Tuesday, October 14, 2008

‘There is a thirst for non-fiction in India’

Interview: Mike Bryan, CEO and President, Penguin Books India

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Mike Bryan, 52, the CEO and President of Penguin Books India sits down at the outdoor café at the Taj Green Cove, at Kovalam, and stares out at the beach, he exclaims, “Isn’t this paradise?” Moments later author William Dalrymple stops by, and Bryan says, “Pirated copies of your books are being sold at major traffic signals in Delhi and Mumbai.”
“What are you doing about it?” says Dalrymple.
“We have been conducting raids,” says Bryan. “But these guys are always one step ahead of us. The one way to counter them is to sell at traffic signals ourselves but that is, of course, illegal.”
“Play it dirty, Mike,” says Dalrymple.
“I could get arrested for it,” says Bryan, and they both laugh.

Excerpts from the interview:

What sells more these days in India: fiction or non-fiction?
There is a thirst for non-fiction. There is an aspiration in most Indians to get on in their lives and careers.

In non-fiction, which genre sells the most?
Self-help books. If you read interviews of Bollywood stars or Page 3 personalities they are reading books by Paulo Coelho, Richard Bach’s ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ and Antoine de Saint Exupery’s ‘The Little Prince’. These are the perennial classics in this genre.

Management self-help books also do well. One example is Subroto Bagchi, the COO of MindTree Consulting. His latest, ‘Go kiss the world’, is a wisdom book. It is emotional, enthusiastic and written well. If you are looking for a book that touches the Indian nerve, it is Bagchi’s book.

What about literary fiction?
There is a market for that also. So you have books like ‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga and ‘Sea Of Poppies’ by Amitav Ghosh, both nominated for the 2008 Booker Prize short-list, and selling in prodigious amounts.

How has been your foray into local languages like Hindi and Malayalam?
We are about to launch in Malayalam. Between Hindi and Malayalam, we will be publishing 60 titles. Hindi is growing at the same rate as the English division.

How serious is the threat from audio and e-books like Amazon’s Kindle? Audio and Kindle are opportunities. Audio books have been with us for a long time. It is a small part of the market and will continue to remain so. As for e-books Penguin is selling quite a number of them. According to Amazon, it has sold 2.5lakh units of Kindle, so that is potentially a huge market. While e-books are the quick, easy, almost ephemeral way of reading, there is a move in the other direction.

What is that?
Producing books as art. These books have high quality binding, illustrations and paper. Recently, we published ‘The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel in this format and it sold well. We brought out Penguin classics, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Gustave Flaubert, created by major designers, priced at 100 pounds and it was a success. We just published the latest James Bond book, ‘Devil May Care’ in a limited edition with [car manufacturer] Bentley at 750 pounds and it sold out immediately. There is a community of bibliophiles who want top quality stuff. And I think it is bigger than we think.

Is this a surprise for you?
Not at all. I am a bibliophile myself and love beautiful books. What surprised me was the size of the market for these books.

You have announced that Penguin is planning an entry in Pakistan and the Middle East countries. How big is the market in these countries? There is a big English-reading population in Pakistan and they are interested in Indian writing because of a shared history. There is also an avid interest in India for Pakistani writers. This is potentially a huge growth area for Penguin India and its authors.

How good is Pakistani writing?
There is a great new wave of Pakistani writers coming up: Mohsin Hamid, the author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and Mohammed Hanif, of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ are examples of this.

What about the Middle East?
We are opening shops in Dubai because we expect Indians and Pakistanis as well as the expatriate population to buy our books.

Who is your most successful author?
I am not prepared to answer that. There are far too many, to mention any single one.

In terms of sales somebody must be No. 1.
I can’t possibly say it. It will be unfair to the other authors. But this is what I can say: mass market titles sell more than literary fiction.

What is the new development in Indian writing?
There is a wave of commercial authors coming up. Writers like Meenakshi Reddy Mahadevan, Anuja Chauhan and Chetan Bhagat. Earlier, there was only Shobhaa De.

Rupa’s Chetan Bhagat has sold lakhs of copies of his novels. Any idea why he is so successful?
Chetan Bhagat writes very well. It’s not literature, but he strikes a chord with readers.

Is Penguin looking for somebody similar?
Definitely. Of course Chetan could publish with Penguin if he wants. We would love that. However, I can’t do that to R.K. Mehra (publisher of Rupa). He is a good friend of mine.

What does Penguin hope to gain from the Kovalam literary festival?
It’s a great way to publicise writing of different genres and getting people together. There is nothing quite like an author talking about his book. Listening to Jaishree Mishra talk about her book, ‘Rani’, was very illuminating. For the public here in Kerala it is a great opportunity. I wish more local people were involved because they are missing out. The public needs to understand this is for them. It’s better than watching some awful quiz show on television.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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