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The manuscript manifesto

So you want to write a book? Here’s what the country’s leading publishers want to read
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First Published: Fri, Nov 16 2012. 04 48 PM IST
India’s best-sellers may be campus romances and management guides, but there’s plenty of diversity in publishers’ lists. Photo: Thinkstock
India’s best-sellers may be campus romances and management guides, but there’s plenty of diversity in publishers’ lists. Photo: Thinkstock
Updated: Sun, Nov 18 2012. 04 52 PM IST
Diya Kar Hazra has her hands full. Formerly managing editor at Penguin India, Hazra is currently heading a new publishing house, UK-based Bloomsbury Publishing’s India division, launched in September. Bloomsbury is known for its children’s books and academic titles in its home country, but Bloomsbury India is keeping its mandate open. In December, it will publish William Dalrymple’s new work of history, Return of a King: Shah Shuja And the First Battle for Afghanistan, the story of the first Anglo-Afghan War. In January, it will launch Manil Suri’s next novel, The City of Devi. Later in 2013, it will publish, among others, a Jaspreet Singh novel about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Helium, America-based Mira Jacobs’ first novel, The Sleepwalkers’ Guide to Dancing, and a work of narrative non-fiction by a new Bangladeshi author, who explores a little-recounted side of the history of the 1971 war, that of refugees from western Pakistan to newly-formed Bangladesh.
Free of baggage, with what Hazra calls the luxury of being a start-up, Bloomsbury is casting its net wide in search of originality, excellence, and the next literary blockbuster. Picky readers may find this outlook suspiciously optimistic. In a market where best-seller lists regularly indicate that India’s favourite reading material consists of campus novels and business books, where poetry is hard to find (see the Lounge series “Poetry Pradesh”) and not even great reviews necessarily translate into good sales figures for literary work, originality and excellence can seem a little nebulous, perhaps even far-fetched.
But all editors have their ideal books, and all publishers have trends, forms and genres close to their heart which they’d like to nourish and nudge readers towards. They may not always read unsolicited manuscripts; some (though by no means all) try to avoid party guests who want them to read their sample chapters, but they are also constantly looking for new talent and new stories.
Saugata Mukherjee, Pan Macmillan India. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
We spoke to publishers from mainstream publishing companies, independent presses, and editors across forms and genres, to ask them what they were looking for, and discover the subjects, trends and styles they want to see more of.
Not every ambitious writer will succeed, though. Almost every editor hoped that bad books—poorly-written, sloppily-argued, with one eye on the profit margin—would meet a swift end. “I’m a little old-school in this regard,” says Saugata Mukherjee, publisher, Pan Macmillan India, not sounding very apologetic. “But I like my writing to be a bit well-rounded.”
“We’d definitely like to find more first-timers with a good book up their sleeve,” says Renuka Chatterjee, chief editor, Westland Books. “But novels with titles like Of Course I Love You..!—Till I Found Someone Better… all due respect to the authors, but please!”
Children’s literature
Perhaps no publishing segment has developed more dramatically this year than children’s and young adult books. Best-sellers in this category have traditionally been foreign books, but a minor flourish of new imprints and children’s lists has expanded the competition.
Westland Books’ first books under the Duckbill imprint included dystopian young adult novel Zombiestan by Mainak Dhar, whose Alice in Deadland, with its grim teenage heroine surviving in the wastelands outside a devastated Delhi, will also be out this January. Duckbill’s editors, Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar, say that their goal with Duckbill is really to do home-grown books which are not too self-consciously Indian. “No mother coming in from the kitchen wiping her hand on the pallu just to emphasize its Indianness,” Basu explains. “We don’t want to do didactic books, or myths and folk tales,” Ravishankar says.
Arpita Das, Yoda Press. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Arpita Das at indie publisher Yoda Press also dreams of young adult (YA) manuscripts which “really go into the uncomfortable spaces”. In the US and UK, young adult fiction, which often flies under the critical radar because of its genre status and demographics, has actually consistently produced edgier plots and subjects than nominally adult writing—a mainstream hit like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (which Alice in Deadland’s flap copy refers to) offers some idea of the stuff bubbling under.
