Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Alice Grundy on OzCo’s exploratory trip to India

The Australia Council for the Arts supported a delegation of publishers and writers’ festival programmers to travel to India from 13-25 January to ‘investigate artistic development, market and exchange opportunities for Australian authors and the broader Australian publishing and literature sector’.

Alice Grundy, managing editor at Giramondo Publishing and editor-in-chief at Seizure, reports:

On a stage in the heart of Kolkata, with the smog thin enough to give a hint of sky and cars blasting their usual cacophony just a few metres away, sat Black Inc.’s Jeanne Ryckmans reading from her children’s book to a crowd of children and parents. This session was part of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival and Ryckmans was in India for the Australia Council for the Arts India Literature Exploratory, supported by the Australian High Commission in New Delhi.

Also on the trip are Louise Thurtell (Allen & Unwin), Anna Moulton (Magabala Books), Lisa Dempster (Melbourne Writers Festival), Susan Hawthorne (Spinifex Press), Jo Dyer (Sydney Writers Festival), Barry Scott (Transit Lounge Publishing), Fiona Dunne (Express Media) and me (Giramondo Publishing/Seizure).

We have travelled to India for a 10-day visit to meet as many publishers and attend as many events—and parties—as is physically possible; to further develop pre-existing ties, both those that the publishers and others have established over the years and those initiated by a similar delegation in 2015; and to form new bonds. Kolkata saw us meet with publishers, attend festival sessions at the famous Oxford Bookstore on Park Street and in the courtyard of the Victoria Monument, one of Kolkata’s most recognisable landmarks—and begin the serious task of distributing and receiving business cards.

After three days we headed to New Delhi, India’s political and publishing capital, to attend a roundtable with editors from independent and multinational publishers. We also visited the Delhi Book Fair, which was pleased to have clocked a ‘footfall’ of over a million in nine days and where several of us were tempted into purchases—not least by the Tara Books stand, an independent children’s book publisher whose beautiful products weighed our bags down on the return journey.

The final stop was Jaipur where we attended the Zee Jaipur Literary Festival. Streaming in through the entrance on the first day—having queued for security, men on one side, women on the other—we joined the thousands of people arriving for Margaret Atwood’s keynote address. We filtered through the gates of the Diggi Palace under a canopy of puppets—colourful dolls made in Rajasthan—to one of the festival’s largest venues, a tent four storeys high, covered in block-printed fabric sheltering 300 seats and a raised stage filled with drummers and horn-players. The formal launch for the festival included a lamp-lighting ceremony, a performance and then Atwood’s speech. The sense of occasion befitted what the organisers call ‘the biggest free literary festival in the world’.

Over four days, 350,000 people attend the festival, cheering every utterance of big stars such as Stephen Fry, Bollywood actress, poet and children’s author Nandana Sen and cricketer Anil Kumble, and listening intently to some of the world’s leading theorists including Homi Bhabha and Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Jaipur also hosts a festival for the publishing industry with sessions featuring agents, publishers, translators and India’s answer to Amazon: DailyHunt. Anna Moulton appeared on a panel with publishers from the UK, Norway and India to speak about the role of technology in contemporary publishing strategy in the serene grounds of the Narain Niwas Palace.

Several of us ran out of business cards having met so many publishers, editors and writers keen to engage with Australia; it was an exhausting trip but also one of extraordinary hospitality. In Kolkata and Jaipur we attended dinners hosted in the gardens of festival patrons—braziers and metres-long buffets would meet us along with friendly faces we had encountered at the festivals during the day.

Some of the insights I took away from the trip were: book prices in India are incredibly low, distribution is very difficult and the market is still relatively small for books despite the country’s population. All that means selling rights to Indian publishers is a tall order—although a few of the publishers, including Giramondo, have had nibbles.

The flip side is that there are very talented authors writing in English, while authors writing in Hindi or Urdu or Tamil or any of the other 20-something official languages (not to mention the dialects and ‘unofficial’ languages) are coming into English at a good rate partly because of local English-language publishing.

Translation is relatively cheap in India compared with Western countries such as Australia (many local translators aren’t paid at all), so it’s feasible for Australian publishers to pick up rights despite the relative difficulty of reaching a significant market with these titles in Australia. I have around a dozen manuscripts that piqued my interest and I believe all the publishers returned with prospective acquisitions for their lists.


Category: Features