Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Chetan Bhagat Phenomenon: Boon or bane for Indian Publishing and Readership?

Note: This is an academic paper, not an opinion piece, except for the conclusion. Having been a part of this industry for over a period of five years, I have made it an honest and in-depth analysis, to give you an elaborate idea of the Indian commercial publishing industry.
Introduction
The year is 2004. A 30 year old investment banker, having just finished writing a novel on his college life, is going door to door of publishing houses in old Delhi. He has been rejected outright by twelve of them. They say that his writing style is too simplistic, unliterary, and some even call it bad; the topic he’s writing on lacks the broader societal landscape; some question his credentials and background to attempt writing a novel – his prized investment banking career doesn’t add value to his fledgling writing CV, and some conveniently choose not to reply at all. But he is persistent. He befriends the owner of a small publisher based in Daryaganj, who, seeing him in a hapless condition, takes mercy and gives him a shot. They estimate the number of copies he would sell, aware of the fact that in India, it’s only the elite who read works in English – the writings that are literary and descriptive; their bookshelves adorned with internationally acclaimed stalwarts like Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy, their writing style rich, layered and elegant unlike his.  Nevertheless he counts relatives, friends, and friends of friends on his fingers. The number adds up to, after a lot of optimistic extrapolation, slightly less than one thousand. The book is released with the first print run of one thousand. One year later, his book is the highest selling novel of India and its author, Chetan Bhagat, a phenomenon. What’s the catch here? That he is from IIT and his book breaks many myths about an institute of formidable repute? (Viswamohan) Or is it because he celebrates the loss of virginity among his characters (Mishra), which is unconventional and appeals to rebellious youngsters? 

Nine years have passed since. The Indian publishing industry has been a dumbstruck witness to all its prior predicted trends and speculations being given a toss by one man with no background in writing, no godfather in the industry. Four other novels and a work of non-fiction, besides myriad newspaper columns and Bollywood scripts, have come from his pen during this time, all of them bestsellers which touched a million copies mark within a few years from release. In 2008, New York Times called him ‘the biggest selling English language novelist in India's history’. In 2010, Time magazine named him as ‘one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World’. It looks like a life out of dreams, a rags-to-riches story and no wonder, in this country which believes in hero worship, Chetan Bhagat becomes one. But unlike the magnanimous international adulation that he has received, he has grown to be one of India’s most hated public figures for many reasons, his success included. 
For many who are his fans, he is a cult, an icon, a role model; a regular invitee to their college guest-lectures where, as he writes on his website, “his stellar education and diverse professional background make him the ideal person to share his thoughts and experiences” (chetanbhagat.com). He is someone who is approved of by parents, even those who can’t read in English as they are impressed by the very same IIT/IIM degrees in his author profile which earlier didn’t seem useful for his writing resume. For some, he’s like the superhero that had shown some spark when it arrived into the literary scene, but instead of saving the sinking ship with his popularity and reach, he has been instrumental in plummeting it deeper into the sea of mediocrity. For others, he never arrived on the literary scene – he remained an epitome of mediocrity. (Dasgupta)
It’s difficult to come up with one conclusion among these diverse and extreme opinions, each of which stands true in its own right. Therefore through this essay, I intend to analyze Chetan Bhagat’s impact on Indian publishing and readership, rather than analyzing his writing. This paper shall examine three aspects of Bhagat’s impact: (a) the birth of a massive young readership and its effect, (b) the emergence of commercial fiction and its quality, and (c) writing as a career post-Bhagat.
Readership: The birth of the middle-class Indian reader
The reason Bhagat  attained unprecedented success is because his work struck a chord with middle-class young India, the India that never read Indian writing in fiction, that held and still holds English in awe and fear, which belongs to the tier 2 and 3 cities of the country . Even to this day, almost ten years since his first book appeared in the market, his books don prime space in all the Wheeler bookstalls of even the smallest railway stations – from Guwahati to Ranchi to Kanyakumari. Kavita Bhanot, an erstwhile literary agent, relates in Forbes, “I have known young people who don’t usually read, reading his books. Most recently, I met a boy on the bus from Palampur to Delhi, who would not normally read, and was not so comfortable in English, reading The Three Mistakes..., slowly, but enjoying it, and proud too, to be reading a book in English.” This pride is what Chetan Bhagat delivered to the middle-class Indian reader, which has made his following loyal and huge with over two million fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter. Suman Gupta’s research paper sheds light on this trend:
Two surveys give some indication of the character and attitudes of this reading constituency: a CSDS-KAS (de Souza et al 2009) survey of social attitudes among Indian youth, and a NBT-NCAER (Shukla 2010) Indian youth readership survey. The CSDS-KAS 2009 survey uses data collected from around 5,000 respondents, aged between 14 and 34, more or less evenly distributed across the country with some booster samples from areas with high population density (towns); and the NBT-NCAER 2010 survey covered 3,11,431 literate youth (13-35 year olds), across 207 rural districts and 199 towns in India. The latter estimates the youth population of India to be 459 million (38% of the total), of which 333 million is literate. Of the literate youth, this survey indicates, about 25% read books for pleasure, relaxation and knowledge enhancement; and English is the preferred language for leisure reading of 5.3% of those (Hindi is for 33.4%, Marathi 13.2%, Bengali 7.7%). By these figures, the number of readers of an extraordinarily successful English language commercial fiction book is unlikely to exceed 4.41 million.

