Understanding the ‘Bestseller’ Phenomenon in the Indian Publishing Industry

“The means of production for literature in English have seen significant changes in India since the late 1980s,” observes Suman Gupta[1]. The diverse range of languages and varied demographics have allowed a proliferation of both independent and international publishers in the country to serve its population of nearly 1.3 billion people[2][3]. “India’s market,” comments Nitasha Devasar, “is big, varied, and segmented and that allows various ecosystems to survive, even thrive, simultaneously.”[4] Furthermore, according to the 2015 Nielsen report, the Indian publishing sector, now worth $6.76 billion, is the sixth largest publisher in the world overall, and the second largest publisher in the world for English-language books.[5] The report also posits that the sector, led by educational books, “is set to grow at an average compound annual growth rate of 19.3% until 2020.”[6] On an average then almost 250 books are published in India per day; 55% of the sales are from English books, 35% from Hindi, and the rest are regional-language books.[7] According to James Crabtree (Financial Times), these numbers in fact understate the market’s growth, given that the Nielsen Book-scan “measures sales in only a selection of bookshops and excludes online retailers, notably Amazon.”[8]

 

However, in his interview with Financial Times, author Amish Tripathi—a prominent name in the new wave of popular Indian fiction—suggests that this period of opulent growth has come “in spite of the country’s literary establishment.”[9] Until a decade ago, argues Tripathi, the Indian publishing industry “was Indian in name only.”[10]

It was more of a British publishing industry that happened to be based in India…a group that was highly westernised, highly anglicised, not really rooted in India at all. And this was reflected in the books they published. It was the presentation of Indian exotica to a westernised audience.[11]

 

The group that Tripathi refers to is that of the Booker prize winning literary authors such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Aravind Adiga, whose writing has come to predominantly represent Indian literature in English for the global readers. This domain of Indian literary writing in English, observes Padmini Mongia, has enjoyed incredible visibility and success both within and outside the country, thereby garnering “tremendous cultural capital” for India[12]. The fact that this group is full of Booker prize winners further grants them the “ultimate seal of approval from the global marketplace.”[13] This, however, does not mean that all Indian literary fiction enjoys such international visibility; much of what is published―even recipients of the Sahitya Akademi awards―do not receive a lot of attention in the Indian market and are largely unknown abroad. But, as Gupta points out, “success in literary fiction is measured by texts which have circulated well in a wider Anglo-American market, and have enjoyed concordant critical attention and cultural currency.”[14]

 

Yet if one were to take a glimpse at the Indian publishing industry right now, they would understand that these literary texts are not a priority for many of the bigger publishers.[15] As Tripathi observes, in the first decade of the twenty-first century the country witnessed a phenomenal shift in the publishing landscape with the publication of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, “a crisply written romance set at a university in New Delhi.”[16] This was soon followed by a “string of further Bhagat books […] each more successful than the last, touching on themes of love and professional aspirations and aimed at younger urban readers.”[17] This marked the rise of a new wave of commercial fiction in India, a fiction which had a distinct Indian sensibility and flavour to it, and was “written entirely for consumption in a domestic market.”[18] Gupta elucidates this phenomenon in the following words:

What is produced and consumed as Indian commercial fiction in English is generally regarded as matter of internal interest. It is consumed primarily within India, seen to display a kind of “Indianness” that Indians appreciate, and is not meant to be taken “seriously” or regarded as “literary”. Literary fiction is the respectable public face of Indian literature in English abroad and at home, while commercial fiction is the gossipy café of Indian writing in English at home.[19]

 

Despite this dichotomy, the deluge of this new crop of popular fiction writers, whose books are selling in the thousands (numbers unimaginable for literary writers in India), needs to be paid equal critical attention, if for no other reason than their sales figures.[20] The Indian politician, writer, and former diplomat, Shashi Tharoor, notes that usually a “bestseller” in the literary category in India will only sell around 3,000 and 5,000 copies; “a true success is one that remains in print for years, with successive reprints of 1,500 copies or so every nine or twelve months.”[21] He then points out that “in this modest market,” a novel by Chetan Bhagat will reportedly sell over 1,00,000 copies in the first month after publication, “mainly in small towns where literary fiction is rarely found, and keep selling.”[22]

 

