Children’s book publishing in India has left Enid Blyton’s monopoly far behind, with a wide range of new players taking on this hungry market
This fall, one of India’s most interesting independent publishers is doing the impossible. “We sold the Japanese back to the Japanese!” exclaims Gita Wolf, publisher of the popular Chennai-based children’s book publisher Tara Books, whose 20-year outfit might be the only book business to employ a team of artisans full-time. A fold-out book by a Japanese illustrator called Knock! Knock!—the result of workshops in Japan and Chennai— shows us a little girl coming home, says Wolf, excited about the five publishers from around the world (Japan, Italy, Portugal, Korea and India) that will publish a book her team originated. A textile book, block-printed by hand, will soon be on display at England’s Victoria and Albert Museum, she adds—featuring a Mata-ni-Pachedi (traditional hand painting) artist from Ahmedabad. “And the Indian market is playing a much larger role in our sales. It used to be a third of business earlier, now it forms half.”
The worker-owned collective—now operating out of the appropriately named Book Building in Thiruvanmiyur, which houses a bookstore gallery and large murals (it used to work out of small rented flats, says Wolf)—distributes its own books and has its own production unit, keeping its product close. Tara’s signature books, full of traditional art and ethnic craftsmanship, have found a stable audience in a tough market. It is one of the pioneers in a burgeoning segment of India’s publishing industry.
Children’s books form a large chunk of many publishers’ revenues in book- buying India. Big publishers as well as independents are looking at this fertile market, and the many publishing houses now solely devoted to it indicate it is here to stay—with eclectic new subjects, competitive production values and international-level aesthetics which are sustaining its audience’s interest in the local market. Scholastic India, Tulika Books, Pratham Books, Katha and the Children’s Book Trust (CBT) are among the many players in this segment, in addition to new outfits which have sprouted a presence on online book sites, such as FunOKPlease, Indian Thought Publications, Chitra Publications, Aladdin and more. We spoke to four of India’s children’s book publishers: Tara Books, Puffin India (Penguin Random House India’s children’s book division), Young Zubaan and Duckbill, among the most prominent of an ever-increasing fleet in this genre.
“We started from the creative side of things, not really from the business side, in 1994,” recalls Tara’s Wolf. “A couple of friends at Cholamandal [an artists’ village in Chennai] got together to create the kinds of books that we would like. We started in a very small way with just a couple of titles. Over a period of time, some friends have joined me, and it’s a worker- owned collective; the people who own it are running the place. From a business point of view, we have worked intuitively. The growth has always been organic.”
Tara started with four or five books a year, and it is now up to 16 or so, with a backlist of 100 plus titles. “If we think something needs to be done, we do it. From the beginning, we’ve gone our way. We’ve established a kind of trademark. People accept unknown authors because we give that sense of quality. We keep pushing the boundaries. Obviously we want to sell and survive, but we are happy to take a risk.” Small print runs of 3,000 (unfortunately a standard-sized print run in India even in mainstream publishing) can lead to big sales; Wolf says Tara reprints up to 50,000 to 100,000. “Before, our books were seen as expensive. Now, movie tickets have overtaken the price of a paperback. Our paperback list has been a success.” The downside is imitation, that not-so-sincere form of flattery; Wolf says Tara’s books are often copied, and that products are even made off them.
The team of 11 in the office includes editorial and other staff, with a total of 22 including the full-time artisans, says Wolf. The production unit was set up by one of her partners, C Arumugam, who is a screenprinter (he is described as an eclectic man involved in various activities, including street theatre). “We had gone to see him—he was working with six other people, we saw his work, kept under his bed. Tara set him up properly. People keep asking him, ‘How do you ensure production quality?’ That quality you can only ensure at a small level.”
The Very Hungry Lion was Tara’s first big breakthrough. “At the time, you didn’t have offset printers. I needed to take a sample to Frankfurt, so I had the book screenprinted. I sold it to a Canadian publisher, Annick Press, who wanted the book just the way it is, printed on handmade paper! With the sale, we were able to set up this unit, which is one of our more successful units, creating jobs for people and utilising local skills.”
Then a Japanese publisher was sent The Nightlife of Trees, with silk-screened illustrations by Gond artists Durga Bai, Bhaijju Shyam and Ram Singh Urveti. “He was very worried: ‘When will it come, will it have bugs?’ He published Nightlife in Japan using his own money. It’s such a success that it’s gone into reprints—67,000. When other publishers saw how successful the book has been, we got more orders. You need someone to have that vision. Everyone else kind of follows.”
