A lot of people said this is the wrong time to get into children’s publishing,” says Sayoni Basu (late of Penguin, Scholastic and Amar Chitra Katha) — who has just started a children’s publisher called Duckbill. She does have two useful partners. Anushka Ravishankar is a well-known children’s author who has written a couple of dozen books. And Westland is a big distributor-turned-publisher that belongs to the Tata Group and has a list of high-selling authors including Rashmi Bansal, Amish Tripathi, Rujuta Diwekar and Ashwin Sanghi (high-selling, I said, not high-quality).
Why, other than the downturn, is this the wrong time to enter “one of the fastest-growing segments” — so says Gautam Padmanabhan, Westland’s CEO and Duckbill’s MD — of the Indian publishing market? Ask other children’s publishers, and you might be forgiven for wondering whether there is any good time to launch a children’s books imprint in India.
Here are some of the reasons one hears. It takes investment to make a quality children’s book (editorial effort, the right illustrator, good paper and colour printing, marketing, paying the author), and that leads to a higher cover price than parents are willing to pay. What they will pay for is educational books, which is fine but rather leaves fiction out in the cold.
Unless the author is an old staple, like Ruskin Bond, Satyajit Ray, R K Narayan or Enid Blyton, all of whom the parents quite likely read in their childhood and youth. These authors, and to a lesser extent others like Manjula Padmanabhan, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Pulak Biswas, and Duckbill’s own Ravishankar, are the only “brands” among Indian writers for children.
It is very difficult, therefore, to turn a new children’s writer into a brand, or even a short-lived “phenomenon” — how many newspapers or channels have regular children’s books coverage? And for classic word-of-mouth to work, a book needs to be easily available. With conservative print runs of 2,000-5,000 for children’s books, this is a chicken-and-egg problem.
Trickiest of all, and really what I think is the chief problem: there are very few good Indian writers in English for children, and very few ways to find or make them. So publishers poach authors from each other, and store up grudges.
But they also work to increase supply. There is the ancient, proven method: networking. There is also the Internet. Padmanabhan says Duckbill found one author for its forthcoming list by browsing on Amazon.com’s Kindle page; he had self-published an ebook. Other publishers lurk on Facebook and at children’s book festivals like Bookaroo. If they think it might work, they plead with authors who write for adults to try writing for children (many say no; Jerry Pinto of Em and the Big Hoom has said yes to Duckbill). Basu says, giggling, that they go looking for authors “under bushes with torches”.
So she says, but she and Ravishankar are hedging their bets by organising writers’ workshops, starting at the end of this month in Delhi and later in Mumbai. There will be three days of discussion on the basics of plot, structure, character development, the many different genres, and so on, and then 10 days of sitting at home and writing. Even established writers, says Basu, are eager to attend: “This shows how great a dearth there is of meeting spaces for people who want to write in India.”
A related problem that bothers these publishers is the lack of “contemporary Indian stories”. That is, stories set in a modern context, in everyday Indian life. As Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, head of children’s books at Hachette India, puts it, the world has no interest in children’s stories from contemporary India — “no elephants, rotis and sarees”. Indian children who read in English, on the other hand, get an international bouquet of authors and stories. So the taste for Indian hasn’t had a chance to develop here either.
Untested interest in local, not enough local writers: problems, yes, but also opportunity.