Friday, October 10, 2008

Inside India’s publishing business

In the last few years, following the Booker Prize win of Arundhati Roy, there has been a phenomenal change in the publishing scene in India. According to reports, the industry is growing at the rate of twenty five per cent every year. Many multinational publishers have set shop in India. Literary festivals at places like Jaipur, Mumbai and Kolkata have created the buzz about writers and writing (and in the process, stoking some controversies too)—and I am not even mentioning the five-star book launches, peppered with Bollywood celebrities and talkative sound-bite savvy politicians. Agents and talent scouts have been making trips to India in search of the next Arundhati Roy. New names have arrived in India’s overcrowded literary marquee with a regularity and speed only to be rivaled by the cell phone penetration rate in the country. If you find that last comparison a bit off the curve, take it with a pinch of salt but I hope you get the signal (I mean, the drift of things).

There is a reason for all this rush to the Indian market. According to publishing guru David Davidar (who established Penguin India some two decades ago and now heads Penguin Canada), the Indian (English language) publishing scene in 20 years will be the second or third largest in the world overtaking Canada and Australia. “From about 7 to 8 million India will go to 30 to 40 million in the space of 15 to 20 years which means it's just going to explode,” he has said in an interview.

In a scenario like this, one would be forgiven to assume that young Indian writers—boys or girls or their adult versions—today have the world at their feet: talent hunters stalking the wannabe literary superstars, literary agents wooing the parents or grandparents of their literary children or grandchildren, hoping to help them snatch the next literary deal of the century, publishers laughing their way to the bank as they sit atop an inexhaustible literary gold mine of unsolicited manuscripts.

The truth is as far from the reality as it could be. The publishing scenario in India, especially the fiction side of it, is still a nightmare for young Indian writers, far removed from the fairy tale scene painted above. When it comes to publishing, an aspiring Indian writer (sans any literary pedigree or fancy degrees in creative writing from UK or US) is—yes, you guessed it correctly—much on his own: no agents, no literary scouts, and no willing publishers.

Well, actually there are some but the scene has perhaps not changed much ever since the days of an upstart R K Narayan (The Malgudi Days, The Guide) when he had to ask his friend to tie a stone to his unpublished, much rejected manuscript and throw it into the Thames. Now that the big brand global publishers are in India, new Indian writers don’t have to go to the Thames; they have their Ganges or the Jamuna waiting for their precious offering at a stone’s throw.

The only difference, between now and then, is that perhaps there is a lot of awareness about publishing, especially about the million dollar advances that some writers get in the west. There are some websites and email groups too that help writers share information and advice with each other—a soothing atmosphere for the wannabe novelist to cool his heels and let his hair down and cavile and complain until he sets off for another wild goose chase for a publisher.

Writers’ Side

In the given situation, is anybody doing anything to help the poor writers come out of the shadows? I was surprised to find out that an agency-- Writer's Side—is actively seeking to help new writers reach publishers in India and abroad.

“Writer's Side has been set up to counterbalance the increasing inaccessibility of Indian publishers, especially the global conglomerates that are setting up divisions here,” says the founder editor of Writer's Side, Kanishka Gupta.

Kanishka was attached to an agency based in Jaipur before he took the plunge into an inkpot to start a new literary chapter. “It took me just seven months to grow out of the concept of literary agencies in India and evolve a model that was more holistic and profitable,” says the literary entrepreneur.

His company now provides editorial and market assistance to writers. In addition, it introduces very promising talent to our contacts overseas.

He, however, clarifies that he is not a typical agent. In fact, for India’s unhealthy publishing scene, he pins some blame to the agencies. “I think the origin of agencies in India was largely an offshoot of the growing interest of foreign markets in Indian fiction,” he says. “Sadly, that interest is very volatile and fluctuates from time to time. Also, agencies in India as a business model are not viable. Apart from Osians, I've not encountered a single agent who works with proper infrastructure and support. Thus, the business model of agenting that was started to become lucrative ultimately ends up seeing the agents drag themselves into a metaphorical space of literary martyrdom. That's not something we can afford.”

“I would also question some of the choices the agents are making. It not only fails them in their cause but also makes Indian writing look increasingly suspect to foreign markets,” he adds. “One has to be very patient and has to stop hanging on the coat tails of The God of Small Things era. The market has become insanely competitive and somewhat unreliable.”

To prove his point, Kanishka gives the example of a major publishing house (he does not want to disclose the name) which has been in operation in India for over two years. “Other than established names in fiction and commissioned titles in non-fiction they haven't been able to do anything substantial,” he notes. “Most of their time is spent in formulating innovative marketing campaigns- again a very shortsighted approach for a publisher especially one who purportedly claimed to be here to find unique voices in the country.”

Kanishka thinks that for the benefit for the writers and the industry, publishers should start taking serious initiatives to nurture talent rather than simply work as money-making corporates. “It’s one thing to justify your salary at the end of the month, quite another to do it at the cost of thousands of writers who are waiting to get some sort of direction in their careers,” he points out. “I hold publishers responsible for writers abandoning their careers prematurely. In the West, consultancies like the TLC, several freelance editors and book doctors are there to help writers but there's no such system in India, maybe not even in Asia.”

I guess writers will welcome that kind of approach in India. And Indian writers won’t have much to complaint if more agencies like Writer’s Side stood by them.

So, what’s his advice to the aspiring writers? Kanishka ferrets out a long list: “Don’t follow trends. Inoculate yourself against rejections. Don’t get paranoid. Always be on the lookout for a novel idea or a novel way to tell a story. Find a mentor or a reader to nurture your talents. It may take 5 years to see your work in print but it’s worth all the effort.”

Well, it’s not that a long list but makes immense sense. If you are not in a hurry to become famous, make those five years into ten. Writers can always do with some patience and hard work.
Published in the MPH Malaysia magazine, Quill.

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