Das says what she’d like to publish in Indian YA writings is stories which deal with “issues of sexuality and identity, something that goes beyond middle-class hypocrisies—and death. By not discussing death and pain we’re creating a generation of people completely removed from a fact of life which is really fairly mundane and deserves to be treated with more dignity.”
Das is also trying to “hone a vocabulary,” she says, for an unusual sort of preschool book—one without text. It seems intuitive, but few, if any, books for small children tell their stories only in pictures. “Kids really respond well to pictorial input,” she points out. “It’s we adults who get really uncomfortable without text.”
Monsters in love
"WANTED: New kinds of lifestyle narratives. In areas like fitness or parenting, we still go to foreign books although we are still culturally very different. My vision is that we need books written by Indians for ourselves, which incorporate a large part of our culture."
“It irritates me when we end up blindly following trends,” says Milee Ashwarya, editorial director, Ebury India and Random Business at Random House India (RHI). “We got tonnes of fantasy submissions after Harry Potter, now we get loads of erotica after Fifty Shades of Grey.” Fifty Shades, as is now well-known, followed the popularity of vampire romance Twilight, itself a juggernaut that sold millions of books.
“We have thought about an Indian Twilight,” says Poulomi Chatterjee, managing editor, Hachette India (Hachette is the Indian distributor of the Twilight series). “But every time it comes up in a meeting we agree that we can’t do it until we’ve found the perfect writer. I think you’ll have to have a story that’s grounded in our culture— so I’d look for a yakshi, or a naagin (snake-woman) story, not vampires and werewolves. We need to focus not just on our mythology but also on our folk tales.”
Writers tend to shy away from suggestions like these, she says. Might this be because the gleeful pulpiness of a naagin novel doesn’t interact very well with the sort of cultural authenticity it would demand in India? “The writing and plotting would have to be completely plausible—by the standards of the genre,” she says.
Pradipta Sarkar, Rupa &Co. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Real life
“I want to read people who are my age, older, younger, who can write personally about their work, their social space, whatever their circumstances,” says Pradipta Sarkar, commissioning editor, non-fiction, Rupa & Co. “How are we dealing with our world? How do we think about it?”
The memoir has enjoyed a decade-long moment in the sun in US publishing; editors like Pradipta Sarkar and Ashwarya would like more Indians to open up and share experiences and knowledge. Next year Rupa will publish a memoir by Shivani Gupta, the wheelchair-using disability activist who survived two life-threatening accidents in which she lost loved ones. Inspirational writing acquires its edge from the experience of the writer. Because, as Pradipta Sarkar says, “Who do you trust more than someone who’s been through a lot of stuff in their life, come through and gotten on?”
The memoir meshes well with the requirements of the “self-help” format, she points out. Another one on her list is the story of Major A.K. Singh, who in 1986 sailed across the world in a yacht.
Critics often point out that modern Indian culture records its history very poorly, if at all, but at least one major incident in recent memory appears to be getting its due; the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. This month, Rupa publishes the memoirs of Ankur Chawla, an employee of the Taj group of hotels who was in the hotel during the attack. Chawla, who still works at the Taj, walked up to Pradipta Sarkar one day at the city’s World Trade Centre and asked if she would look at the manuscript.
And the strange history of the terrorist plot that culminated in those attacks gets a part-memoir, part-reportage recounting in HarperCollins Publishers India’s forthcoming book, Headley And I, co-written by journalist S. Hussain Zaidi and Rahul Bhatt, famously arrested in 2009 as a former friend of David Headley, one of the main accused in the plot. Zaidi tracks and reports Headley’s life leading up to the attacks, while Bhatt’s line of narrative takes a more personal line. “It’s got Headley’s voice taken from interrogations,” explains Karthika V.K., editor-in-chief, HarperCollins Publishers India. “And that’s a foil to Rahul Bhatt’s rage.” Bhatt’s father, film-maker Mahesh Bhatt, has written the Headley And I foreword.
"WISH LIST: Stories sans cliches and stereotypes from parts of India like the North-East, or Kashmir. They’ve been defined by their political conflicts but people there live modern lives as well, and I’d like to read stories about those lives—people who have microwaves and want to go to fancy schools in their own cities, much like they do in any other place."
