Move over, Rushdie. That’s the message emanating from bustling Hyderabad, India, anyway, where a gang of literati recently met to ponder the bullish future of publishing in this nation that boasts an apparently fast-growing appetite for English-language books. Though only 2% of its population is capable of reading and writing in English, those 18 million people — and the billions more clamoring for their MTV — give India the greatest English-language book buying potential in the world. “In the next 15 years,” as David Davidar, CEO and Publisher of Penguin Books India, recently told the press, “there will be no dearth of good English writers and publishers in the country.” In fact, the US Department of State estimates the demand for English books at about 21% of all books purchased in India, making it the second-most-read language behind Hindi (at 28%). “The English-language books have an edge over other Indian languages only because most bookshops in our country keep only English books,” adds K.S. Padmanabhan of East West Books in Chennai. “English books are much more widely distributed than any other language.”
Realistic numbers for the nation’s book imports are hard to come by, but “we can assume it should exceed $60 million,” says Padmanabhan, and it is with this in mind that many US-based publishers have followed in the footsteps of their UK colleagues and set up shop in South Asia. Cyrus Kheradi, VP and Sales Director of Simon & Schuster’s International Division, reports that S&S manages a seven-figure business in South Asia (US & UK sales combined). Categories sold in India run the gamut from NYT bestsellers, non-fiction, and reference, to business, children’s series, self-improvement, and media tie-ins. Random House also does big business in India, with bestselling fiction, contemporary literature, business, promotional, and children’s books, according to Sandra Friedman, Senior VP International Sales. (Though the education sector remains a driving force in the Indian market, both S&S and Random have exited that business, and are targeting the trade book segment.)
Getting books to market in India can still be a problem. “The number of bookshops in the country is not enough to meet the demand,” Padmanabhan says. “While there are good bookshops in 7 or 8 of the bigger cities, most parts of India are not properly served by bookshops.” S&S sells primarily through national wholesalers and regional distributors/retailers, the biggest being India Book Distributors, India Book House, and East West Books, also known as Westland. Random House works with these same distributors, in addition to Rupa and Company and TBI. Foreign publishers also cultivate direct relationships with some Indian retail chains, such as Crossword, Landmark, and Fountainhead, the retail division of India Book Distributors.
The future of India’s book business is looking bright, partly due to higher educational enrollments, as well as government efforts to promote reading. And while there may be more than 10,000 publishers in India, not more than 20 of them are active in English-language trade publishing, suggesting some opportunity for publishers hot on the trail of the nation’s next Arundhati Roys and Vikram Seths. But as expected, sales can waver unpredictably depending on economic and political conditions. Friedman notes that recent turmoil in the region has all but sacked the tourist trade, stifling book sales. Still, she sees the growth of retail chains and online retailers such as Rediffusion, Landmark E-Tail, and Fabmart as a sign of better things to come. Kheradi also cautions that sales in India, along with those to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, are subject to the vagaries of everything from currency exchange rates and foreign investment to political tensions and piracy — the latter still a bitter nuisance for the nation. “In India,” as one Delhi author recently complained, “copyright means the ‘right to copy.’”