Have you recently walked into any bookstore in India and found yourself gobsmacked by the sheer number of ‘bestsellers’ on the racks? The next time you find yourself in the ‘Indian Fiction’ section of your local book shop, conduct this little experiment. Pull out books at random and keep a score of bestsellers versus non-bestsellers. When I did it, on twenty draws, I got fourteen of the former and six of the latter.
Now such an incident can barely pass without one’s curiosity being piqued. So I fanned out five of these books in my hand to see if I recognized the publisher or the author or the title. (I’m no veteran, but I’ve been in publishing long enough to know the weighty names.) I didn’t. Not even one.
Here are a couple. Have you ever heard of A Dilli Mumbai Love Story by Abhimanyu Jha? Or of You were my crush, until you said you love me by Orvana Ghai and Durjoy Datta? Both titles claim to be bestsellers on their covers, and in the case of ‘Crush’, it has apparently sold more than 100,000 copies. In a market where most publishers break even on 2000 copies and make a profit on 3000, that’s an impressive number indeed.
So what gives? If the book has truly sold a hundred thousand copies, where are all the readers who like it? Where is the fanfare? Why aren’t its authors literary superstars? Why is the book not a classic, and why isn’t it being made into a movie? Why aren’t foreign agents fighting over publication and translation rights? Why do the authors of these books still have to be introduced? Surely if you have sold 100,000 copies, you’re already a household name?
Well, not quite. First of all, tracking down book sales is a notoriously difficult job, especially in India. It’s quite simple for an author to arrange for friends and relatives of his in different cities to buy up copies – one or two at a time – from stores. Rumour has it that there are agencies that offer this ‘service’. You sign up, they send shoppers to buy copies of your book from physical and online retailers, and at the end you pay for it all. The retailers love your title because it’s selling, your publisher’s happy because the retailers are ordering, and you become more liked because you ‘delivered’. Everyone’s happy.
The other way to achieve volume sales is to fight on price. Most of the ‘bestsellers’ you see on the market today cost under a hundred rupees. Turning out an edited, good-quality book for that price is impossible at current printing and distributing rates. So how much of a margin do these publishers get on each sale? How much do their authors receive as royalty? These are all hidden questions. On the surface we see that it has sold so many copies in so many months. Once again everyone’s happy.
You could say that Indian mainstream publishing is now divided into two distinct streams. In stream one are publishers who pay their authors advances, give them editors and designers, arrange launches, take care of sales and distribution etc. These guys aim to sell 2000 copies a year on average per title per year. In this stream there is much jubilation if a book crosses 5000 copies, and reaching 10,000 copies deserves a full-blown banquet.
In stream two are publishers who pay no advances, do little to no editing, compromise on paper quality and design, and price their books so low that margins are near zero, if not negative. These guys sell – if their claims are to be believed – upwards of 10,000 copies of each title. They have to, one imagines, to stay afloat. Their authors see little recognition in the mainstream, and they seldom get paid.
On social media and the internet, though, they’re rockstars. All their titles on e-retailing websites get hundreds of ratings and rave reviews. Once again, though, it’s important to note that ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ these days don’t have to be real. There are firms that will deliver thousands of likes to your Facebook page for a few hundred rupees. Comments and followers are also available similarly, on demand.
As an author who has always been associated with publishers in Stream One, it would be too easy for me to knock the other side down. But I’ve come to accept it as part of the business. After all, the field is big enough to accommodate both streams, and as long as there isn’t rampant illegal activity, who am I to point fingers at a free market? Each author must make his own choices, just as each publisher must. All I can venture are opinions and observations.
But what this foray into publishing has taught me is to be wary of the ‘bestseller’ tag on books. There was once a time when I used to be impressed about golden star labels on books, but now I just smile and move on. I am thoroughly contented, for now, to be a non-bestseller.
Image Courtesy: Indie Publishing Success