Eat, pray, entrepreneurship
“We need books written by Indians for ourselves,” says Ashwarya, “which incorporate a large part of our culture.”
Business books—management manuals, how-to guides, road maps for economic success—have always flown off Indian bookshelves, but editors are finding that the nature of these books changes even as the economy does. Ashwarya calls them “soft business”, the kind of books written by products of India’s maturing markets, full of non-traditional ideas and unusual narratives. “MBAs aren’t just working in sales any more,” she points out. RHI had big successes last year with The Game Changers: 20 Extraordinary Success Stories of Entrepreneurs From IIT Kharagpur by Yuvnesh Modi, Rahul Kumar and Alok Kothari; Rupa had to order a 20,000-copy reprint of Rajini’s Punchtantra: Business And Life Management the Rajinikanth Way by P.C. Balasubramanian and Raja Krishnamoorthy within a month of its release.
These books are written with the benefit not just of expertise, says Pradipta Sarkar, but of passion. Publishers may be bringing out traditional narratives in these areas—texts that go by the book, if you will—but anything written with deep personal investment is better than the alternative.
That kitchen staple, the Indian cookbook, is changing too. “Cookbooks are huge now,” says Priya Kapoor, director, Roli Books. Roli is bringing out The Army Cookbook next year, and is planning big encyclopaedias of food from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. “The interest in food has expanded, and the quality of photography and art we’re seeing now means that people are looking for quality cookbooks.” Kapoor says what interests her are books which don’t just collect recipes, but document food cultures and diversity. “We have the right talent to unearth these stories now,” she says, “with quality photography and quality design that elevate them.”
All editors have their ideal books, and all publishers have trends, forms and genres close to their hearts. Photo: John Murray/Picture Post/Getty Images
When editors talk about their ideal lifestyle books, cultural and personal specificity matters again, particularly since Indians have been relying on Western expertise in areas like health or parenting for a long time. “I’m bringing out a book called Get Fit Sizewise,” says Pradipta Sarkar, “written by a doctor who is completely fed up with women walking into her clinic asking to get thinner, rather than fitter.”
Conversely, RHI took on that most Indian of interests, religion, when it kicked off its spirituality list this month with an unusual book called Tirupati: A Guide to Life. Its author, Kota Neelima, novelist and political editor of The Sunday Guardian, is related to the priestly caretakers of the temple: The book “takes more than 20 aspects of life and looked at them through the prism of the temple and its philosophies” and features a foreword by the Tirupathi temple’s head priest. “It’s a book about religion, but not just for devotees—it’s sort of Tirupathi for everybody,” Ashwarya says.
All editors have their ideal books, and all publishers have trends, forms and genres close to their hearts
“We’re faced with hundreds of stories around us,” says Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Penguin India. “I’m looking for well-told, racy stories that can combine straightforward storytelling with good reporting.” This year Penguin published The Meadow, by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, about the 1995 abductions of six foreigners by the Kashmiri group Al Faran. As editor-in-chief at RHI, Chiki Sarkar had also published Mumbai Mirror editor-in-chief Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai, about the murder of television executive Neeraj Grover by aspiring actor Maria Susairaj and her fiancé Emile Jerome.
“There’s definitely scope for books like Meenal’s and Hussain’s (Zaidi’s), writing about crime sociologically, as a way to explore what’s going on in urban spaces,” says Kapoor. “We knew (Zaidi’s) Dongri To Dubai (a history of Dawood Ibrahim’s rise to power, published by Roli earlier this year) was going to work, but we didn’t anticipate the kind of success it would have. To read and to commission, I’d look for reportage about the ‘why’s of these things.”
"ON UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS: Realistically, it’s not always sustainable for a smaller team to go through everything that comes in. People are now more savvy, at any rate—they get hold of agents, or find someone who can put them through to editors. So I don’t think there’s actually a lot we’re missing out on. "
Popular science
Many publishers told us they were hoping to publish new kinds of science and writing. “I’ve wanted for some time now to do a series of popular science books; fun books,” says Mukherjee of Pan Macmillan India. “I don’t have a Western model in mind, although books like these have been done. Unfortunately it’s not easy to find writers—for some reason people shy away from the sciences in Indian writing. And the submissions we do get tend to be rather academic.” Chiki Sarkar talks to scientists at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, about writing popular science, too.
