July 2012 Posts

The business of literary festivals

The business of literary festivals

The question most often asked these days in the literary world and beyond is, “Are you going to Jaipur?” I know of authors, publishers, agents, aspiring writers and even friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with literature (not even to read a book) heading off to the Pink City. The attraction ranges from seeing authors “in the flesh” to gawking at talk-show celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. That said, I wonder how many would actually know what a phenomenal impact Oprah’s Book Club had on book sales in America — termed as the Oprah effect. She single-handedly recommended books that she enjoyed reading on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It is estimated that the 69 books she recommended over a 15-year period, saw the sale of 55 million units. But as with popular literary spaces, she too has had her fair share of controversies. Most notably being of her recommending James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, only for it to be revealed that the book was a complete hoax, but that is another story.

Literary festivals are spaces to have a great time — good conversation, plenty of ideas swirling about, good company, especially if accompanied by good weather, food and facilities. What more can one ask of a long weekend break? It is a mela time to listen to panelists, to be able to ask questions directly of one’s favourite authors and discover new ones. It is also a space that provides opportunities for aspiring writers to contact publishers, word-doctors, and literary agents. Rohini Chowdhury, author and freelance editor says, “I think literary festivals serve an important function in providing writers and publishers a platform on which they can come together, particularly writers who often need the visibility. It also provides them with a sense of community and turn into exclusive clubs.” William Dalrymple, director, Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), says when he gets invited to international literary festivals as an author, he is always on the lookout for new voices or to connect with established names. It is easier to do it over breakfast than send off an impersonal email request.

A Costly Affair
But there is no such thing as a free lunch. It is never clear from the media stories that bear the cost of putting up this extravaganza. Often the stories are about celebrities attending a festival, the political and literary controversies surrounding some participants (it helps to pull in the crowds!), but rarely about the investments involved. At most there will be references to “breaking even”, but hardly any numbers are mentioned. Yet, there is a cost, and a substantial one at that to the organisers of the festival: financial and human resources and infrastructure. There is also a cost to the city that hosts the festival; although, both parties stand to gain in the long run.

Internationally, festivals are ticketed and are not the norm in India. (This is set to change with JLF announcing modestly-priced tickets for the musical events this year.) The income from ticket sales is rarely enough to cover costs of producing a festival — in fact, it is not even close, probably only 15 per cent of the total budget. So donations and sponsorship end up paying most of the costs. In addition to these, corporate sponsorship and individual donations are incredibly important to enable the literature festivals to run. A great deal of time is spent developing proposals, targeting potential sponsors (including big businessmen, bankers and financiers), sending out those proposals and following up. A festival director can send out 50 or more proposals and get only 5 or 10 responses most of which are polite rejections. Most people who generally do respond are those that already know the core team, especially the festival director’s work, so one needs to spend a great deal of time making and developing contacts. Add to this are other “hidden” costs that involve huge amounts of labour and are not easily quantified. They include planning and organising the events, particularly bearing in mind the ratio of local to international authors, as well as the linguistic ratios; keeping abreast of backlists and forthcoming titles; networking with publishers and authors; and putting together a judicious mix of ideas and entertainment. Also important are building confidence amongst participants and audience, timing the participation of authors if they are going to be in town (it helps to have information in advance as it differs the costs of running the festival). Additional costs to be factored are an honorarium or an appearance fee to be paid, especially to the star performers; organising cultural events where the artistes are paid their fee; media and publicity; salaries of the staff (permanent and volunteers); rent of the space; catering at the venue; transport and accommodation; and infrastructure. In fact, every person who walks in has a cost — registration tags (electronic or bar-coded), brochures, chair, and a system to buy a book. According to Adriene Loftus Parkins, Founder/Director of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, “I think it’s fair to say that no one realistically goes into this business to make a lot of money. It is very important that we raise enough to cover costs, so that we can pay our suppliers and keep going, but we are running a festival for reasons other than profit. I rarely have the funds to produce the kind of festival I’d ideally like to and to do the marketing and PR that I feel I need, so I do the best I can with what I have.”Fundraising is a crucial aspect of organising a literary festival. An efficient team will stick to the budget and realise it is organic. Part of the fundraising is in kind – offering accommodation, free air tickets, conveyance, sponsoring a meal or an event. If it is in cash, then it is by networking with businesses, financiers, cultural and arts agencies like the British Council, Literature Across Frontiers, multi-national corporations etc. But it is crucial to find the relevant links between the festival being organised and the agency’s mandate. For instance, the British Council literature team promotes UK’s writers, poets and publishers to communities and audiences around the world, developing innovative, high-quality events and collaborations that link writers, publishers and cultural institutions. Recent projects include the Erbil Literature Festival, the first international literature festival ever to be held in Iraq; the Karachi Literature Festival; and a global partnership with Hay Festivals that has seen UK writers travel to festivals in Beirut, Cartagena, Dhaka, Kerala Nairobi, Segovia and Zacatecas amongst others. This ongoing work with partners helps provide the opportunity for an international audience to experience the excitement of the live literature scene in the UK. And for businesses it is a direct investment into the community. According to image guru Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations, “Corporates find that they can reach otherwise with Lit Fests. It’s also an audience that captures influentials who otherwise have little space for corporate Branding. The danger though is that literary festivals may be going the way of Polo…Money too easily caught, could stifle the plot.”

The Host City Makes Hay
The business model of a literary festival depends upon who is it for — the city or the festival. According to The Edinburgh Impact Study released in May 2011, the Edinburgh “Festivals generated over a quarter of a billion pounds worth of additional tourism revenue for Scotland (£261 million) in 2010. The economic impact figure for Edinburgh is £245 million. Plus the festivals play a starring role in the profile of the city and its tourism economy, with 93 per cent of visitors stating that the festivals are part of what makes Edinburgh special as a city, 82 per cent agreeing that the festivals make them more likely to revisit Edinburgh in the future. The study calculates that Edinburgh’s festivals generate £261 million for the national economy and £245 million for the Edinburgh economy. To put this in to context, the most recent independent economic impact figure for Golf Tourism to Scotland is £191million. The festivals also sustain 5,242 full-time equivalent jobs. Although the festivals enjoy over 4 million attendances every year, the lion’s share of additional, non-ticket visitor expenditure is attributable to beneficiary businesses, such as hotels and retailers. 37 per cent (or £41 million) goes to accommodation providers, 34 per cent to food and drink establishments, 6 per cent to retailers and 9 per cent is spent on transport.”

Says Peter Florence, director, Hay-on-Wye Festivals: “We have done a hundred and fifty festivals over 25 years around the world. Just when you think you know how to do them, a new googly comes at you. The fun of it is working out how to play every delivery… .” He adds that since story telling is the basis for festival, they are open to exploring good writing in any form. Songwriters, comedians, philosophers, screenwriters and even journalists are treated with the same respect as are poets and novelists. It is all about great use of language. He clarifies that “We aren’t in business. We are a not a for-profit educational trust. We are the only part of the publishing-reading chain that is not out to make money. We simply aim to break-even and keep costs as low as possible.” Festivals grow only if the participants have a good time there. There has to be a word-of-mouth publicity for the festivals to get popular.

