By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Not Published by the Big Wigs’There was a time when few people at India’s large publishing houses were interested in Hindi pulp fiction—that is, until publisher Minakshi Thakur turned pulp author Surender Pathak into India’s bestselling crime fiction author.
Earlier this year, at the StoryDrive Asia conference in Singapore, Thakur told the audience of how she saw potential in the Hindi pulp market while she was the managing editor of HarperCollins India’s literary division and brought national attention to one of the genre’s leading authors.
There are 22 major languages listed in the constitution of India, Thakur told her audience in Singapore. “They are written in 13 different scripts, with more than 720 dialects,” she said. “The official Indian languages are Hindi and English, which is also widely spoken.”
Thakur knows what she’s talking about. She’s the publisher of the languages division of the Amazon-owned Westland Publications, the largest Indian publisher in the English trade industry.
Almost one-quarter of the Indian population speaks, reads, and writes in Hindi, and the language dominated India’s book market, she said. Nearly 1,500 publishers sell trade and educational titles in Hindi. And while many revere traditional Hindi literature and poetry that can be traced back to the 14th century, Thakur said, the popular genre of Hindi pulp fiction was ignored “by the big wigs in Hindi publishing” for a long time.
Despite the fact that Hindi pulp fiction was “incredibly popular and sold in hundreds and thousands of stores—mostly out of bus and railway stations—they were considered ‘non-books’ by mainstream publishers,” Thakur said, “not to be reviewed, not to be read by people who read high-brow literature.”
That, she decided, could be changed, and profitably.
‘No One Else Had Thought To Go To Hindi Pulp’
The dismissal of Hindi pulp fiction by the publishing powers of India led Thakur—while still managing editor of HarperCollins India—to wonder what would happen if a major player could harness the phenomenal popularity of pulp.
There are three key authors of Hindi pulp fiction from the 1960s, Thakur said: Om Prakash Sharma, Ved Prakash Kamboj, and Surender Mohan Pathak—called simply “SMP” by many of his fans.
Now 77 years old, Surender Pathak is the bestselling crime fiction writer in India. He has averaged four to five novels per year, for 55 years. Within six months of its release, each Pathak book will sell more than 25,000 copies.
Pathak began writing in the early 1960s as a sideline to a full-time job with Indian Telephone Industries in Delhi. One of his series, featuring investigative journalist Sunil Chakravarty, comprised 100 books. And Pathak’s best-loved material is in his Vimal series centered on the protagonist Sardaar Surendra Singh Sohal, “a gangster with a conscience.”
“And I became his editor in 2013,” Thakur said, during her tenure at HarperCollins. “No one else had ever thought to go to an author of Hindi pulp,” she said. Until Thakur approached, all of Pathak’s work was published in Meerut, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, where India’s pulp fiction traditionally is printed.
And what Thakur was planning was a Hindi-to-English translation breakthrough for HarperCollins.
“We were mainly seen as an English-language trade publisher,” she said, while Hindi publishers traditionally work without contracts, advances, or royalties,” Thakur said, operating as “giant family-run companies.” The differences were so stark that the first step would be to convince Pathak to publish with HarperCollins.
Reprint Rights Retained
Wooing Pathak, Thakur said, required several things: She explained to him that he would be made the brand-ambassador of HarperCollins’ Hindi imprint, he’d become a super brand.
“We told him we’d make him the Agatha Christie of India,” Thakur said. He would also launch Harper’s crime imprint, called Black, and he’d have his books simultaneously published in English as well as Hindi, to open a then-untapped market.
Pathak’s backlist was free and clear to be republished—his original contracts had not granted anyone reprint rights.
Announcing the coming publication of his next book from HarperCollins at the World Book Fair in New Delhi—and engaging his fan club for support on the ground—HarperCollins convinced Pathak that it could charge 125 rupees (US$1.94) per book. The publisher also gave booksellers a 55-percent discount instead of the usual 50 percent on the Pathak books to grease the retail wheels.
Within six months of the launch of The Colaba Conspiracy, the book had gone into two printings and had sold more than 30,00o copies. The title became 2014’s most popular in India, and six novels followed. Pathak began getting invitations to speak at literary events as he became more well known.
“No one else had ever thought to go to an author of Hindi pulp, not least because sales of Hindi books don’t translate into big numbers” in the Indian marketplace.Minakshi Thakur
In a departure from its norm, HarperCollins created merchandise including key rings, caps, note pads, coffee mugs, tote bags. A “Take a Selfie with SMP” contest took off at Delhi’s World Book Fair. Box sets followed—one of them augmented by a special book on the making of Pathak’s 37-book Vimal series.
“Every book went up” in response to pre-orders on Amazon.in, Thakur said, spurred in part by a contest for signed copies.
By 2015, Pathak had been given his own store on Amazon.in. HarperCollins placed ads on the backs of tuk-tuks in Lucknow, and the covers of Pathak’s books gradually gathered a more streamlined and modern appearance.
Just as Thakur was preparing to move from HarperCollins to Westland, Pathak’s newest novel, released in June, went to the top of Hindi charts, Nielsen Bookscan revealed. And although, she said, so many in the industry in India now credit “SMP” as a highly regarded author, they aren’t able to get his cooperation on projects for themselves.
“At Westland,” she told the StoryDrive audience, “we’ve just signed Surender Mohan Pathak to his three-volume autobiography.” She’s taking her favorite author along with her.
‘An Audience We Need To Convert’
Thakur says that in her youth, she was aware of the energy and grassroots popularity of Hindi pulp fiction. And when HarperCollins began revealing its intention to establish Pathak as a “new,” major talent, she said the news media were unprepared for the success to come.
“They knew of Pathak,” she said, “but the media weren’t convinced that his work could really sell in large numbers. And that’s because only the smaller publishers” who had handled pulp in the past “knew the kind of numbers he was doing all those years” and across almost 300 titles.
HarperCollins India’s leap of faith succeeded, in part, because the publisher discerned that a ground-level support base for authors that could sustain 300-book careers could be parlayed into a powerful, loyal consumer base. This is a case in which a major publishing force researched what the readership was already devoted to reading and captured that energy and dedication to an author like Pathak respectfully.
And once committed, HarperCollins supported the effort fully, even to the point of creating what in some markets are called “action figures” based on Pathak characters to complement a level of merchandise rarely produced for an author’s work.
Going forward, Thakur’s role with Westland is to produce work in nine languages, “to try to bring in those numbers,” and their readers along the same lines of the pattern used with Pathak’s spectacular success: finding the consumers’ interest and interpreting it into contemporary sales. “That’s an audience we need to convert,” Thakur says, starting small, not expecting too much at first, practicing patience in the development of the consumer base.
Surender Mohan Pathak’s fiction at HarperCollins today starts with a first run, normally, of 25,000 and quickly is followed, in most cases by a reprint quickly.
“With his autobiography” at Westland, Minakshi Thakur says, “I think we’ll do about 50,000.”