“I was thinking about it when I read something like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, and the way he writes about cancer,” says Somak Ghoshal, commissioning editor for literary fiction, Penguin India (Ghoshal also works on a small number of non-fiction projects). “I’d like to see an Indian book about a disease like polio. Writing about medicine in India would really have to be about the way we view disease, how it’s spread, treated, controlled, how we stigmatize it.”
History, politics and polemic
Non-fiction has enjoyed something of a boom in the last two years, although S. Anand, publisher at Navayana, points out that its scope has remained relatively narrow. “I think this boom is about as real as the boom in the Indian economy,” Anand says. For example, “Every academic press in the West has a series on contemporary thought, an imprint which will bring out well-reported, well-argued responses to current affairs within six months of their occurring,” he says. “We don’t have that here. Where is the good, critical account of (Arvind) Kejriwal, or Anna Hazare, for that matter?” Six months ago, Anand was looking for a very specific response to the Kudankulam protests—a mix of graphic and narrative reportage on the anti-nuclear movement in India. But it hasn’t materialized yet.
Anand’s publishing house, Navayana, focuses on issues of caste; two Navayana books in the last two years were graphic novels about untouchability—Subhash Vyam and Durgabai Vyam’s Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability and Srividya Natarajan and Aparajita Ninan’s A Gardener in the Wasteland. “But there’s nothing sustained,” Anand says. “Why aren’t we pursuing the right kinds of writers and subjects?” he asks. “Do we really have to wait for Joe Sacco to come down and publish a graphic text about untouchability?”
“What really excites me is serious, ideas-driven non-fiction, by good writers, with critical perspectives,” Anand says. “Call it partisanal, or polemical, something that’s become a bad word in India.”
Big publishers are also looking for forms of non-fiction that don’t only tell sombre, atmospheric, establishing stories. “Narrative non-fiction,” says Chiki Sarkar. “I’d like to see a well-told, racy story, an easy popular history that captures a moment in time; say, 1984, or the Emergency.”
“I’d like to take a look at a moment in the building of a nation,” says Mukherjee of Macmillan. “I don’t think we take biographies very seriously, but it’d be interesting to see investigative biography, an investigative journalism project, which takes a life and uses it to say something about the time in which it was lived. I won’t tell you who my dream subjects are, but it’s not people like Gandhi and Nehru. We’re always turning to them.”
Kapoor, who often publishes books on art and cultural history, says: “To a certain extent beautifully-produced books with photographs tend to be seen as books where the text is secondary. People tend to think of books about art, in particular, not just as beautiful objects but also as reference books. That’s not always the case.” Roli often publishes histories told from unique perspectives: Kapoor points to last year’s book about Nepal’s Rana dynasty, Hidden Women: The Ruling Women of The Rana Dynasty, by Greta Rana. “I don’t think there’ll be another book which tells that story.”
The perfect shorts
“I really want to bring the small, short form back,” says Das. “The book-length essay, the tract, the chapbook, the novella. I’ve seen one-offs, but no publisher really seems to have thought of it in terms of a list.”
Short-form non-fiction hasn’t much history in India, although reader receptivity will probably change as digital publishing formats like Kindle Singles (longform, one-off stories) grow popular. Chiki Sarkar says another form she’d like to see more of is the sharply-written, socially-engaged polemic—a form which lends itself well to magazine writing, but also to books, like last year’s provocative American book about motherhood, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
On the other hand, the short story finds its staunchest supporters among editors, in spite of the old market-driven idea that short-story collections don’t sell. “Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book was a book of short stories,” points out Meru Gokhale, editorial director of RHI’s literary imprint, Vintage Books India. “I think it is important to stay true to a writer’s work, and that doesn’t always mean starting with a ‘big’ novel. I don’t think readers think like that (in terms of short fiction as a risk). What matters is how the book connects with the reader.” Rajesh Parameswaran, Roshi Fernando, Tania James and Anjum Hasan, all writers of South Asian origin, have all produced acclaimed short-story collections this year. One of RHI’s most well-received authors this year, Janice Pariat, made her debut in September with a collection of short stories, Boats on Land.