Frankly, it is very difficult to say that there is one clear business model for a literary festival. It changes from region to region. Yet it is obviously growing, otherwise why else would Harvard Business School be doing a case study on the Jaipur Literature Festival that is being studied over two semesters.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and critic
She can be contacted on jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com. Follow Jaya on Twitter @JBhattacharji
(This article was first published in my column in Businessworld online on 17 January 2012.)

On caregiving, review of Jai Pausch’s “dreams new dreams: reimagining my life after loss”

On caregiving, review of Jai Pausch’s “dreams new dreams: reimagining my life after loss”

Jai Pausch, dreams new dreams: reimagining my life after loss (Two Roads Books, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, Hachette UK, 2012. Pb, Rs. 295. pp. 224)

In September 2007 Carnegie Mellon Computer Science Professor Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture: really achieving your childhood dreams”. ( ) It went viral and within a short space of time had over 10 million views. It resulted in a media buzz and the professor being invited to talk shows across America. In 2006 he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. By the time he delivered his speech, he was terminally ill, having been given only 3-6 months to live by the oncologist. (He was to defy the prognosis by a few months. He died on 25 July 2008.)

His wife Jai Pausch published a memoir dreams new dreams: reimagining my life after loss ( documenting her time as Randy’s primary caregiver and how she learnt come to terms with his death and move on. It is a very moving account of how she learned to balance mothering, housekeeping and being primary caregiver to her husband. Their children were Dylan (four-and-a-half), Logan (twenty-two months) and Chloe (three months whom Jai was nursing) when Randy’s cancer was discovered. It was tough for her. But she writes movingly about learning how to take on more responsibility as Randy’s condition deteriorated. Very quickly she learnt that self-preservation is as important as caregiving. So she learnt to rely on help from family, friends, neighbours to the extent that they helped her unpack her belongings and settle into a new home.

Caregiving at the best of times is a very difficult responsibility and there is no respite, especially if you are the primary caregiver. Schedules of the caregiver, the daily humdrum (which are equally important) can easily go for a toss if not monitored equally diligently, but it becomes quite challenging if it also involves looking after small children. The mother is torn between her responsibilities. And this is something that comes through in Jai’s memoir. When Randy was being given chemotherapy in a different city, she would spend the week with him only to return home to spend the weekend with her children and do everything with and for them, including cooking a regular meal.

A big concern for a caregiver is the looming fear of death. It is a numbing feeling that makes thinking or doing any normal chore nearly impossible since the mind is always worried about losing the loved one to death. It is only when the caregiver faces the reality that some sense of peace begins to creep in. A similar feeling is expressed by Jai when Randy tells her that he saw his dead father in his room. “After months of worry and fear, after living in the shadow of death and witnessing the pain of letting go of life, Randy’s death came as somewhat of a relief to me. I could let go of Randy or at least the role of caring for him. I could stop trying to save my husband by running him to experimental treatments. I could quit obsessing over every change in his health status, stop worrying that even the smallest symptom, like bloating, could be a sign of something more serious, such as kidney failure. The strain of keeping him alive each day, which weighed terribly on me, was now gone.”

The pressure of being a caregiver is exhausting, but it is worsened by being unable to share one’s experiences or even let off some steam once in a while. It is quite normal to want to vent one’s emotions. Jai was fortunate enough to have “had a friend to whom I could talk about my feelings without fear of being misunderstood.” This recognition of reaching out to other people in a similar position like herself had prompted her to write this memoir. She writes, “Their grief and guilt they felt for mistakes they perceived they had made echoed some of my own feelings. I asked myself, Where is the help for folks like us who tirelessly give to our dying loved ones? Why wasn’t the medical community concerned about the people who struggle to carry the medical burden while also meeting normal everyday demands?” With this book she hopes that “my dream is that my story will legitimize what caregivers undergo willingly and bravely as they care for the person they love. Patients need and deserve support, but it’s time for us as a community to understand that suffering that is shouldered, sometimes silently, by our family members, neighbours, friends and coworkers. We need to offer help to these people, to develop and implement programmes at cancer centres and other organisations. We need to empathize with that person taking on the duty of overseeing the patient’s care and well-being. Finally, we need to care for the caregiver.”

dreams new dreams is a must read for all caregivers. Without being dull or voyeuristic, it is sensitively told — it is honest, frank and a useful aid on caregiving.

When I was interviewed by Samit Basu (3 July 2006)

When I was interviewed by Samit Basu (3 July 2006)


July 3, 2006
Jaya Bhattacharji Interview
Leave a comment
Jaya Bhattacharji edits books for Zubaan, an imprint of Kali for Women. Young Zubaan is Zubaan’s children’s/young adult imprint. Jaya is also guest editor, children’s and young adult literature, at The Book Review.

Q: You recently published a fantasy novel aimed at children/young adults. What was the crucial factor in deciding to publish this now? Is there a market for speculative fiction already, or is it a potential market?

A: During the World Book Fair, New Delhi 2006, Young Zubaan released A Shadow in Eternity. It was not a “crucial” decision, but I guess the time was right to publish something like this. By time, I mean that the market was ready to receive a book of this genre.
Pottermania has contributed a great deal to the surge in this form of writing. Given that the Rowling phenomena has been pivotal in encouraging reading, irrespective of the size of the book, I think, a lot of children’s writers, feel that since this is probably the genre that is selling, it is the one to emulate.
There certainly is a market in India for this kind of fiction. I am certainly all for any genre that encourages reading and releasing the imagination. But the Indian market has to evolve its own signature/stamp of fantasy fiction. We cannot rely totally on imitating fiction that is necessarily based on a Western/Christian tradition or of even trying to yoke the two systems together. A lot of the fantasy fiction that comes from the West is in the classic form of Good vs Evil; or in the Romance tradition of being on a Quest; or in search of the Holy Grail, whatever it may be; or reliance on Greek mythology. In India, we have a huge amount of influences to rely upon, which don’t necessarily encompass the idea of a quest or the Holy Grail. Sure, we do have a strong sense of Right and Wrong; Good vs Evil, but it is tempered by the cultural melting pot that we live in, where a lot of traditions are being intermingled. So, if fantasy has to emerge in India, it has to develop its own distinctive identity.
The other kind of fantasy could be good Science Fiction, but I am not sure whether we have a strong tradition in this, except for maybe in Bengali literature.

Q: Do you feel SF/fantasy (speculative fiction) has a future in India? Why, either way?

