August 09, 2020
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Penguin's hugely profitable union of desi and pardesi, bestsellers of the last 15 years and a spiritual touch to book launches.

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illustration by Jayachandran Come to think of it, opening the doors to foreign players wasn’t such a bad idea for Indian publishing. When Penguin opened its India office 15 years ago, Indian English authors were a more endangered species than lion-tailed monkeys. Not anymore; new IWE writers seem to be spilling out of every pavement bookstore and Page Three in the country. Penguin India itself boasts of over 500 titles in print, churning out 50 a year. A far cry from its first year’s pathetic crop of little over a dozen titles. Just how fruitful this union with a pardesi has been is evident from the Penguin family gallery that decorates the walls of their three-storeyed office in Delhi. Leading the litpack is their first-born and favourite, Shobha De. Her all-time bestseller, Starry Nights, was a uniquely Penguin production. Others follow in a curious mix of the mundane and literary: Maneka Gandhi, Khushwant Singh, Ruskin Bond, Vikram Seth, Mark Tully, Manju Kapur, Romila Thapar, Gita Piramal, R.K. Laxman, Anees Jung...

illustration by Jayachandran Bestseller lists are notoriously unreliable. But this one is from the publisher’s own records, and points to the hardly edifying reading habits of Indians. When Bibliofile asked Penguin India to give us a list of their top 10 books in the last 15 years, here’s what they came up with: Lajja by Taslima Nasreen; India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra et al; May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons by Elizabeth Bumiller; History of India—Vol 1 by Romila Thapar, Hindu Names by Maneka Gandhi; No Full Stops in India by Mark Tully; Delhi by Khushwant Singh; Starry Nights by Shobha De, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Unveiling India by Anees Jung. (N.B. Not counting the books that are prescribed reading for tourists and college students, the book that outsells most others is a list of Hindu names!)

illustration by Jayachandran Judging by this list, the invention of that ingenious marketing idea called the Book Launch has done little to boost book sales. Perhaps they need to take some lessons from an NRI writer who has done the next to impossible: climbed up into America’s bestseller list. Readers attending one of her book launches say it’s a spiritual experience—not the reading from her works but the incense smoke and sarod and sitar music that accompanies the reading.

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