Meet the Publishers

This publisher is taking an unconventional route to bringing international fiction to India

Renuka Chatterjee of Speaking Tiger Books explains her company’s strategy.

For multinational publishing companies like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, or Hachette, selling international books in India is not a difficult proposition. For they can easily import titles from their parent companies’ lists in the UK and elsewhere.

However, for an Indian publisher to have a strong list of international titles is no easy matter. And yet, Speaking Tiger Books has done just that by buying India rights for the works of writers from elsewhere in the world and publishing them in India. Renuka Chatterjee, vice-president (publishing) at Speaking Tiger spoke to on the company’s strategies and execution. Excerpts from the interview:

What was the impetus behind starting such a challenging, unique list of fiction from around the globe?
It started with Beauty is a Wound by the Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan. His agent gave me the book at Frankfurt a couple of years ago – I read it, and thought it was brilliant. Though Indonesian writers had not really been published in India before, we – Ravi Singh, the publisher at Speaking Tiger, and I – didn’t think that was any reason for a good book like this one not to be published here.

Then Ravi read Fiston Mujila’s Tram83, and thought that was worth publishing too, and this set the ball rolling. Once agents abroad knew we were open to international fiction, they started sending us titles, and we picked up whatever we really liked. So it wasn’t so much of a planned thing, but once we had three or four titles, we thought, why not? Let’s do fiction from countries other than the US and the UK, because American and British authors get published here anyway, and make it our USP.

Did you acquire such books during your previous editorial stints?
I tried to. I came across some really good authors, like Jose Dalisay and Charlson Ong, from the Philippines, and wanted to publish them. But at that time the thinking was – how will we sell an author from the Philippines in India? I could never understand this, because in fact writing from South-East Asia has more cultural affinity with India than a lot of American and British writing, but we publish them happily!

How do you decide whether a particular work of fiction is the right fit for the international fiction series? Is there a conscious effort to publish edgier and underrepresented voices and regions?
Edgier, definitely, and the writing really has to be several cuts above the average. And it definitely helps if the author has been published widely internationally, and won a few awards – because that is the only way to get the book noticed here, to have it picked up by booksellers and reviewers.

How do you go about acquiring such books? Does it require travelling to international book fairs?
No, now that we’ve established contact with the main agencies who handle writers from South-East Asia and other countries like South Africa, the Congo, etc, they keep us abreast of their lists, and we pick out the titles we think will work for us.

How has the response been to the series? Have the bestselling books on the list (Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Art of Hearing Heartbeats), the award-winning ones ( Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83) or those by authors who have been published here before (Imran Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System) performed better than the newer, less familiar names?
Till now we have published books that have done well internationally. But to be honest, it’s an uphill battle to get readers, reviewers and booksellers interested even in these authors – with the exception of Eka Kurniawan, who really seems to have struck a chord. I think we’re just too attuned to “Western” writers – and it’s going to take time for people to wake up to the fact that there is some great writing coming from other parts of the world.

Many of the books on the list are set in cultures not familiar to Indians. Do these books require editorial intervention?
Not much, really. I think the whole point of publishing books from other countries and cultures is that we can get to know more about them.

Several of the authors on this list, such as Marion Molteno and Aliyyah Eniath, have visited India to promote their books. The star of the list, Eka Kurniawan, even had a session at Jaipur Literature Festival. Did their presence make a difference to the sales or get the media talking?
Personal interaction with an author always helps. And literary festivals are good opportunities for exposure to a readership who may otherwise never get to know of the author.

What does the response to the list say about the readership in India?
They need to be much more open-minded and receptive – broaden their vision to accept that writing in English is not just limited to Indian writers, or writers from the West.

Unlike most high-end literary fiction, the books on your list are very affordably priced. Is there a long term strategy behind this?
We do try and keep our prices affordable – for all our books. That’s part of the game.

How many books to do you plan to publish annually on this list?
Around three or four. We do need to be very selective, as it’s a new segment we’re trying to establish. Our next title is Season of Crimson Blossoms, by the Nigerian writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim.

Is there one particular author or book that you wanted badly for this list but couldn’t get for whatever reason?
So far, we’ve got every book we wanted.

Which one is your absolute favourite from the list and why?
As an editor, I don’t play favourites! I like all the books we publish.

Are writers of literary fiction from other parts of the world innovating more with language and form than Indian Writers in English?
Yes, I think so. Eka Kurniawan, for instance, is completely uninhibited in his use of language and imagery.

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