The manuscript manifesto12 min read . Updated: 18 Nov 2012, 04:52 PM IST
So you want to write a book? Here's what the country's leading publishers want to read
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 (seethe 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.
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!"
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.
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
“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.
“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.
“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."
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."
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.
“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.