Nearly a decade ago, chatting on the phone with Karthika VK, who was the publisher at HarperCollins India at the time, I asked her why they didn’t have a mind-body-spirit (MBS) imprint. I explained the reasons – both editorial as well as commercial – that made it imperative to publish this line of books.

Karthika was about to leave for the Frankfurt Book Fair. She promised to continue the conversation when she was back. True to her word, she called me a few weeks later: HarperCollins India was keen to start an MBS imprint. She asked me to lead it, and I was delighted to take it on.

And so we set up and began to publish Harper Element in 2013. I had no dearth of Indian authors sending me manuscripts, from serious spiritual texts to self-help books. And there was so much to commission! Acquisitions meetings were a delight, and I was fortunate to work with SameerMahale, then the sales head at HarperCollins India, who understood my vision of MBS books.

As Harper Element grew, we managed to build an original and rich imprint, with a bestseller every year, such as Om Swami’s If Truth Be Told: A Monk’s Memoir, and Reza Aslan’s Zealot. From books on mental health, such as Healing Room: The Need for Psychotherapy to A Taste of Wellbeing: Sadhguru’s Insights for Your Gastronomics, we commissioned across a wide range.

Why we needed an “Indian” MBS market

I had been consuming MBS books coming in from the UK and the US for the last twenty-and-odd years, and they were highly successful, selling rapidly in our book stores. Everyone in India who enjoyed books on personal transformation and self-help had read Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Brian Weiss and Dale Carnegie.

To be fair, we did have some publishing already in the MBS space in India. Jaico had bringing out books in this segment for many years, with bestsellers like Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari and other titles like The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living by Eknath Easwaran. Hay House India, too, had been publishing Indian titles, such as Spiritual Pregnancy: Inner Wisdom to Nourish and Nurture Your Child by Gopika Kapoor, and My Cancer is Me: The Journey from Illness to Wholeness by Vijay Bhat and Nilima Bhat. And Penguin had started its Ananda imprint, under which it published well-known names that included Osho, Sadhguru, Gaur Gopal Das, Ruzbeh N Bharucha, and Renuka Narayanan.

But I realised that all of this was just a drop in the (Indian) ocean. There was potential for so much growth. I had a basic question: Why weren’t we, in India, tapping the local market? Surely there was no dearth of “mind”, “spirit” and “body” material in India, of all places! I had seen the range and richness of such books whilst travelling in the West, and the variety was staggering. It was this question that I had posed to Karthika earlier.

Moreover, we had our own psychological, physical, economic and sociocultural needs and challenges, which weren’t necessarily being met by the books coming in from the West. We needed our gurus, inspirational speakers, spiritual masters, doctors and others to address us. It was clearly time for us to develop our MBS market – firmly anchored in mainstream trade publishing.

As the years have rolled by, I have seen the need for mind-body-spirit books only grow. There is an ever-increasing demand for books on spirituality and religion; memoirs and self-help books by gurus; and a wide range of books covering personal transformation, health and well-being. Indian publishing has stepped up the production of MBS books to specifically address the needs of the Indian reader.

‘Some of our bestselling titles come from this genre – On Meditation: Finding Infinite Bliss and Power Within by Sri M; Life’s Amazing Secrets by Gaur Gopal Das; Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy by Sadhguru; and Death: An Inside Story by Sadhguru, to name a few,’ confirmed Nandan Jha, SVP, Product & Sales, Penguin Random House India. ‘These titles have been in demand since they were released.’ Krishan Chopra, publisher at HarperCollins India, gave me the example of an MBS book they’ve just published, and explained why it’s doing well. ‘One book that is striking a chord is Om Swami’s latest, The Book of Kindness: How to Make Others Happy and Be Happy Yourself. People want to connect with themselves and others in a better way, and explore the pleasures of a simpler lifestyle.’

