If you were to judge India’s publishing industry only by two big events on the January calendar — the World Book Fair in Delhi and the Jaipur Literature Festival — you’d assume that there was a glut of both readers and books. The big tents at fairs and festivals attract readers who stay away from the overheated, often insular, world of book launches in the capital and other metros. They also offer an accurate snapshot of the state of Indian publishing in 2016 — robust, multilingual with Hindi and English dominating trade, but also highly fragmented. The flood of books — almost, as some editors say, too many commissioned in a competitive industry with over eight major trade publishers based in Delhi alone — is not matched by growth in bookstores, though. Online booksellers and e-commerce have helped to accelerate the domination of Indian-authored bestsellers, but in the absence of libraries and a thriving culture of independent bookstores, Indian publishers are producing enormous quantities of midlist books — with no bridges between these and readers. There’s an excellent prescription for readers from Jhumpa Lahiri: she makes no distinction between “literary” and “popular” fiction or between reading in English and reading in translation. “I am drawn to any story that makes me want to read from one sentence to the next. I have no other criteria,” she said in an interview. This generation of Indians reads eclectically and is just as likely to pick up a new and unheralded author as an established, bestselling writer. Here is a quick look at where Indian publishing, bookstores and readers are headed in 2016. The young Indian reader In the 18-30 age group, relatively few (only 25 per cent of those surveyed for a key National Book Trust poll) read for pleasure and relaxation, in Hindi and English, but this still translates into massive and growing numbers. Readers in this generation have a lot of other entertainment options and expect to sample books the way they listen to music. They have wide-open tastes and will read across genres, jumping from George RR Martin to Kiran Desai to Durjoy Datta — anything for a good story. Ananth Padmanabhan, HarperCollins India’s chief executive officer, calls young readers “reluctant readers” who are open to being influenced. Booksellers confirm his view that it is these readers who’ve propelled the shift from an India where English-language bestsellers were dominated by John Grisham, Paulo Coelho and company to local bestsellers like Chetan Bhagat, Amish, Devdutt Pattnaik and Ravinder Singh. Padmanabhan points to the power of the social media to drive consumption, and says: “18-30 are reading almost everything in the top shelf — romance continues to dominate, but also across mythology, crime, humour, biographies, true crime, business, even literary fiction — essentially books that make noise. The one change that is apparent is that readers are not worried about whether they bought mass market or literary fiction. They buy books that have reached them through word of mouth and are entertaining — and so scores of new voices, especially Indian, who want to be literary are losing the battle.” Murderers and sleuths Sweden’s reputation for producing brilliantly creepy crime writers will be reinforced in 2016 when Erik Axl Sund’s The Crow Girl comes out in translation. ‘Erik Axl Sund’ is a pseudonym, shared between Jerker Eriksson, a former prison librarian, and Håkan Axlander Sundquist, previously a sound engineer and artist. The Crow Girl has two strong women protagonists — psychotherapist Sofia Zutterland is treating two clients who appear to have multiple personality disorder, and police detective Jeanette Kihlberg heads an investigation of the murders of children whose bodies, bearing signs of torture, are discovered across Stockholm. Every Scandinavian crime writer is touted as the next Stieg Larsson, but Erik Axl Sund has a better shot at the title than most. But a word of caution to the squeamish: don’t look too closely at the figure in the wheelchair on their website. In Japan, the question is who is the next Keigo Higashino; the 56-year-old Japanese crime writer had a massive fan base in his country and in South Korea long before The Devotion of Suspect X and Journey Under The Midnight Sun crossed over to the West. A Midsummer’s Equation, the third in his Detective Galileo series, is out this year: his physicist sleuth is attending a conference in an ailing summer resort town when one of the resort guests is found dead at the base of the cliffs. Indian publishers hope that 2016 might see good pulp fiction and true crime writers in English: between high-profile society murders, rampaging godmen and dirty wars, there’s more than sufficient raw material. Non-fiction “The non-fiction space is growing significantly,” says Kapish Mehra, owner and MD of Rupa & Co. He sees a surge of readers in the crucial 18 to 30 age group who’re interested in everything — from Devdutt Pattanaik’s bestselling books on mythology onwards. The outsized curiosity of this generation of Indian writers makes up for the viral spread of the longform epidemic — too many crisp 300-word pieces being rolled out and stretched like pizza dough into 3,000-word epics. The best of 2015’s non-fiction spanned broad territory — Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field explored family history and the World War, Akshaya Mukul’s Gita Press and The Making of Hindu India took him to archives across Gorakhpur, Allahabad, and Lucknow, while Nayanjot Lahiri’s Ashoka in Ancient India extracted the king from the myths, for example. At Mumbai’s Kitabkhana, COO T Jagath says his customers buy non-fiction in quantities. “Books are very popular as birthday gifts and for corporate gifting these days,” he says. Competition from online stores hasn’t affected Kitabkhana — his customers still prefer to buy directly from the store. These books are not always among the top 20-50 bestselling titles, but they are steady sellers over time, testifying to the growing curiosity of Indian readers as well as Indian writers, in the country’s broader history, politics, culture, art and travel — though science remains a major gap. Young adult fiction Despite attempts by several publishers to find the Indian Judy Blume, there are few takers for Indian young adult fiction. “It’s just not selling, nobody reads it,” says Sayoni Basu, director and founder, Duckbill Books. Other children’s publishers agree — Indian children and their parents will pick up stories by local authors aimed at the pre-school and primary school reader, but there are no big blockbuster bestsellers in the teen and young adult market. Basu has seen the appetite for children’s books grow — the success of Pratham Books and Tulika Books, for instance, is a pointer to the hunger for books for pre-teen readers in English and other Indian languages. Her hypothesis is that teenagers’ aspirations are fixed abroad. They’ll read authors like Anthony Horowitz, Suzanne Collins, Jeff Kinney, however.
