Writing a new story

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  • Published 6.07.08

When Karan Bajaj, a Washington-based management consultant, handed the manuscript of his first novel to his literary agent, little did he expect the interest it would generate.

Just 15 days after Renuka Chatterjee took on the task of finding the 28-year-old Bajaj a publisher, a minor bidding war was unleashed. Leading Indian publishers — Penguin, Rupa and HarperCollins — jumped into the fray to sign Bajaj on, with HarperCollins walking away with the author in tow.

And when the book, Keep off the Grass, hit the bookshops recently, it sold 5,000 copies within the first 10 days of the launch, making it one of the fastest selling debut novels in recent times. Now the buzz is that three major filmmakers have approached Bajaj for movie rights while the foreign rights of the book have also been sold to a major New York-based literary agency.

There’s more: Keep off the Grass has been selected as a semi-finalist for the 2007-08 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. “I never imagined that my New Age, hippie novel would attract so much attention,” says Bajaj.

Another first-time author, Smita Jain, was thrilled when her novel Kkrishnaa’s Konfessions was accepted by Westland and Tranquebar Press within three days of submitting her manuscript. The book is just out and Jain says: “No debut author could ask for a better reception.”

Bajaj and Jain are no flashes in the pan. The world of publishing is buzzing and the spotlight has turned squarely on the veritable starburst of new writers looking for publishers. Publishing houses — and there are lot many of them on the scene today than before — are going on bold signing sprees snapping up not just time-tested, best-selling writers, but swooping on the new talent that’s around.

“The Indian reader appears to have far more interest in new writing and debut authors than ever before,” says Nilanjana Roy, chief editor, Westland (Limited) and Tranquebar Press. New talent is on a roll and is not just bagging heaps of media attention, but is landing awards and accolades.

Cut to Random House India author Mohammed Hanif whose debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, is grabbing attention in the US and the UK. It has also made it as the Book of the Month on Amazon.com. Says Hanif: “I don’t know how other debuts go, but mine has gone pretty well. I have even got good reviews from my favourite author John le Carre.”

Says Chiki Sarkar, editor-in-chief, Random House India: “Our debuts have all got terrific press. I think any book that sells over 5,000 copies and has a buzz around it is a success.”

The write choice

Advaita Kala’s Almost Single (above) has already sold over 5,000 copies

Given the upbeat mood of the publishing industry, first-timers are experimenting big time with themes that go from exuberant romances to whodunnits. Like newbie Madhulika Liddle who is adding the finishing touches to a detective novel, The Englishman’s Cameo, that’s set in 17th century India at the time of the Emperor Shah Jehan. Her protagonist, Muzaffar, is perhaps the first Mughal detective in history.

Another new author, Basharat Peer, is currently writing Curfewed Night, in which he draws a harrowing and intensely moving portrait of Kashmir and its people. Here are stories of a young man’s initiation into a Pakistani training camp, a mother who watches her son forced to hold an exploding bomb; a poet who finds religion when his entire family is killed.

Then there’s Anuja Chauhan who is turning to a romance between a young cricket-indifferent woman and the Indian cricket captain.

Advaita Kala, meanwhile, is just out with Almost Single, a chick lit novel that’s already sold over 5,000 copies while Mridula Koshy’s book, If It Was Sweet, promises to capture Delhi and Los Angeles in a series of short stories. Kamini Karlekar for her part is basing her story (Un) Settled: Notes from a Shifting Life on rootlessness and settling into adulthood as a single woman in an unusual and challenging job.

Kamini Karlekar’s novel (Un) Settled: Notes from a Shifting Life is about settling into adulthood as
a single woman

Even as the new authors pen reams by the day, publishing houses are making them an integral part of their yearly lists, keeping the publishing industry ticking healthily. Says Ravi Singh, editor-in-chief, Penguin Books India: “To sustain publishing we need to keep promoting new talent. In our yearly lists, at least 25 per cent of our published works are debut novelists.”

So if over the last three years Penguin India launched some 50 new authors, this year alone it will launch 24 new writers. HarperCollins’ publishing programme too stars loads of first-time writers and this year it will launch 30 mint fresh authors in its total list of 80 titles. Says Karthika V.K., publisher and chief editor HarperCollins India: “One-third of the total books published in a year are new novelists.”

Rupa & Co has always looked at a new author as a potential bestselling one. Of Rupa’s 200 published titles each year, Kapish Mehra, publisher, says that at least 50 are first-time writers. The year-old Westland that’s amongst the youngest publishing houses on the block, is also gearing up to unleash its cache of new writers this year.