A: Well, personally speaking, I think speculative/imaginative/slipstream/fantastic/science-fiction or what-you-will-genre has huge potential in India. But, it has to be a story well told and not necessarily a mish mash of all that is to offer. Sure, it can be a genre that transports one into an imaginative world, but it has to be a world that is well created, detailed and to some extent logical. It may not be logic as we know it, but it is perfectly rational in the parallel world that is being created.

Q: Internationally, a lot of speculative fiction aimed at the age group you’re looking at ends up being part of a cross-media franchise – TV, books, merchandise. There’s no history of this in India, but do you think it’s possible eventually, or are the worlds of TV/film and books in India too isolated for this to happen unless something fundamental changes about the markets in question?

A: I don’t think you should consider the marketing blitzkrieg surrounding some of the recent Hollywood blockbusters based upon books/comic characters like Harry Potter, Superman, Spideman, as being a model that needs to be emulated lock, stock and barrel in India. This cross-media franchise is marketing gimmickry and sure, to some extent brings in the money, but except for a few in India, I don’t think most people will be able to afford it even if the youngsters fall for it. There may not be any history of this, but there is only a very thin line between the film and the book world in India. It has seen some cross-pollination, but maybe not in the same way as is evident in the West. (Or in the East? I don’t know!)
Having said this, it maybe possible some way in the near future, but such a huge market control depends upon a great deal of accurate monitoring of IPR, and ensuring that there is no piracy of the products. At the moment, even if it were possible, financially speaking, to hire spin-doctors in India for a film based on a book or a good film rights agent to hawk a good book to a film-maker, it would prove near impossible to stem the leaks in the system. It is a very tough call to monitor cross-media franchise. It requires a lot of efficient and corruption free systems to be installed. Funnily enough, India may not have a history of cross-media franchise, but many of our garment sweatshops/factories in Coimbatore are mass producing “movie” franchise clothes for kids solely for the export market! And these are sold at the exclusive retail stores of movie giants like Disney, Time and Warner. Surprisingly poor imitations of these garments have not necessarily entered the local market in the numbers expected, so may be there is hope for cross-media franchise in the Indian future.
The only fundamental thing that has to change in both the industries, in order for such cross-media franchise to be viable is a close monitoring of the © and stemming the leaks in the piracy market. Also, the Indian market is not one, homogenised market as is noticed in most countries abroad. So, a marketing model that may have been adopted and at least cost applied across the country may not work in India. We are many markets in one, in terms of languages, communities, literature, regional characteristics and tastes. So, in order for cross-media franchise to be successful, it would require huge amounts of direct investment and I don’t think any publisher or film distributor or literary/film agency or even the creator/author would be willing to take such a risk!

Q: Do you get a large number of SF/fantasy submissions, given the overwhelming popularity of crossover/YA speculative fiction abroad?

A: Well strangely enough not too many. But the trickle that we get is talented. Yet, I have my reservations about it. Indian fantasy has to break its shackles from the West and really learn to come into its own, otherwise it is going to just generate a great deal of confusion in the young reader’s mind.

Q: In fiction aimed at adults, SF/fantasy tend to be seen as low-caste, but in the world of children’s publishing, the most popular books in recent times always seem to contain speculative elements. Do you think this is because children are seen to be more accepting of non-identifiably-real-world situations, or because the children’s’ book market is now large enough for it to have its own rules – or is it something different entirely?

A: Speculative fiction is such a convenient and oh, so modern a term for the plain and simple use of imagination in literature for children. The number of categories or kind of titles that this category subsumes is of those books that are very difficult to categorise in any other way. Also, this kind of fiction has existed from whenever literature began to be written down with the young reader in mind. It is not necessarily a recent fashion.
It is not a case of being low-caste, as SF/Fantasy has always had a steady following. It is just that it is now clearly visible as it has been dominating markets recently. Also visibility of this genre has to be linked to the access to information. Today, more and more of the children and young adults have a direct say in their reading tastes and to some extent have the purchasing power as well. So, it is not being mediated by the parent/educationist/teacher. There is direct marketing of books in schools. Spaces have opened for youngsters to hang out, like coffee shops which also have bookstores in them. There is also the Internet where it gives one access to blogs, author websites, online bookstores, reviews, fan fiction sites etc. Children/YA are better informed and to a large extent know what they want.
Children’s publishing has always accommodated a variety of genres, I believe it is the only place where one has the space to experiment and fine tune different genres. So, if you are interested in SF, then you have the freedom to explore the limits of technology, science, etc. Sure, this reader audience is far more discerning than an adult reader, but they can be equally critical and damning.
The book market for children is completely unpredictable, so the current flavour of the decade is fantasy as it has a reading public, hence sales. Given the huge investments required in children’s publishing, most publishers, authors, literary agents will want/ten to be conservative and capitalise on a winning formula rather than take a risk. It is pure economic sense to promote fantasy and hence, its noticeable dominance of the market.
Children and young adults are actually reading a wide-range of stuff. A visit to any local bookshop will confirm that. In fact, as I said earlier, there is a sense of inverted snobbery being noticed in the younger generation today of what and how much they have read. Interestingly enough, it is a greed/thirst for anything that can be read. They will devour anything but very honest in their opinions. Most of the time, it seems that their opinions are not necessarily formed by what is dominating the review pages of newspapers, but their gut feel. Hence, an extremely difficult market to gauge and monitor. It is quite unpredictable.

Q: What sort of children’s fantasy/SF would you like to see coming out of India? And what do you think writers in the genre in this country would do best to avoid?

A: Fantasy for children in India, can be set in any context, time zone etc, but it has to be well written. In the sense, that there should be good, cohesive logic to the universe that is being created. There should be details of the environment and the people and certainly not a cacophony of voices, which really don’t do much for the characters. Each character should have a distinct voice. If different traditions are to be mixed (and frankly, I am all for experimentation in literature), then it has to be done cleverly, treated lightly and presented in an interesting manner. By clever, I mean that the author should not be “showing off” their immense reading and familiarity with these other traditions, but create multi-layers and echoes in the story, that will prompt the young reader to submerge, discover and be totally entranced by the new literary creation. At the end of the day, it has to be a GOOD STORY. Also, a story well told will live for a very long time to come and not necessarily be written and created with “a” single market, fixed in time. In fact, it will then be read for many generations to come.

The Reader, my column in Books & More

The Reader, my column in Books & More


The sheer pleasure of immersing oneself in a book, flipping through its pages, dipping into it in parts, inhaling the heavenly smell of ink and freshly printed pages, stroking the cover to feel the design, are all part of the experience for me. It is fast becoming an equally thrilling adventure for my twenty-eight-month-old daughter, Sarah. She brings out her books and says, “Mummy padho.” What I find exhilarating is to see Sarah browse through the books that I owned as a child, to discover a fascinating new world. The spine of the book maybe falling apart, the pages have turned yellow and there are doodles done by me in pencil, years ago, but The Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh continues to enchant Sarah, representative of a new generation of readers. These are tangible objects that she can touch, feel, flip the pages, trace the images and letters with her fingers, and crumple the pages…the first step to reading, recognising alphabets, words and creating a language and becoming a reader herself.

