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In Search of the Next Literary Bestseller

11/04/2015 4:14 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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This article is from Open Magazine.

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By Rajni George

arundhati roy

Remember your God of Small Things moment? It was 1997, and the lyrical words of 36-year-old Arundhati Roy--in a very local tale of love and prejudice--had achieved the ultimate accolade: the Man Booker. Our first homegrown mega-success in terms of numbers, the debut novel was published in India by Tarun Tejpal and Sanjeev Seth's publishing outfit IndiaInk. Roy had been handed the baton by India's most famous literary exile, Salman Rushdie, who won the great prize for his second novel, the legendary Midnight's Children, in 1981; he in turn was preceded by VS Naipaul in 1971, for that most unusual of novels-in-novellas, In a Free State. Transported to Western audiences by UK agent David Godwin, who found his Midas touch after this coup, Roy received half a million pounds in advances and royalties from publishers across 20 odd countries. Moving to Penguin Books India (now Penguin Random House India or PRHI) in 2002, she has since sold 200,000 copies; over 30,000 copies every year, PRHI's sales team tells us. Pan to another Booker victory in 2007: a debut novel again from another India-based writer, Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger. This contemporary tale of a village boy-turned-driver who murders his master and advances up the food chain sent sales at HarperCollins India (HCI) spiralling dizzily upwards to 400,000. Jhumpa Lahiri's 2004 novel, The Namesake, is one of the few books which have come close since, in Indian sales; HCI's second literary seller at 190,000, though Lahiri, again, lives abroad.

the namesake

Importantly, victories like these convinced-- perhaps misleadingly--a generation of writers who scorned Chetan Bhagat-type fiction that there was a great fortune to be made in literary writing. Those fancy advances seemed within reach, at least, even if there was awareness that the fuel of prizes and acclaim was not so close at hand for everyone. At least it was within their grasp now. But were the pundits giving a false impression of achievable literary success, some of those writers may be wondering today, making do with 2,000 copy print runs or self-publishing when they don't manage that big sale. Publishing has always been a bit of a gambler's industry; even stars like Vikram Chandra's excellent Sacred Games is reported to have lost his American publishers a large chunk of his million dollar advance, off an initial 200,000 print run, though we don't gamble quite like that here. What are the challenges involved in producing a major literary bestseller after the era of Rushdie, Roy and Adiga; how difficult is it to replicate that success in today's market, following the expansion of Indian publishing and the emergence of new Indian prizes for books? Where are the next big literary bestsellers? We approached the corporate publishers-- you could call them the big five: Penguin Random House India, HarperCollins India, Bloomsbury India, Aleph Book Company and Speaking Tiger--to ascertain just how successful a literary bestseller can be today. David Davidar--once publisher at Penguin Books India, now heading Aleph, mass market giant Rupa's literary publishing division-- declined to comment, but as he saw some of the biggest bestsellers come into their own and worked with many of today's publishers, he might be said to be speaking through his former colleagues. At Aleph he is publishing a niche list of around 30 'premium' titles a year; perhaps proof that there is real business in literary works.

Aravind Adiga's history-maker tops recent bestseller lists of the last decade; unusually, even the sales team, the most profit-obsessed cog in the publishing machine, were reading the book, says VK Karthika, HCI's publisher. They believed in it early and it paid off. Can this be put down to the Booker effect?

aravind adiga

"It was word of mouth as much as anything else, the Booker just brought attention to it," says Karthika, who believes prizes are not the prime mover here. "No prize has made a difference. After The White Tiger, no one else has gotten that close. With most books, once the literary/ literature-reading writers finish, the book doesn't really move outwards. But here, people found that it was a book they took to. It broke the mould, it spoke to middle class India in a different way. It was a novel that caused debate. It cut across age, students and younger people found they were reading a literary novel. They stuck with it. You had to trick them, and work really hard to make them think it was worth reading." With two decades of experience behind her, she was at Penguin (which has, of course, been a home at one point to most of today's publishers, as the first corporate publisher to set up shop in India) when Roy won the Booker. "It was a case of not even knowing what was supposed to come. You might imagine that the Booker prize was a big thing, but there was no way to measure it. It was all new, you just had to keep reaching and going beyond." It gave her a precedent. "I remember discussing print runs of The White Tiger with sales, we thought maybe we should print 20,000 copies hardback. It got swept away in the first few days. It was still on testing time, the booksellers weren't sure, though there weren't returns. We had put out lots of copies, were pushing for it. I can't tell you that feeling when his name came up on the screen [as Booker winner]. Miracles don't happen!" She points out the difference: "With Roy, it was happening here, Adiga too. With Rushdie we had to appropriate a little bit."

The publishing giant that is PRHI maintains many members of the Indian literary elite in its stable, supported by a large cohort of commercial writers. Its publisher, Chiki Sarkar, emphasises the importance of Western accolades for big sales. "In fiction, it's the established members of a previous generation that sell. Call it the Booker magic. Internationally Kamila Shamsie, after many years of publishing, has high sales. Those fiction titles come out of international success, whether they are reviews or prizes, which then reflect on sales in India and elsewhere. Maybe the Western love affair with Indian writing which happened at a certain period happened at a height. Maybe those writers rubbed off on them."

the inheritance of loss

Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth have seen their sales soar past the 100,000 mark, says her sales team. Numbers continue to prove us wrong on every contention about literary books, says Sarkar. "You can't say there are less literary books selling; Penguin India had its best sales last year and the profits of our company come from books in the literary division, in hardback. But has there been a breakout title on its own without success in the West, a big seller after The White Tiger? Not really."

