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In its 10th year in India, Bloomsbury turns to translations

Best known as the publishers of the Harry Potter series, Bloomsbury has completed 10 years in India, and is turning to translations from Indian languages

Bloomsbury Asia head Vafa Payman, and (right) Bloomsbury India's managing director, Rajiv Beri.

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The end of September marked a milestone for Bloomsbury in India—the London-headquartered publishing company celebrated its 10-year anniversary in the country. The publisher best known in India for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has expanded its list methodically, signing on popular as well as new voices, while building its academic publishing arm. 

Vafa Payman, Bloomsbury’s Asia head, along with Rajiv Beri, the MD of the Indian arm, spoke to Lounge about their slow foray into translation and the potential they see in India despite pandemic-driven worries. Edited excerpts from an interview. 

For many millennial readers in India, Bloomsbury is synonymous with the Harry Potter series, a global phenomenon in publishing. Does the company hold any collective memory of having been part of that?

Vafa Payman: It's been a great pleasure to publish J.K. Rowling, book after book, over the years. It just proves what a great story can do, not just in terms of selling a number of books but also in influencing culture, an entire generation of children who turn into adults whose own children read those books…. One thing that Harry Potter did, way back then, was to provide Bloomsbury with the platform to launch any number of other authors and books, and to launch them not just into the British or American market, but in India, too.

Rajiv Beri: Our vision (for Bloomsbury India) was very clear: we are not here only to sell the global product, but actually create our own. That was a massive objective. We have published 1,600 titles, and it's going on. We do about 200 new titles every year. 

Also read: Celebrating 25 years of Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived

Who are the big names in this roster of Indian authors?

RB: One of the big authors we brought into Bloomsbury the moment we set up the company was Shiv Khera. In these 10 years, we've sold 4 million copies of just his books. So those are the foundations, which helped us a lot. We’ve done a lot of other books by many other authors and new voices, too. 

VP: Yes, we are also an academic publisher globally and in India.

From what you’ve said, is it right to assume that Bloomsbury is looking more at non-fiction, whether academic or self-help? And if so, are you working on nurturing new non-fiction writers in this milestone year in India? 

RB: Our basket is quite wide. The main thing is to select books that we feel will work from authors who are respected, and even if it is an unknown voice, (we pick) content that will make some difference somewhere. The number of pitches we get in fiction are fewer than non-fiction—I’d say something like 70% non-fiction to 30% fiction. Non-fiction is just a big canvas… you’ve got biographies, critical books, modern art... 

How important is academic publishing to Bloomsbury? Within academic publishing, are there certain subjects you focus on? 

VP: We have a stated goal of our academic publishing being as important to our overall business as our trade publishing. We have grown our academic division greatly, bringing in a number of academic publishers to bolster our ever-growing list. Over the past decade or so, we acquired Red Globe Press in the UK and ABC Clio in the US. In academic publishing, we focus entirely on the humanities and social sciences. We are not looking to be a publisher of all subject areas. What we want to be is a global leader in specific subject areas. We are that in academic fashion, design, religion, and we are certainly getting there in history and politics. When it comes to India, not every subject we publish will be applicable to the market, just like not every subject we publish in the UK is applicable in the US. This, globally, gives us great strength in specific subject areas. This gives our local companies the opportunity to choose from excellent peer-reviewed publishing that is relevant to the local market.

Conversations with people in the publishing industry in India suggest that there is a widening space for accessible work by subject-experts, or creatively done non-fiction – what one might call literary non-fiction or literary journalism. Is this something Bloomsbury is also looking for in the books and authors you are signing in India? 

VP: The majority of our academic publishing is peer-reviewed monographs that tend to be bought by universities, university libraries. (Having said that) our I.B. Tauris imprint does academic titles that sell well, what one might call literary non-fiction. Some of our big bestsellers during the lockdown in the UK in particular were academic books written in an accessible way, which struck a chord with readers. 

RB: In India, we have our own academic publishing programme, and we publish for global audience. For example, Uttam Kumar: A Life in Cinema was really an academic book on the actor. It did so well that we brought out a paperback in trade publishing. Another book we did was The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition about the Sikh religion. Again, it did well and we brought a paperback into trade publishing. So, there is there is this kind of crossover happening, and it is good because you get the best of both worlds.

Your 10-year anniversary in India comes soon after the pandemic, which was marked by many disruptions. It also follows a year in which Amazon shut down Westland, which sent ripples into the publishing world. Do these experiences change the long-term plans you had for India?

VP: It doesn't. The pandemic affected every publisher as well as, I'm sure, other businesses. Now that things are getting back to normal, we're seeing a return to the way things were pre-pandemic. In terms of the pandemic itself, there was a difference between India and our Western markets. In the US and UK, we had fantastic sales throughout the pandemic which we didn't see in India. This wasn't Bloomsbury, it was the same for everybody. In the last financial year, which ended in February this year, Bloomsbury as a whole saw a 24% increase in revenue. But in India, we saw a 58% increase. We've seen a return to the kind of positive outlook that we had before.

Given your strong presence in the UK and US, and the global interest in literature from other languages, are you looking at acquiring translations from Indian languages into English for your international markets? 

RB: Earlier, agents wouldn't send us translations. Now, two of the translations we are working on are from agents. This additional market is becoming more formalised. It opens up avenues for us. We are looking at translations at par with any other proposal. It wasn't the case before. It’s changed for us in maybe the last six months... We’ve taken up books in Bengali, Telugu and Tamil.

Any big Indian author signings this year to mark the 10 years here? 

RB: We've done quite a few signings this year. We are doing a book on fitness by (former actor) Malaika Arora, which we think could be interesting. We have the autobiography of (singer) Adnan Sami coming next year, the autobiography of (singer) Sonu Nigam too. Non-fiction from (journalist) Karan Thapar. Some more big biographies that we can't reveal currently.

Also read: The Ink Black Heart book review Is Rowling clever or vindictive?

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