India, the hub of the South Asian publishing market, was experiencing unprecedented growth before the pandemic caused the most severe operational disruptions possible
People buy books at a book fair in Kolkata. Image courtesy of Biswarup Ganguly / Wikimedia Commons
On the eve of the tragic partition of India, before it could become independent at midnight on the 15the August 1947 and offering universal hope as the world’s largest democracy with progressive, modern, and secular commitments, it was difficult to think of consolidating postcolonial literature so proactively that was becoming a reality sooner rather than later. The successful transition in the literary field has contributed to the growth of Hindi and vernacular literature – as well as Indian Writings in English (IWE).
India, as a new nation, had its leaders equally well known as writers and who inspired the flourishing of the culture of knowledge. Jawaharlal Nehru has certainly contributed enormously to the currents of writing as well as to the institutionalization of literary culture. However, in shaping the publishing market in India, the most significant contributions have come from the worldwide recognition of Indian writing.
Salman Rushdie was a copywriter for an advertising company, Oglivy & Mather, in Pakistan in 1981 when he wrote Midnight children. When the book reached its audience, the literary landscape of South Asia was transformed. Rushdie, who later became known for controversies with Shame (1983) and the unfortunate Satanic verses (1988), brought to the Indian subcontinent an unprecedented seriousness in writing in the Queen’s language.
Vikram Seth’s former literary agent, renowned novelist and poet, Giles Gordon, recalls being interviewed for the job: “Vikram sat at one end of a long table and started toasting us. It was absolutely amazing. He wanted to know our literary tastes, our views on poetry, our views on plays, what novelists we liked. Seth later explained to Gordon that he passed the interview not for commercial considerations, but because he was the only one who seemed to be as interested in his poetry as he was in his other writings. The anecdote shows how an Indian author achieved international fame and also signaled the importance of India in the literary arena like never before.
India, the hub of the South Asian publishing market, was experiencing unprecedented growth before the COVID-19[female[feminine pandemic caused the most severe operational disruption possible. The South Asian publishing industry’s total annual turnover was estimated at $ 2.5 billion just before the pandemic, with India taking center stage. Books in English made up almost a quarter of this modest but encouraging sum, and India remained a preferred destination for writers on the subcontinent.
However, South Asian publishers and writers are not used to using the services of literary consultants. The scenario contrasts with that of the Western world where literary counseling is a fairly promising profession for literate with business acumen. South Asia has its own literary agents and incoming foreign agents, and they play a crucial role when it comes to high-end books.
The literary industry has a reputation for being ruthless. Editors and literary consultants also have to work within certain limits – it has rarely happened that new writers have even tried to understand such complexities while living in their own comfortable world. Of course, there are stellar examples as well and this reflects quite positively the growing professionalism in the Indian publishing market. Like many seasoned publishers, many literary consultants turn out to be formidable snobs about books, and they often make their points with their strong impulses. It is therefore up to them also to rationalize the expectations of authors, in particular those who are new to the profession and who resolutely pursue a merciless approach. The gap remains, however.
Looking at the latest trends in the Indian literary market which are otherwise encouraging, a surprising fact is that the only fiction that is sold in large quantities is the commercial trash. While we can’t have anything specific against it, some of the writers in the genre would be well advised to experiment with the subject matter, style of writing, and storytelling. Otherwise, it’s just the literary equivalent of the stereotypical Indian soap operas that half of the country’s population devours day after day. Indeed, the genres of literary and translated fiction have never been more endangered than today. Most authors find it difficult to sell their already tiny first prints. Critics and major profiles rarely drive sales because they personify authors more than deal with books, and certainly, subcontinent literary prices have no influence on 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 flourishing. The sad truth is that even now a subcontinent interface is still very weak. South Asian writers should align themselves with the immense opportunities offered by India, the true homeland of publishing. Despite the challenges, in retrospect, the boom and bust of Indian publishing and writers has been overwhelming. As a soft power, India’s recognition in the world is a testament to the successes that the contributions of Indian authors, publishers and other stakeholders have reflected over the decades.
India’s rise has never been isolated. As the world’s largest democracy with a fairly progressive political regime, it has held its own by providing opportunities for writers in the neighborhood and beyond in India’s publishing market, keeping the South Asian spirit alive. and letting authentic writers thrive independently of all other considerations except the quality of the manuscript. This is something not to be missed.
On the cusp of change, the “new normal” is expected to have a strong impact on the writing, editing, commissioning, publishing and promotion processes. While continuing the rich tradition and impressive legacy, all of those who make the book should work in unison rather than opting for their comfort zones and individual goals. In the numbers, it would be too difficult to assess the degree of recovery in the Indian publishing market. What is encouraging is the arrival of new quality titles and the flow of dialogue and criticism about them. The pandemic has endangered the publishing industry, but it has not been able to defeat the creative minds.
Like any other creative practice, the process of reading, finding an urge to communicate and write is deeply personal and painful. To remain authentic and communicate, an inner awareness must take place on the inevitability of change, but without missing the essence of the bases that remain opposed to change on their own. We are living in a very special phase in history where conventional wisdom is freely countered by artificial tools and thought processes. Such a challenge inspires the right culture of reading, writing and sharing knowledge to reach even higher heights.
As India celebrates 75e years of independence and the aspirations are clearly aimed at further strengthening the country’s advantage in the 21st century, the world reset to the post-pandemic era will look on India with enthusiasm. And this is where the Indian editorial scene can play with immense potential for growth and channeling positive aspirations as a force to be reckoned with. In ruminations, a long way to go can be assumed to be promising.
The writer is a political and management professional, columnist and writer specializing in South Asia. The opinions expressed are personal.