She breaks down the numbers into different categories; a few local books like Sankar's Chowringhee have sold 30,000 copies. However, modern classics like KR Meera's Hangwoman, an unusual novel around a woman executioner which topped many of last year's 'best of the year' lists, and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi's 19th century epic The Mirror of Beauty--equally momentous in terms of literary acclaim and also a translated work--have not even crossed the 10,000 mark. That time will tell is particularly of comfort, in this instance, however; Bhisham Sahni's Tamas and Taslima Nasrin's Lajja, both translated works, have each sold over 75,000 copies over a lifetime, PRHI's senior vice president of sales, Ananth Padmanabhan, reminds me.

"Importantly, victories like these convinced-- perhaps misleadingly--a generation of writers who scorned Chetan Bhagat-type fiction that there was a great fortune to be made in literary writing."

Sarkar, who began at Bloomsbury UK and has a decade in Indian publishing, also refers to the rise of literary non-fiction in India, that newer phenomenon: books by Naseeruddin Shah and Atul Gawande, for example, have sold in the vicinity of 15,000.

Like many, Sarkar would like to see if this year's big favourite, Sandip Roy's Don't Let Him Know, will sell. A story full of the secret lives of families, it is also an unusual book in that the buzz around it comes from within India. "We've had great success with Don't Let Him Know and She Will Build Him a City by Raj Kamal Jha," says Diya Kar Hazra, publisher at Bloomsbury's recently established Indian arm, just two years old (company policy prevents her from revealing figures, she says). "We have Nielsen now, and even though it's not completely accurate in tracking sales history, it tends to dictate the ambition for a book by a previously published author. Literary fiction has always been niche, but the biggies have always sold big numbers and they continue to do so." Hazra began at HCI in 1998 and spent 12 years at Penguin, publishing the distinguished Hamish Hamilton and classics lists. "The challenge is in convincing retail to order copies of someone they've never heard of; something they think is not going to fly off the shelves as easily as sure-shot mass-market fiction. There are a number of things that help--word-of-mouth and a buzz about the book, an endorsement from a big name, an early review, great cover/packaging."

"In India there is a hunger for non-fiction."

There is craft behind the creation of a top seller, most publishers concur, which in India is anywhere upwards of 15, 000. "You can try and create a literary bestseller by announcing it in a certain way, pitching it for the awards," says Karthika, though she too sees this as supplementary rather than indicative of a certain formula. "When a book has to be a bestseller, it has to go beyond the literary to be a bestseller. Sometimes, it comes after several books, after certain expectations can be built up for the next book. There is a certain buildup you can do. Social media presence helps, too. And when a book is published in the US and UK, it encourages sales. With Harper 360, we hope to take our literary fiction to other markets; the US editor fell in love with our title The Americans, for example."

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Ravi Singh, publisher at newest entry Speaking Tiger (their list began this year), has also witnessed the glories and the ravages of the numbers game. Formerly at Penguin for 17 years and Aleph for two, he has published both big successes and small, quiet sellers. And his view is grim. "The challenges remain the same as they were 10 or 20 years ago," he says. "Finding a brilliantly written literary work, for one. But the greater challenge is in promoting it, getting readers, the trade and the media to notice it and get behind it. In this respect, nothing has changed in 50 years. With very few exceptions, it's still the Western press, Western awards, Western bestseller lists and the size of the advance given by a Western publisher that make an Indian literary bestseller in English. Fortunately this has never been the case in languages other than English." He adds,

Is there place for so many writers, at a time when this genre, like popular or commercial fiction, is bursting with new contenders? "I don't think that there being more books means there's less oxygen and less space for other writers," says Sarkar. "My view is that on the whole, from what I've seen in the last five years, an unknown literary novel has rarely broken out. For someone like Adiga or Kiran Desai, there is a very strong recognition of name, though Adiga's next novel didn't do as well; you can't argue that once you get the Booker you will always sell."

"The average print runs for literary bestsellers are what they were 10 years ago."

The numbers continue to challenge and excite. "I'm hugely optimistic," says Karthika, who also feels that non-fiction writers are writing for Indians. "We have to stick it out. We have to say yes, it's not every book that will work but certainly there's enough." She lists promising young writers like DSC-prize winner HM Naqvi, whose next book is forthcoming from HCI, and who makes money off an Indian prize. "Between the writers' and agents' and publishers' own dreams of what they want to get done, we address the market in terms of spending power-- expectations went up. The results were incredibly disappointing as we weren't adding our figures right. It's up to us to be smart, so we can buy the next book."

There might be no white tigers, but there are no longer white elephants; the numbers might finally be adding up for the long game, and with a spin that is all our own.

Images have been provided by Open Magazine.

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