Is the Indian publishing industry witnessing a new dawn?

Over a conference call from Gurgaon, Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu, founders and primary platypuses at Duckbill Books, are being rather polite, asking each other to begin the conversation about launching the publishing house last year. They sure have a lot to tell. Duckbill, after all, is not an imprint of Westland Books, but an independent publishing house for children formed in partnership with the latter in July 2012. It is Basu who says she’ll go first, then. “We had been working with children’s publishing for many years and after a while, we realised that we weren’t really getting the time to work on the books we really wanted to.” adds Ravishankar adds, “There were so many stories and genres we wanted to read. So, we decided to publish them ourselves.”

It may be too early to hope for an Indian JK Rowling to emerge, but things are definitely looking up for children and young adult (YA) books in India. Location courtesy/Mcubed library, Bandra. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Hatching books
The platypuses have always maintained that much more needs to be done with children’s books in India through focussed editorial and marketing efforts, and believed that a partnership with a publisher who has an established distribution network would go a long way. Now, in February this year, Rupa launched its children’s and young adult (YA) imprint, Red Turtle. Scholastic, too, came up with their YA imprint, Nova. Last week, Penguin announced that Inked, their new imprint, will be dedicated to publishing YA novels in India.

Young readers now have more to devour than Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl. Thanks to new children and YA imprints, Indian authors have a wider scope to publish their stories. Location courtesy/Mcubed library, Bandra

Books just like them
Ameya Nagarajan, editor of Inked, says the YA space in India was largely imported, and that’s where Penguin saw the opportunity to explore the segment. “Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter are great reads, but children today also want to read something home-grown, something that is as diverse and versatile as them. For instance, there is a transition a child makes from being an 11-year-old to a young adult, and looks for a love story. We need that love story to operate in his/her newly-formed world.” Children and YA books weren’t absent from the list of titles by Indian publishers but an imprint certainly helps market and distribute these books better. Rupa, for instance, has published numerous children’s books by Ruskin Bond, but having a separate imprint translates into better marketing and promotion for the books. 

This year, children can expect to read about Maoist groups, soul eaters and a 14-year-old boy playing detective in upcoming books. Location courtesy/Mcubed library, Bandra

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, editor at Red Turtle, says, “There is a general consensus among publishers that we cannot ignore the growing market of children and young adult writing. Yet, all we see in our bookstores is The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid giving some popular adult books a run for their money. To be able to replicate that sort of success, you need more focus and a concentrated effort, which gets lost somewhere when children and YA books are clubbed with books for adults.” YA readers are also quite conscious about not being considered ‘children’, and that applies to the literature they pick up, explains Tina Narang, managing editor, Scholastic. “We launched Nova to engineer the idea that Scholastic is more than being about children’s books.”

YA literature, adds Basu, as a separate category has emerged in India over the past five to six years, but they weren’t really marketed that way. “We’ve had Terror on The Titanic by Samit Basu, No Guns At My Son’s Funeral by Paro Anand and The Grasshopper’s Run by Siddhartha Sarma, which was ironically awarded The Crossword Book Award in Children’s Literature category.”

Stronger, fresher voices
It isn’t just raining children and young adult imprints — publishing houses swear to get newer, stronger voices, too. So, you could pin ample hope that the next YA book you pick up will not be a Harry Potter doppelgänger, and the children’s book some distant cousin of a good ol’ Enid Blyton. While all publishing houses have books by renowned authors such as Ruskin Bond, Paro Anand and Ranjit Lal on their lists, their vision to find new authors is unanimous.

There is also an understanding among publishers that fun books needs to be published for fun’s sake, and that morals and preachy endings are best left to lurk in dark corners inaccessible to their unsuspecting young readers. Duckbill, for instance released RamG Vallath’s Oops, The Mighty Gurgle, which is about Gurgles (genetically-modified pumpkins)who left Earth because they feared being crushed into pumpkin juice. Red Turtle released Tik-Tik, The Master of Time by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, which is about two protagonists on a planet where people don’t grow as fast as they do on Earth, and are in a hurry to become taller.

Serious about good books
The YA segment, which is largely synonymous with fantasy and romance, looks even more promising with publishers keen on publishing ‘serious’ themes, too. Nova’s new book, What Happened To Regina That Night by Rahul Srivastava is a thriller set amid a tribal area in the fictitious town of Antarpur.

Srivastava says that the trend of multiple players in children’s and YA publishing was waiting to happen, as was the exploration of more genres and serious themes. “As a young adult, I remember scouring books to read about issues, too — the Maoist movement, for instance. And there will always be young adults who still want to know where we stand about that.”

Red Turtle’s Guns On My Red Earth by Swati Sengupta is about a 14-year-old child who is a soldier in the Maoist areas of Bengal and wants a way out. Inked will publish Karma, which is about a teenaged protagonist struggling with cultural shock. After moving to India from Canada, she must also deal with the aftermath of the Sikh riots. Duckbill recently released Jobless Clueless Reckless, a witty account of Kavya who has to come to terms with growing-up pangs, boys and strained familial relationships.

