Indian Literature and the Book Business in the 21st Century

Thanks to Annie Janusch for bringing Chandrahas Choudhury’s survey of Indian literature and the book business to our attention. It’s a pretty general piece, but has some interesting info about trends in India:

India’s book economy is, however, on a different arc, from that of the West and, like the Indian newspaper industry, is still on its way up rather than down. For an observer of Indian literature in English (for the purposes of this essay, I include under “Indian literature in English” both work originally written in English and that translated into English), the last decade was full of bright lights on all three counts of publishing, book-selling, and the density and internal diversity of the idea of literature and the spread of a reading culture. [. . .]

The birth of many new publishing houses and imprints in the last decade, the explosion in the number of books published, the increase in the number of bookshops (particularly the big chains like Crossword, Landmark and Odyssey) and the growth of the online book trade all point to one thing. The book business is growing rapidly. In 2010, the estimated value of the trade book market (covering, that is, books published for the general reader, and not textbooks or technical books) was about 1500 crores . This is three times the size of the book market in 2000.

When Penguin, the market leader in the trade segment (with about 15%), started up its operations in India in 1987, it published seven titles that year. In 2000, it was up to 124 titles a year. This year, it was about 240 – a reliable index of how things have come alongin to decades. Further, many more players have a slice of that pie than was the case ten years ago. A number of new English trade and academic publishing houses – Random House India, Permanent Black, Westland Books, Hachette, Blaft, Navayana, Yoda, Niyogi, and Srishti – appeared over the last decade to compete with the older guard of Penguin, HarperCollins, Rupa, Orient Blackswan, Oxford University Press, Seagull, Zubaan, Picador, Katha, Roli, Mapin, and Stree Samya, claiming a share of the trade even as they helped increase its size with their distinct emphases.

Isn’t it nice to see some good news about publishing for once? That said, the bookstore scene sounds a bit less than amazing though:

The physical Indian bookshop, though, with some honorable exceptions, continues to be a disappointing place for the serious reader. Stocking an indequate range of titles and manned by staff who have no real interest in or knowledge of books, bookshops in India don’t yet manage to fulfil the publisher Andre Shiffrin’s idea that “The good bookshop doesn’t just have the book you want, it has the book you never knew you wanted.”

This section on Indian authors writing in English and the need for a more readerly-culture is pretty interesting:

Indian literature itself occupies a much larger place in world literary consciousness than it did at the beginning of the decade, with a small raft of big Indian names giving way to a whole schooner of exciting voices. The typical first-time Indian novelist or short-story writer in English today is much less self-conscious in his or her approach to the language than, say, two decades ago, and much more sure of his or her audience. The result is that good new works of fiction appear now not in their ones and twos but at the rate of a couple of dozen a year. In a multicultural and globalizing world, in the age of the Internet and with easy access to a hospitable market, Indian writers are also likely to be from more diverse backgrounds than previously, and to have a far wider range of narrative and aesthetic influences across mediums, from novels to films to music to comic books.

Unfortunately, writers in English have a much greater chance of being published in markets outside India (something that distorts foreign perceptions of Indian literature). This is slowly changing, but it may take another decade to take full effect. The revolution must begin, however, by more Indian readers consciously seeking out Indian literature in translation (some older essays on what I think are great Indian novels in translation are here: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Indeed, the role and agency of readers, as much as writers, in a literature cannot be overestimated. Any vibrant literature requires a sizeable number of discerning readers who not only follow the work of writers but are in some sense in advance of them, and whose impatience with sterile forms and stories, and skepticism of prevailing power structures, creates an atmosphere of ferment and ambition where distinctive visions and bold new energies can exercise their spirits. Such readers are now everywhere in evidence in India, but their numbers are still too small or them to be gamechangers. Perhaps by the year 2020 . . .

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