The modern reader, however, is faced with an over-abundance of choice. Today the market is flooded with books. There is a variety that is available to suit all reading sensibilities. Publishers are willing to experiment and develop lists, especially in the category of mass market fiction after the phenomenal (commercial) success of Chetan Bhagat, Advaita Kala or of Penguin’s Metro Reads. There is an abundance of fiction dealing with years spent in college or school like Arjun Rao’s Third Best or Amandeep Sandhu’s forthcoming novel, Roll of Honour. There is a wonderful variety in crime fiction ranging from Steig Larsson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Lee Child, Madhulika Liddle, Andrew Lane, and Jo Nesbo to name a few. For a niche genre like historical fiction, Indian fiction in English is spoilt for riches with Indu Sundaresan’s Taj Trilogy, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Victory Song, Greta Rana’s Rana Women of Nepal, Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Mughal series and an old one (but a classic) of Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold.

There are finer distinctions like chick-lit and narrative non-fiction that are doing well, but it does beg to ask the question, what is the profile of the reader of [for?] this literature. Who is this person/s? Who is buying these books? In spite of experimentation, publishers are careful of their bottom line and do not necessarily publish all that comes their way. Yet the examples cited illustrate that professional editors still have a good sense of the kind of books that will sell.

The other solution is to reach out to readers, make them part of the process. The internet and the blogosphere provide a range of opinions and at times provide a platform for literary tastemakers [who] to inform and shape the discourse. It is especially important for publishers to continually create a new generation of readers. It happens by creating targeted marketing campaigns, fostering and nurturing literary spaces. Literary soirees and book-launch parties are fashionable, but an engagement with the readers is a long term relationship. These could start early (as is happening with Sarah) or via book clubs, literary societies in institutions, or even literary festivals. The presence of efficient online book retailers that ensure an order gets shipped anywhere, anytime and at a reasonable cost to a customer, will only strengthen the reading environment. Today, with books available in a variety of formats, makes the profile of a reader even more difficult to ascertain. Yet, it is an exciting challenge for publishers. Anil Menon, author of The Beast with Nine Billion Feet says “reading might (in future) be a social act. A print book enforces a solitary experience. But I’ve noticed that when I’m reading on the Kindle, I can access other people’s comments if I feel like it. The solitary reader may be a thing of the past. Books written to facilitate social reading might be different from books written for the solitary reader. Children’s books– very young children– are already designed to be read by parents and children together. I can imagine books for teens written to be enjoyed in a group.” All these factors can only add up to the growing significance of the reader, who forms the market.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant.

(p.58, Books and More, June-July 2012)

Tales of Partition, my review of Mahmudul Haque’s “Black Ice”

Tales of Partition, my review of Mahmudul Haque’s “Black Ice”


July 19, 2012 By Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Black Ice
By Mahmudul Haque
Translated by Mahmud Rahman
Harper Perennial
pp.123, Rs 199

Black Ice by Mahmudul Haque is about Abdul Khaleeq, a college lecturer in a village in newly independent Bangladesh. One day, he decides to start writing about his childhood and the memory floodgates open with such a force, leaving him withdrawn, confused and morose. His wife, Rekha, observes that he sleeps curled, with his knees drawn up and his arms folded tightly around him.

Initially, his account is peaceful and placid, with happy memories of childhood, discovering the world, under the protection of his family. As he attempts to recollect incidents from the past, the anecdotes become broken and he begins to find solace in his conversations with the local physician (a Hindu) and a friend, Dr Narbari. At first, it seems that the gentle documentation of daily life in the village is perfect. In the rainy season, “the rough-and-tumble villages take on a look of wild grace and tenderness”. But scratch the surface and there is discontentment and unease everywhere, compounded by the growing communal tension. Dr Narbari mentions casually that while buying fish in the market, he was taunted as a “malaun”, a derogatory term for Hindus.

There is confusion amongst the Muslims as well, what is their homeland — Pakistan or this new country Bangladesh? The veneer of tranquillity that the hustle-bustle of daily life in the village is as treacherous as black ice — “a rapid shift was taking place all around us. We didn’t understand any of it.”

The theme of war, consequently the notion of displacement and questions about national identity dominate Bangladeshi literature. As the translator of Kalo Borof, Mahmud Rahman says in a recent lecture he delivered: “We are migrant people”. So it is not at all surprising to have most forms of literature reflecting upon the journey back to 1971, year of independence/partition from Pakistan.

According to him Mahmudul Haque’s novels are “penned looking at the period from the eyes of the characters but remaining aloof from the story”. A very tough requirement, especially when the author has witnessed the two partitions of the country in 1947 and 1971. In fact, as a 10-year-old boy, who migrated to East Pakistan (Dhaka) from West Bengal (Barasat, Calcutta), he was lost and bewildered and actually tried to reverse the journey — Train to Narayanganj, steamer to Goalondo, train to Barasat.

Finally to settle in Dhaka, where he became a writer and is known primarily for his short fiction. He mastered the art of the local dialects and infused them into his literature (much of which is unfortunately lost in Black Ice), but the powerful story remains, with the trauma of the war upon the people conveyed acutely even when read in English. Mahmudul Haque is a storyteller who is known for his brevity, and his short fiction Black Ice is a good example of it.

My lead article on children and YA literature in German Book Office Tuesday newsletter, 17 July 2012

My lead article on children and YA literature in German Book Office Tuesday newsletter, 17 July 2012


Today, we want to further introduce you to the world of children’s books. Our GBO friend Jaya Bhattacharji Rose who is an international publishing consultant will tell us more about Children’s and Young adult fiction. How do these genres work in India, what are the challenges the publisher faces?

Above that, we are very excited to announce the final programme for our Jumpstart conference 2012! And we are publishing the second part of Manasi Subramaniam’s report on children’s Book publishing in South Asia.

So again come join us in learning more about the children’s Book Industry!

Enjoy the read!
Best wishes from the GBO Team

Children’s and YA literature
50% of India’s population is below twenty-five. Yet, children’s literature defined as predominantly trade literature meant for children and young adults as a distinct genre is a recent phenomenon in India. (Although non-fiction sells well too.) Traditionally, children have been brought up on a vast repertoire of storytelling based upon oral tales, folk tales and mythology. So, to have access to literature in the written form is a relatively new concept. Having said this, publishing for children and young adults is booming. It is estimated that it is worth Rs 400 crores or nearly US$ 90 million per annum.

