Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
India is the second most populated country in the world with 50% under the age of twenty-five and 65% under thirty-five1. Children’s and young adult literature as a distinct genre is a recent pheno-menon in India. Traditionally, Indian children have been brought up on a vast repertoire of storytelling based on oral tales, folk tales2 and mythology. Literature in print is a relatively new concept. In addition, there is the sociological problem of parents who stress educational academic books more than reading for pleasure. Having said this publishing for children and young adults is booming. Today it accounts for Rs. 400 crores or nearly US$ 90 million per annum3.
Given that in India is multi-lingual, with eighteen regional languages though the lingua franca continues to be English. The market is not homogenous and readers are comfortable with more than one language. For this reason, publishers are competing with each other for a miniscule space. Translated into numbers, this space may seem attractive—the population is large and even a small percentage would mean substantial unit sales. In fact, schools and parents are seeking trade books that can supplement school syllabi. Publishers like Tulika are regularly asked to create such modules. (Tulika has also ventured into Braille editions that were recently distributed in Kolkatta schools for the blind.) Another factor that has contributed to the growth and interest in children’s literature is the transition from joint families to nuclear families. In joint families, older people would normally have told children stories but now parents in nuclear families need books for their children to fill the vacuum created by the absence of older storytelling elders. Also, there are more double-income families which means there is some disposable income available for books. There is also a perceptible shift from the stress on books for education to books for pleasure and entertainment. Children and teenagers too have greater exposure to books through various platforms, among them book exhibitions and direct marketing initiatives in schools like those by Scholastic; book clubs that circulate regular newsletters; book weeks that are organized by schools wherein authors are invited, there are regular interactions like Q&A, storytelling sessions, dramatizations of the stories and author-in-residence programmes; and storytelling nights that are organised in all cities and towns. A market that is as yet to be tapped, but is slowly opening up are Indian publishers venturing into board books for pre-schoolers. An exception is Vinay Diddee of Little Latitude4 who is selling beautifully packaged (story, illustrations and production) stories in sets of three, online.
Within this context, it is no surprise then that the sale of children’s books in Crossword bookstores is 20-25%5—it is the single largest category by volume. Most publishers are recording annual leaps in sales. ‘Scholastic brings out 100 titles every year. While the number of titles published hasn’t changed in the last five years, the sales figures have grown by 20 per cent. Puffin recorded a 30 per cent growth over the last year, while Radhika Menon of Tulika says it has seen almost a 100 per cent growth in the past three years.’6 Yet there is a voracious appetite for books across all segments of society. According to Ravi Lalwani, Managing Director, Mediastar who is an importer and a distributor of books and periodicals in India the bulk of his business is due to children’s and YA literature.
This is a very price sensitive market and that the majority can even now ill-afford low-priced books, there are many initiatives to encourage reading. For instance, NBT has mobile libraries which visit rural and urban areas; sometimes one week tours are organized with an author as well. The automobile industrialists, Mahindra and Mahindra, have begun to develop plans to establish over 250 libraries across the northern state of Punjab, as Sudha Murthy has been doing in the southern state of Karnataka. Pratham Books is a not-for-profit organization that publishes affordable and quality books for children in multiple Indian languages. Their mission is to see ‘a book in every child’s hand’ and democratize the joy of reading.7 A minimum Pratham Books print run is 12,000 copies, and each title is reprinted at least 5-8 times. Plus, Pratham publishes in eleven languages. This is especially remarkable given the low price of their books.
This boom in children and young adult publishing could also be attributed to a growing number of spaces where there are regular interactions between authors, illustrators and storytellers with their readers. For instance, there are now children’s annual literature festivals. One such is Bookaroo8 which is growing in popularity every year9. The organizers bring in international and Indian authors who have wonderful interactive sessions with children and parents. These could be storytelling and book reading sessions, workshops, craft corners based on literature, author signing sessions, Q&A with the children, dramatizations based on favourite pieces of literature, competitions, doodling on a wall under the guidance of an illustrator, or even an exhibition of prominent illustrators. There are also author trips organized across the city schools in the week preceding the festival. Some of the other festivals are UNESCO’s Ghummakad Narain and the one week festival organized by Anwesha in Guwahati, Assam where they include Assamese literature as well. Similarly, Scholastics organizes regular storytelling nights10 in various cities and these are becoming very popular as authors enjoy the interaction with their readers. Publishers like the storytelling nights and children’s book fairs as it opens up new spaces for promoting their books and authors; editors like it as this gives them an opportunity to meet prospective authors, gauge the reaction of the market to the books and look for new ideas; and children and parents like it, as it is an entertaining evening spent together. Apart from this, there are now regular ‘book weeks’ being organized in schools where there may even have an author-in-residence sitting in the school library for a couple of hours every day, chatting and discussing books. There is even an initiative by the writer Paro Anand called ‘Literature in Action’ where the medium of literature becomes an excuse to discuss sensitive topics like identity, relationships and bullying.
Children’s and young adult literature is a segment of publishing that is growing at such a phenomenal rate that it is impossible to predict what will be the scenario even three years down the line. But, it was lovely to see at least one-third of the little hands shoot up when Anthony Horowitz asked his audience, ‘Who wants to be a writer?’11 Choosing writing as a profession was an unthinkable option even five years ago in a country where emphasis is placed more on sound and steady jobs of doctor or teacher. So there is much to look forward to. Already, there are budding teenage writers12 who will be published in the coming months.
- Folklore and Children’s Literature, National Folklore Institute, Chennai, April 2006 http://wiki.indianfolklore.org/images/1/16/Ifl_21.pdf
- Statistic shared by Ravi Lalwani, Managing Director, Mediastar on 3 Dec 2010.
- In a telephone conversation with R. Sriram, ex-CEO and cofounder, Crossword Bookstores. 3 June 2010.
- “Baby boom”, The Telegraph, Sunday, 1 August 2010, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1100801/jsp/7days/story_12755840.jsp
- “The Li’L Wizard” Outlook, 13 Dec 2010 http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?268541
- On Sunday, 29 Nov 2010 at Bookaroo Festival, IGNCA, New Delhi.
- “Five go to Gutenberg”, Outlook Magazine, 13 Sept 2010. http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?266990
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant and critic based in New Delhi.