Some of you might know that I’ve been traveling around India to visit a few of the country’s well-known literary festivals. Stay tuned for my extended thoughts on those. For now, I want to spend some time thinking about what books and reading mean in India.
Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of conversation at these festivals about the publishing industry in India. As I mentioned in my last post, there is something big happening in Indian publishing these days. In short, it is exploding. In my pursuit of what the “popular” means in Indian literature in English, I have to take a step back and take a wider view: what does that thing being published–the book–look like in India? Indeed, it has a cover and pages (although e-reading is a reality here in India too). It is placed neatly on shelves in homes and libraries and is sold in bookshops. My question is more about the relationship of the book to its Indian readers, to Indian culture, and to the economic realities that shape its presence in the everyday lives of Indians today. In effect, I’m treating the book as a cultural artefact.
Let me take a slight theoretical detour to explain why I think this approach is important to understanding what and how we read. The book, after all, is a product. It is the result of a whole set of forces and conditions that make it possible. For instance, we have the writers who require the time, training, and resources to assemble their creative energies into a book form. Then we have the publishers who select what texts get to be put into print, how many are printed, what their covers look like, how they are distributed, and how they should be priced. We could include the booksellers themselves who display the books and further shape the cost of certain editions. And then of course, we have to include the readers who also require the time, literacy, and resources to buy or borrow the book and then actually read the ideas in within them. There are still many more factors we could consider like the paper the books are printed on, the fossil fuels that are necessary to distribute the books themselves, even the very notion of a book (it’s still a relatively new one in human history) versus clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, or the Roman codex.
No, I’m not going to pursue these here. The point is to take seriously the idea that how a book (or any product) is made within its historical and social context gives us insights into what the people in that context think is important. This approach is called cultural materialism, which aims to show how our values are not just the result of “ideas” (they are), but also the result of the concrete, material, and economic realities of our everyday lives that make those ideas possible. Similarly, we can’t talk about books or literature by focusing solely on what authors think. Cultural materialism is an English major’s methodological version of “How It’s Made.” The fun part is that we get to describe the machine we see through our observations and research. And how the book is made in India is what I’m after.
The Nielsen Report
For the first time since 1976 a comprehensive study on the book industry in India was released in October 2015. Entitled The India Book Market Report, the findings describe a vibrant and growing publishing industry that has been garnering a lot of attention from global publishers interested in capitalizing on the upswing. Notably, India’s book market at the time of the report was valued at $3.9 billion, making it the sixth largest in the world and second amongst the English-language countries. The industry of buying and selling books grew at a rate of 20.4% each year between 2012 and 2015, and according to demographic trends the numbers will continue to rise. The literacy level for adults at the time of report was 74%, projected to reach 90% by 2020. Let’s remember, we’re talking about a nation whose population is estimated to reach 1.4 billion by then, surpassing China as the most populous nation in 2022.
The report also cited a “Youth Readership Survey 2009” claiming that a full one-third of the country’s inhabitants are between the ages of 13 and 35, with 25% of them, or 83 million, being “book readers.” For publishers wanting a piece of the action, this is very very good news. And they are certainly poised to pounce. Two of the larger recent mergers in the publishing world, Penguin and Random House and HarperCollins’ and Harlequin, have a substantial presence in India.
Mr. Nielsen, What’s a Book?
According to the same report an overwhelming majority, or 70% of this book market is attributed to “educational books”—textbooks, exam preparation books, workbooks, technical guidebooks—not the novels and non-fiction books, what are called trade books, that people like me grew up loving.
So I have to ask: what if the phrase “reading a book” in this study does not describe the private experience of choosing, starting, and finishing a complete work? Or the experience of imaginative transcendence that are the stuff of inspirational posters on your high school teacher’s classroom wall? What if “reading a book” in the context of this study means the literal act of reading words found in a book. Any book. Flipped through a travel guidebook? You read a book. Completed some math problems? You read a book. Consulted a technical manual? You read a book. To back this, Nielson further found that of 9,037 publishers in India (some have claimed this is low), 8,107 publish books for schools and universities. One might wonder too if being a “book reader” includes those who read only books in schools. Put another way: book readers don’t necessarily mean book buyers. Still, the numbers don’t lie. Books are being sold.
And your point is….?
Often those in the world of publishing talk about “books” as if they are the same as “literature” and talk about reading recreationally as if it’s the same as reading for work. (And yes, even the pleasure and work distinction I’m making here is problematic. Indulge me for a second.) When these categories are confused or tossed aside, as they certainly are at the literary festivals, or in universities, or even by publishers themselves, the details of the machine are ignored. Actually it becomes a different machine altogether. Then we’re not looking at “how it’s made,” we’re looking at how they believe (wrongly) that it’s made or how they wish it were made.
This matters because each of the institutions I mention (education, commerce, arts) have tremendous but varying influence on what “books” and “reading” mean. If, for instance, I am a publisher who knows that recreational readers tend to buy more books, build their own libraries, and gobble up the latest releases by their favorite authors, I’d be heavily invested in reproducing the image of reading a book to only mean reading a novel or memoir or history. I’d also know that by the virtue of their education, these particular readers are very likely to also buy their share of educational textbooks and professional textbooks. I might even discourage those readers from considering reading textbooks as “reading” or “books,” knowing that they’d read them anyway. I’d want my version of reading and books to be the only version that matters. I’d want you to believe that books are made this way.
Similarly, if I knew that it’s easier and more profitable to concentrate my energies on publications that are printed in English, I’d put my resources into serving, if not building, that market. I’d offer larger advances to authors who write in English and I’d distribute their work more widely, enable digital platforms, maybe even pay these authors to attend literary festivals. I’d probably get more excited about books that speak to an Indian audience that has more money, more education, more digital access, and more likelihood of travelling globally. And finally I might also price their works more competitively. Before you know it, books would be made this way.
You get the picture.