The publishing industry in India is worth some Rs100bn ($1.6bn) according to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. And it is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 30 per cent.
Of the 90,000 new books produced every year in 24 different languages, Hindi publications make up about 26 per cent and English language books 24 per cent. It’s all part of the ‘globalisation’ of literature.
The pressure to write in English – and the queue of authors keen for their work to be translated – was a big topic at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival this weekend, especially during one session on the Global Novel.
“What is happening now with the Anglophone world, for better or worse, it has a certain power I think that is distressing in a lot of ways,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri (pictured above at the festival).
Of Indian descent, the author grew up in the US and now lives in Italy. She pointed out that La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, recently listed seven English-language books in its top 10 books of the year. Similar choices are made in the India press but listing foreign language books in a similar way would be unthinkable for, say, a top US newspaper.
India ranks behind only the US and the UK in terms of English language publishing and authors are feeling the pressure to write in English or have their works translated. But there are obvious disadvantages to writing and publishing in a second language.
Xioaolu Guo, a novelist and filmmaker of Chinese descent, mourns the fact that translated literature is never an immediate success unless the author is a big name on the global stage – a Nobel prize winner, for instance.
Guo lives in the UK and though she only learnt English a decade ago she writes in both English and Chinese. She says translation robs a book of some of its meaning. “I know that when I write in Chinese it’s never communicated very well at all,” she said.
As authors writing in English enjoy the spotlight, a western form of literature has shaped reading habits. Writing in countries like Japan and China is less narrative and more poetic, according to Guo, but it is the storytelling of western literature that readers have learned to demand.
It is much the same in India. Though there is still a large and diverse market for books in anything from Hindi to Tamil, some people in the industry fear that local writing will be bulldozed by commercial novels in a western style.
“The Hindi reader is not like the English reader,” says Mita Kapur, chief executive of Siyahi, a literary consultancy, and one of the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. “The reader in Hindi comes from an old storytelling and reading tradition, they question and debate and are more vocal about the quality of writing.”
By contrast, she says there is almost a peer pressure among English-language speakers, who buy books they see others reading. It is all part of the rise of commercial fiction in India, where Chetan Bhagat and Preeti Shenoy are the poster boys.
Kapur adds that India has begun to produce some reasonably good books in genres like crime, detective and fantasy. The industry is growing not just for popular novelists like Bhagat and reputed non-fiction writers like Gurcharan Das. It is also expanding at the other side of the spectrum, where authors pen what Kapur terms “buy-and-throw” books that cost some Rs100 ($1.62), often basic love stories, that fly off the shelves at India’s railway stations.
“That’s the kind of consumerism that’s crept into the industry,” Kapur laments.
The trouble is that just a few authors dominate the sector in India. They become brands and churn out multiple novels that remain top of the charts for unusually long periods. “Their publishers are very happy, they’re laughing all the way to the bank,” says Kanishka Gupta of Writer’s Side, an agency.
Beyond tastes and trends, there is another advantage to publishing in English, according to Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, an independent international publishing consultant. It is far easier to reformat your book for a mobile phone or e-book when it is written in English. And it will be a while before there is a level playground where this technology is concerned.
The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature provided one grain of hope this year, with two translated works making it onto the shortlist. Could this be the start of a trend?
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