It was India’s largest independent publisher, Rupa Publications (formerly known as Rupa & Co.) that helped make Bhagat the publishing phenomenon he is today, even when he was rejected by a number of other houses. It is interesting to note that Rupa’s current tagline is “The House of Bestsellers”. One could contend that Rupa saw potential, where others only saw pulpy writing; the publisher understood that Bhagat’s writing was truly for the masses, and had, as Tharoor points out, an element of verisimilitude.[23] Kapish Mehra, Rupa Publication’s managing director, further emphasizes this point by saying that Bhagat is wildly popular among the youth of India, “who rarely read novels”[24], because he was able to capture their voice and their perspectives in his books. This also bring us to the most crucial aspect of his writing (which went on to become a common practice in the works of many of the commercial fiction writers who followed in Bhagat’s footsteps): his treatment of the language of the new Indian middle-class: “he uses English as it’s spoken in India, spliced with Hindi, brand names, and tech lingo.”[25] Mehra notes that “this is the language that young Indians speak. Lots of people relate to it. As publishers, our job is to put out content that people can relate to.”[26] This new vein of commercial fiction in India therefore, unlike literary writing, is not bound to the same limitations, “where, in the words of Raja Rao, Indians had to ‘convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own’, the place of English in India and book production in it has changed.”[27] As noted by Advaita Kala, author of the popular novel Almost Single, “there has been a shift from postcolonial to post-liberalisation.”[28] Authors like Chetan Bhagat, Durjoy Dutta, Ravinder Singh, and Sudeep Nagarkar in particular are making this shift quite clear with the use of ‘Hinglish’ in their writings, thereby making it abundantly clear that English is no longer the language of the colonizers, but is now weaved deep into the cultural fabric of India.

 

Language, however, is not the only thing that has made these writers a commercial success. This new wave of popular fiction is also introducing genres that “suit the tastes of this growing domestic audience.”[29] According to Mongia, the new writers, “instead of being concerned with literary fiction and re-visioning empire […] have their gaze focused on lives and loves in urban Indian centres.”[30] Their tremendous sales numbers thus tell us that these “characters and concerns of popular novels resonate both linguistically and situationally with its readership.”[31] As Crabtree notes in his Financial Times article:

Catalogues now bristle with campus romances or crime novels set in white-collar workplaces. Mythological or religiously themed titles are also common, tapping growing interest in India’s cultural history. “Commercial fiction, a decade ago, would have been dominated by foreign authors like Sidney Sheldon or Jeffrey Archer,” Tripathi says. “Now you’ll find it difficult to find a westerner on the bestseller list.”[32]

 

Bhagat, in the same above-mentioned Financial Times article, comments that “there tend to be a lot of people in the industry on the editorial side who have a preference for literary fiction. But on the business side there is pressure to be commercially successful. So that is what is driving it now.”[33] Thus, while the upsurge of this “bestseller” phenomenon may be troubling for some, this is what the country’s dominant readership is demanding, and the publishing industry seems happy to oblige at the moment.

 

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[1] Suman Gupta, “Indian ‘Commercial Fiction’ in English, the Publishing Industry and Youth Culture,” Economic and Political Weekly, 46

[2] Iain Marlow, “India’s Book Buying Habits Say a Lot about the Country’s Economy.”

[3] Urvashi Butalia as quoted in Peter Griffin, “The Changing Face of Indian Publishing | Forbes India Blog.” Forbes India.

[4] Nitasha Devasar, “Publishing in India: Nitasha Devasar Has Written the Book on It.” Publishing Perspectives

[5] Meghna Pant as quoted in Mishra, Dyuti, “Authors Are Vying with Pokémon and Taylor Swift: Meghna Pant.” The Hindu

[6] Marlow, “India’s Book Buying Habits Say a Lot about the Country’s Economy.”

[7] Pant as quoted in Dyuti, “Authors Are Vying with Pokémon and Taylor Swift: Meghna Pant.”

[8] James Crabtree, “A New Twist to India’s Publishing Boom.” Financial Times

[9] Amith Tripathi as quoted in Crabtree, “A New Twist to India’s Publishing Boom.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Padmini Mongia, “Speaking American: Popular Indian Fiction in English.” Comparative American Studies an International Journal, 140

[13] Ibid., 140

[14] Gupta, “Indian ‘Commercial Fiction’ in English, the Publishing Industry and Youth Culture,” 47

[15] Crabtree, “A New Twist to India’s Publishing Boom.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Mongia, “Speaking American: Popular Indian Fiction in English,” 140.

[19] Gupta, “Indian ‘Commercial Fiction’ in English, the Publishing Industry and Youth Culture,” 47.

[20] Mongia, “Speaking American: Popular Indian Fiction in English,” 140.

[21] Shashi Tharoor, “Behold A Phenomenon: Loving, Living, Scheming in Young India.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Simon Montlake, “The Rise of India’s Pulp Fiction.”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mongia, “Speaking American: Popular Indian Fiction in English,” 141.

