Malayalam literary fiction drives Indian language publishing

DC Books success with the Sharjah International Book Fair

The Autobiography of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela

The effect of good Malayalam books is not only across Kerala but across the country and the world. “Kerala is possibly the only place in the country where the first print run of popular fiction is limited to around 4,000 copies while that of literary fiction can be as high as 20,000 copies,” says Ravi DC, publisher of DC Books. English language publishers of fiction in India normally stick to smaller first print runs of 2,000 copies – the exceptions being big name popular authors such as Chetan Bhagat or an exceptionally well-known literary author such as Arundhati Roy.

The effect of Malayalam literature goes well beyond the borders of the tiny state of Kerala. The huge spread of Malayalee diaspora across every Indian state, the Middle East, Europe and the US ensures that Malayalam books sell very well not only locally but globally. With a strong narrative culture it also attracts the entire Indian population to its translations that regularly happen in English and other regional languages.

Young authors benefit from serialization

“The book publishing industry in Kerala is on a growth path. What we are witnessing now is that debut writers are becoming top sellers,” says Ravi DC. “One book, Hangwoman: Everyone likes a good hanging authored by KR Meera, that we published 4 to 5 years ago and priced over Rs 500, sold over 2 lakh copies only in Malayalam. Surprisingly, the plot was not based in Kerala but in Bengal during the British Raj. This shows that we have mature readers and both volume and value addition in regional language publishing,” says Ravi. In fact, the English translation of Hangwoman published by Hamish Hamilton was also a best seller in its own right.

Ravi has several interesting success stories related to regional language publishing. “Another notable book again priced above Rs 500, was A Preface to Man by Subhash Chandran that sold well over 1 lakh copies in Malayalam,” says the publisher. “Same goes with TD Ramakrishnan who has two best selling novels Francis Itty Cora and Sugandhi Enna Andal Devanayaki, books that sold similar volumes in a short period of time. Another best seller was the original Malayalam version of The Autobiography of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela published first by DC Books. And then of course there is Benyamin, the award-winning short story writer and novelist who is a runaway best-seller and among the most famous regional literary fiction writers of the decade.”

There are about a dozen best selling young Malayalee authors and the tradition of serializing fiction in popular magazines and newspapers give books a space to grow and evolve over time.

“As per Nielsen data, Penguin Random House commands 15% of the best selling books market in India, and we being a regional language publisher control 11.54% of the market share. All other publishing houses whether in English or regional languages hold only a single digit market share. This speaks highly of the reading habits of the people of Kerala who are just around 2.5% of the national population,” says Ravi. This trend is also visible in the newspaper and the magazine industry where the reading habits of Malayalam speakers make print publishing a huge success story.

DC Books’ success at the Sharjah Book Fair

“We are a partner with Sharjah International Book Fair which was essentially an Arabic language Book Fair twelve years ago. The English language books used to be few and displayed in closed cupboards. We were the first publisher amongst the non-Arabic languages to enter the market and in the first year of our participation, they had to send the internal security to control the crowds,” says Ravi. He recounts that the organizers initially thought that the crowd was because free Bibles were being distributed.
In the second year DC was given a corner spot to avoid any crowd management problem but the crowds still came. “So, in the third year they started to enquire how we got the crowds and called us in as a consultants,” says Ravi. Ever since, DC Books have grown at the Sharjah fair. Currently, DC Books and a consultant called Midas from the UK conduct the author sessions and are also jointly responsible for bringing in the crowds.

Last year at Sharjah, DC Books had 45 stands offering thousands of books published in all the Indian languages. It brought 32 authors to the speaker sessions at the event. “We are a better known brand in the UAE than in India amongst the non-Malayalee Indian population. The rules are well set by European consultants and each author session that we conduct must have anywhere between 500 to 2,000 people in attendance,” says Ravi.
The total footfall at the Sharjah International Book Fair is about 1.75 million of which the expatriates from India and Pakistan account for 500,000 – which is the responsibility of DC Books. The strong presence of Malayalees in the region help drive this footfall as around 150,000 Malayalee visitors attend the event. “And now they want us to bring Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar to the Sharjah fair and that too, free of cost,” says Ravi DC.

The annual Kerala Lit Fest

“We also do the Kerala Lit Fest, KLF, a four-day event starting on the 11th of January every year on the beaches of Calicut that attracts over 2.5 lakh people. Last year we had 5 tracks running in parallel with 189 sessions and around 500 authors speaking at the event,” says Ravi. All this is organized on a shoe string budget he adds, where only author travel and accommodation is taken care of by the organizers but no payments are made to the authors, unlike many other Indian Lit Fests. On-going for last four years, the KLF is doing well despite its timing, with two of the days clashing with the older and well established Hindu Lit Fest in Chennai.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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