This survey was taken in 2009; five years after Bhagat’s arrival and the figures are whopping. 4.41 million constitutes a huge readership, something that India had not seen before. The author Samit Basu puts it rather succinctly, “[Chetan has] shown how wrong Indian publishers are when they explain away their failures to sell Indian fiction to large numbers of Indians by saying there are no readers. Of course there are readers; Chetan's managed to tell them they exist.” Bhagat’s first book Five Point Someone continues to be the most landmark book in his literary career, being the highest selling book of India till date. The book describes the other side of the reputed IITs and was an immediate hit in the audience. For the first time, an aspirant or someone who’s grown up listening to the huge hype built around the brand of IIT could vicariously become a part of its life. Ever since its inception, IIT’s entrance examination JEE has been considered to be world’s toughest examination (The Hindu) with over half a million aspirants from all across the country, mostly from middle-class India, undertaking it each year. Bhagat’s first book, dedicated to his alma mater IIT Delhi, busted all the myths related to the IITs in a gripping story. It worked in favour of Bhagat in two ways. First, it inducted a non-reader curious about the IITs into reading, and later hooked him with its simple language, which the reader could very well identify with. Chetan Bhagat, with his illustrious degrees and later on fame as an author, became a role model for aspirants.
To cater to the mass market and middle-class audience, the publisher Rupa had carefully tweaked around with the price point. All of Bhagat’s novels have been priced at an affordable 95 rupees (now it’s 140 rupees), which makes it possible for the young small-town high-school going student to buy and read what it is to be inside the IITs, to work in a call center, to have a love marriage, and how to make it big despite not getting into the IITs. As a bonus, the low price deters piracy, since at such low cost the profit margin for a pirated book becomes insignificant.
To keep the reader engaged, Bhagat implemented a lot of lessons he learnt during his IIT-IIM days. Along with the media buzz, he happens to be the first author to have his own website, his first books contained teasers of the upcoming books, he initiated the concept of selling signed copies at a premium price (chetanbhagat.com), and spent rather lavishly in the PR campaign of his books with grand launches roping in stalwarts like Shashi Tharoor to inaugurate his book. Though Bhagat claims himself to be destiny’s child (Dasgupta), having not anticipated his stupendous success before launch and counting prospective readers on his fingers before the release of his first book, Ankita Mukherji, a former assistant editor at a big publishing house which rejected Bhagat’s manuscript, writes in her autobiographical article with the Open Magazine:
[In the slush pile[1], there] came a professionally bound manuscript with perfect layouts and typefaces. Even more interestingly, the first page had a CD stuck on it which said ‘Read Me’. Feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, I followed instructions and up popped a multi-hued PowerPoint presentation. Swiftly and efficiently, it introduced me to the author (a hot-shot young investment banker) and his book (a coming-of-age novel about friends at one of India’s best-known colleges). But what came next absolutely took my breath away. A marketing strategy that would ensure the book became an instant bestseller: low pricing and buy-backs, tie-ups with the said academic institution and its alumni (all of whom, the author felt, would immediately want copies of his book). This author was clearly no pushover. If only he had written his manuscript with half the dedication he had put into his marketing plan!

