How India holds key to success of Covid-hit publishing industry in South Asia

India, the hub of the South Asian publishing market, was growing in unprecedented ways before the pandemic caused the harshest possible operational disruptions

Atul K Thakur December 02, 2021 11:40:18 IST
How India holds key to success of Covid-hit publishing industry in South Asia

People buying books at a book fair in Kolkata. Image courtesy Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons

At the cusp of India’s tragic Partition, before it could emerge independent at midnight on 15th August 1947 and offer hope universally as the world’s largest democracy with progressive, modern and secular commitments, it was difficult to think about the consolidation of post-colonial literature so proactively that became a reality sooner than the later. The successful transition in the literary domain helped the growth of Hindi and vernacular literature — as well as of the Indian Writings in English (IWE).

India, as a new nation, had its leaders who were equally well-known as writers and who inspired the culture of knowledge to flourish. Jawaharlal Nehru certainly contributed immensely in the streams of writings as well as in institutionalising the literary culture. However, in shaping up the publishing market in India, the greater contributions came with the global recognition of Indian writings.

Salman Rushdie was a copywriter at an advertising company, Oglivy & Mather, in Pakistan in 1981 when he wrote Midnight’s Children. When the book reached its audience, the literary landscape of South Asia was transformed. Rushdie, who later came to be known for controversies with Shame (1983) and the ill-fated The Satanic Verses (1988), brought to the Indian subcontinent an unprecedented seriousness in writing in the Queen’s language.

Widely-acclaimed novelist and poet Vikram Seth’s former literary agent Giles Gordon recalled being interviewed for the position: “Vikram sat at one end of a long table, and he began to grill us. It was absolutely incredible. He wanted to know our literary tastes, our views on poetry, our views on plays, which novelists we liked.” Seth later explained to Gordon that he had passed the interview not because of commercial considerations, but because he was the only one who seemed to be as interested in his poetry as in his other writings. The anecdote shows how an Indian author shot to international fame and also signalled India's prominence in the literary arena like never before.

India, the hub of the South Asian publishing market, was growing in unprecedented ways before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the harshest possible operational disruptions. In an estimate, the South Asian publishing industry’s total annual business was to the tune of $2.5 billion just before the pandemic, with India being at the centre stage. Books in English made up almost a quarter of this modest but encouraging sum, and India remained a favoured destination for subcontinental writers.

However, South Asian publishers and writers are not familiar with using the services of literary consultants. The scenario contrasts with that in the Western world where literary consultancy is quite a promising profession for well-read individuals with a knack for business. South Asia has its own literary agents and inbound foreign agents, and they play crucial roles when it comes to high-end books.

The literary business has a reputation for ruthlessness. The editors and literary consultants too have to work under certain limitations — seldom has it happened that the new authors even try to understand such complexities while living in their own comfortable world. Of course, there are stellar examples too and that reflects quite positively on the growing professionalism in the Indian publishing market. Like many seasoned editors, many literary consultants happen to be terrific snobs about books, and they often make the points with their strong impulses. So, it is on them too to rationalise the expectations of the authors, especially those who are new in the trade and stoutly pursue a no-holds-barred approach. The gap remains though.

Looking at the latest trends in the Indian literary market that otherwise are encouraging, one startling fact is that the only fiction being sold in huge quantities is commercial trash. While one can’t have anything particular against it, some of the writers of the genre would be well advised to experiment with the subject, writing style and storytelling. Otherwise, it’s just the literary equivalent of the formulaic Indian soap operas half the populace of the country devours day in and day out. Indeed, the genres of literary and translated fiction have never been in greater danger than they are now. Most authors struggle to sell their already minuscule first print runs. Major reviews and profiles seldom boost sales as they personify the authors more than dealing with the books, and certainly, the subcontinental literary awards have no sway over the casual book buyer. The only books that manage to sell in decent numbers are those that have received some recognition in the West.

Commercially, however, the Indian publishing market is thriving. The grim truth is that even now, a subcontinental interface is still very low. The writers in South Asia should align themselves with the immense opportunities offered by India, a real homeland of publishing. Notwithstanding the challenges, in hindsight, the rise and rise of Indian publishing and writers have been overwhelming. As a soft power, India’s recognition in the world is a testimony of the successes that the Indian authors, publishers and other stakeholders’ contributions have factored over the decades.

India’s rise has never been in isolation. As the world’s largest democracy with a fairly progressive polity, it has stood its ground in offering opportunities to the writers from the neighbourhood and beyond India’s publishing market, keeping the South Asian spirit and letting the genuine writers flourish irrespective of any other consideration except the quality of the manuscript. This is something to be not missed.

At the cusp of defining changes, the ‘new normal’ should have a close bearing on the processes of writing, editing, commissioning, publishing and promotion. While continuing with the rich tradition and impressive legacy, all those who make the book should work in unison rather than opt for their comfort zones and individual targets. In the figures, it would be too difficult to ascertain the degree of recovery in the Indian publishing market. What is heartening is the arrival of new quality titles and the flow of dialogues and reviews on them. The pandemic has endangered the publishing sector but it could not defeat the creative spirits.

Like any other creative practice, the process of reading, finding an urge to communicate and write happens to be deeply personal and painful. To stay genuine and communicate, a realisation within should take place about the inevitability of changes but without missing the essence of basics that stays averse to change on its own. We are living in a very special phase in history where conventional wisdom is freely countered with artificial tools and thought processes. Such a challenge inspires the good culture of reading, writing and knowledge sharing to scale even greater heights.

As India is celebrating 75th years of its Independence and the aspirations are clearly aimed to further strengthen the country’s edge in the 21st century, the reset world in post-pandemic times will look at India with enthusiasm. And that is where the Indian publishing scene can come to play with immense potential to grow and channelise positive aspirations as a force to reckon with. In ruminations, a long road ahead can be assumed promising.

The writer is a policy and management professional, columnist and writer with a focus on South Asia. Views expressed are personal.​

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