Sleuths and suspense
“We’re finally getting our own, home-grown sleuths, may their tribe increase,” says Chatterjee of Westland. “There’s nothing like a good murder mystery to make you feel better about life.” Detectives are like municipal corporations: Every big city needs one. Kolkata recently got a new one when private investigator Reema Ray made her debut in journalist Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s The Masala Murder, published by Pan Macmillan.
She won’t be the only female ’tec in the field. Hachette will also be bringing out a story about a policewoman next year, allied to Poulomi Chatterjee’s sense that “chick lit” following the Bridget Jones formula doesn’t have much life in it any more. “I want to read chick lit now, that still has all the spunk, humour, the men—as usual—but it has to have an unusual twist,” she says.
At Macmillan, Mukherjee is trying to develop a thriller list which he hopes will give the genre its due in India, where authors are increasingly dreaming up counterterrorist plots and bomb threats to metros, but which largely remain starved of sustained attention. “I think publishers haven’t taken much effort to find and support good thrillers,” he says. “Really, there’s nothing wrong with the writers we have.”
At HarperCollins, Karthika will be publishing the debut novel of Somnath Batabyal, a former crime journalist, whose novel will throw a policeman and a young journalist together in the miasmic darkness of the Delhi of a few years ago, when kidnapping cases made headlines every other day. “It evokes that atmosphere and that time beautifully,” Karthika says, “and I’m especially excited because it gets the cops right. It’s a moment that hasn’t really been captured in a book before.”
Diya Kar Hazra, Bloomsbury India. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Literary fiction
“I am done with the ordinary novel,” Karthika says. “It’s not plot that holds my attention so much, any longer. But if it doesn’t do something new, it doesn’t take risks, it doesn’t work for me. If it’s meant to be literary, I want it to jump some hoops.”
Editors find it impossible to talk in terms of terms of the specifics of good literary fiction, which cannot be easily identified by tropes, styles and points or view. “There are only six plots in the world, as William Somerset Maugham said,” Ghoshal says. “So that’s not my concern. My idea is just to go for the writing, for the style.”
“Publishing is so much about taste,” says Hazra. “And it’s about instinct and luck. One needs to take risks without losing sight of the big picture.”
But the question of literature’s intangibles is a private one. On the other hand, the question of what we fantasize about reading—and publishing—is very much a social question. All the editors and publishers we spoke to clearly hoped that more Indians write about themselves, regardless of the compulsions of markets and sales figures—and write to, and about, each other. The naagins and the lady police are meant to represent new audiences, as much as new writers. As Das says, “Publishing has something to do with creating readers as well as, if not more, than creating writers.”
The next best-seller
Varun Agarwal, author. Photo: Nimesh Jain
In May, young Bangalore entrepreneur Varun Agarwal published a book that told his own story, How I Braved Anu Aunty And Co-Founded A Million Dollar Company. According to the publishers, How I Braved Anu Aunty sold 20,000 copies within a month: It currently remains at or near the top of online best-seller lists on HomeShop18.com and Flipkart.com.
“I always imagined the kind of books that got published were the ones you and I would read,” Agarwal laughs. “I didn’t really think they’d be what I write.” Agarwal wrote a breezy, funny narrative about his adventures in entrepreneurship, but expected to be self-publishing it. “I sent it to just one publisher, even though they said clearly on their website that they received a hundred manuscripts a day.” That was Rupa & Co., which, as it happened, snapped up Anu Aunty.
“Eighty-ninety per cent of the books they receive are campus romances,” Agrawal says. “Everyone wants to become a Chetan Bhagat.” Agarwal’s story stood out because it was an unusual story, and clearly personal. Anu Aunty got its own Facebook page, and was marketed almost entirely through Facebook and Twitter; Agarwal says he never wanted book launches or multi-city readings—the Internet is where he knew he’d find readers, and he did.
Writers who know they won’t be wooed by publishers, or don’t know how to get them to begin the courtship, can reach out in the most effective way Agarwal knows: Tell a story in their own voice. “Some publishers may look at your writing style,” Agarwal says. “But most of them are looking for the tone of your writing, for the quality of your voice. You have to write something that appeals to your heart.”
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First Published: Fri, Nov 16 2012. 04 48 PM IST