Clearly, Bhagat’s success has not been serendipitous but a carefully calculated work, targeted to capture the mind-share of people from all across India.
Publishing: Emergence of commercial fiction
Chetan Bhagat is often credited with single-handedly revolutionizing the commercial fiction industry in India. When newspapers and magazines rightfully adorn him with sobriquets like The Paperback Messiah (Perur), The Game Changer, The Trendsetter, The Golden Goose (Sarkar), it’s but natural for him to comment on the era before him. Novels before Bhagat, as he himself says in an interview with NDTV, “targeted the elite and most often Western audience, and were written to win prizes” (Perur). There was no culture of commercial fiction and even if there was, it was frowned upon and there was apathy towards such writing (Bose, Forbes).
One of the first successful commercial novels before Bhagat was Anurag Mathur’s  The Inscrutable Americans (Rupa), published in 1991, but as Saugata Mukherjee, publisher of Pan Macmillan India notes, “[Mathur’s] success was not anywhere close to Bhagat’s phenomenal rise.” The possible reason that prevented Mathur’s book from pulling off a Bhagat on the Indian publishing scene can be aptly summed up in the words of Amitabha Bagchi, author of Above Average (2006, Harper Collins) – a book about a student’s life in IIT.  He says, in an interview with Forbes, “The interesting thing is that The Inscrutable Americans, a publishing phenomenon in its time (and still selling well today) was not able, at the time, to goad the rest of the publishing business into being more aggressive the way Five Point Someone was. Perhaps that is a product of the rise of a media culture that Bhagat was able to navigate successfully.” Bhagat’s success in this view is the result of his being at the right place at the right time with the right product.
Since Bhagat’s arrival, the Indian publishing industry has witnessed drastic changes. The first being how it transformed the definition of the word bestseller. Typical Indian ‘bestseller’ sold  between 3,000 and 5,000 copies; a true success is one that remains in print for years, with reprints of 2,000 copies or so every nine or 12 months (Tharoor). Bhagat’s novels, with sales of a staggering million copies a year, sparked off a trend that made publishers escalate the bestseller slab to a minimum of 10000 copies. The expanding market saw a burgeoning of myriad publishing houses with the passing years. As researched by Gupta:
The story of commercial fiction publishing is part of a larger story about the growth of the Indian publishing sector. In terms of absolute figures this is an impressively large and diverse sector. According to Pathak (2011), 12,375 publishers were registered with the ISBN India agency at the end of 2007, with an estimated 90,000 titles being produced each year, and with the industry showing an optimistic growth estimate of 30%.

The stories of independent publishing houses bring together another astonishing saga. Most notable of the local proprietary publishing houses is Srishti which immediately capitalized on Bhagat’s opening of the market. When Tushar Raheja, a fourth year student of IIT-Delhi in 2005, was searching for a publisher for his manuscript Anything for you, Ma’am, an IITian’s love story, as the subtitle blatantly says, Srishti immediately published it with a similar MRP of 100 rupees (flipkart.com). The book was an instant bestseller. What followed was the creation of the hundred rupee fiction market and new publishers like Mahaveer and General Press jumping in to grab a piece of cake. It seemed as if every engineering college student with a girlfriend scribbled his love story, aspiring to be the next Chetan Bhagat, with titles like Of Course I Love You (2008), Oops! I Fell in Love! (2009) etc. authored by engineering students flooding the market and selling like hot cakes. Srishti churned out bestsellers after bestsellers, its raw manuscripts most often unedited, shoddy, in Hinglish, didn’t bother the mass market readers, rather it connected well with them since it spoke to them in their language and there was no need of a dictionary whatsoever while reading. There is an upward trend not only in readers but also authors. Srishti’s proprietor Jayant Bose notes, “Earlier we would get 100 book proposals a year, now we get around 100 book proposals a month,” (DNA). This alarming rate of budding writers owes itself directly to Bhagat who made novels an affordable and readable commodity. Most often these new lad-lit writers, after reading Bhagat et al, think that they too can write like Bhagat and driven by the live example of Bhagat’s success, hope to make it big. The new publishing houses only help proliferate their novels in the eager consumer market.

Giants like Penguin and Random House after keenly watching the post-Bhagat period for over three years shed their snobbery and entered the commercial fiction market to wrestle with established Indian players like Rupa and Srishti. Penguin came up with Metro Reads, which promised to publish commercial fiction books ensuring Penguin-like quality and Random House brought forth Ebury Press, to take forward the domain of commercial fiction. Unable to find the next Chetan Bhagat on their own, they started utilizing their deep pockets and lured the bestselling authors of Rupa and Srishti with huge advances. Authors like Ravinder Singh, Rashmi Bansal, Durjoy Datta, Ravi Subramanium, Preeti Shenoy have all been picked by these big houses.

