With looks like Hagrid the gamekeeper from Potterverse, 31-year-old D.N. Guruprasad is of a piece with the heaving shelves at Aakruti Books in Bangalore’s Rajajinagar area. He started the basement store in 2010 after dumping a career in software engineering, and soon turned a passionate publisher of Kannada books. Aakruti has brought out 17 of them till date. But passion aside, Guruprasad says this is a cruel business. “We struggle to sell even a thousand copies of a book.” Of late though, Guruprasad has found fresh reason to be excited: Partnering with Malayalam,Tamil, and Marathi publishers, he has acquired the rights to produce a local edition of Little, Brown and Company’s global phenomenon I Am Malala.
“The news of Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize has created a lot of buzz around an already terrific product,” he tells me, as he hands out invites to the launch scheduled for the following weekend. (The Kannada translation by journalist Jayprakash Narayan is the first of the four editions to be published.) “I am expecting to do at least 5,000 copies in a year.”
In my one hour at the store, several customers walk in enquiring about Naanu Malala. A few days later, Guru messages me: “The launch was a blast. Close to 400 copies sold in a couple of days!”
Every year, the announcement of major international awards triggers frenzied commentary on the windfall for publishers. The Guardian, for instance, says Indian author Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger—published by Atlantic Books in Britain and HarperCollins in India—sold over 1,600% more after winning the 2008 Booker Prize (pre-award week sales: 463; prize week sales: 8,033), citing data from industry monitor Nielsen Bookscan. Last year’s literature Nobel for Canadian author Alice Munro delivered similar returns, with sales of her titles reportedly spiking by anything between 4,424% (for English versions in Canada) to 4,213% (Italian translations). But such analysis is rare in India—despite boasting the world’s largest English publishing industry after the U.S. and Britain, and darlings of the award circuit like Adiga, Arundhati Roy (Booker, 1997), Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer, 1999), Kiran Desai (Booker, 2006), and Siddhartha Mukherjee (Pulitzer, 2011). Nielsen Bookscan is present in India too, but it did not respond to my questions.
Thomas Abraham, managing director of the Indian arm of Hachette Book Group, which owns Little, Brown, attributes the lack of interest to the fact that publishing is not often viewed as a business in India. “The truth also is that awards, with certain set exceptions, affect sales very little.” No major Indian award for works in English—the Crossword Book Award, the Hindu Fiction Prize, or the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature—has any significant impact on sales. Among international prizes too, only the Booker really matters. “It can take sales from zero to 20,000 to 25,000 levels,” says Abraham. “If there’s an Indian connection, you’re talking about sales hitting 200,000-plus. The Nobel and Pulitzer matter only if there’s a strong Indian subcontinent connect, or if the author were a big brand anyway.”
Malala ticks both boxes, even though she hasn’t won the Nobel for her writing. Abraham expects sales of I Am Malala to double post the prize, reaching the 100,000 league. (In contrast, he says the obscure French author Jean Patrick Modiano, who won the literature Nobel this year, wouldn’t find much love.) The book has led the HT-Nielsen Bookscan bestsellers list in India the past few weeks, and Abraham says there are plans for a children’s edition “which we’ll push hard to schools. We’re hoping she’ll come over, but that depends on her school schedule.”
Malala’s unsung contribution could be putting people like Guru on the map. V.C. Thomas, publishing director at Thiruvananthapuram-based Olive T—which specialises in Malayalam translations of foreign titles—played a key role in bringing together the four regional publishers. He says, “Even the names of some of our languages are alien to foreign publishers and agents.” That was the main hurdle, since at $500 to $600 (Rs 30,000 to Rs 36,000) for an initial print run of 2,000 copies, the rights didn’t cost the earth (they were negotiated before the Nobel). Luckily, Thomas managed a recommendation from an editor at Little, Brown’s U.S. office, who had attended the Frankfurt Book Fair Fellowship with him. The group then discussed price-sensitiveness, typical to the vernacular markets: The translations will be priced at about
Rs 250, compared to Rs 399 for the original. “Finally, Little, Brown was happy to deal with four language territories at one go,” says Thomas.
Thomas believes that success for the translations will attract global attention to India’s regional publishing scene. At the same time, he says the hype around the Nobel is fanning demand for spurious versions of the book, at least one of which is already doing roaring business in Kerala.
Guru meanwhile is grappling with a more philosophical question: Translating a hit may be good business, but it takes away from the focus on promoting homegrown talent. For the moment though, he has made peace. “People have rejected Kannada books because they aren’t happy with what’s generally sold,” he says. “We need strong content [like Malala] to bring them back.