Chasing the truth: How COVID-19 has changed reading habits
The year 2020 brought about a paradigm shift in our lives. We began thinking differently, eating differently, living differently, and even reading differently. According to Nielsen’s report on the Impact of COVID-19 on the India Book Consumer, reading time has increased from nine hours a week to 16 hours a week.
The fear of going out, contamination, unpredictable political climate, sudden death – the year was stranger than fiction. Readers reached out to relate and find an explanation in nonfiction. They sought answers in Science, Technology, Self-help, Spirituality, History and Enterprise to figure their place in a new, unsure world.
As serious nonfiction started flying off shelves or online ebook portals, the numbers told the truth. Adult nonfiction revenue for Amazon grew 22.8 percent in the last five years. Amazon Health, Fitness and Dieting, Politics and Social Science.
In 2020, YA fiction sales rose 21.4 percent and nonfiction sales increased 38.3 percent. The Nielsen report said that Indian nonfiction readers bought historical/political biographies followed by self-help/personal development and self-study like learning new languages.
Indian authors writing in English are looking beyond fiction. So are publishers. For every Samit Basu or Megha Majumdar, there is Urijit Patel writing about the credit market, Manan Ahmed Asif foraying into South Asian history in the context of majoritarianism, Sonia Shah writing on the next migration wave-provoked climate change and Raj Tilak Roushan uncovering real crimes in The Good, The Bad and The Unknown: Deep, Dark And Captivating Crime Stories from India.
“When publishing Indian writing in English got going in the 1980s, it was mainly fiction by a generation of great writers such as Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, etc,” says William Dalrymple, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The reason is that Indian publishing ecosystem has got more sophisticated and smart. India has the youngest readership market, which is a curiosity-consumed demographic.
Technology and travel have exposed youth to accessible vectors. Hence Indian readers will pay for a book like, The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative by Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran, which explains how India can shape the world’s future.
The rise of Dalit politics and Hindutva is a heated topic that make the translation of I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS by Bhanwar Meghwanshi a read in demand. Reading trends represent current topics of interest.
Currently, it is Medicine thanks to the pandemic, the Constitution because of debates over its sanctity, and Hindutva because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma as well as escalating attacks on Muslims.
In Republic of Religion: The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India, Abhinav Chandrachud argues that though many of our laws are based on the British legal system and our parliamentary democracy being a colonial derivative, Indian secularism is an atypical and forceful imposition by the British.
The past is the fertile valley of belief for nationalists and secularists alike. Author Ira Mukhoty believes that in India, society has changed a great deal in the last 20 years and the structure of families is changing too. “The usual storytellers, grandparents for example, may not always be integrated into these new family units. This means that we have lost some connectivity with a sense of our past,” she explains.
According to her, the growth of nonfiction is fuelled by this need to better understand the past, and incorporate a mature and vibrant sense of identity. “There is greater awareness that a lot of the history we have been taught in the past, was quite literally written by the victors. There is a greater desire for alternative histories,” she adds.
There is history you know and history that is forgotten. People Called Lucknow: 45 Narratives Unlayering Time in Awadhi Andaz by Jyotsna Kaur Habibullah and Siddharth Srivastava narrates a secret Lucknow told by 44 Lucknowphiles about the forgotten queen of Awadh and Farid Faridi legendary for his hospitality.
Says Yashaswini Chandra, author of The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback, “The divide between literary nonfiction and academic literature is shrinking as more and more scholars are writing for a general audience and making their work accessible.”
The Pandemic Effect
The pandemic had a host of memoirs flooding the market. Aarti David, Director-Publishing at SAGE Publications India, believes the reason is that the lockdown gave people time to focus on their book writing projects as events and physical meetings took a backseat.
According to Alliance of Independent Authors, indie authors account for 30-34 percent of all e-book sales in the largest English-language markets, and are making forays into the audiobook market. “Once people got fed up with binge-watching series/shows and trying out their culinary talents, reading brought hope and comfort,” David says.
She is not alone. The lockdown and subsequent WFH practice created mixed emotions in people, and books became an escape, believes Bushra Ahmed, Commissioning Editor, HarperCollins India, who says that Indian readers have always been more partial to nonfiction. “Nonfiction strikes close to the heart due to its immediacy,” she adds.
People turn to different kinds of books to tide over challenging times. Contemporary concerns reflect on sales. The environment and sustainability are dominant millennial concerns, as capitalism and its global ramifications are seen as modern day scourges.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein, which The New York Times called “the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring”, blames free market ideology for blocking climate change.
As the octaves of nationalism rise higher by the day, the thirst to know the history of Independence has grown. The inventiveness of the Indian academic mind is the fresh change in present Indian nonfiction. For example, Meghaa Gupta in Unearthed: The Environmental History of Independent India offers respite from dusty tomes.
