Online Booking

One firm’s struggle to bring Hindi literature to the internet generation

Neela Scarf is one of Hind Yugm Prakashan’s most successful titles to date. courtesy Hind Yugm Prakashan
01 October, 2014

IN JULY, 1,200 copies of Neela Scarf, a debut short-story collection by the Hindi author Anu Singh Choudhary, were ordered online before the book’s release. That would be unremarkable in much of the publishing industry, but in the world of Hindi publishing it made news. Yet Shailesh Bharatwasi, the book’s 32-year-old publisher, was far from satisfied. “The situation in Hindi publishing is so bad that we celebrate even when a book sells 1,500 copies,” he said when we met in south Delhi’s Jia Sarai in August, in the house that is his home and office.

While English-language publishing in India has grown steadily over the last two decades, the growth of Hindi publishing has been sluggish. Established publishers don’t always welcome innovative work, and marketing strategies often lag behind the times. Bharatwasi owns Hind Yugm Prakashan, a publishing house that, though small, is trying to address these deficiencies. Since its foundation in 2010, the firm has published just over a hundred titles, which it has focussed on marketing online. “We started off by publishing two hundred copies of a book,” Bharatwasi said, “later went to five hundred, sometimes even seven hundred.” Only a dozen books have sold over a thousand copies so far, but Bharatwasi believes there is a huge untapped market for quality Hindi literature, especially among young readers, and is determined to exploit that niche.

Bharatwasi moved to Delhi in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, to prepare for the Engineering Services exams. But he quickly realised he was pursuing that project half-heartedly. In Mathura, he had read almost all the classics of Hindi literature: “Agyey, Renu, Bhisma Shahni, Rajendra Yadav, Maitreyi Pushpa, Amrit Lal Nagar,” he reeled off in one breath, and then added more authors’ names. After his move, he spent a great deal of time in cyber cafes creating a website called Mere Kavi Mitra, where he published poetry written by his friends—whose work was routinely rejected by orthodox literary journals. The website grew popular, and published an increasing number of both poetry and prose submissions. In this excitement, Bharatwasi booked a stand at the 2008 World Book Fair in Delhi, where he stood out as a website owner among, mostly, traditional publishers. By the end of 2010, though, his optimism waned. “We hoped that the website would generate enough money for at least one person’s survival,” he said, “but that never happened.”

Some of the writers and poets Bharatwasi published, having taken the website’s popularity as affirmation, now wanted to see their work in print. Aware of the venture’s precarious finances, some offered to fund their own books under a new imprint, and Bharatwasi launched Hind Yugm Prakashan. The new firm survived, but Bharatwasi feared that the self-publishing model “would bring a bad reputation” to the Hind Yugm brand. So, when he came across a strong manuscript in June 2012—a collection of short stories, titled Chaurahe Par Seedhiyan, by the Rajasthan-based writer Kishore Choudhary—Bharatwasi decided to publish it himself. For sales and delivery, Hind Yugm tied up with the online shopping portals Flipkart and Infibeam. “The print run of five hundred copies was sold by the end of the first month,” Bharatwasi said. “The book had to be reprinted.”

A few months later, he got hold of the writer Rakesh Singh’s Bam Sankar Tan Ganes, a non-fiction account of life in the author’s paternal village in Bihar that mixes ethnography and memoir. This was followed by Masala Chai, a “Hinglish” short-story collection by the manager-turned-writer Divya Prakash Dubey. A few more genre-bending books followed, and Hind Yugm started getting more attention.

Bharatwasi still feels financially insecure, because 60 percent of the company’s books are still author-funded. For Hind Yugm to do well, Bharatwasi said, “there are two options: either a book like Neela Scarf should sell one lakh copies, or else we need fifty such books every year.” Presently he is looking for tie-ups with booksellers in small towns, many of which are not yet served by websites such as Flipkart. He is also hunting fresh, unpublished voices from all over the Hindi belt. “Our aim is that people who would read the Hindi translation of Half Girlfriend”—the upcoming novel by Chetan Bhagat—“should also purchase a copy of Neela Scarf,” he said. “Getting this done is a serious challenge.”