Jeffrey Archer. 

It’s a vicious cycle: since bestsellers are selling more than ever, ecommerce sites tend to focus on them for better visibility. Better visibility translates to better sales, so publishers want to publish more bestsellers—so you have more books by celebs, Bollywood or sports; you have new trends such as campus romance, a genre catching up in Nepal too; you have corporate crime thrillers; mythological fiction; business books to inspire those who want to succeed. The list is long—and not all sell as much—but like any good business, publishers tend to allot higher publicity budgets to the books they expect will sell more. Since these books are more visible, everyone wants to read them. 

So what does all of this mean for a Nepali writer? 

For writers, it’s a tough ask. Publishing in India is more professional, with editors who understand the work, and via the Kindle and Amazon, there is access to a global readership. At the same time, publishing in India also means Nepali writers will rarely rise beyond the midlist, if one goes by sales. There are also similar logistical issues in distribution channels in both countries, with availability of books an issue at times, but distribution is a function of sales. Therefore, Nepali writers will have to work harder towards publicising their books, and even try to find new readers, maybe among the diaspora population within India, but at the very least beyond Kathmandu. 

Treasure trove gathering dust

There is, however, an increasing sense of awareness in Indian publishing that translations are equally important as original works. This is where Nepali writers can come in, not just as translators of works of canon—like Manjushree Thapa’s excellent translation of IB Rai—but as translators of more recent, contemporary works, works that will resonate among Indian readers and beyond. 

However, to do the latter, Nepali publishers must up their game, and their professionalism (after all, they hold the rights). Let me recall one single instance: A Nepali writer and I had agreed that a contemporary nonfiction needed to be translated, with additional inputs to make the narrative more relevant to a larger audience. We approached the Nepali publisher, who told the writer two translations were already in the works, so we backed out. A few weeks later, I received a mail from the publisher, who suggested I take on their commissioned translation and straightaway asked how much I could pay as an advance—all this, without showing me the translation, and without informing the writer who I wanted to commission! 

Such lack of courtesy towards writers doesn’t do Nepali publishers any good. They are sitting on a bank of excellent manuscripts that must be translated—why shouldn’t our novels be read with the same relish in France as a Marquez? And rare is the investment in translations, in editorial capabilities, or in technology, which is not just about ebooks, but also about logistics and warehouse capabilities, and ease of distribution and sales. There are folks who are already doing some of this in Nepal, but in smaller capacities. Despite the excellent marketing strategies for books in recent times like book tours, there remains little effort to market their work beyond the Nepali reading audience, which is essential if Nepali writing is to grow. 

Mulmi is consulting editor at Writer’s Side Literary Agency, and has previously worked with Juggernaut Books and Hachette India

Published: 10-11-2017 08:05

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