Another factor, according to booksellers, is that Indian parents still prefer books that are educational or information-heavy. Even so, publishers like Duckbill will risk publishing a few promising Young Adult authors. “We’re seeing enormous talent among first-time writers,” Basu explains. Readers may not be ready for them just yet, but all you need is one or two break-out bestsellers for a trend to be established.
Bookstores This will be a year of enormous flux for both online and physical bookstores. Several brick-and-mortar bookshops closed their doors in 2015, including the popular Fact & Fiction in Delhi and AA Husain & Co in Hyderabad. The space within big chains for books as opposed to other products continues to shrink. Some independent bookstore owners blame competition from online retailers — particularly the practice of “deep discounting” books — for the rash of closures. In a previous interview with Business Standard, Hachette Managing Director Thomas Abraham predicted that this would be a year of “organised resistance” from booksellers and a demand for more legislation from the government. But the government would first have to recognise “physical bookstores as cultural institutions that need to be preserved”, not very likely at present. Despite the closures, there are signs that physical bookstores, especially specialist stores such as CMYK or LeftWord Books, will survive the present challenges. Some distributors point out that there was a similar wave of apprehension over the future of independent booksellers when chain bookstores first entered the Indian market. The Amazon effect There are three ways in which Amazon’s India operations could reshape the reading landscape. An aggressive push from a company as well organised as Amazon India might boost Kindle and e-reader sales — so far, Indians have not embraced reading on e-readers or on tablets. Amazon’s ability to change the way people buy books is well-documented, though here it faces a daunting tangle of FDI laws. Third, it could transform the self-publishing landscape — this has become an increasingly sophisticated, parallel industry that sometimes outdoes traditional publishing in its scope and numbers. Every survey of Indian readers indicates that we’re bursting with potential writers whose books are unlikely to find room in the traditional marketplace. Amazon could deliver the alternative they’ve been waiting for. The big catch here is India’s complicated FDI rules. It is unclear at the time of writing whether the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion will be successful in dismissing complaints by traditional retailers against online retailers and e-commerce sites. It appears that companies like Amazon, Snapdeal and Ikea will be able to expand their operations, but as the year progresses, there should be more clarity on what they can and cannot do.
E-books versus physical books Flipkart stopped offering ebooks for download in December, announcing that it would migrate customers from its e-book store to Kobo. “The Indian book market is overwhelmingly dominated by physical books,” the online commerce giant said in a press release. Studies show that Indians do read e-books — but they prefer free downloads (either legal out-of-copyright books or illegal pirated PDFs) to paying for e-books. Despite these indicators, many publishers think e-books have a future in India, especially with the rise of reading on smartphones for Generation Text. Some publishers, Juggernaut in particular, are betting on delivering content tailored to smartphone readers. By the end of 2016, we’ll have a better sense of how Indian readers have responded. At present, reports of the death of the physical book are greatly exaggerated. Adult colouring books This was the surprise trend in the US and the UK, touted as the relaxing alternative for people who spend too much time in front of their screens. Books like The Mindfulness Colouring Book and The Creative Colouring Book For Grown-Ups became 2015’s biggest sellers. Aleph is introducing two colouring books in 2016: Sujaya Batra’s Meditations on the Prophet, and Prabha Mallya’s Fangs and Feathers. If the thought of tackling piles of reading is too stressful — too many books, too little time — you might want to get out your crayons instead.