|Pictures: Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya, Model: Sreya Saha, Location: Landmark
Harry Potter's magic has done far more than keep Voldemort at bay. With a flick of his sometimes broken wand, the boy wonder has cast his spell on children's books at large. And Calcutta's kids are making the most of it, with more to read coming their way, in every size and form.
If Indian publishers and distributors are investing in kids' titles following the phenomenal popularity of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, city retailers are doing their best to cash in. Spacious children's sections have become the norm, as have regular events and promotions. Calcutta, which till a couple of years ago was left behind in terms of variety, now gets its fair share of high-quality, high-cost international publications.
Children's books make up 28 to 30 per cent of Penguin's business, growing annually between 15 and 20 per cent, around five per cent faster than, say, adult fiction. Retail figures reflect the same trend. Sales at the Landmark chain's children's section grow around 15 per cent annually, while adult fiction grows around 10 per cent a year.
'Harry Potter definitely has made reading sexy again,' says Thomas Abraham, president, Penguin Books India. And profitable too. 'Without a doubt, Potter has changed the profile of children's books globally' Publishers are giving children's books more attention and retailing has completely changed,' adds Deborah Wright, managing director, Dorling Kindersley (DK), UK, passing through town recently.
If kids ' with or without their parents in tow ' are browsing the shelves with renewed vigour, publishers have colluded with retailers to provide as much variety as possible to hold their interest. 'Once the Potter obsession dies down, the demand for other titles increases,' explains Wright.
The 'increased availability of contemporary children's books, many of which are best-selling brands', says Abraham, has ensured that sales remain buoyant. Post-Goblet of Fire, a lot of children's publishing began, he adds, even if individual volume sales ' or quality ' didn't necessarily go up.
Retailers report kids' titles now routinely topping the city charts ' and not just when Pottermania hits. 'Children's books are sometimes the leading segment of sales and always in the top five,' reveals Rajiv Chowdhry, COO, E Books World, which owns Oxford Bookstore.
After Potter 'reached out to a universal audience', publishers rediscovered and revived the market. At the same time, parents also started pressuring their kids to go back to books.
Between the lines, tots and teens
The result is clear. Even a casual glimpse through some of the titles on offer will prove that a virtual revolution has swept away the old mainstays to a corner. Enid Blyton may still be hugely popular and abridged classics may still be found in plenty, but what used to be the sole fodder for young bookworms is just a slice of the written riches out there now.
Let's start at the very beginning. If you are trying to toilet train, Ladybird's My New Potty might be just the book for you. Whether it does the trick or not, it makes for gripping reading anyhow: 'Now I want a wee! Where's my new potty' asks one astute toddler in these colourful, creative pages.
Move on to books for pre-schoolers. There is a gamut to choose from, to address every learning challenge your child might face. Touch-and-feel books that babies can run their chubby fingers over to discover texture; musical books that take a child by surprise with a rhyme or a tune; activity books that allow an older tot to learn by colouring, cutting, matching and marking.
Rwiti Clara Biswas, a Class IV student of Gokhale Memorial, was busy scouring through the Book Fair racks for the latest Ladybird titles. 'I like them best because they have wonderful stories,' smiled Rwiti. She gives her mother Sharmistha little trouble: 'Rwiti is a natural reader and does not need encouragement.'
Ladybird is the leading brand for young children from the Penguin stable, while Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling are at the helm of every year's sales charts for the young adult. The publisher has also revived its Puffin India imprint and been given licensing rights by Ladybird, resulting in cheaper prices and Indian content.
'Children are definitely reading more, and the habit is being encouraged by schools as well,' feels Sharbani Saha, mother of 11-year-old Sreya, a student of Ashok Hall.
As they grow older ' and more enamoured of their television sets ' elements of pop culture are also carefully introduced in the selection of books. Favourite film and cartoon characters end up with their faces splashed across the printed page. Pooh has his own series of activity books, as does Barney. DK has a range of licensed products ' Shrek, Disney Princess, Monsters, Inc., Scooby-Doo and Finding Nemo Essential Guides, sticker books, a comprehensive series on Star Wars, and an extensive collection on Barbie.
'Licensing is a key area for us. The relevant, child-friendly books are very popular. Barbie, for instance, does incredibly well,' says Wright. In India, however, Penguin's experience shows that TV tie-ins have not really taken off.
What works well in Calcutta are books of knowledge. Quiz series' like Limca and Bournvita are fast movers. 'Young parents, mainly professionals, are encouraging reading, not as leisure but as a tool of education,' explains Gautam Jatia, CEO, Landmark. This occasionally even benefits from the idiot box. 'When Kaun Banega Crorepati was on, Derek O'Brien's quiz books were selling very well,' Jatia adds.
Children now want 'entertainment', feels Abraham, 'something that affirms the lives they are living; children are more critical now'.
One way in which publishers are trying to tackle the discerning, quality-conscious child is by incorporating elements from their three-dimensional world in the printed page. 'We are constantly looking at new ways of presenting non-fiction. For example, DK is currently working on digital photography kits for children,' says Wright. CD Roms and DVDs will increasingly become part of the package, and one of last year's top sellers for the house was the E Encyclopaedia giving users a password that allows access to a constantly updated online encyclopaedia as well.
For now, the industry is, of course, most keenly watching what Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince does. Excitement is mounting five months before the July 16 release date, and the title is already 'Amazon.co.uk's second-best seller'. Calcutta too is eagerly awaiting the sixth instalment, and is heading for the bookstores to find something else to read in the meantime.