The variety in the lists is commendable, given that India is multi-lingual though the lingua franca continues to be English. The market is not homogenous. Readers are comfortable with reading in more than one language. Publishers are competing with each other for a miniscule space, though translated into numbers it may seem attractive—the population is large and even a small percentage would mean substantial unit sales. The consumer profile varies from a family that has to survive on less than US$ 1 per day to millionaires. For most Indians, the emphasis is on education and not on reading for pleasure. Changing this mindset is taking time, but it is now perceptible. Another factor that has contributed to the growth and interest in children’s literature is the transition from joint families to nuclear families, so parents need books for their children, to fill in the vacuum of elders who would normally have told children stories. Also, more families are double-income which means that there is some disposable income available for books. Children and teenagers too have greater exposure to books through various platforms—book exhibitions and direct marketing initiatives in schools like those by Scholastic; book clubs that circulate regular newsletters; book weeks that are organised by schools where 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 or initiatives like Paro Anand’s Literature in Action. Within this context, it is no surprise then that the sale of children’s books in brick and mortar bookstores is estimated to be 35% of total book sales. Surprisingly, this genre contributes only 5% or less towards sales in online retail stores. Most publishers are recording annual leaps in sales. Much of this behaviour can be attributed to a fashionable trend or a bestseller, but there is no doubt that readers are creating and behaving like a community.

Online social communities like Facebook, Twitter, blogging, fan fiction sites are creating a demand as “friends”, cutting across geographical boundaries, young readers discuss and post links, join discussion groups or follow their favourite authors and engage in impulse buying. This generation wants their demands met immediately and with easy and immediate access to information, they do not have much patience. According to authors, publishers, editors, distributors and importers, reading has definitely increased in the past few years. E-books are available but nothing can beat the sensuous appeal of reading a book, touching the pages, experiencing the thrill of holding a book, turning the pages, smelling the ink on paper, caressing the illustrations, fiddling with the dust jackets or admiring the cover design. Even parents admit that their children are reading much more than they did five years ago. Last year at Bookaroo, I saw 10 and 11-year-olds showing off manuscripts that they had written. It is exactly for these reasons that a forum like Jumpstart is significant where there is a cross pollination of ideas and experiences to foster and nurture the future of this genre amongst professionals. Paro Anand sums it up well. “Networking opportunities for creators of children’s and YA literature for themselves, is what makes Jumpstart unique.”

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an independent international publishing consultant. She has a column on publishing in Businessworld online and a literary column in Books & More. Associated with Indian publishing since the early 1990s, her responsibilities have included guest editing the special Children’s and YA Literature of The Book Review, and producing the first comprehensive report on the Indian Book Market for the Publisher’s Association, UK. Her articles, interviews and book reviews have also appeared in Bookbrunch, Frontline, The Book Review, DNA, Outlook, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, LOGOS, Businessworld, Brunch, and The Muse. As a Literary Director with Siyahi, she helps identify and guide the next generation of writing talent.

Email id: jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com
Twitter: @Jbhattacharji
Linkedin: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/jaya-bhattacharji-rose/1/b51/a57

On YA Lit, a response to Publishing Perspective

On YA Lit, a response to Publishing Perspective

“When Do YA Novels Go Too Far, If Ever?” http://publishingperspectives.com/2012/07/when-do-ya-novels-go-too-far-if-ever/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed:+PublishingPerspectives+(Publishing+Perspectives)&utm_content=FaceBook I feel, true, stories like “50 Shades of Grey” would be tough to stomach, especially in YA literature. Yet, I do NOT agree that a ratiings system should be enforced for YA. It won’t be correct at all. Then we may as well begin to impose a ratings system on trade literature meant for adults too. YA literature is the only space (IMO) that allows the exploration of ideas and is quite realistic. No wonder it is a success. #50shades #YAlit #ratings

On literary agents, unedited and complete article

On literary agents, unedited and complete article

Literary Agents and agencies in India, Brunch (http://www.hindustantimes.com/Brunch/Brunch-Stories/How-to-sell-and-buy-a-book/Article1-826279.aspx )

BRIEF: on literary agents and agencies in India: who they are, what they actually do, whether they serve here as they seem to do in the west as any writers’s first reader, handholder and guide.

Literary agents are defined as those who represent writers to publishers, theatre and film producers. They negotiate on behalf of the author for the best and fairest deal possible. For this, they are paid a commission, which is a percentage of the proceeds of the sale that they have negotiated for their client. It is usually 15 per cent for domestic rights and 20 per cent for international rights. According to David Godwin, “usually an advance is paid over four moments–signature, delivery, publication and paperback publication.” Author and poet, Jeet Thayil says, a literary agent is a blessing, since s/he is responsible for all the nitty-gritty administrative work, including the tedious follow up required in signing a book deal, releasing precious time for the author to focus their energies on a constructive and creative output, rather than be exhausted by paperwork.

Literary agents first burst upon the scene in nineteenth century Britain. It began with A.P. Watt whose work as a literary agent appears to have begun around 1878, when he was asked by a friend, the poet and novelist George MacDonald, to sell his stories for him. By 1881, he was known as an advertising agent and a literary agent. Initially he charged a fee for the services he offered, but soon switched to taking a 10 per cent commission on the money that he earned for his clients on any transaction he completed. By the end of the nineteenth century, he was representing some of the leading writers of the time, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Besant, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. In 1893 when publisher William Heinemann wrote a scathing portrait of a literary agent, he in all likelihood had A.P. Watt in mind: ‘This is the age of the middleman,’ wrote Heinemann. ‘He is generally a parasite. He always flourishes. I have been forced to give him some little attention lately in my particular business. In it he calls himself the literary agent.’

However uncomplimentary a statement this may have been of an agent, the truth is that a literary agent is an indispensable part of the publishing eco-system, even a century and a half later. An agent has specialist knowledge of different publishing houses and is aware of the personal tastes of editors and is able to sell written material to them, matching the writer with the right stable. Agents are also able to provide an author a range of services – reading a raw manuscript, assessing if it is fit for publication, if it is then helping them tidy it up before selling it to an appropriate publisher or if there is interest from more than one publishing house, setting up an “auction” and selling it to the best bidder, negotiating terms and contracts and collecting payments and royalties. Today, agents are expected to be a filter between the publisher and the writer but also be the author’s agony aunt and professional advisor, rolled in one. They also network with agents and publishers in other territories, across the world — ensuring that the book gets published across the globe, and increasingly in different languages.

