Malayalam literary fiction drives Indian language publishing

DC Books success with the Sharjah International Book Fair

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The Autobiography of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela
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.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital 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.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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