FEATURE Inside India's Publishing Business
In a publishers’ market, where does the writer stand? ZAFAR ANJUM explores the highways and byways of the Indian publishing world
IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, following Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize win for The God of Small Things in 1997, there has been a phenomenal change in the publishing scene in India. According to reports, the industry is growing at the rate of 25 per cent every year. Many multinational publishers have set up shop in India. Literary festivals at places like Jaipur, Mumbai and Kolkata have created a 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 to be rivalled only 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 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 and the author of The House of Blue Mangoes and The Solitude of Emperors), the English-language publishing scene in India in 20 years’ time will be the second or third largest in the world overtaking Canada and Australia. “From about seven to eight 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 said in an interview.
In a scenario like this, one would be forgiven to assume that young Indian writers today—boys or girls or their adult versions—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 goldmine of unsolicited manuscripts.
However, the truth is as far from the reality as it can 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 the U.K. or U.S.) 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 since the days of an upstart R.K. Narayan (Malgudi Days, The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, The Painter of Signs) 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 Jamuna waiting for their precious offerings at a stone’s throw.
The only difference between now and then is that there may now be more awareness about publishing, especially about the million-dollar advances that some writers get in the West. There are some websites and e-mail 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 cavil and complain until he sets off for another wild-goose chase for a publisher.
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 their contacts overseas. He, however, clarifies that he is not a typical agent. In fact, for India’s unhealthy publishing scene, he pins some blame on 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 Osian’s, a Delhi- and Mumbai-based literary agency, I’ve not encountered a single agency that 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 coattails of The God of Small Things. 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 nonfiction 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 of 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, and 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 complain about if more agencies like Writer’s Side stood by them.
So, what’s his advice to 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 of telling a story. Find a mentor or a reader to nurture your talents. It may take five years to see your work in print but it’s worth all the effort.”
Well, it’s not that long a list, but it makes immense sense. If you are not in a hurry to become famous, make those five years into ten. As Davidar said, the Indian market will start to mature by then, and even international writers will have to vie for a little shelf space for themselves in the Indian market.
ZAFAR ANJUM (zafaranjum.com), a Singapore-based journalist, has published two books and is working on his third. His short story, “Waiting for the Angels,” was shortlisted for the TLM New Writing Prize 2006 by The Little Magazine, India. It later appeared in an anthology of fiction by new Indian writers, First Impressions, published in 2006. Zafar’s journalism and fiction has appeared in periodicals and websites in India, the U.S., the U.K., Hong Kong, Singapore and other countries. He is the founder-editor of kitaab.org, a website dedicated to Asian writing in English. He also edits a website for writers in Singapore, writersconnect.org.
Reproduced from the special Ubud issue of Quill magazine