So is an agent necessary? A question often asked by new as well as seasoned authors. For well-known novelist, Hari Kunzro, “It’s now more or less impossible to access editors at mainstream publishing houses without going through an agent. The volume of unsolicited submissions means that the ‘slush-pile’ is enormous. Apart from using an agent to get connected to the right editor at the right publishing house, agents are also necessary to help you negotiate the increasingly-complex world of book contracts. Unless you know what percentage discount Amazon is going to try to negotiate for a paperback sale, or the going rate for Ebook royalties in South Africa, or whether you should be assigning Canadian rights to your UK publisher, or reserving them for your US publisher, you need an agent. Publishing is probably more competitive than it’s ever been. As the book market transforms, and thousands of hopeful new writers pile in, looking for readers, writers need to have someone on their side.” Having said that, successful translator, Arunava Sinha has no literary agent representing him, but he does realize their significance. (Arunava translates from Bengali into English, he has 14 books published in India, with 6 publishers, 2 titles have been published abroad across 15 publishers and in 11 languages, including English.) According to him, an agent in the Indian publishing landscape has three crucial aspects: for an author to reach an Indian publisher; for an author to find a foreign publisher and in qualitative consulting.

In India, the concept of literary agents is relatively new, about seven years. The oldest agency is Jacaranda, run by Jayapriya Vasudevan and Priya Doraswamy. For them, agenting in India “is hard to compare to any other part of the world.” But they do see this sector growing rapidly in India, especially since they feel that overall professionalism is setting in and processes are getting streamlined. They are beginning to discover that writers prefer to deal with agents and it is a “fair deal” since w”writing is a very personal journey and a good agent is asked to manage everything.” They do warn their authors, especially the first time authors that publishing is an extremely slow industry and submission to a publisher is very “angst driven”. So, as agents they are expected to manage the author’s “nervous energy”. They give advice ranging from editing, managing, marketing and sales. Within the Indian context, they are recognized and with the current mantra for foreign publishers being that they want to link with those who are strong in their own countries, Jacaranda’s position is well established. But as Jayapriya points out, “Our geographical locations being widely spread, with Priya being in New York and my being in Singapore, our list is eclectic and interesting. Selling rights also becomes more direct in several countries. For America for instance, we do not use any sub agents.” As they affirm, “It is a word of mouth industry and it is all relationship based. If we think it is a viable sale, To be connected to the world is a must deal.”

The second literary agency recognized in India and abroad is Siyahi, headed by Mita Kapur who is based in Jaipur. According to Mita, “Siyahi started with 2 authors in 2007 and we now have some 82 authors, with a growth rate of 100% every year and this year I am expecting double the growth rate. The turnover for Siyahi is 1.25cr which is inclusive of the funding that comes in for the festivals. I get around 5 submissions every day but we select only 2 or 3 out of our blind submissions received every year. The number of authors growing is because either they are already published authors or have come through some reliable source which we decide to take on only if I am convinced of the merits of the book.” Mita regularly negotiates rights into regional languages as well, although she works with sub-agents for international languages. “We work with Hindi, English, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarat, Marathi, Punjabi, Russian, Portuguese, French, Italian, and German.”

Writer’s Side, based in Delhi was launched by Kanishka Gupta. According to him, “In a short-span of 22 months we have placed over 64 books with major and reputed publishers. Almost 80% of my clients are first-timers I have to be on my toes all the time. Some questions can really put your patience to test but being a published writer myself I know that feeling very well and can easily relate.” Sherna Khambatta, based in Mumbai, established her agency in 2007. But she prefers to represent non-fiction although does not say no to fiction. She represents in English, Marathi and Hindi.

Some of the other prominent players in India are David Godwin, Shruti Debi of Aitken Alexander agency, and as of this year, the Tibor Jones Literary Agency with their South Asia prize for unpublished manuscripts. Shruti Debi, who has immense editorial experience, and is now in charge of the Indian office of Aitken Alexander feels that a book is a hugely durable item. And nor does a writer have any parameters of quality or nature of the deal that they are getting into. So she feels that it is “healthy to have an agent, who becomes a sounding board for the author and publisher.” Having said that she adds, “I don’t feel like that an author can do without me, but I feel that those who have me for an agent do not suffer to have me.” Picking up an author is not a judgment value, but a literary value. Interestingly enough, as of a few months ago, Aitken Alexander has begun to represent Penguin Books India abroad. It helps by having an agent like Shruti on your side as she says, “I am a big fighter for authors.”

Advice from David Godwin for authors is “to find an agent you have to write a terrific book then you will find someone good. It is all in the writing. Agents want great books and are on the lookout for them.” Sophie Lambert, Director, Tibor Jones Agency adds, “Do your research. Always address query letters to specific agents rather than the agency. Approach agencies that represent authors who are similar but not too similar. Personal recommendations count a lot and if someone can introduce you to an agent then even better. You’ve got to make sure to catch their attention.” She continues, “India has always had a rich literary heritage and there have always been Indian authors whose work has been read throughout the world. The thing that’s changed is how widely and how much international as well as Indian authors are being read in India. There’s a real appetite for literature and it’s exciting to see the world’s largest democracy embrace that. It’s no more difficult for an Indian author to get a literary agent than an author from any other country and at a time when the Indian market is growing, in some respects it should be a selling point.”

Given how robust the growth is for agenting in India, especially with the deluge of writers/manuscripts being written, it is no surprise that some publishers are venturing into this area as well. Of course, they are quick to add that their publishing programmes are independent of the literary agencies. But there is a conflict of interest between these two and it is not clear how efficiently can these verticals be operated. Today, with the tremendous churning in publishing it is not enough to say that no precedence exists for such a business model, but one can safely add that this is an arrangement peculiar to India alone.

Publishers like Karthika V.K., Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, HarperCollins, says that “the agents make it a level playing ground. Publishers, see the book as a product, and can engage for the duration of the production of the manuscript into a book, but not more, whereas an agent will always be there for the author, before and after publication.” Kapish, Managing Director, Rupa Publications, says of literary agents that it of a “participatory nature, they can help you find writing. Fresh writing creates longevity in the industry.” Milee Aishwarya, Random House India, says that it does help to have agents who help to expand the list and get a sense of the market.

Renuka Chatterjee, Chief Editor, Westland does have the following word of caution about agenting in India: “The advantage of agencies is that they act as the filtering process and sift the wheat from the chaff – at least that is what they are supposed to do. The ground reality is that, with the possible exception of one or two, very few of them do. I have seen this happen time and again — they start off small, and really make an effort to find original, good new voices. But then the greed to just keep on adding numbers and boast of the number of authors you have and the titles you’ve sold, takes over, and they start taking on anyone and everyone. The result is that I cannot think of any agency in India today who doesn’t have a really mixed bag. You can never be sure of the quality — you can’t say that, well, this has come from ‘X so it has to be good, and give it priority on your reading list – unless of course, it is an already published author whose quality you know. So, very often, submissions from agents just become an adjunct to the slush pile, and you read them as and when you get the time. I really wish agents in India would be more discerning. It’s the reason why we still take submissions from any foreign agent more seriously. It’s not a question of a colonial hangover — but you know that if a manuscript has come from a David Godwin or Andrew Wylie or Blake Friedman, it will have a certain basic level of quality which should make it worth looking at. You may not ultimately take it on, if the stakes are too high, or if your individual response to it is not strong enough, but you would certainly take the time to read it. That’s not always the case with local submissions. May be the rush to sign up authors amongst agents here, is a certain insecurity — because the whole agency scene here is still nascent, may be they think that if they don’t sign up this author, another one may not come their way soon enough — or be snapped up by a foreign agent — which is another fear, as most authors, given the choice, would prefer to have an agent in London or New York than in New Delhi!

