(Photo-imaging: Malay Karmakar) Exclusive
(Photo-imaging: Malay Karmakar)

In India’s YA fantasy fiction space, it’s a pitched battle for page views

The stories are there. The readers, too. But Indian writers aren’t getting the kind of aggressive promotion that draws youngsters to fantasy fiction from the West.
UPDATED ON JUN 05, 2021 12:03 PM IST

In publishing, a good story is often just the start. After that, it’s about promotion, promotion, promotion. This is where India’s writers of young adult fantasy fiction are losing out to their Western counterparts.

The stories are there (there could be more of course, in a country with such a rich reserve of myth and folk tales). But the ecosystem hasn’t taken shape around them yet.

“Western writers have such a machinery of publicity and promotion behind them. Kids are repeatedly swamped with promotional material. There are school visits, book readings. Online, there are events and discussions. Even the bookshops here give them prominent space,” says Venita Coelho, author of critically acclaimed children’s books such as Dead as a Dodo and Tiger by the Tail.

And so a cycle forms where the buzz is built up around Western works, films and OTT shows boost them further, children are eager to read the originals, and more such works find a global market. It’s a cycle that began with Harry Potter, moved through the Twilight and the Hunger Games books and films and along the way created space for scores of writers to tell tales of their own — a recent example being Shadow and Bone, written by Leigh Bardugo and released in 2012, and now a popular Netflix series.

“There are some fantastic Indian books in this genre out there that need to be talked about more,” says Bijal Vachharajani, senior editor at Pratham Books. “For example Sonja Chandrachud’s Pearls of Wisdom (Penguin Random House India, 2010), about the adventures of teen wizards Koral and Pete as they dive under the Sea of Secrets to fight the Black Magi and sea monsters to retrieve the Pearls of Wisdom. Devika Rangachari’s Queen of Ice (Penguin Random House India, 2014), about a beautiful, ambitious and physically challenged princess Didda, in 10th-century Kashmir.”

The Indian YA fantasy fiction space hasn’t really taken off in the Indian market and that’s the saddest bit, says Arpita Nath, associate commissioning editor at Penguin Random House India. “I get a lot of submissions for the genre. Some are really good. But what we have seen from the market is that readers are really hesitant to pick up Indian books in the genre. The preference is for known international authors instead. Teens also watch OTT adaptations like Shadow and Bone and tend to pick up those books.”

Some authors are taking steps themselves. “Book promotion in India has a long way to go. For my books that were released before the pandemic, I did 90% of the marketing on my own,” says Kevin Missal, 24, author of the Kalki trilogy. “I could afford it, so I went all-out, offline and online, book tours across the country, numerous signing events. I even opened my own marketing agency 10 months ago.”

The pandemic has hurt promotions as we had to cancel all our offline events, says Nath. “Before it we used to have online and offline plans to promote a book for at least three or four months before and after their launch. Publishers are doing all they can.”

YOUNG ADULT FANTASY: A TIMELINE

* 1802: The term “young adulthood” is credited to British author and critic of children’s literature Sarah Trimmer, who used the term in her periodical, The Guardian of Education and defined it as lasting from the ages 14 to 21.

* 1960s: The term “young adult” was coined by the American Young Adult Library Services Association, to represent the 12-to-18 age group. This remains the most commonly understood definition of the term.

* 1997: JK Rowling released the first of her seven Potter books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The story of a young orphaned wizard and his struggle to harness his talents would be a genre-defining fantasy series.

* 2000: Soaring demand for books in this genre prompted The New York Times to start a separate bestseller list for children’s literature. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth Potter book, was released that June, and marked Rowling’s 79th straight week on the list.

* 2005: The Twilight Saga, a series of five books written by Stephenie Meyer and published between 2005 and 2020, were another turning point in YA fantasy fiction. The love story involving handsome vampires, unpredictable werewolves and modern-day damsels in distress became a literary and cinematic phenomenon. The town of Forks, Washington, where the films were set, was being visited by an average of 8,000 tourists a month before the pandemic.

* 2008: Finally, a YA fantasy heroine that got things done. The Hunger Games trilogy, written by Suzanne Collins and published between 2008 and 2010, follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a future, post-apocalyptic nation of Panem in North America. She wages a fight against an annual event in which one boy and one girl from each of 12 districts is selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle to the death. The books were turned into blockbuster films. The three-finger salute has also been adopted by pro-democracy protestors in countries ranging from Thailand to Myanmar.

* 2020: Time magazine, with a panel of leading fantasy authors — NK Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, Cassandra Clare and Marlon James, among others — compiled a list of 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time. Along with classics like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis, The Lord of the Rings series by JRR Tolkien, and the Harry Potter books, features two books by Indian-origin authors: Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi and Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri.

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