The literary industry defined by Chetan Bhagat encountered another phenomenon seven years after his entry in Amish Tripathi. Amish, hailing from a similar IIM and investment banking background, owes it to Bhagat for opening up the market for unliterary fiction, but Amish had to create his own readership. His books, The Shiva Trilogy, were not Bhagatish – pertaining to love, relationships, youth, career, but rather mythological fiction, and have been a welcome change in the published genres. Amish, unlike Bhagat, is more open about the role of marketing in making his books take India by storm. In his interview with Sunil Sethi in NDTV’s Just Books, he says, ‘Books don’t sell on their own. I know so many books that deserved to be bestsellers, but lack of marketing didn’t make them become one.’ Amish has taken book marketing to the next level, having invested heavily for marketing his first book with posters and free sample first chapters at all the major bookshops before launch. For his books, he even launched the first video trailer of a book in India and followed it up with a music album with Times Music for book promotion (HT). Courtesy Amish, writers nowadays are not shying away from giving credit to marketing, and even publishing houses are coming up with innovative strategies to promote books. Penguin India, to promote Durjoy Dutta’s new book Someone Like You (2013), tied up with Barista and offered a free book with two cappuccinos. Thanks to their association with big houses, authors like Bhagat and Amish with contestable literary talents are now a regular presence at prominent literature festivals among veterans like Pico Iyer, Gulzar, and Amitav Ghosh.

Spin-off Writers & Writing as a Career:
Writing, no more, is a vocation pursued only by the gifted litterateur, but by anyone who can make the mass readers of India hooked on to their words. Most of these authors write ‘Bhagatized’ fictionon common themes – love, sex, college, education, politics, mythology, and cricket – the essentials of Chetan Bhagat mass market fiction. Bhagat’s readers are not only loyal to him, but to ‘Bhagatized’ fiction, which has given birth to numerous young lad lit[2] writers in India. 

In a country where full-time writing was a dream not achieved by even many critically acclaimed writers, these young writers have become money-making machines, with their novels having shifted into the category of fast-moving consumer goods (Soofi). The royalties earned by commercial fiction authors in post-Bhagat era is unprecedented source. Author Ravi Subramaniam bought a BMW from the royalties from his debut book, If God Was A Banker date, which sold around 2.65 lac copies in a year. For a two book deal, Subramaniam received a whopping 1.25 crores rupees advance from Penguin India (Forbes). Durjoy Datta cashing in on his popularity from his extremely popular books co-founded his own publishing house Grapevine along with Sachin Garg, his friend and a bestselling author. Amish recently received a five crore advance for his next series from Westland.

The publishing industry is a big money game, and writers who have found their audience are now living not only comfortable but lavish lives with their royalties (Outlook). The trend is upwards and writing market in future is only going to expand and commercial fiction writers are only going to flourish. Even seven years after his arrival, Bhagat single handedly turned away the slump in fiction sales in 2011. Anyone who has ever snorted contemptuously at Chetan Bhagat should know that the “steep growth” in the fiction market in the second half of 2011 is credited to the sales of his latest novel, Revolution 2020. (Pal)  Penguin India had experienced 500% sales growth in the same year and the Indian reader market could now compete with the entire middle-east (BookSeller). The upward trend doesn’t only affect the commercial fiction writers but also literary fiction writers, since a lot of people who get inducted into reading via commercial fiction are now migrating to the literary fiction. A literary novel like G. D. Roberts’ Shantaram (2003) has sold over 5 lac copies (DNA), though it took around five years to achieve that target, but still it’s a positive trend.

Conclusion:
Indian publishing industry, in the times to come, is going to look back at the Indian publishing history in two different eras: pre-Bhagat and post-Bhagat. Chetan Bhagat, irrespective of public opinion, continues to be a boon for the publishing industry for India has never been swept to read like this before, the sales have never been so astounding. New authors following his footsteps are only benefitting out of it, and same holds true for the old authors who could capitalize on the widening market. Some of the readers who start with Bhagat’s fiction migrate to literary novels with time, one step at a time, from Bhagat to Amish to Adiga to Rushdie. Besides, for the first time in the history of Indian publishing is Bollywood keeping keen watch on popular books, getting intricately involved with the publishing industry, after the blockbuster success of 3 Idiots (2010). Unswerving critics blame Bhagat for the corruption of the English language by using Hinglish and colloquial words, but Bhagat claims that he is not a Hinglish writer but an English writer (NDTV), which is true. Apart from a casual Hindi cuss-word sprinkled once in a while in his books, there isn’t any Hinglish usage. As long as the editorial arm of the publishing house take care to make his writing grammatically sound and less colloquial, Chetan Bhagat shall have no reason to worry. 