What’s the buzz

Anuja Chauhan’s (top) The Zoya Factor (above) is about the romance between a young cricket-indifferent woman and the Indian cricket captain; (below) Smita Jain’s novel Kkrishnaa’s Konfessions was accepted by Westland and Tranquebar Press within three days of submitting her manuscript

Roy says that the focus today is on new authors as there’s a huge appeal to following and nurturing an author throughout his or her career. And though the market is unpredictable because we Indians aren’t great book buyers and are depressingly in thrall of big names and media hype, there are plenty of opportunities for new writers to break out.

Singh says that Penguin has discovered some good talent through its First Proof anthologies that showcase a new generation of Indian authors. Penguin’s new finds this year include Jahnavi Barua, Aman Sethi, Avijit Ghosh and Parismita Singh, all of whom are currently working on their first books.

Westland has been encouraged by the fact that its first debut author, filmmaker Saeed Mirza’s Ammi, has hit the Indian bestseller lists since January when the novel was launched.

And Namita Devidayal is delighted that her debut novel The Music Room (Random House) has just been shortlisted for the Crossword Award. “Seven months after the book came out, I continue to get mail from people who have been touched by it,” she says. While the book has sold 7,000 copies in hardback, Random House is now planning to publish the paperback version later this year.

More recently, Random House made a big splash when it signed Mohammed Hanif, who’s a London-based Pakistani journalist-turned-author. The book had an initial print-run of about 5,000 copies and now a reprint is already on the cards.

As the numbers of new writers swell, a new breed of literary agents is making the job easier for the writers and publishers. Says Chatterjee, who is senior vice president, Osian’s - The Literary Agency: “Most authors would prefer to go through a literary agent, but the prospect of finding one in London or New York is daunting. Once they get to know that there is someone in India they can approach, it helps. We are flooded with manuscripts.”

Besides taking care of cleaning up the manuscript before it is scrutinised by publishers, literary agents also take on the nitty-gritty — working out contracts, advances and other details, which most authors don’t really understand.

Setting off

Namita Devidayal’s debut novel The Music Room has just been shortlisted for the Crossword Award

Once the publishing houses have picked their debutants with care, there’s the task of setting the book on its way when it’s ready to hit the shops. But not all authors get lucky with five-star launches.

Sarkar of Random House says: “I don’t think being a debut writer means you’re going to be ignored.” But Random House tends not to focus on physical launches unless it’s very sure of a massive turnout. Instead, Random focuses on publicity through posters, media interaction, and by putting the author in direct touch with potential readers rather than just depend on five-star hotel launches.

The publishers protest that book launches are given far more importance than they deserve. It’s more important for a publisher to push a book aggressively with the booksellers, making sure it is well distributed, available and widely reviewed. Book readings through tie-ups with bookstores also help, rather than a party at a hotel.

Says Chatterjee: “While a glamourous launch party may help draw attention to a book, but the books may well flop. And books that are given low-key launches may end up selling well,” she adds.

Author hardships

Karan Bajaj at the launch of his book Keep Off The Grass

Despite the buoyant environment, is it hard for a first-time author to find a publisher? The authors admit that they are up against many odds. Devidayal says: “I think the biggest thing that new authors are up against is the paltry money that their books earn them. It can be very demeaning.”

A newcomer can expect anywhere between Rs 25,000 to Rs 1 lakh as the signing amount depending upon the subject of the book, the quality of the writing and the marketability. And if the author is armed with an overseas publisher or two, he or she can expect to walk off between Rs 10 lakh to Rs 25 lakh. In India, Singh says, amounts like Rs 15 lakh or Rs 20 lakh are an aberration.

He says: “That’s almost always the result of a publisher who is either desperate or high on testosterone. That kind of thing is short-sighted and even damaging, because one insane advance shuts out at least 10 equally good authors who deserve to be published.”

Average print runs for first novels are between 2,000-3,000 copies, or 8,000 and 10,000 if it’s a mass market, commercial book of the Chetan Bhagat genre. “You could say a book is successful if it sells out its first print run and goes into a reprint. Obviously, some are destined to fade away,” says Singh.

Author Madhulika Liddle adds that it is extremely difficult for the first-timer to find a publisher. “Nobody wants to touch you unless you’re already published. Publishers don’t want to look at something half-baked. That can be very frustrating and demoralising.”

Having a book under the belt always helps like it did UK-based Rajorshi Chakraborti whose first novel Or the Day Seizes You was published by Penguin India and shortlisted for the Hutch Crossword Prize 2006. His next novel is Derangements, to be published by HarperCollins in July.

Meanwhile Omair Ahmad’s two novellas, Unbelonging and The Story-teller’s Tale have both been accepted by Penguin India. Says Ahmad: “But I had a really hard time with my first novel, Encounters.” The Story-teller’s Tale will be out in September/October this year.

Hanif agrees: “For a first-time writer attempting to publish a serious novel is quite difficult. I think someone recently called it ‘a gamble against destiny’.”