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South Asian book publishing: writing top class, big deals missing

Indonesia is seen as a rising star in Asia’s book publishing industry even as Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Myanmar are yet to make a mark.


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Updated: August 1, 2018

Of the nearly 2 million books published in a year globally, about half of them come from just two countries – the US and China.

According to International Publishers Association (IPA), a non-profit based in Geneva that studies and promotes global book publishing, China publishes roughly 28 per cent of the total, and the US 20 per cent.

Apart from China – Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia – have robust publishing industries and churn out quite a few international bestsellers. Indonesia is seen as a rising star in Asia, even as the book publishing industry is still at a nascent stage in Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Myanmar.

Though little has been written about the publishing industry in South Asia, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan authors are picking up top literary prizes and drawing the much-needed attention to the region.

Counted among the top five literary agents globally, Kanishka Gupta, the founder and CEO of Writer’s Side, is striking mega deals for writers in this region. Apart from the hundreds in India, he represents scores of authors from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He is also a literary agent to several Indian-origin writers based in Singapore, and signed up his first Afghanistani writer last month.

Gupta speaks to Asia News Network about publishing in South Asia and the catching up it has to do with the global publishing industry, and about India – the second largest English language market in the world.

How is the Asian publishing industry faring? Are publishing deals comparable to the biggest in top publishing houses across the world?

I think it’s an overcrowded market with a clear preference for big names, both for fiction and non fiction. It’s very very hard for a local debut writer to breakout in the current scenario. The advances for fiction are low to negligible. Most non-fiction writers find it hard to cover their travel and research costs with the advance they are paid for their books. One of my writers will be spending Rs 3.5 lakh (US$5,096) on the travel and research for a book for which he was paid less than Rs 1 lakh (US$1,459) by the publisher. We’re a mad, irrational lot!

What does a bestselling book mean in numbers?

A literary fiction would be considered a bestseller if it sells 5,000 copies. A commercial fiction needs to sell at least 10,000. I would say for a non fiction to be declared a bestseller it would have to sell in excess of 8-10,000 copies.

How has the e-book market changed publishing in Asia?

Ebooks and mobile books just haven’t taken off in India. The former constitutes around 5 per cent of the total sales of a book on India. I don’t even see audio books doing well in India. In other words there won’t/ can’t be a substitute for an old fashioned physical book.

Are more people reading than before? What sells more – fiction or non fiction? Which is the biggest market in Asia? Where does China stand?

Non fiction especially politics, current affairs and that unavoidable beast ie. Bollywood. Publishers are cutting down on fiction especially debut fiction and short stories. India is the second largest English language market in the world.

I think China might be bigger in terms of numbers. I think China has witnessed far greater success with digital formats as evidenced from the recent, much talked about IPO of the ebook firm China Literature.

South Asian writers, especially Pakistani, have a lot to thank you for. Your comment.

The list keeps on growing. I think I have cracked the Pakistani market and the publishers also take the Pakistani authors on my list very seriously. What is most heartening is the interest Indian publishers have shown in the English translations of pioneering Urdu writers from Pakistan and not just Pakistani writers writing in English.

In the last year, I have made inroads into the Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi markets and have signed up at least half a dozen writers from the two countries.

I represent several authors of Indian origin based in Singapore. Last month, I signed up Nemat Sadat – the first Afghani man to come out of the closet. His debut novel, The Carpet Weaver, has received offers from three major South Asian publishers. I have been averaging 100-110 deals a year. Almost all my books are sold to the top MNCs or respected indies like Speaking Tiger and Aleph. Our success rate is around 90-92%. At present I represent close to 45 authors from Pakistan.

Your biggest book deal to date…

Rs 40 lakh (US$58,380). But it was a two-book deal.

Are you experimental in the manuscripts you represent? Or you play safe and take on what’s clickbait, easy on the mind, and sure to sell?

I have a soft corner for off-beat, experimental books and I sign up such books fairly regularly. In the past year, I have placed a sci fi trilogy by a debut Sri Lankan writer, a book on the burgeoning hip hop scene in India, a travelogue set in Hazaribagh and a Goan writer’s short stories collection translated from the Portuguese to English. Most of the clickbait books I do are in the non fiction genre but I am no longer a very commercial-minded agent if you know what I mean.

You are also a writer. How do you wear these two hats?

I think agenting has completely overshadowed my writing career and abilities. I had no plans to write a second book but sometime in early 2017 I just started writing in a different format. The book was accepted by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger after a lot of heartbreaks and near misses. I write only when I am in my zone and that happens once in a blue moon.

You are Asia’s top-ranking literary agent and also the youngest? How difficult was it to get here?

When someone asks me how I entered publishing I really don’t have any straightforward answers. I don’t have the right qualifications. I don’t have any work experience to speak of. I was not seen as a complete con-man because I had a published novel under my belt and the support of stalwarts like (writer) Namita Gokhale. The first 3-4 years were bad and we were working mainly with mid list fiction and non fiction. Of course, there were exceptions like the stunning Anees Salim and some other authors. When you’re new and small there is less scope for bargaining and manoeuvring. I think that has changed now. Today, many of my close friends are editors in different publishing houses.



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Lamat R Hasan
About the Author: Lamat is an Associate Editor at Asia News Network.

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