“Away from the screen and the internet, readers might find nonfiction an interesting gateway to information,” says Gupta. True, provided it is told lucidly. New writers have a chatty anecdotal stye, which combined with extensive research makes history a lively read.
For example, the author of The Execution of Bhagat Singh, Legal Heresies of the Raj, Satvinder Singh Juss, a Law professor at King’s College London, gives such a detailed description of the martyr’s walk to the gallows that it seems we are watching it in real time nearly a century later.
The Greatest Ode to Lord Ram author Pavan K Varma, which was launched during the pandemic, says, “Long weeks of solitude and isolation, turned people’s mind towards the basic truths of life; what matters, what does not and how to acquire such meaningful knowledge that can help us grapple with life when it is so opaque and volatile.”
A massive dislocation caused by the pandemic pushed people to look for answers to troubling questions. “The kind of nonfiction books that are succeeding in this atmosphere can provide such succour,” believes bestselling author Amish.
Self-help and soul-searching books boomed more than usual the difference now is that their subjects have acquired more variety. “Much of what we took for granted has been turned upside down. A nonfiction upswing makes sense. People would naturally turn to books as a way of understanding their old and new lives,” says author Taran Khan.
Raising a Humanist by Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Bhatia teaches how to raise a humanist child in a divided and broken world. India’s mythmaker Devdutt Pattanaik’s Dharma Artha Kama Moksha uses his unique ability of talking to the common man and explaining in layman’s terms what the shastras are all about.
The pandemic has pushed sales of star topics such as food, health and travel. The pandemic became a home chef factory since restaurants were closed; out came grandmothers’ recipes and family food secrets.
Home chefs experimented and won; Somali chef Hawa Hassan and American food writer Julia Turshen present 75 recipes that teach how to make the famous Ajemi bread with carrots and green pepper; or Matoke (stewed plantains with beans and beef); and Kicha (Eritrean flatbread), with evocative photographs shot on location.
Renuka Chatterjee, VP Publishing, Speaking Tiger Books, says, “Readers are looking for books that will help them cope with depression and anxiety. They want to eat healthy, build immunity, restart their businesses and recover their finances.”
Knowledge is Power
The growing appetite for nonfiction in India is partly due to the fact that a new breed of writers has emerged in the last decade or so. Like Dalrymple, author Kishwar Desai believes that people are writing nonfiction because many new and forbidden areas are opening up for research, and multiple points of view are permissible. “Thanks to the internet, libraries and archives are more accessible all over the world. It’s easier now to get the information one needs,” she believes.
The reader also gets credit. The slant towards reading more nonfiction has happened primarily due to a mature readership. Rupa Publications MD Kapish Mehra believes that the trend has something to do with a lot of conventional consumers of fiction moving to popular OTT platforms for bite-sized entertainment.
“Nonfiction, on the other hand, is very wide in scope, and does not have a replacement. It is therefore, unique in its own right,” he says. It is a widely accepted fact that the internet is not always an accurate source of information. By filling this lacuna, nonfiction works assume a pivotal role in the modern age.
Aleph Book Company co-founder David Davidar says that nonfiction has traditionally outsold fiction. “Maybe it’s because no new Chetan Bhagat or Amish has appeared,” he weighs in.
Author of A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain, NS Vinodh adds that many books are by non-academics and journalists who write racy copy without compromising on the depth of research, in contrast to the pedantry of an academic. The same holds true for children’s books.
For example, until sometime back nonfiction books for children were like extensions of school textbooks. “Writers now approach the genre creatively, and illustrators add their magic,” reveals children’s author Shruthi Rao.
Dr Devika Rangachari, author of Queen of Earth, concurs. She believes that authors are aware that they will potentially make more money with nonfiction than fiction. “In this age of information overload, books written in engaging prose are more popular,” she says.
Authors are experimenting with subjects that are simultaneously serious and entertaining. The writing style is changing, often with description and dramatisation thrown in.\
Amish adds that many authors are writing narrative nonfiction, which makes for an easier read, and may aid to the expansion of the market. There is no doubt that readers consider nonfiction knowledge-enhancing.
Books that deal with weight loss, diets and other ‘how to’ books are always on top. Moreover, real life is often stranger than fiction, and can offer more excitement. Histories and biographies sell well. Celebrity writing by the likes of Twinkle Khanna get wide readership. Priyanka Chopra Jonas made it to the NYT bestseller list.
Here for the Long Run?
Is this newfound fascination with nonfiction temporary? “Sometimes passing phases leave permanent imprints behind,” says Amish. Varma agrees that the trend will consolidate in the years to come. “In a world where so many ideas are contested, often acrimonious, and different viewpoints abound, readers want to find out for themselves where they should stand on issues. Nonfiction books fill that need,” he says. The search to know more never ends for both writers ad readers. Publishers are listening.