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It’s the write time

The plane was full of book lovers. Among them was Naomi Canton, who had meticulously planned her trip from London to Jaipur, via Delhi, months before the annual literary mela in the Rajasthan capital kicked off in late January. Many of her co-passengers were on their way to the festival for some fun and sun. But the British journalist was on a mission: she had a book to sell.

Canton was in search of a publisher. And her Ground Zero was Jaipur’s Diggi Palace where the Jaipur Literature Festival was in progress. She spent five days there attending sessions, meeting publishers, literary agents and authors. “It was an excellent platform for networking,” she says.

If you have a novel in you, India is where you should be. “Today, every second book published in India is a debut,” says Gautam Padmanabhan, chief executive officer, Westland. Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India, adds that the number of Indian writers debuting every year is growing by 20-30 per cent.

Shakir Husain, a journalist who worked in the United Arab Emirates, quit his job last March to work on his book. After finding an Indian publisher, he went to Jaipur to meet publishers for European and North American markets. “Talks are on,” he says.

Like Luigi Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author, India these days is full of authors in search of publishers. Westland publishes 20-30 new authors a year. Out of the 30-35 titles Zubaan publishes annually, 25-30 are by new authors. Penguin India says that 15 per cent of the 250 new volumes it publishes every year are debut books. Since its launch in 2010, Penguin Metro Reads a mass-market fiction labelled “quick and easy” reads priced at Rs 195 has introduced over 13 new authors.

“It is important that new authors keep writing and it is important they are given the space because new authors and fresh writing signify growth in publishing,” stresses Vaishali Mathur, senior commissioning editor, Penguin India.

The landscape of the Indian publishing industry is changing radically. A decade ago, if writers struggled to get an appointment with a publisher, today the path to a publisher’s office is marked with helpful signposts. Many of the young writers are being picked up by foreign publishers after launching a book in India. Advaita Kala, author of Almost Single, was first published by HarperCollins India in 2007. Two years later, Random House USA had printed her book with a print order of 70,000.

“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t know where to send something, and if you did, you would probably not even get an acknowledgment. Now publishers are more accessible,” says new author Kiran Manral, whose book The Reluctant Detective was recently published by Westland.

Avenues have indeed opened up for writers in the last few years. Book sales are being spurred by the retail chain boom. Online retail giant Amazon has already entered the Indian market. Flipkart, an Indian website primarily for purchasing books, predicts that it will close the financial year with a 10-fold growth in revenue.

The country boasts of 19,000 general and academic publishers. The industry is pegged at around Rs 7,000 crore of which Rs 1,200 crore is the market share of popular reading books or trade books. “India is perhaps the only country where publishing is still growing rapidly; in countries such as Britain it has shrunk by 7 per cent,” says Rahul Srivastava, director, sales and marketing, Simon & Schuster India.

The global information and measurement company Nielsen BookScan India says the publishing industry grew by 40 per cent in value and 45 per cent in volume between January-June, 2011, and July-December, 2011. “Almost 6,000 new titles were published in India in 2011,” says Vikrant Mathur, associate director, Nielsen BookScan India. Saugata Mukherjee, publisher, Picador, Pan & Macmillan India, reasons that the growth is related to the rise in the English-speaking population. “People want to read home-grown talent and there is a deep curiosity about Indian writers,” he says.

The great Indian novel story has been given a further push by the proliferation of new publishing houses. Small units such as Srishti Publications in Delhi have found a niche market with their fiction titles priced at less than Rs 100, and with books of pages less than 250. With a target audience of mainly first-time readers, they seek to promote what is called non-literary English.

And new authors are the obvious choices of the new publishing houses. Sumrit Shahi, a first-year management student and author of two books, is among the many to have benefited from the boom. Last year, when he was 17, Mahaveer Publishers launched his first book Just Friends. The book has already sold 70,000 copies; his second book A Lot like Love... a Li’ like Chocolate has crossed the 20,000 mark. “I am now working on my third book. This time I hope to strike a deal with a big publishing house,” says Shahi.

Authors clearly have wider choices today than their counterparts a decade ago. Saswati Sengupta, a lecturer in Miranda House, Delhi, was snapped up by the second publisher she got in touch with. Her book The Song Seekers has just been published by Zubaan Books. “Today, it’s possible to think of publishing a book,” says Sengupta.

The authors are as different as their books representing different age groups, backgrounds, cities and genres. Ritwick Malik wrote his first book Love Happens Like That... when he was in high school while Sengupta’s book was published when she was 50. That Shahi came from Chandigarh in no way hindered his search for a publisher. Just as the professions of Mohata textile mills CEO Chandraprakash Mohata, writer of Patyala Down de Throat, and Los Angeles-based data analyst Parinda Joshi, author of Live from London, did not come in their way.

What help writers are new platforms such as literary festivals. Though the Jaipur literary fest organisers stress that theirs is not a trade fair, many writers gather there with the dream to get published. Sangeeta Wadhwani and Jvalant Sampat, who attended the 2010 meet as unpublished writers, won deals and recommendations at the JLF. A year later, their books are out on the stands.

Wadhwani, author of Bollywood on the Bend, met celebrity guru Deepak Chopra in Jaipur, and Chopra wrote a recommendation for her book after reading her short stories. “JLF could be a turning point for many budding writers,” says journalist Wadhwani.

For Sampat, it was indeed the turning point. “I met my literary agent Mita Kapur of the literary agency Siyahi at the 2010 fest,” says Sampat, author of The Tenth Unknown, published by Niyogi Books. At the 2011 festival, Sampat struck a deal with an American writer. “I have to ghostwrite a series of thrillers set in India,” says the 31-year-old former management consultant.

The Internet is another new platform for unknown writers. Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan caught the attention of publishers because of her popular blog The Compulsive Confessor. Manral, another blogger, was accepted by the first publisher she approached. “I sent across three chapters and Westland signed me up,” says Manral, now busy with a multi-city book launch tour.

“Bloggers have an advantage as they already have an audience. The publisher is assured of a certain number of readers,” says Padmanabhan of Westland. “My book went viral as people were blogging and tweeting about it,” adds Manral.

But, of course, not every story finds its way into print. The Indian publishing industry, which experts believe is still a maturing market, is cautious in its approach. The big publishing houses reject at least 50 proposals before picking up one idea that shapes into a book. Hachette India gets about five to six manuscripts a day while they publish about 60 books a year.

“I turn down at least four to five manuscripts a day and we sign about the same number of contracts a month,” says Priya Kapoor, director, Roli Books. “Even if you have some exceptionally brilliant talent coming to the fore, you also see a lot of books that you wish were never published,” rues Shobit Arya, publisher, Wisdom Tree.

The publishers with their clearly demarcated literary fiction and commercial fiction categories are also almost always looking for another Chetan Bhagat. “Everyone here is looking for a jackpot,” admits Padmanabhan. “Low pricing helps in the success of a book as it goes beyond urban cities. Lots of sales happen in railway station bookstalls.”

Publishers continue to hope that among the unknown writers lurks a Chetan Bhagat or perhaps an Arundhati Roy. “It’s like a rookie hitting the bull’s eye or a novice hitting the right note,” says Arya. “A good writer will never write a bad book. But a bad writer in today’s India can come up with a bestseller.”

For writers, it’s a win-win situation. And the readers are not complaining either.