Here’s how the year in publishing is looking to Karthika VK, publisher and chief editor, HarperCollins India; Diya Kar Hazra, Publisher, Pan Macmillan India, and Chiki Sarkar, founder-publisher, Juggernaut. Excerpts from three conversations.
On whether there’s room for all kinds of books any more:
Karthika: It has been dispiriting, watching sales of literary fiction slide, which to my mind is that part of the list that takes genuine risks, finds new voices, publishes work that challenges existing notions about life and literature – in short, the kind of books that should be in the front of shelves, not tucked away at the back.
The good news is that narrative non-fiction has gone up rapidly in the reading stakes. And there is a new spirit of ambition and enterprise that has begun to inform this genre, with the result that some of the best and most incisive writing is located here.
Sarkar: I do think not enough people are reading and I am not sure I have a cohesive argument about why this is the case. But again (there are) key issues – subjects for books, outreach, lack of effective communication, lack of leisure culture in India, where most things are seen as instrumental. What’s interesting is that when a book is a hit it sells at numbers higher than ever.
Kar Hazra: Oh there’ll never be enough people reading – publishers will always feel that way – and I wish our literacy rate was better, but I think there are plenty of people reading in India. And our reading is far more varied now. There are also more people reading online content on their smartphones. So the challenge is to seduce a growing reading public to books, when readers are less confined to books than ever before. The best literary festivals are about writers and their work, and it’s about ideas. In a world where books are competing with a range of other platforms/distractions – social media, gaming – anything that encourages reading is reason to celebrate.
On the the challenges in 2016:
Sarkar: Our announcement of the company and our catalogue announcement were both big – we trended on both announcements, which gives me hope for publishing. It’s nice to see folks get excited about books and publishing.
Authors are loving this – especially celebrities and debut writers.
Telecom, payment wallets, online retail, and online news sites have all shown interest in engaging with us in very exciting ways.
A whole bunch of independent children’s publishers want us to be their platform partner and I think we could do fun stuff with other publishers in the long run.
What it’s shown me as a book publisher is that the digital can open up interesting conversations and partnerships I simply won’t be able to have just doing physical (publishing).
Kar Hazra: There are more publishing houses in India now than there was five years ago. The market is crowded, with conglomerates and independents, giants and start-ups. But this challenge is an enormous opportunity for a mid-sized publisher like us, because we can focus on our books and authors and really nurture our lists (Picador, Pan and Macmillan).
We’re a small, passionate team that works very closely together – it’s one of the most collegial teams I’ve worked with – which makes all the difference. There’s lots to be done but we intend to publish every book better than the last. We have plenty of room to grow, and we plan to do that by focusing strategically, on core areas, and on quality over quantity. New talent has always excited me, so we’re looking forward to adding to our existing list of prize-winning authors and established names with outstanding discoveries.
On good writing versus good marketing:
Karthika: It isn’t so much a matter of one or the other, or one versus the other. The combination of great product and great marketing is what one strives for. But the real sweet spot is word-of-mouth, which isn’t easy to manufacture, however much you may spend on the marketing campaign or however many influencers you may attract to your cause.
There is no doubt that writers are now part of the marketing process in a way they weren’t earlier. There are just too many books out there and too little space, and we need to go all out if we are to make people sit up and take notice of a new title. Also, publishers work with limited budgets and resources and for sustained promotions to succeed, we have to work closely with authors. So yes, I am afraid the reclusive writer is somewhat obsolete, and a very few exceptions exist to prove the rule!
On the importance of disrupting the Indian publishing industry:
Sarkar: I hate the word “disrupt”. It feels slightly arrogant. But here are the questions I am asking and that I want to answer in the next ten years of my life:
How can I get more people buying books in a country where the average sales are 3000 and where book retail isn’t thriving, and the distribution model is very faulty (six months’ repayment).
How can I learn more about who buys my books – a question more possible to answer now than it’s ever been for anyone.
Lastly, how can I become a far more author-centered publisher – easier and simpler contracts, quicker royalty payments, etc.
Kar Hazra: Publishing will always be about giving life to books and it will always be about people. That will never change. It is crucial, therefore, in this challenging climate and crowded environment, to reinvent oneself, find new ways of doing things.
Karthika: Eventually, what matters is not what you say about your books and how well you can talk them up, it’s about what readers perceive as discerning content that plugs into current needs and trends and has the potential to stand the test of time.
On what you’re looking forward to publishing this year:
Karthika: A strong mix of fiction and non-fiction, literary and commercial, new and familiar, p-books and e-books. I’ll mention just a few titles that are going out to stores for a January release, the flag-off for what promises to be another exciting year: The Z Factor by Subhash Chandra, Alphabet Soup for Lovers by Anita Nair, Strangers to Ourselves by Shashi Deshpande, All Quiet in Vikaspuri by Sarnath Banerjee, Olive Witch by Abeer Hoque and Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur.
Sarkar: Most of our releases in Juggernaut, of course! But I can’t wait for Aman Sethi, Hussain Haqqani, Twinkle Khanna and some of our crime. Abheek Barua and Praveen Swami’s stuff is just riveting.
Kar Hazra: It’s a Jeffrey Archer year for us with the next two in The Clifton Chronicles. We publish his Cometh the Hour, which is set partly in India, next month, with the Gateway of India on the cover. Squash star Maria Toorpakai’s memoir A Different Kind of Daughter is a sensational story; Don DeLillo’s Zero K in May, The Muse by Jessie Burton and The Wonder by Emma Donaghue.
The two I’m most excited about are Khalid Akhtar’s award-winning Love in Chakiwara, one of the greatest Urdu novels, translated for the first time by Bilal Tanweer. It’s an extraordinary satire set in 1950s’ Karachi, a modern classic. And Maha Khan Phillips’s thriller – an absolute page-turner set in Mohenjodaro and modern-day Karachi and London.