Bhagat over Rushdie: what young Indians will read
It’s hard to imagine a future for Indian publishing without giving in to wishful thinking. The industry is currently plagued by poor distribution, payments lagging at six months, and average sales of 3,000 books a year. The general impoverishment leads to other kinds of impoverishments—one of the reasons for the lack of home-grown hits of popular science, history (with a few exceptions), authoritative biographies (again with a few exceptions) and other kinds of non-fiction is that publishers haven’t invested in them.
Such books require larger advances as the writer needs to take out time to write them. Publishers, with their low sales figures, can’t afford to take these kinds of risks. Lack of resources is also why Indian publishers tend not to take legal risks, preferring to settle or pull out a book. The argument runs, if the legal fees cost more than the turnover of the book, it isn’t worth it. And so the lack of money shrinks, as it always does, other things—ideas, ambition, professionalism, even ethics.
In my 10 years, some things have changed but most things have stayed the same. In fact, the retail atmosphere has got worse. So what will the future hold? I don’t know. I would like to think there will be more bookshops, better distribution, more avenues for marketing, more people on Juggernaut, my digital reading platform. Above all, more readers.
And the law of numbers is on my side surely—we have a growing population of young Indians and a thirst for education. Surely that will lead to more readers? They may not read Salman Rushdie but they will read Chetan Bhagat, whose simple prose and crisp storytelling draws the newly educated. So my first prediction is that we will have more Chetan Bhagats—writers who will write in the simple, direct prose that many young Indian readers will want and indeed need.
My second prediction is that on the whole the awards and writers and books that count in the English-speaking developed world will have less and less relevance in India. The Booker might count, the big global best-seller will undoubtedly be a big seller here too, but they will be exceptions. Indians will read Indian books with their own aesthetics. The English reader whose skills aren’t polished will dominate Indian reading as he or she already does—I don’t think it’s a coincidence that writers like Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murthy and Khushwant Singh are so beloved. They are great storytellers who use very simple language. This trend will intensify. But the young writers who aspire to be in The New Yorker will find a smaller and smaller readership here—admired by the cognoscenti but with fewer roots here.
Will the industry change? It should but it hasn’t in the last decade. I set up Juggernaut in response to these constraints and I hope I will change some of it and bring new readers into the fold. I am keeping my fingers crossed.
Chiki Sarkar is the founder of Juggernaut, a mobile-first publishing firm, and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Penguin Random House India