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Read between the lines

India is the emerging market for English language authors from home and away, writes Peter Gordan.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2007 23:32 IST

The last time I visited Mumbai, it didn’t exist. At least not by that name. And my last Indian visit dealt with Russian trade and investment. So after a mere whistlestop visit to Kitabfest a couple of weeks ago, I probably shouldn’t even have considered the idea of penning my thoughts on the state of India’s literary health.

And yet, I have spent the past eight years building various book operations in East Asia, including a retailer, a publisher, a literary festival and establishing a new prize. I have also watched, first-hand, as both businessman and columnist, the development of new markets and emergence of new economies, including China and Russia.

So my distance from the world of Indian publishing is not entirely uninformed remoteness. I left Mumbai convinced that I should take a closer look at what business people call “potential opportunities”, an impress admittedly still very much a work in progress. One yet formed by the energy and professionalism of the people I met, authors and those in the trade, overlaid with what I know is happening to the Indian economy in general, and what has happened elsewhere in other emerging markets.

Many writers, when faced with a lack of facts, resort to parable and anecdote, and so shall I. As I sat on a panel with other Indian and international publishers, it became clear that one matter much on the minds of Indian authors is the apparent need to be published overseas, the implicit assumption being that somehow India isn’t a “real market”. There are some real issues, of course, not least that royalties on a book listing at Rs 195 are probably rather less than those on books retailing at $24.95 or £12.00.

But my comment was: “If you think you have problems here, you should try publishing in Hong Kong. My market is about the size of Nariman Point.”

The best thing I ever did for an Indian writer was not to publish him. Several years ago, a young Indian writer came to my office in Hong Kong to pitch his first novel about three ne’er-do-well students at an elite Indian technical university (“like MIT”, I was told). He was less than pleased when I informed him that a novel set in India might, with luck, sell a few hundred copies.

My advice, although not expressed so laconically at the time, was “Go West, young man.” India was where the book should be published, because that’s where his readers were.

The rest, as they say, is history — or will be once the story runs its course. The author was Chetan Bhagat, the book Five Point Someone. Chetan forgave me for not publishing his book after it shot up the bestseller lists in India.

For a number of authors in East Asia, India is very much a “real market”, one where success is not just possible but coveted. It’s all a matter of perspective.

This is perhaps not the place for economics, but I’ll just note that the “West” errs when it focuses solely on India’s (and China’s) penetration of export markets. It will be the domestic market that will make for Asia’s economic growth and future dominance, unstoppable: at some point, the domestic market reaches critical mass and becomes a self-fueling engine of growth. So it was with Britain and America in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.

I could not say whether this tipping point in domestic demand has been reached in Indian publishing, but I’ll bet it will and the day probably isn’t too far off if it hasn’t arrived already.

It may help to look at other markets. Most think of China as an export-oriented manufacturing powerhouse, but the real story is the growth of its domestic markets. The market for books, driven by rising levels of income and education, has taken off. There are undoubtedly problems, from distribution to copyright enforcement, but foreign multinational publishers are flocking to China as, of course, they are now flocking to India.

Domestic demand — commerce — may not immediately yield the results that Indian literary circles desire; in the short run, it may increase the pressure to produce popular fiction. But expanding markets and competition produce both profits and, more important, innovation.

Some of this innovation will be in “content”; but some will be the adoption of technologies and business models that facilitate the publishing of literature. In Hong Kong, where the markets are really small, we use new technologies to produce prints runs as low as 100: poetry and short stories are still difficult rows to hoe, but financing inventory is no longer a problem. Print-on-demand allows us to get our books into the American and British channels without needing to persuade a distributor to carry what are, from that point of view, niche products.

It is likely that the traditional publisher/bookstore model will find itself in competition with an ever wider range of business models: glossy magazines publishing books marketed and distributed directly to its readership, Internet sales offering a wider range of books, domestic and foreign, than any physical bookshop, specialised channels for specialised books. Independent publishers should not fear these developments — in his book Book Business, Jason Epstein says that publishing is a “cottage industry” which hardly benefits from economies of scale — because new opportunities will arise for companies that are flexible and fleet of foot.

India’s regional languages and facility with English are likely to interact in exciting ways. International production values will probably enter via English-language editions, while regional language writing should provide a long-term supply of interesting ideas.

Demand begets supply; competition begets innovation; together, these beget opportunity for authors and publishers.

One particularly articulate and motivated young woman with an imminent MA in literature asked what I thought about careers in books. There is often a subtext to these questions, whether one should be looking abroad or staying put, a concern similar to that of the Indian authors and one that I imagine exercises the minds of much of India’s young with their now portable education and skills.

A foreign job might be hard to turn down. But opportunities in India might prove more interesting. The Indian software industry was young once, as was the film industry. Foreign opportunities might arise, but perhaps one will then be exporting something other than oneself. And overseas authors may well one day be asking how to get published in India.

(The writer is chairman, Man Asian Literary Prize, and publisher, Chameleon Press. The views expressed are personal.)