I know many agents feel they are successful because by and large, they are able to sell whatever they represent. But selling in India is easy, especially now with the multiplicity of publishing houses — from
Penguin and Harper to Srishti and others. So what gets rejected by some, will find a place somewhere else, especially if you are willing to settle for a less than six-figure advance. I’m told that’s a good thing in the long run — everything has its place. Perhaps that’s so — but I feel angry that so much rubbish ends up getting published. All those trees cut down for nothing!”

The future of publishing and literary agents is positive. Shruti Debi says that the era of literary adventures is over, where the publishing industry is partial to debut, but literary agents are quality filters. “2012 will be an interesting year, when we are expecting Indian kindle, some sort of self-publishing to happen; the technology will be important; shadow involvement – you become an ally in the same process and play to the author’s strength.” For Saugata Mukherjee, Publisher, Pan Macmillan, “I firmly believe literary agents in India are here to stay. It’s an expanding market and naturally there will be space for genuine professionals with a nose for the right kinds of books. Hopefully more and more writers from the Indian subcontinent will find a publishing window through these agents and not get lost in the deluge of slush piles in publishing offices. While some of the international agents already do a lot of business with Indian publishers it’s time some of the Indian agents too make their mark. I’d say most literary agencies are still in their infancy in India and we’ll only know where they are headed in a few years as the profession matures.” For Jacaranda, it is an interesting time, but the business will change dramatically and processes will be streamlined, “once publishers stop looking at direct submission.”

While researching for this article, word had begun to trickle in of new literary agencies being established in India, whether by editors setting themselves up as independent agents; individuals passionate about reading, who are branching out into agenting or even agencies abroad, testing the waters in India, but it is early days as yet. They are as yet to prove their mettle in this landscape or even by establishing Indian authors abroad.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant. She may be contacted at jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @JBhattacharji

Advaita Kala
I didn’t have an agent when I submitted in India, honestly, I didn’t even think of it. Indian publishers have pretty straight forward submission guidelines and I made an online submission. It was only when Almost Single was solicited by Random House in the US that I realised I would need representation and it worked out very well as the book went into auction, something I would not have managed on my own. Publishers abroad prefer to work with agents, there are a couple of reasons, my American editor tells me that especially since the big publishing downturn in 2009 (in the US) and publishing job cuts, publishers are more dependent on agents for editorial support and sifting through manuscripts. So in a lot of ways representation abroad has become even more important. I continue to handle my own affairs in India and had an agent for foreign rights. Presently I am in between publishers and in between agents so I can’t really be more specific about what swings the decision one way or the other but I am sure I will figure it out soon enough!

Tabish Khair
Having grown up in Gaya until I turned 24, and having gone to school and university in Gaya too, the path to becoming a writer was a dark and confusing one for me. There were no guides, no patrons, no contacts, no peers who were heading into media or publishing. There was a lot of well-meaning discouragement. So the very notion of having a literary agent did not cross my mind even after I had become fairly established as an author, and had moved to Delhi and then to Denmark. But living in a small town in Denmark, I realised that I needed agents who were based in the centres of literary publicity — Delhi or London or New York. And that is when I decided to get an agent. But I wanted my main agent to be based in India, as I see myself as an Indian writer, with the co-agents based in London and New York. I realised that this was not what was commonly done, but I went ahead with it anyway. And I am happy I did.

Paro Anand

So, why, at this late, late stage of my pretty successful career as a writer for adults, young adults and children do I suddenly feel the need for a literary agent to represent me? I have no problems finding a publisher, in fact, I have several asking me to do books for them and some getting upset that I’ve gone elsewhere. So why now? I just think that the time for lit agents in India is finally here, at least for me. I feel the need to have someone who is professionally committed to looking after my best interests. I want someone who I know will have my back and watch out for me. I want someone who is able to look outside my own small world of contacts and connections. And I don’t want to be having to sell myself anymore. I find it embarrassing to have to push myself. I know that my work itself is good and worthy of pushing, but now I need a team to look after my baby after I’ve given birth to it. I need someone who I can trust and someone who will allow me to do what I do best – write and interact with my audience, without getting into nitty gritty, which I find myself doing a lot of the time. I’m not good at it so it takes a lot out of me to do it. Something like contacting sales people to ensure that my books will be there when I’m doing an appearance. As an author, my contact person is the editor, so it becomes a very four cornered affair if I’m contacted by the venue or organizer of the event, then i contact my editor, who contacts the sales team and then it’s a lot of back and forth. And very often, it ends up with the books not even being there. And this is certainly not with one publisher, but each and every one. It’s no one’s fault, really, it’s just that I’m the wrong person to be getting into it. it needs a system and i think my agent could be involved in this – at least i hope so.

For the longest time, i thought that my job was to write the book and the rest was not up to me. But now i see, that after having given birth to the baby, it’s still your job to make sure that she reaches her full potential, and sometimes there’s a lot of hand-holding involved. I’m more than willing to grow my babies up, and i love the hand holding. But i need my team to sort out the details. I want to feel like a bit of star!!! Is that so wrong? Will my agent do that for me?


As such our English publishing industry is not very organised and I feel even the volumes and hence payments are not very large, so agents who normally have a much fuller function in publishing, are reduced to being only book placers and not much more. It is a fact that it is hard for an unknown writer, without lineage or connections, to be easily published. The cycles of acceptance and rejections are long and many reputed firms have a caveat during submission: there is no guarantee of response. Hence, I feel some writers take help of agents to place their books with publishing houses, often on the basis of some commission. These kinds of agents do not do much more than give a quick glance to the manuscripts and sometimes some minimal editing and then work their wire to get the book placed.

The wholesome function of an agent as a quasi or even full editor, guardian of the writer account with publisher(s), seeking and placing book with foreign agents/publishing houses, support system for the writer, is very rare in India. Some extremely lucky and talented writers have such agents but most of them are abroad (both writers and agents).

So, in a topsy turvy world of publishing, local agents for local books (won’t even call them agents for they are mostly ‘book placers’ and buzz creators akin to PR) do thrive for a brief while and then fade off. For the size of the industry, in terms of titles and not volumes or sales figures, we would do well even if we even had decent scouts, but even they are missing. These book placers often do harm, for instance with my second book, because they are limited to just their own individual wires and contacts and vibes with people in the industry. All this is dismal and the only hope, for me, is to do my job and wait it out until someone discovers the work and wants to take it ahead. Very modestly, like it happened with Coetzee or Marquez.