Lubaina Bandukwala, consulting editor at Nova, says she is also scouting for non-fiction manuscripts written for young adults. “I’d love to print some great non-fiction on travel for instance, something that introduces young readers to the charms of a new destination and makes them footloose.”

In November, Duckbill will launch two books in their Not Our War series (non-fiction). Wanting Mor (mother) is a book about children growing up in Afghanistan and White Zone is about those growing in Iraq. “There’s also very little historical fiction written for children and young adults, or even horror for that matter. It would be interesting to see what comes out of these genres in India now,” says Ravishankar.

Ghosh adds that she cannot get enough of retellings of mythological stories. “To rephrase that — good retelling of mythology. They are timeless and wonderful things could be done with them.”

Reaching out
You can be sure that no publishing house is drumming their fingers near their laptops, waiting for that great manuscript to land in their inbox. Marketing, promotions and scouting for manuscripts, too, has taken a new lease of life. Last year, Duckbill held writing workshops in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. “We were surprised at the quality of writing that came up at the workshops. In fact, last month, we published two books which were written by the participants at our workshops. Many others are still working on their books,” says Ravishankar.

Red Turtle’s ongoing author hunt invites pieces from those between the ages of eight and 15. Manuscripts will be judged by Ruskin Bond and Chetan Bhagat and the top 40 entries will be published by the end of this year.

Apart from book reading and a social media presence, and releasing book trailers on YouTube, publishers are trying to understand their audience deeply to sell their books better. Inked, for instance, has built an online forum for young adults on their website.

Hemali Sodhi, marketing manager, Penguin, says, “It is a distinctive segment and has a strong need to connect to each other. On Inked’s website, they could log on, create forums, publish stories and write about what really matters to them.” Bandukwala agrees. “At Nova, we are trying to reach out to student bloggers, for instance. We’ve realised that book readings don’t really end up drawing too many young adults to the bookstores, so we are going to them.”

The arrival of multiple children and YA imprints, says Basu, only means that the space will be more robust. “Till now, it was only a few of us speaking about the issues we face in children’s publishing. Now, with so many participants, that voice will get stronger. Hopefully, children’s books at bookstores will finally see the light of day from some far-off corner they are in now.”

The best of times
Author Jash Sen’s debut novel, The Wordkeepers, was released by Duckbill in January this year. The book is the first of the trilogy and is set towards the end of Kaliyug. “I loved mythology even as a child, and the tales of the nine immortals just stayed in my mind.” Sen, 41, was a “marketing brat” in the US before moving to UK to teach mathematics. She admits that the book was not meant to be for young adults. “I just wrote the story in my head, and perhaps because I had spent so much time with young adults, it came to me effortlessly.” These are interesting times for Indian publishing, she says over the telephone from her home in Kolkata. “Thanks to all the imprints coming up, we can be sure that our books will see some very interesting protagonists. The voices will be gritty and unapologetically grey. This is a great time for authors to experiment with children and YA books. I, for one, would love to write a humourous book, something like Lemony Snicket does—full of angst and disasters, yet so hilarious.”

Journalist Swati Sengupta’s first book, Guns On My Red Earth, will soon be launched by Red Turtle. It tells the story of a 14 year old boy who works in a Maoist group. “ While some teenagers live secure lives, there are also those who have been compelled to beg, steal or even kill for livelihood,” says Sengupta. “Adults may think that these ‘different’ teenagers living under different circumstances would not be interested in each other’s lives, but that’s a misconception. There are hundreds of young boys like the character in my book, Shanto. Their stories are fascinating, moving and distressing. It will touch young adults because it is rooted in reality. If you travel any day to Lalgarh or Latehar, you are likely to find someone like him.” Sengupta says she is glad that publishers are now taking the risk of publishing such stories written by unknown writers, too. “It’s not that YA readers are only interested in fantasy and romance; they are curious about everything. And it depends on whether one is willing to take that chance and give them something different,” she says.

Jobless, Clueless, Reckless
Author Revathi Suresh’s debut novel, published by Duckbill, is a coming-of-age story of Kavya who is dealing with her mother’s distance and father’s absence

Eliza Crew’s YA book, to be published by Inked, is about Meda Melange, who has lost her mother. She lives in the shadows and eats souls. The book traces her journey between good and evil

What Happened To Regina That Night
In his book, which will be released by Nova, 14-year-old Kabir finds him amid a mystery of a murdered nun in the fictitious town of Antarpur

Tik-Tik, The Master of Time
This book by Musharraf Ali Farooqi was published by Red Turtle. Here, Tik-Tik lives on planet Nopter and struggles with not growing too tall 

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