[28] Ibid., 141.

[29] Crabtree, “A New Twist to India’s Publishing Boom.”

[30] Mongia, “Speaking American: Popular Indian Fiction in English,” 142.

[31] Ibid., 42.

[32] Crabtree, “A New Twist to India’s Publishing Boom.”

[33] Ibid.

 

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Bibliography

Crabtree, James. “A New Twist to India’s Publishing Boom.” Financial Times, January 30, 2015. https://www.ft.com/content/32dbf05e-a7c9-11e4-8e78-00144feab7de.

 

Devasar, Nitasha. “Publishing in India: Nitasha Devasar Has Written the Book on It.” Publishing Perspectives, September 28, 2018. https://publishingperspectives.com/2018/09/india-publishing-2018-nitasha-devasar-taylor-francis-market-frankfurt/.

 

Griffin, Peter. “The Changing Face of Indian Publishing | Forbes India Blog.” Forbes India, January 19, 2013. http://www.forbesindia.com/blog/life/the-changing-face-of-indian-publishing/.

 

Gupta, Kanishka. “The Success of Mass Market Fiction Is Changing the Rules of Indian Publishing: Here’s How.” Firstpost, April 16, 2017. https://www.firstpost.com/living/the-success-of-mass-market-fiction-is-changing-the-rules-of-indian-publishing-heres-how-3386278.html.

 

Gupta, Suman. “Indian ‘Commercial Fiction’ in English, the Publishing Industry and Youth Culture.” Economic and Political Weekly, 47, no. 5 (2012): 46-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41419848.

 

Marlow, Iain. “India’s Book Buying Habits Say a Lot about the Country’s Economy.” https://www.livemint.com, May 23, 2017. https://www.livemint.com/Consumer/CGbcF5G9yLrFLfvahGugcJ/Indias-book-buying-habits-say-a-lot-about-the-countrys-eco.html.

 

Mishra, Dyuti. “Authors Are Vying with Pokémon and Taylor Swift: Meghna Pant.” The Hindu, March 23, 2019, sec. Books. https://www.thehindu.com/books/authors-are-vying-with-pokmon-and-taylor-swift-meghna-pant/article26606836.ece.

 

Mongia, Padmini. “Speaking American: Popular Indian Fiction in English.” Comparative American Studies An International Journal 12, no. 1–2 (June 1, 2014): 140–46. https://doi.org/10.1179/1477570014Z.00000000077.

 

Montlake, Simon. “The Rise of India’s Pulp Fiction.” Christian Science Monitor, December 28, 2010. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2010/1228/The-rise-of-India-s-pulp-fiction.

 

Tharoor, Shashi. “Behold A Phenomenon: Loving, Living, Scheming in Young India.” Https://Www.Outlookindia.Com/, November 21, 2011. https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/behold-a-phenomenon-loving-living-scheming-in-young-india/278918.

One Response to Understanding the ‘Bestseller’ Phenomenon in the Indian Publishing Industry

  1. mahimab says:

    I absolutely love that you delved into this topic! I remember so clearly how the arrival of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend seemed to change the kind of titles displayed in Crossword bookstores. There seemed to be more Indian authors than I’d ever seen on the shelves.

    I also remember very clearly how I turned up my nose at the terrible writing in the book, which is why I find it so interesting that Rupa had that understanding and intelligence that it’s what was actually needed and that it would sell well. It’s so true that for a long time literature in India just filtered in from western countries, and I suppose that for western publishers India’s population is a fantastic way to make money. But the introduction of relatable fiction like Five Point Someone, which really incorporates true young urban culture and language into it, has obviously struck a chord with readers and I believe the bestseller phenomenon is only going to evolve from here.

    I’m kind of blown away by how much the industry has been affected by these ‘pulpy’ books. I mean, why hadn’t other publishers targeted this audience before? More than half of India’s population is under 25 and it feels like Rupa only just kicked open the door to them. Hopefully other publishers will follow suit and will demand better stories and better writing, all the while staying true to an ‘Indian lit by Indians’ mission so that industry can actually grow to reflect the culture it is part of.

    I know that because of Wattpad (no surprise I’m bringing it up again) and Bhagat’s novels there has been a rise of young people writing similar reality-based stories set in environments familiar to Indians that aren’t tainted by what comes from Bollywood and Hollywood media. My hope is that this trend of bestsellers will expand and evolve and spark more young people to write so that one day we get an urban fantasy set in Dharavi. And who knows, maybe it already exists and just needs the right publisher to say yes.

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