In terms of writing, however, Chetan Bhagat has been slammed to be a bane by many critics like Shougat Dasgupta etc. Since it has not been analyzed in this article, we aren’t in a position to draw any conclusion here, but his effect can definitely be discussed. He has created a readership no doubt, but at the same time he has developed a tawdry taste of reading among them, which has been made inflexible because of redundant plots (Forbes). Bhagat readers want to read more of Bhagatized fiction, as can be seen by following the bestsellers in the market, which often are laden with clichés and melodrama. The audience which graduates to consume literary fiction after reading Bhagat is still little, nowhere close to the size of his market. Moreover, to understand the aesthetics and subtle nuances of literary fiction, it takes an entirely new conditioning, sensibility, and motivation, which is quite difficult to build. If this state persists, the huge gap between the mass market and the elite readers is only going to widen, and Chetan Bhagat will continue to be hated by critics with literary bent of mind. However with Bhagat’s mass reach and popularity, he has the power and choice to bridge this gap if he could come out of his comfort zone and dare to walk on unconventional roads by giving up his propensity to create a masala movie-script out of his every novel, which might adversely affect the size of his readership, but at the same time would refine, add value by elevating his audience’s reading tastes. This can happen only if he wishes to become a boon for writing as well. 



[1] In publishing, the slush pile is the set of unsolicited query letters or manuscripts sent either directly to the publisher or literary agent by authors, or to the publisher by an agent not known to the publisher (Wikipedia)
[2] Lad lit is the phenomenon of best-selling books written by men, and bought by lots of men, which tell tales of masculine insecurity in relationships, problems with male identity in the 21st century, and stories which explore the state of play between men and women from an often emotionally confused confessional male perspective. (Britishcouncil.com)

About the author:
Harsh Snehanshu is an author, most recently of Because Shit Happened - What NOT to do in a start-up!, a freelance journalist, and a Young India Fellow. This paper was written as a term paper for the Young India Fellowship course on Academic Writing.

Bibliography:
1.      Vishwamohan, Aysha Iqbal. Marketing Lad Lit, Creating Bestsellers: The Importance of Being Chetan Bhagat. Postliberalization Indian Novels in English: Politics of Global Reception. Anthem Press. 2013.
2.      Gupta, Suman (2012): “Indian ‘commercial’ fiction in English, the publishing industry, and youth culture”, Economic and Political Weekly, 46(5), pp. 46–53.
3.      Tharoor, Shashi (2006), “India Finds Its Calling. One Night @ the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat”, Foreign Policy, No. 153 (Mar. - Apr., 2006), pp. 78-80
4.      Mishra, Jitendra Kumar (2013), “Celebration Of The Loss Of Virginity In The Novels Of Chetan Bhagat”, International Journal of English (July 2013), Pp 22-27
5.      Dasgupta, Shaugat. Leading the idiocracy. Tehelka Magazine, Volume 9 Issue 33, 18 August 2012)
6.      Perur, Srinath. The Paperback Messiah. The Caravan Magazine. 1 May 2010.
7.      The Big IIT Dream. The Hindu. 13 March 2013
8.      Amish Tripathi launches music album for Oath of Vayuputras. Hindustan Times. March 12, 2013
9.      Bibliophile. Outlook. 26 Dec, 2011
10.  Soofi, Mayank Austen. The Sound of Money. Livemint. 11 March, 2013
11.  Mukherji, Ankita. One Mistake of My Life. Open Magazine. 9 October, 2010.
12.  Rautray, Samanwaya. Chetan Bhagat: India's Dan Brown or Charles Dickens? ET Bureau. 21 Jul, 2013
13.  The Writers Community on Chetan Bhagat. Forbes India Magazine. 23 Dec, 2009.
14.  Pal, Deepanjana. The hunt for the next Chetan Bhagat. MumbaiBoss. DNA. 15 Jul, 2009
15.  Williams, Charlotte. Indian book market in “rapid growth”. The Bookseller. 27 Oct, 2011.

2 comments:

Veena said...

Chetan Bhagat surely a boon for publishing industry !!!! certainly his books always has a message to the society..!!! Thanks for sharing. Good Day

gaurav chandra said...

Actually! CB made many of us read like never before. Genuinely speaking I read your book just because CB made me frequent visitor to book stores.