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.”