Duckbill, run by Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar since 2012, is another special enterprise—in that a children’s book author is co-publisher; Ravishankar, who is a former Tara author and one of the early stars of Indian children’s books publishing. This independent’s list of 30 and counting includes children’s books (starting from readers of age 6) and Young Adult (YA) fiction.
“Our books have been shortlisted for all the awards available for Indian children’s books, and feature regularly on bestseller lists and recommended reading lists for schools,” says Basu, citing accolades including the Crossword Book Award for Children’s Books (Timmi in Tangles) and two Crystal Kite Awards (Petu Pumpkin: Tooth Trouble and Bonkers!). What do her readers want? “I think children’s books have changed more than the audiences. The majority of the audiences still want books which ‘teach’ something, though this has been changing steadily. While there is still a large educational component, they have also started being more varied and unusual in terms of stories and ways of telling stories.” Her forthcoming titles include coming-of- age novels by Andaleeb Wajid and Rupa Gulab—one dealing with adoption and the other about coming to terms with a neglectful mother, a middle-grade novel by Mitali Bose Perkins about tigers in the Sundarbans, “a very unusual story set in a home for kids with special needs” by debut author Zainab Sulaiman and a collection of poetry by environmentalist M Krishnan: proof of this variety.
“There’s been a paradigm shift since I came into children’s publishing in the mid-90s,” says Ravishankar. Till then, there were hardly any publishers apart from CBT and NBT [National Book Trust] doing children’s books, she recalls; suddenly, there were small independent publishers like Tara, Tulika and Karadi Tales. “It was exciting being in children’s publishing at the time. Since there was little in the way of precedent, we felt we could do anything. And at Tara, we did! Tara published black-and-white picture books, with just one other colour, books where the illustrations were glued in by hand, screenprinted books. Then Harry Potter happened and the big publishers suddenly woke up to the possibility of children’s books. Puffin restarted operations, Scholastic came to India and children’s publishing in India began to change. There’s genre fiction being published, there are stunning picture books being produced. I feel we’re on the verge of some really exciting times.”
Duckbill’s agenda focuses on change. “Our aim is to create books for Indian children which help them understand the complex contemporary world,” says Ravishankar, whose wonderful absurd verse (which has always existed in Indian folk literature, she reminds us— “I’ve loved nonsense ever since I discovered it”) made her popular. “They are imbued with the values that are important for our times: the equality of all races, religions and classes, tolerance, justice and kindness. Themes like homosexuality, single-parenting, war and class differences are rare in Indian children’s books. While publishers like Tara have created beautiful and unusual picture books, Duckbill addresses the huge gap in books for older children with creations which have fun, whimsy and experimentation in form and content.”
As an author who is now producing books in this genre, what does she see as its biggest challenges? “There’s still not enough review space in print magazines for children’s books, there aren’t enough awards for children’s books, and there’s not enough institutional sales to schools and libraries, which means children’s authors never earn big enough royalties to keep them economically independent and able to put more time and energy into writing books for children,” says Ravishankar.
Basu says the biggest challenges are distribution and physical retail. “Children’s books sell more in brick-and-mortar bookshops, because except for Ruskin Bond, no children’s author in India yet has achieved national name-recognition. So online sales—whether of the printed book or the ebook—are fairly low. With the diminishing of spaces and commerce- driven selection of books in retail spaces, it becomes difficult to find shops which will stock books. Also, there is a general disdain for Indian books for Indian kids and young adults—with a certain amount of justification, given that the books have historically often wanted to ‘teach’ and were often condescendingly written. So kids who read often prefer foreign authors. It is similar to the situation about five years back for Indian popular fiction where people read foreign pulp. So, hopefully, that disdain will change.”
What of the new frontier of YA literature, which Duckbill approaches— is it promising a boom any time soon? “There is a big market for New Adult— the Ravinder Singhs and Durjoy Duttas of the world—but teens seem to be predominantly reading international titles. We publish a fair amount of YA titles—most of which are getting a lot of reviews and praise—but the sales are not very encouraging.”
Puffin India, the publishing house which houses Ruskin Bond, that venerable Anglo-Indian superstar of Indian children’s fiction, is part of a corporate giant, with over 250 titles in its backlist and 40 to 45 titles a year, including YA. Does it operate on a different playing field?
“The key is still finding the readers,” says Puffin publisher Hemali Sodhi, who has put her experience as Penguin Books India’s previous head of publicity to use in promoting her books at interesting venues; at children’s activities in malls, among other places. “There is a lot happening in the children’s space, for all publishers. There is so much scope. I think the way we tell stories is changing, the way we consume stories is changing, and the way we put word out to kids has to change. We’ve got to think of different ways of getting their attention.”
