Welcome to another episode of Publishing Pros! In this episode, I speak with Revathi Suresh, the Indian YA author of ‘Jobless, Clueless, Reckless’ and ‘In Now & Then.’ We discuss the India YA readership and why it’s such a hard market to crack.
A: Hi everyone, and welcome to Publishing Pros. My name is Arundhati, and in this podcast series, I will be speaking with professionals from the publishing industry.
A: Today’s guest is Revathi Suresh, the Indian YA author of ‘Jobless Clueless, Reckless’ and ‘In Now & Then’. Why did you choose to work with young adult publishing or young adult writing? What about YA books appeal to you?
R: I can’t say I took a conscious decision to write about young adults. I think it just happened in the way that the stories came to me that the protagonist was of a certain age that can be categorised as young adult.
A: Why do you think that that age group was the best age group for you to tell your stories?
R: Okay, so when I started writing the book, my own children were that age. The second book, I would say, was a more organic thing because it’s a sequel. There, I kind of made the decision to have my protagonist of a certain age. That was a little more organic, the first one, I made a choice.
A: Right. What was your process when you went to get published? Were you working with an editor there or was it just pushing for yourself what you believed you wanted to put in?
R: I edit it all almost entirely myself, so unless someone comes in with, “This is not possible.” I’m talking right now of large-scale editing, I’m not talking of minor editing. I think because I’m working at it so much in my head before I’m putting it down, there’s already a lot of clarity. So I do a lot of my editing myself. In fact, I don’t really look for editing help when I finish a draft, I look for people to read and give me feedback. And as you know, in India, there are few YA publishing houses and at that time there were fewer still. So then I had to make sure that I really had the kind of draft that wouldn’t face rejection, that would at least get a full reading. What happened in the case of the first book was that the publishers just loved it and took it on exactly as it was. I think, at the end, a few commas were added. With the second, my experience was entirely different. My protagonist in the second book is between seventeen and twenty years of age. This didn’t fall into the YA slot for publishers and straight away I got rejected by almost everyone. For a new publisher, other than Duckbill who published my first one, it was simply, “Why should we publish the sequel to a book that’s been published by someone else?” And for Duckbill, I think they were going through some transitions of their own.
A: Yeah, I think they were acquired by Penguin.
R: Yeah, and also they said that this wasn’t YA. And then of course, I did find a publisher. I’m very grateful to One Inch Margin for taking the risk they took.
A: Do you really think that the YA and adult categories have such hard lines that are drawn in the publishing industry?
R: Definitely in India, yes. I think we are still very rigid in the way we look at YA as something that should stay strictly between twelve and sixteen, max seventeen years of age. The thing is that this makes things a little complicated about where you’re going to put in the stories that are for a slightly older age group and not quite what one might consider adult. And like I said, we have very very few publishers here, and even fewer who are willing to take chances. But hopefully, you know, things will change and we will also evolve and we will see that there is a missing category there.
A: I think they did try this in the US and UK markets for a while where they had this sort of seventeen to twenty-three age group called a new adult category.
A: They tried for a few years but I think they just weren’t able to slot it on bookshelves in bookstores so that didn’t work out.
R: I know, but the thing is that it depends on what kind of stories you’re trying to tell in those categories. But I’m sure there are serious stories happening there also, so it’s a question of what you want to pay and what publishers are picking up and what audiences are reading.
A: Right. So the next thing I wanted to ask you, since we were talking about readers: what do you think readership in India is like? At least when I was a teenager reading a lot in India, I found very few books that were of Indian origin or that were telling Indian stories. It was usually things that were published in the US or the UK, rarely even Australia, just imported stuff. Very rarely did I see Indian stories being reflected, especially in the children’s and young adult sections. Do you think that is changing? Or do you think we’re still stuck importing stories?
R: I think as far as children’s is concerned, there is a lot of Indian stuff and it’s very good quality stuff and there’s great variety there. Se the tricky thing is when you make that jump into YA and it’s such a wide category, right? So the problem, as far as I can see with the way that we approach writing in India is that I don’t know if all of us recognise how children are changing, and that they’re changing really dramatically with material they have access to that we may not have. All that is changed. I don’t think we’re telling very dramatic or very unique stories, which is why there’s a tendency to look for excitement from books from abroad. There is greater variety whether it’s like fantasy or, you know, adventure or real life or whatever. All of that is a little bit better written and with wider audiences in mind than what we have here. The other problem is the constant vetting on the part of parents, on the part of schools, trying to constantly go into, “What are children reading? Are we Indian enough? Are we telling Indian stories? Our kids are not like this. Oh my god, they don’t!” So this constant moral policing that happens around YA, that barrier that comes up makes it very hard for you to even find your readers. It’s hard, it’s hard to write for YA in India. And like you said, someone like you who had already grown up reading books from abroad will probably hesitate to pick up an Indian writer because you know yourself that Indian writing comes with certain dos and don’ts already in place.
