(Published in Le Monde, March 2007)
Just over a century after Gutenberg invented movable type, a Jesuit ship stopped off the port of Goa on the Indian coast for provisions. Among its human cargo was a printer; listed on the bill was a printing press intended for Abyssinia. The Portuguese priests of Goa hijacked both press and printer, and set about printing Bibles and missionary tracts.
This was in 1556, and if it hadn’t been for opposition from the existing guilds of calligraphers as well as the missionaries’ reluctance to share what was then state-of-the-art technology, the history of Indian publishing would have been very different. As it happened, printing and publishing never really took off.
As late as 1868, printing presses were so rare that the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati could describe the excitement caused by the arrival of the first printing press in the state of Orissa (it was brought in by ship and bullock cart). “We joyfully announced that printing would begin. Half of the shops in Motiganj were closed on this auspicious day… The street outside was full of people, and the traffic came to a stop. People from afar kept coming…as if it was as exciting as the Car Festival. Zemindars (landlords) came in palanquins from remote villages to see our press…”
Neither Senapati nor the Jesuit fathers of Goa would recognize the Indian publishing scene today. “80,000 books in 22 Indian languages including English,” boasts 60 Years of Book Publishing in (independent) India, released at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair where India was the guest country.
In New Delhi, the Indian capital and the heart of English language publishing, books—many of them pirated copies of bestsellers—are peddled at red lights alongside cheap plastic toys. It’s a distinct if dubious sign of the growing appetite for books among the middle class. A few decades ago, most of Delhi’s publishers were clustered in the crowded roads of Old Delhi, near the monuments where mushairas—gatherings of poets—provided popular entertainment for courtiers and commoners alike.
Now publishing houses can be found all over the city, the geographical distribution reflecting the diversity and challenges that face English language publishers in India. Ravi Singh, CEO of Penguin India—one of the largest and most respected trade publishers in the country—thinks there’s a significant shift in Indian reading habits.
“There’s greater plurality and much less literary snobbery than there used to be ten years ago,” he says, pointing to the explosion of narrative non-fiction. Books like Suketu Mehta’s biography of Bombay, Maximum City, Rahul Bhattacharya’s cricketing odysssey, Pundits from Pakistan or Rajmohan Gandhi’s new look at Mahatma Gandhi, Mohandas, reflect the growing interest of Indians in the obsessions of their own country.
Sayoni Basu, chief editor at Scholastic, a children’s book imprint, confirms this: “Today, all novels do not have to be the great Indian novel, dealing with great abstract issues of existence, anxiety, caste and religion. It is okay to write fiction about silly things, funny things–and to write romance and detective novels.”
While HarperCollins, Penguin and, in academic publishing, Oxford University Press have been in India for a while now, there’s also been growing interest from other foreign publishers. Random House has just set up an office in India, Simon & Schuster is testing the waters and several other publishers have plans for the Indian market.
Urvashi Butalia, a publishing veteran and founder of a key feminist press, now runs Zubaan, a feminist publishing house. She offers her perspective: “Barely had Indian publishers begun to make their mark, after an initial situation of being dominated by the big four or five (OUP, Longman Green, Macmillan, Blackie and Son) that the political setup changed and foreign houses are coming in. So one challenge is from the competition that these houses can offer, and the other is to fight the still persistent, even though somewhat residual, sense of ‘foreign is better’.”
Local publishing houses like Roli Books, who have a fine line in coffee table books, and the venerable Rupa & Co, do well, though, and it isn’t always easy for foreign publishing houses to deal with the quirky conditions in the Indian market.
“It’s silly season in English-language Indian publishing,” says Penguin’s Ravi Singh. “The whole world and its aunt want to set up publishing outfits in India. But things will settle down in a couple of years and you’ll find that good, sensible publishers, whether ‘indigenous’ or aligned to international publishing houses, will continue to thrive.” Anita Roy, a leading editor with Zubaan, thinks that the market is big enough: “India is still an area of great ‘book hunger’–there is a lot of room for growth for everyone.”
For publishers in the 21 languages other than English, though, the sense of being ignored by the English-speaking Indian and the rest of the world is strong. Dina M Malhotra, editor of 60 Years of Book Publishing in India, writes of the need to ensure that “the roots of Indian culture are not inundated by the Western influence”.
And the frustration that many publishers prevented by language barriers from being serious players in the global market feel is evident. Malhotra points out that the largest number of books in India are published in Hindi, the national language, not English, and that Bengali, Malayalam, Gujarati, Tamil and Telegu all have strong local markets, but are invisible to the Western reader.
But the biggest question is one that is familiar to European readers: in a country the size of India, with at least 22 vibrant languages, how do you find your readers? And how do you introduce readers familiar with one language to literature written in an unfamiliar tongue, even if they share a common history?
A bestseller in Bengal or Gujarat might sell 60,000 copies on average in India, but has no readers outside the subcontinent or indeed home state. English language publishers grapple with the fact that while bestsellers can run to 50,000 copy print runs, average numbers are abysmally low—print runs of 1,000 or 2,000 copies are the norm.
“In a country of a billion plus people it should be possible to sell at least a million copies of a book. Why is it that we manage to sell only a thousand?” asks Zubaan’s Urvashi Butalia.
In India, where President Kalaam’s poetry sells in bushels at the local cigarette shop, where the dazzling exploits of the dashing Inspector Vinod sell briskly in the Hindi pulp fiction market, and where railway station bookshops in the South sell Malayalam classics alongside Jane Eyre to readers hungry for both, that’s a million-dollar question.