Enter the pandemic

Perhaps few things have been able to unite the world quite so intensely as the coronavirus pandemic – poverty, wars, hunger, climate change, or even just common humanity have not linked us with one another, or made us feel connected through a shared experience and threat, the way this virus has. Suddenly, we’re speaking one language globally. As much of the world goes into lockdown or eases out of it, bringing industries and business to a near-standstill, the profound and intimate connection between people, communities and nations has never been so brutally transparent.

The sense of fear and uncertainty is palpable wherever you look and whoever you talk to:

- I’ve lost my job.

- My business has collapsed.

- We have to lay off employees.

- I can’t afford to pay salaries beyond this month.

- I live alone, and the isolation has made me acutely depressed and anxious.

- How are the daily wagers going to make it without earnings?

- My father has to go regularly for dialysis and we are so scared of exposure to the virus at the hospital.

- I already have mental health issues; the worry about the virus, and this lockdown imposed on us, is very triggering for me.

And for those fighting on the frontline – doctors, nurses and medical staff – it is a question of taking on high risks to help others survive. Health workers and those in essential services are extremely stressed and vulnerable, as are their families.

At the moment, there seems to be no light at the end of what looks like a very long tunnel. We have many questions, and there are few, if any, answers. No one knows how or when this terrible crisis is going to end.

People suddenly find themselves confronting mental health issues as they remain locked in their homes and see their earnings collapse. The basic reality of freedom has been taken away from us. We no longer control our lives, at least outside the home. From New Delhi to New York, the streets are bare. The lives we find ourselves living are utterly alien to us. No one prepared us for a pandemic; there is no guidebook to navigating this frightening space. What do we do at a time like this?

Publishing in a post-pandemic world

Publishing, like other industries, reflects the need of the times. And books are a powerful indicator of what a society wants. But publishing goes beyond being merely a reflection; it has the creative ability to guide and shape human interest, to gauge what the reader wants even before the reader realises this. The MBS genre is particularly sensitive to this.

The common thread running through this segment is self-development and personal transformation. All these books offer some way of improving and developing the self. You can see MBS as a broad spectrum ranging from the secular to the spiritual. At one end you have the self-help books (diet, fitness, motivation and positive thinking, stress management, etc), including the “how to” titles (how to get fit, lose weight, stop smoking, be happy, etc).

In the middle are the books on personal development – offering to develop your life through deeper emotionally and intellectually engaging therapies (traditional as well as alternative), including meditation and healing, among other processes.

And at the other end you have books on deep personal and spiritual transformation, which is where the books on religion, and books by gurus and spiritual masters come in. So from self-help, through personal development, to esoteric and spiritual subjects, this is the spectrum that reflects the genre.

As we know, the demand for MBS books has been rising in the recent years. Given the consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic at large, it is quite likely that the coming times will see a sizeable increase in the commissioning and publishing of such books.

Karthika, now the publisher at Westland Books, agrees. “In a time of uncertainty, we all tend to reach for help – some look inward, some to mind leaders, and, whichever route you take, books are a natural destination,” she said. “There is good reason to believe that books in the MBS segment will find even more readers than they already do.”

Mind-body-spirit books are definitely one source of the comfort and guidance that people are going to need. As Chopra said, “The old verities, such as those expressed by spiritual masters, would certainly be a good counterpoint to accomplished techies telling us how AI is going to change our life. When it comes to deep truths, one would still want to hear them from the gurus, after all.”

We don’t know where life is heading, and as Mukunda Rao, a renowned author who has published many books in the MBS space, said: “While in such a profound predicament, looking inwards and reading spiritual literature could open up the possibilities of relooking at life with honesty and integrity, and rethinking our priorities.”

Stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness have been global pandemics themselves for many years now as people live busy, fast-paced lives, driven by ambition and the need to have it all. Into this toxic mix we now have a physical pandemic. Life is not going to be the same again, and people will need to find new ways of surviving and thriving. Here, the comfort and healing offered by mind-body-spirit books will be invaluable in the times to come. All of which can only mean a jump in demand for books in this segment.

Rukmini Chawla Kumar is Consulting Editor with Penguin Random House India.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.