Few people predict a happy ending for the publishing industry in the West these days. The combined after-effects of the Internet and the volatile financial situations of the last decade have created a genteel death cult around the ink-and-paper industry, forever worrying about “the death of the book”, both the cause and effect of a larger anxiety about the death of publishing.
But in the romance novel business, everyone is apparently too busy reading—and writing—to care. A 2009 survey by the Romance Writers of America stated that 74.8 million Americans read at least one romance novel a year. In 2005, almost 22% of all Americans read romance novels; in 2008, almost 25% did. Romance novels are the world’s best-selling category of fiction on a global average; like the proverbial lipstick sales and skirt hemlines, they are, perhaps, another weapon in the arsenal against recession.
In 2008, Harlequin Mills & Boon (M&B), which claims to sell more than four books a second throughout the world, set up a local business wing of its company. Mills & Boon India, which would produce and distribute M&B’s already popular books locally, coasted in on a wave of optimism, in a country already insulated from the worst consequences of the financial crisis, with its growing English language publishing industry.
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
“Mills & Boon was a legacy brand in India,” says Clare Somerville, general manager, Mills &Boon. “We had no local activity, so it was still viewed as rather traditional—not of the moment.”
To re-establish the brand, among other things, they began to look for local stories. Their Passions contest, run first in 2008 as a competition to locate a new Mills & Boon author in India, culminated in last December’s publication of The Love Asana, advertising professional-turned-novelist Milan Vohra’s debut. Its textbook romance ingredients—the spunky yet innocent woman, the moody but fundamentally decent hero, an elaborate sequence of emotional and sexual missteps, resolved in a happy ending—all took place between a yoga instructor and a fashion house tycoon in Delhi. The protagonists ate aloo chaat and—eventually—called each other “jaan”.
The Love Asana sold four times as much as any of Mills & Boon’s international titles in India, doing so well, Somerville says, that the company will now export it to other countries with large Indian communities, such as South Africa.
Unlike the course of true love, Mills & Boon India is finding the going smooth. In a typical Indian book store, 30% of all books sold are either children’s books, or romance novels. Romance “comes in just behind children’s fiction as the largest selling category of English books in India,” says Manish Singh, country head, Mills & Boon India.
Some of that optimism informed Sandhya Sridhar and Sunita Suresh’s decision to begin their own publishing house, Pageturn Publishers, in Chennai last year. “We’re both avid readers of romance, and have always dreamt of filling this odd gap in the Indian media,” Sridhar says. They both quit their jobs to set up Pageturn, which now puts out two titles a month under its imprint, Red Romance.
The model, like Mills & Boon’s, is to publish slim, well-printed, affordable books, “category romances” (identified, like magazines, by who publishes them, rather than by who writes them) that can then be recalled within weeks or months of their publication as new titles come out. The stories are all Indian. In Dewdrops at Dawn, Sukanya and Sundar seem to bring out the worst in each other, but must find a way to work together. In Call of the Dunes, journalist Shalini’s tragic past may come in the way of happiness with mysterious Rajasthan royal Suraj. In Eyes on You, inspector Sameer Khan must protect Nethra from a terrorist at all costs.
All the books capture a growing intersection between the urban and the urbanizing India; small-town locations—or antecedents—with broader social outlooks, urbane men and women who struggle with traditional mores.
“Books in India are still seen as catering to the intellectual,” Sridhar says. “But there is a hitherto untapped market for our romances, in tier II and tier III centres as well as in urban markets.”
“There is a large market in our country,” she continues, “for stories about ourselves. As one of our readers reacted, the stories should say—‘this could be happening to me’.”
Sridhar acknowledges that the “this could be happening to me” market in average India is already served well by film and television. Publishing in other Indian languages has also long served up romance fiction, whether as magazine writing or in cheap “romance digest” formats. “This is precisely the market Red Romances wishes to appeal to,” Sridhar says. “I feel English language publishing exists in quite a different market in India so far.”
But when Singh and Sridhar talk about an existing market for romance novels in India, they are referring to a market that still largely devours non-Indian fiction, where historical romance is about dukes and earls, and contemporary romance about Mediterranean playboys and Midwestern cowboys. Paranormal romance, including Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight series, is the industry’s current flavour, but it’s still vampires and werewolves doing all the wooing, not dashing rakshasa-princes.
Atypically among large publishing markets, India’s English-language readership appears to skew male. A 2009 survey by Tehelka magazine suggested that men made up 85% of English fiction readers in India. There is also a globally reinforced bias that assumes women readers will read fiction created for every gender, while men tend to read only male-created, male-centric books. Perhaps this explains why so much of mass-market fiction today is driven by books in the Chetan Bhagat mould—written by, about and, in a sense, for men.
General women’s fiction continues to grow, but with a dividing line between traditional ideas of the “romance novel”, and stand-alone books that might broadly, but not exclusively, be classified as “chick lit”.
“‘Chick lit’ is bubblegummy,” says Kapish Mehra, managing director, Rupa Publications. “I think there’s a lot of growing interest in new kinds of romance fiction—questioning assumptions of traditional views of marriage, love.”
Readers are turning to fast reads about young characters—but these do not necessarily encompass the classic romance novel, according to Mehra.
“When you talk about targeting an audience of young women, you talk about a large category,” he says. “It does have potential; but you don’t see a lot of high-quality romance, do you?”
“The West is a totally different market,” says Milee Ashwarya, commissioning editor, Random House India. “We don’t have, for example, the sort of book club culture that keeps romance going among women readers in the US. It’s a tricky market here.” In 2007, Random House put out three slim volumes of what they called purdah-jharokha romance, love stories with settings in historical Lucknow, Bengal and Rajasthan. The books “did well”, Ashwarya says, but their research also indicated that readers would turn more willingly to contemporary stories.
Mills & Boon India is set to bring out three more Indian novels later this year, and with Bollywood tie-ups (last year, actors Imran Khan and John Abraham appeared on Harlequin covers—sadly, not together) and aggressive local marketing, are keen on continuing what Somerville calls their “exponential growth” of the last three years. Pageturn’s Sridhar says that they are planning to double their output in 2012, and introduce innovations such as graphic novels and travelogues to their romance imprint.
Manish Singh says Indian readers of romance are, on an average, younger than those in the West. “Our audience here are young, urbane working women,” he explains. “Between the ages of 21 and 30-32, they have time and the income to read. Then, after a five-year gap that corresponds to marriage and motherhood, they return to the habit. As they grow older, what you have is a loyal readership, over 45 years old, who keep coming back.”
The right spots
A Mills & Boon writer’s cardinal rules
Journalist Aastha Atray Banan, who won Mills & Boon’s ‘Passions: Aspiring Author Auditions’ earlier this year, wrote her winning entry 6 hours before the contest deadline. “I asked myself, ‘what is the wildest ‘romantic’ thing I could write about?’ and let go.” Bollywood offers the template for India’s formula romances, she says, but “the best practice you can have to write Mills & Boon novels is to read Mills & Boon novels.”
She’s now working with an editor in the UK to spin a 50,000-word novel out of her story, which will be published later this year. Has she run up against Mills & Boon’s famous guidelines for writing romance yet? “You know the spots you’re supposed to hit when you’re writing a story like this,” she says. “There has to be a kiss here, a quarrel there. But if you mean things like, ‘It’s Chapter 6, so they should kiss’? No.”