A: I did pick up a few books when I went to the New Delhi Book Fair, but they, you’re right, lack the kind of seamless quality that one usually gets from imported Western books. This then becomes a sort of, if you don’t have the readers for it, publishers aren’t going to publish it, and then publishers don’t publish it and so you don’t have the readers for it. There’s this really self-fulfilling cycle. Do you think there’s any way to break that chain? Any way to encourage readers to read further into local writing or things that might be more relatable experiences, even though secretly we all want to be blonde American teenagers that we see in high school dramas.
R: In India, you have a certain kind of citified, very urban reader, and then you have the smaller towns and the even smaller towns. So one would expect that we have a huge body of writing that reflects all kinds of lived experiences, that you would be able to produce that range of literature that will be able to satisfy everybody’s need for a good story. But either that isn’t happening and those stories are not being told in those smaller towns, or we don’t seem to know about those stories. So I think that publishers are always looking for something new, so if they were to come across something that was really dramatic and appealing in terms of a good story, they would for sure pick it up, even if they have to translate it. So then, with all of these publishers being around and all of them scouting around for voices and new kids of stories, if no one is able to find such a quality of writing, then one would have to presume that those stories are not being told. Two, if you were to talk about authentic Indian experiences, what is that authentic Indian experience? If you’re going to say that only the story of somebody who comes from this class of person, or only this kind of a story is authentic, that’s not the case because a number of experiences are being lived.
A: How much of a role do you think language plays in this? Translation, I’m sure, must be difficult. Even if you do get authentic stories from certain places and certain writers, there’s just so many languages in India, and not everyone speaks English and not everyone speaks Hindi. Publishing in those languages is also not easy because it’s not like newspaper printing, it’s proper book printing which can require its own presses and things which are difficult in their own right.
R: No, I think translation on its own doesn’t have to be a big challenge. You can always find someone. Between a good editor and translator, I’m sure they can manage to authentically convey the story. The problem, like I said, is the fact of the story itself being written. The story needs to be written for the people whom you are representing. It should not be written for the urban classes. Because then it becomes a kind of book tourism, you know? Here’s a glimpse into the life of someone who lives in a tribal area. This works okay in children’s writing, but in YA it can become really awkward because you are trying to be gauge the life, the emotions, the lived experience of someone who you really are not yourself.
A: How do you think we could encourage a greater writership? Especially, as far as I have noticed, there’s so much non-fiction publishing in India. That you have to crack the IITs, or you have to be an entrepreneur, or you have to find a way to hustle and make yourself known, and all those motivation books and all of that. In terms of telling these stories that we know exist, but just aren’t being told, is there a way that we could — I say “we” like you and I could make a difference — but any way that the publishing industry could encourage greater voices to come forward and tell their stories?
R: I think publishers are always looking for new voices. The problem is that all of us are trying to write in English and we’re doing that because that’s where you think your readership is. But there is a bigger kind of market that has to be in the regional languages. And I’m sure there are publishers there too but I can’t speak about the quality of writing or stories being told because I only know about one area. So unless we begin to explore writing in a way that demands that we write in English in order to be published or in order for you to get your stamp of approval from your audience, starting from the appearance of the books, the quality of the printing — all of that kind of matters, right? For that good writing to not be limited to English language publishing but to happen in regional languages in a way that doesn’t make the writer feel that the audiences are not being reached.
A: The Indian market is definitely a tough market to crack. I think another problem is that you don’t really find a lot of booksellers in India either? Because our bookshops are so limited — you’ve got your Crosswords and your Landmarks, which have also gone down in number over the last few years — the number of avenues from where you can buy books has also reduced. So when you’re stuck with buying books from Amazon, the kind of options you see are those top ten books and little else.
R: That’s true, you’re right. You are browsing books online and online is such a huge place, right? I mean you just keep following links and you just keep going from one book to another, whereas the pleasure of actually browsing and maybe looking at a smaller shelf. I would say that we lack a range of storytelling. So for example we don’t have the pulp fiction, right. We don’t have the abundance of mysteries and detective fiction where we lean on the West to provide us with the books.
A: Yeah. I think another thing that we lack in general is a strong foundation for writing ability, just the skill that is needed. I don’t think that’s a focus in schools where you’re taught that you need to write your fifty-word paragraph to answer your English language questions but I don’t think anyone really goes above and beyond that to think about the craft of writing, and that then reflects in the quality you see in your bookstores.
R: Which is why some of the writing, when it comes to writing for younger age groups, ends up having very basic and simplistic kind of writing, as if younger people don’t deserve a more complex approach to writing.
A: I think now that, in general, self-publishing and being able to write for yourself online is growing steadily, I think, I hope, we will see a few more fresh voices as time goes on. But yes, it is much slower in India than it is in the West, but slow progress is better than none at all. I think I’m going to round it off here. It’s been so nice talking to you, aunty. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me. Thank you, bye!
R: Bye Arundhati, bye!