India’s Imported Enlightenment

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

As India becomes increasingly globalized, readers are snapping up new spirituality, self-help and diet books — many of them inspired by ideas from overseas.

By Veena Venugopal

NEW DELHI: Keerti Rao, a 24-year-old executive with a consulting company in Delhi, visits the bookstore in her favorite mall at least once a week. Though she spends the most time checking out the fiction aisles, when she goes to the cash counter it is usually with a book that will “help her realize her goals.” In the last year, Rao has bought, read and re-read books by Thich Nhat Hanh — the Buddhist monk, Stephen covey’s The Leader In Me and a yoga book for toning up.

Chicken Soup for the Indian Armed Forces Soul

Rao is perhaps representative of many Indian readers. While the desire to read is varied, the actual reading is confined to books that they hope will actively help them better their own lives. Even a look at the bestseller lists endorses this argument. Books on weight loss and professional success crowd the top five category of the non-fiction list. This phenomenon plays out with hardly any difference, month after month. The market for books in the category earlier titled New Age and now rationalized to Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS) has grown exponentially in the last five years. While actual sales numbers are hard to verify, the sheer expanse in the shelf size of this category is evidence in itself about how quickly this genre has grown. All major publishing houses have imprints in this area, and on an average, there is a book launched a week.

In retrospect, this geometric progression of growth of the mind, body, spirit genre of books should have been easily predictable. Since the country was liberalized twenty years ago, there has been a spectacular shift in both income levels and cultural and social mores. As people struggle to fit in their traditional upbringing with the more modern value system that envelopes urban India, it is imperative they get some support and handholding.

Chicken Soup Feeds Westland

Indian Bride

Tata’s Westland Publishing, which holds the rights to the Chicken Soup series in India, has a significant presence in this segment. “Lifestyles have changed dramatically. Readers want to hear how people are coping with complex situations. Our modern marriage series, for example, does so well because a lot more people are getting divorced, dealing with infidelity, etc. These books help them immensely,” says Deepthi Talwar, an editor at Westland. The Chicken Soup series itself has been intensely integrated into the Indian experience. It spans titles including Chicken Soup for the Indian Armed Forces, as well as books for Indian teachers and Indian mothers.

Spirituality has been a popular topic for a long time and  books on religion and philosophy often go straight to the bestseller list. While books based on Hindu spirituality are usually expected winners, globalization has opened up the country and the worldly Indian reader is also interested in finding out about other ways of life. Books on Zen and Buddhism are particular runaway successes in the Indian market.

“Spirituality has become even more relevant and important in the modern times where stress levels are high and the traditional family structure and thought processes do not really work,” says Vaishali Mathur, Senior commissioning editor, Penguin Ananda. “We have been publishing books on spirituality and mind/body/spirit and self help earlier too, but looking at the market we have consolidated all our publishing under one umbrella imprint of Penguin Ananda. We are now more focused towards the readership and are bringing out books more relevant to the modern reader.”

India’s New Body Obsession

While the obsession of with the mind might merely be a matter of a “cultural hangover,” the body obsession in India is an imported phenomenon. Diet, yoga and exercise books have easily become the largest selling category of self help books. For example, in 2009 Mumbai dietician Rujuta Divekar’s Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight sold 50,000 copies in the first six months, a surprise to nearly everyone, including her editors and publishers at Westland. You may think that any of the more than one billion Indians who ever looked at a mirror and saw an extra roll of fat would have bought the book and sorted out their weight issues. Yet, two years later, with the launch of her second book, Women And The Weight Loss Tamasha, demand for Divekar’s advice, it seems, has only increased.

Self-published Self Help

Mind, body, spirit books also encompass a large chunk of the self-published side of the business. Look at Latika Tripathi, who quit her regular corporate job in Dubai and wrote her life story and how she found peace and happiness through numerology. Now a trained healer in theta, past life hypnotism etc, she has published three books under her Dhruv Publishing banner. Most of her readers are writers themselves. If they don’t find place in the local bookstore, they can easily be downloaded as e-books.

Considering explosive growth in the genre, it is likely we’ve only seen the beginning of the blossoming of this market — one that promises to take pounds off of waistlines and add millions of rupees to publishers’ bottom lines.

Veena Venugopal is currently travelling in Germany with a group of Indian Publishers of MIND, BODY, SPIRIT Books. This professional trip is organized annually by the German Book Office New Delhi in an effort to link up Indian and German book industries. She is the Assistant Editor of Outlook Business, where she edits the Buzz section that covers Books, Travel, Wellness, Arts and Culture, among others. Her first book, a collection of essays on books and reading, will be published by Yoda Press later this year. She lives in Delhi.

DISCUSS: Is Self-Published Self-Help at a Disadvantage?

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.