What’s new about this past decade or so? “Kids’ books are being taken much more seriously, and not just by us. There are a couple of challenges: even now, there is a reluctance on the part of parents to pick up Indian voices. We’re actually at a point where Indian writing was 20 years ago, when it was breaking out—it was a question of getting heard. It’s all a learning experience for us.”
A sumptuous new production of RK Narayan’s children’s classic Malgudi Days in colourful hardback is among this year’s releases. And new authors channel the many sub-genres of this field. There is PI Pojo, for young readers of detective stories, channelling Enid Blyton’s beloved detective series (The Famous Five and The Secret Seven among them). Nirmala and Normala, a comic send-up of popular culture by Sowmya Rajendran, is part of Inked, Puffin’s YA list. Even former president (and scientist) APJ Abdul Kalam, increasingly the driver of bestseller lists in all genres, finds an unlikely spot on this list with his Reignited: Scientific Pathways to a Brighter Future, a career-oriented primer in the joys of studying science.
What is the sales model here, and how is it different from an outfit like Scholastic, for example? “The Scholastic model of selling is different and it’s a huge advantage—they go directly to schools,” says Sodhi, who works with three commissioning editors and a product manager for international titles, among others. “Our books sell directly to stores, and online, though the growth is larger online in the adult section. Discoverability is very important—how do you discover a new voice, how do you see the illustrations, the packaging of an enhanced book?”
What about audio books success? “It all comes back to how good your content is. A lot of parents do read out to their kids and read aloud on iPads, and this drives a lot of our international sales,” says Sodhi.
The importance of Indian context? “Parents do want us to teach their kids about culture, traditional stories to pass on across generations. We try to do this in a fun, attractive way. It can’t be preachy, has to be retold in an imaginative way.”
Young Zubaan (YZ) plays the role of imprint on a different scale at Zubaan Books, India’s distinguished feminist publishing house, supplementing an already boutique list with a small selection of titles.
“As a feminist, and as a mum, as a book lover and publisher, I used to look around in dismay at the kinds of books available to Indian kids ten or more years ago,” says Anita Roy, publisher of YZ till recently. “As a feminist I was horrified by the innate sexism, as a mum I was uninspired to give any of these books to my kid, as a book lover I was turned off by sloppy design and generic illustrations, and as a publisher I was—well, basically, spurred on to do something about it! We set up Young Zubaan in 2004, and have published a slow but steady stream of titles over the past 11 years.”
She describes YZ’s early hit Younguncle Comes to Town by Vandana Singh, which she says made schools’ readings lists across the country. “It’s still one of my favourites: it makes me smile. And another one of our earliest projects, Zakir Husain’s children’s stories—The Magic Key series—translated by Samina Mishra and charmingly illustrated by Pooja Pottenkulam, have also done tremendously well in many regional languages through a creative and very successful tie-up with Pratham Books. There is the bestselling Premola Ghose’s Tales of Historic Delhi, a quirky illustrated tour of Delhi led by a familiar cast of animal characters— I know lots of kids who use it for their holiday homework projects—and the gorgeous The Honey Hunter, a recently published Sunderbans adventures featuring lots of bees, by Karthika Nair and Joelle Jolivet.
Ishani Butalia, YZ’s new head, ushers in several new interesting releases including Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (featuring 17 authors) and The Little Body Book, by Shruti Singhal. “The Dugong and the Barracudas by Ranjit Lal (a YZ author) is a young-to-middle readers story about a home-schooled little girl who starts going to a formal school and has to suddenly deal with other children; children who don’t necessarily understand her and therefore bully her about her weight and her difficulty adjusting,” she says. “Also forthcoming is Vikram and the Vampire from Natasha Sharma, which has a hilarious, quirky and unique retelling of the Vikram and Betal story from Sanskrit mythology.”
Who drives the list now? “At the publishing end, just me, with lots of input and inspiration from Anita,” says Butalia. “Our biggest challenge is having our books permeate many different levels of markets. It would be interesting to see what alternative models of marketing that are based on social networks and online marketing could do.”
“I think today’s kids are in a fantastic situation,” says Roy, who now lives in England. “There are more, and more inventive, and more imaginative and more challenging and more exciting books for them than ever before. The Harry Potter series was, of course, a game-changer, and turned adults on to the sheer exuberance and inventive pleasures of literature for children and young adults. Some of the most hard-hitting and gripping storytelling is happening in YA fiction worldwide—I just finished reading Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series and was completely blown away. I have no doubt that in the next five years or so, we are going to see a major boom in YA fiction writers from India—or rather South Asia more generally.”
Once upon a time, we had little to choose from other than Enid Blyton. With the popularity of homegrown fantasy series like Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy, here comes the next frontier in this genre too.