Mumbai: Meera Sharma is trapped underground in an ancient temple on a tropical island hit by an earthquake. What can a damsel in distress do, except have a fiesty encounter with a tall, dark, handsome stranger, or someone called Nikhil Jose in this instance? Adventure and romance follow, leading to the usual happy ending.
That’s the story of Harlequin Mills and Boon’s romance Wedded in a Whirlwind, a tale that originally featured characters named Miranda Grenville and Nick Jago when it was published in English. The story could soon gladden the hearts of readers in Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil as Mills and Boon plans to hit the Indian regional language market with its signature romances, which used to be avidly consumed by a largely female audience some decades ago, and still has a substantial following.
The UK-based publisher has maintained its foothold in the romance fiction genre for almost a century with the help of more than 1,300 authors churning out the stuff. The company published 1,200 titles last year, selling 140 million books worldwide. In the previous year, it released around 1,000 titles. Mills and Boon, which publishes its books in 30 languages in 100 countries, had annual global sales of about 500 million Canadian dollars last year (2011), up from 468.2 million Canadian dollars in the year before.
The company has published three Indian titles in English with local authors and plots since setting up a unit in the country in 2008. From an average of 10 titles a month when it started, Mills and Boon today launches an average 20 every month across five series—modern, romance, desire, special moments and historical.
In India, the company is growing by more than 10% annually, and released around 110 titles in the country last year, said Manish Singh, country manager, Harlequin Mills and Boon India (HMBI).
Singh declined to reveal sales numbers.
The move to publish books in other Indian languages is aimed at boosting volumes. As per the data published by the 2011 census, India has managed to achieve an effective literacy rate of 74.04% in 2011. Of these, only a minority speak and read English.
The company has identified three regional languages in which it will publish its books.
“Going by the readership numbers in the Indian geography, we have narrowed down to translating some of our global novels in Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil,” Singh said.
The first of these will be released in December, either in Hindi or Malayalam to begin with, said Singh. Depending on the plot, the publisher will consider changing the names of characters in case it feels that a regional-language reader may not be able to relate to a foreign name. There may be two titles in each of the three languages every month, starting December.
“We are still in the process of finalizing our publishing schedule,” Singh said.
Can transplanted plots work? Among those who have their doubts is Gaurav Sabharwal, co-founder of uRead.com, a book portal promoted by Prakash Books Pvt. Ltd.
“Regional language readers are increasing seeking local stories, local romance reads,” he said. “Unless Mills and Boon changes the landscape of its global titles and characterization of the stories, selling the translated books will be a challenge. It makes more sense for the publisher to create local stories through Indian authors.”
That’s where those three titles published by Mills and Boon come in. The first of these was Milan Vora’s The Love Asana last year, followed by His Monsoon Bride by Aastha Atray Banan and Monsoon Wedding Fever by Shoma Narayanan released last week.
The formula seems to have worked, according to Singh.
“The first two Indian authors of Mills and Boon (Vora and Banan) have sold double the number of copies of their books as compared to any Mills and Boon international title sold in India,” he said.
The publishing house will add four more Indian authors to its roster to release at least six new titles by the end of 2013. Singh said some of the Indian plots in English may be translated into the three regional languages.
Regional language paperbacks are priced at Rs 40-200, compared with the Rs125 price tag on Mills and Boon’s English titles, according to people in the books trade. Consequently, the margins may be lower on such titles. Almost 80% of regional language books are priced below Rs100.
There may be pent-up demand for popular titles to be translated into various Indian languages.
ACK Media, which publishes the popular Tinkle comic book, has translated 250 of them into Hindi out of the 600 it has rights to.
“We are considering releasing the Tinkle comics in other Indian languages as well,” said Vijay Sampath, chief executive officer, ACK Media.
However, distribution of Indian language titles could be a challenge, according to industry experts. “Reaching smaller towns increases marketing/promotional spends substantially for publishers,” said Sampath.
Renu Agal, commissioning editor, Hindi, Penguin Group, said there is a huge appetite for fiction in the Indian regional language market
“Till now big publishing houses in the country were concentrating on literary fiction and works of fiction from well-known authors because it was felt that the books would sell because of the names as much as content,” she said. “But there was always a market for commercial fiction, romances, pulp fiction though mainstream publishing houses frowned at them and smaller houses were surviving on them. Now the market has seen big changes.
The large publishers have realized that they need to offer have a combination of “high brow to mass market literature”, she said.
A case in point is the success of Ravinder Singh’s Can Love Happen Twice?, which Penguin translated into Hindi. That has led to enthusiasm for more translations.
“We are soon going to translate the latest book by Shobhaa De, Sethji, in Hindi, like some of her earlier titles,” she said. “In the coming year, we are coming out with lad-lit based in Delhi University’s north campus. Modern-day love stories with a twist are being offered in Ishqfareb by a talented author Chandan Pandey.”
The market for regional language books is limited because of buying habits, with most going through the library route, she said. Publishers are trying to break the mould by better pricing, she said.