Growing tribe of connoisseurs boosts sales of premium stationery

Growing tribe of connoisseurs boosts sales of premium stationery


Posted: Tue, Jul 10 2012. 1:43 AM IST
Growing tribe of connoisseurs boosts sales of premium stationery
The desire to use expensive stationery is on the upswing despite the advent of tablets and hand-held devices changing the way people communicate
Suneera Tandon

New Delhi: For Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd publisher Chiki Sarkar, nothing is quite as beautiful as paper. Her current favourite is Pineider, the 200-year-old Italian fine stationery brand that she picked from Rome.

Sarkar is in good company in the world of letters. Pineider’s website informs visitors that it was the stationer of choice for writers from Lord Byron and Percy B. Shelley to Giacomo Leopardi and Charles Dickens, and that Napoleon Bonaparte was among the travellers who entered the Pineider shop.

The Mediterranean blue and baby pink boxes of Pineider “have the most beautiful envelopes with different inlay paper”, Sarkar says. She uses the paper for writing small notes by hand—“Thank yous and condolences.”

“I can’t do complex writing by hand,” Sarkar explains. “I have a terrible handwriting and I fool myself that it looks better when I use a fountain pen.”

Sarkar is among a growing tribe of connoisseurs of luxury stationery—which they are buying on trips abroad as well as from an increasing number of retailers stocking such products in India—for their personal use.

Although luxury paper and fine writing instruments are still a minuscule part of the Rs. 10,000-12,000 crore Indian stationery market, they are part of a segment that’s growing at a yearly pace of 20-25%, say industry experts.
Aakriti Mandhwani, a 26-year-old M. Phil student at Delhi University, treasures her Moleskine diaries, which the company’s website says were used by artists and authors including Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin to write their memoirs and stories and draw their sketches.

“If I were to record my life, I would write it down in a Moleskine diary,” Mandhwani said.

Moleskine products, which enjoy a cult following, include notebooks, which typically come with an elastic band to hold them closed, as well as diaries, planners, bags and writing instruments. They are based on notebooks that were first produced and marketed by French bookbinders in the 19th and 20th centuries and which were used by Van Gogh, Picasso, even Chatwin; Moleskine itself was launched in the late 1990s by an eponymous Italian company that read a description of the notebooks in a book by Chatwin.

Watch video

Why are so many people splurging on high stationery in the age of tablets and smart phones? We ask an expert.

Loading video…

Mandhwani’s first Moleskine in red paper was a gift from a friend in London. “There is an aura around Moleskine. Only those with an aesthetic sense can appreciate it for what it is,” says Mandhwani. In India, Moleskine products are distributed by William Penn, the retail chain that stocks luxury pens.

Delhi-based retail consultant Devangshu Dutta, chief executive at Third Eyesight, attributes the growing popularity of luxury stationery among well-heeled Indians to changing aspirations.

“People want to appear more professional,” Dutta said. “As they move up the socio-economic ladder, the consumption of stationery, which is a utility product, is becoming more expensive. It’s more about the brand and being conscious about what you are seen with.”

Shailesh Karwa, co-chief executive officer of Staples Future Office Products Pvt. Ltd, says there has been an influx of brands in the luxury category and the premium is growing faster than the mid-to-low-priced brands.

“Pens have been seeing a growing demand in the market”, he adds.

No surprise then that the high-end retail chain William Penn, which sells writing instruments such as Sheaffer, Pelikan and Caran d’Ache, has been growing at 20-25% over the last five years.

Started in 2002 by Nikhil Ranjan, who quit his tech job at International Business Machines Corp., the company has seen the market evolve.

“The personal gifting and consumption of pens has gone up dramatically, driven by growth in spending power” says Ranjan, who uses a Sailor 1911 fountain pen to sign his cheques. Currently, the company has 15 stores in six cities and five shop-in-shops and stocks products that range in price from Rs. 750 to Rs. 1 crore and more. The La Modernista from Caran d’Ache is what costs a cool Rs. 1 crore. The Shri Ganesh from Sailor is more affordable; it costs Rs. 4.5 lakh.

Over the years, the chain has seen both its sales by volume and average ticket size go up. Sales volumes are driven by writing instruments priced between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 5,000. Gifts account for almost 50% of sales.

Every now and then Ranjan gets requests for customized products. Recently, he was asked to inscribe a family name on the nib of a Caran d’Ache, a Swiss brand, as well as on the box to be passed on to future generations. Such services are provided at a 100% to 500% premium, says Ranjan.

He plans to expand the product line, enthused by the growing market for premium stationery. He has introduced Rubinato quill pens from Italy and a range of stationery and accessories from Dalvey. The growing league of individuals who relish the idea of well-crafted stationery is pulling more cult brands into the market.

Retail experts say that the pen market, estimated at Rs. 3,000 crore a year, is seeing a lot of traction.

“As the country moves towards higher levels of literacy, we are seeing demand for stationery products go up. Also as the economy matures, per capita expenditure on such categories will continue to go up,” says Sushil Patra, associate director of retail at consultancy Technopak Advisors Pvt. Ltd.

The desire to use expensive stationery is on the upswing despite the advent of tablets and hand-held devices changing the way people communicate. For instance, Suresh Mohankar, national planning head at Dentsu Communications Pvt. Ltd in Bangalore, is a self-professed stationery addict who prefers putting to paper his work-related ideas instead of typing them out on his laptop. “I’ve always been used to writing, so I still use diaries or journals to make points for my ppts (PowerPoint presentations) and proposals.”

Mohankar’s personal collection comprises 50 fountain pens with Montblanc, Conway Stewart and Sheaffer among them. “I never use office stationery, I get my own. It’s the feel-good factor of writing on good paper with a good pen,” says Mohankar, who picks up stationery from outlets at airports and from retail chains.

Like Chiki Sarkar and Mohankar, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, an international publishing consultant, also finds good stationery sensually appealing. “It’s addictive,” she says. Her personal collection consists of Moleskine journals, Paperblanks (diaries) collected from her trips to Europe and diaries produced by Roli Books Pvt. Ltd and Penguin Books India.

There are others who swear by Rubberband launched five years ago by Mumbai-based design consultant Ajay Shah. Rubberband imports pulp from Indonesia and Russia to make its notebooks, which sell at 50 outlets in India. Available in bright colours, the notebooks and writing pads cost between Rs. 160 and Rs. 1,500.

Buyers are typically professionals such as architects, graphic and interior designers, photographers and storyboard artistes, Shah says. He also sees growing interest for his brand among lawyers, doctors, executives and those working in the hospitality sector.

2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Panel, Jury announced

2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Panel, Jury announced

It consists of Koyamparambath Satchidanandan (chairperson), Muneeza Shamsie, Suvani Singh, Eleanor O’Keeffe and Rick Simonson. A wonderful team. I am certainly looking forward to the winner they select.