The secret to writing a bestseller in India

By Mukti Jain Campion
Jaipur, India

  • Published
Books on a shelf

India is on course to become the world's most lucrative market for English books, but it's no longer the traditional English authors whose work is flying off the shelves. So what is the secret to writing a bestseller there?

The Indian market for English books is booming.

Third only to the USA and Britain, it's set to become the biggest in the world as India's middle class continues to expand rapidly over the next 10 years.

Keen to get a piece of the action, international publishers are flocking to set up offices in India, while many canny Indian publishers have already been reaping big rewards from backing emerging homegrown talent.

India has a demographic profile very different to the US or Britain, with more than a third of its population under 30.

With literacy on the rise and a fiercely competitive education and work environment, English has become established as the language of the new middle class.

Book sales are demonstrating that these young urban Indians, with more disposable income than ever before, are hungry for books that will develop their English and help them to succeed on college campuses and in the globalised offices of corporate India.

So what are Indians reading? It used to be Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse, but no longer.

Jeffrey Archer is the most successful foreign author in India. He now launches his books in India before anywhere else and his book-signing tours are big crowd-pullers. He puts his success down to the nature of his protagonists.

"The Indian race is an aspiring race, and my books so often are about someone coming from nowhere and achieving something, which is what every Indian believes will happen to them - and that's a wonderful thing."

Business books, self-help books and books about India written by Indians are all selling well.

But the biggest growth has been in commercial fiction, led by a banker turned author called Chetan Bhagat whose books have become a publishing phenomenon.

His first novel, Five Point Someone, published in 2004, was a laddish tale of student antics and young love set on a college campus. It became a huge bestseller, opening up a previously untapped mass market of young readers.

His subsequent books have also all been fantastically successful, turning him into a nationwide celebrity.

Bhagat ascribes his success to being able to catch the zeitgeist: "India is seeing a lot of change in terms of economic development and change in values and each of my five stories has connected with the youth audience in a way that other books have not. That's why they continue to patronise me and be my fans."

His books are often criticised for dumbing down but it is the very accessibility of his language that attracts readers for whom English may be their second or even third language and who may previously have never bought an English book.

While Indian authors like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy have won great international acclaim, their style of literary fiction is largely inaccessible to the majority of Indian readers.

Today there are many hundreds of Indian authors trying to emulate Bhagat's success, writing in simpler language, devising fast-paced narratives with plenty of humour and, most importantly, a finger on the pulse of modern urban Indian life.

Jaishree Misra is an Indian-born novelist who lived in Britain for more than 20 years, where her first novel Ancient Promises was published. She has now switched to writing commercial fiction and moved back to live in Delhi.

Image caption,
World Book Fair was in Delhi in March

A three-book deal for a chick-lit series beginning with Secrets and Lies was commissioned by Harper Collins in Britain but has actually won her more readers in India.

The plots feature jet-setting Indian characters, glamorous foreign locations and the prose is liberally sprinkled with luxury designer names. She has been more than willing to adapt her style for Indian readers.

"I am now trying to keep my language a little simpler than before. As it is in the world of commercial fiction, you have editors breathing down your neck saying: 'Don't use big words.'

"I would rebel against that in the past but now I understand. I'd rather not lose these people who are buying books in hundreds of thousands."

So what else does it take to write an Indian bestseller? Kapish Mehra of Rupa, who first published Chetan Bhagat, has these words of advice.

"There is no formula. You have to keep on looking for what the reader is expecting. Is there a certain sort of aspiration that today's youth have that is not being fulfilled?

"You have to constantly engage in dialogue with your target market, to speak to the reader in the language they want to be spoken to."

And he is optimistic that, for those who can crack it, the rewards will prove worthwhile.

"Today we have three generations of English-speaking Indians, and that will continue to grow. With every new generation we are obviously creating a bigger market."

Move Over Wodehouse, Mukti Jain Campion's radio documentary on the changing reading habits of Indians can be heard online at the above link until 11:30 GMT 10 May 2012