Authors have finally started making news in India, with the size of their book advances and not just their books themselves. Ramachandra Guha had publishers vying to offer him upwards of a crore of rupees earlier this week. Admittedly, that was for five (or seven) books, not one; but it hit the headlines in almost the same way that Sachin Tendulkar's first big endorsement contract did.
Three of the books are not likely to be big sellers: one will be his collected essays, another an anthology and the third a re-issue of an old book of Guha's (on Verrier Elwin); in most publishers' calculations, none of them would be really hot draws.
So the substance of the bids lay in Guha's forthcoming two-volume work on Gandhi, his big work after the bestseller on post-Independent India (India after Gandhi).
That is not the only big book deal of recent times. In fiction, Roli recently acquired all the works of Ved Mehta for Rs 50 lakhs (Rs 5 million), and Amitav Ghosh got Rs 55 lakhs (Rs 5.5 million) for a three-book deal. Other authors are reported to have got advances going up to Rs 25 lakhs (Rs 2.5 million) for a single book.
Still, the numbers are no bigger than what a fresh management graduate would make in his first year on a job. So books are not yet big business in India, and publishing still has the flavour of a cottage industry, even if some of the big international publishers have set up tent here.
A book has to sell 40,000 copies in its first year or two to justify these advances -- and authors are getting there. One of the biggest sellers of recent times is Nandan Nilekani's Imagining India, which has sold 55,000 copies in a matter of months.
Publishers say that a top-draw writer (like William Dalrymple) might get to sell between 25,000 and 40,000 copies.
"Ordinary" bestsellers (MJ Akbar's Blood Brothers and Shade of Swords, Khushwant Singh's recent pictorial re-issue of his Train to Pakistan, even Bimal Jalan's book on economic reform) would do between 10,000 and 20,000 copies, while the vast majority of titles still do only about 1,000 copies.
Publishers who turn out between 100 and 250 titles in a year would be quite pleased if they managed to sell 2,000-3,000 copies of any particular release. In fact, tomes written for the academic world have print runs that often stop at 600.
The good news is that the big books are coming out more frequently, and there is greater variety. The reason is not just a flowering of Indian creativity in English, or the arrival of quality writers, though both are of course true.
The fact also is that the market for books has improved; despite TV and other contemporary distractions, more people happen to be reading more books (perhaps they can afford them now). Then, there are more quality trade (as different from academic) publishers around, with Penguin (which has bagged Guha) being the international pioneer in India, while an academic publisher like Oxford University Press has discovered a market for high-priced tomes like the Oxford Companion to Economics in India (Rs 2,500, sold nearly 5,000 copies).
So it is following up now with the Oxford Companion to Politics in India, and working on an encyclopedia on Indian music.
And it doesn't get boring because you never know what clicks. Random House has found a diet book linked to Kareena Kapoor turning out to be a runaway bestseller, while a collection of Vir Sanghvi's interviews done for Hindustan Times has been a hit in paperback at Rs 95 a copy.
And, of course, you never know which one will bag the Booker and find its sales go right off the charts.