Interview With Udayan Mitra - Executive Publisher and Tina Narang - Children’s Publisher, HarperCollins India
on Jun 06, 2022
Udayan Mitra is Executive Publisher at HarperCollins India. He has been an editor and publisher with leading publishing houses in India for over two decades.
Tina Narang is the Children’s Publisher at HarperCollins India, where she launched the children’s imprint, HarperCollins Children’s Books, in 2017. Before HarperCollins, Tina was with Scholastic India from 2005-17.
Frontlist: Ever since HarperCollins Children’s Books Imprint launched, what changes have you reckoned in terms of promoting reading habits among children?
Udayan and Tina: It has been an exciting time since the imprint was launched. The children’s segment has seen remarkable growth over the last decade, and if the current pace is any indication, it is likely to accelerate even further. It has, therefore, been the perfect time for children’s publishers to grow their business as there is a growing acceptance of locally produced books.
What makes children’s publishing even more vibrant and delightful is the variety of formats, genres, and styles - one of the key features of our children’s publishing list from pre-primary to young adults, from picture books to illustrated chapter books, fiction, non-fiction, activity books, biographies, and more. Books that we hope kids will enjoy reading as much as we have enjoyed putting them together.
Time and again surveys have revealed that children like to read what they pick themselves. Libraries are the spaces that best demonstrate that. Kids pick up what they like without being prompted by a parent or an educator and choose what they are inclined to read.
Besides giving children a choice through a variety of products, we have also aimed to reach out to the reader through author and illustrator sessions and interactions in schools and elsewhere. Post-pandemic, these sessions have been conducted very effectively online. We believe getting kids to interact with authors will help them engage with the content and motivate them to read their books.
Book consumption surged by a whole mile during the last two years, and both surprised and delighted publishers across the board. This trend was perceptible across age groups, so adults were buying more books and reading more, and parents of young children and middle graders were seeking out books and buying them much more actively.
So yes, it is an exciting time for children’s publishing, but the challenge is not so much creating books as creating readers. We have to continue to find new ways to engage young readers as the future of children’s publishing lies as much in their hands as a determinant of what they will read as it does in the hands of the publishers publishing the books. And going forward, it is this synergy that will provide this industry with a truly vibrant nature.
Frontlist: If we evaluate the content consumption behaviour of the young generation, in your opinion, what kind of content attracts them?
Udayan and Tina: Children today are wired to a hundred different distractions, sometimes all at once. So, we have to find ways to engage this impatient and on-the-move generation with content that catches their eye and keeps them interested enough to turn the pages.
For pre-primary and younger kids, where most parents choose the books, popular formats include picture books, chapter books, and activity books. It’s interesting to see that books for young readers are exploring new subjects.
There are also more chapter books being published now than before, providing a useful bridge for early readers between the simpler vocabulary and sentence structure of picture books to the more advanced narratives of middle graders. As surveys and bestseller lists reveal, humour is one of the most popular genres for children. Kids like books that make them laugh, from Roald Dahl to Geronimo, David Walliams’ books, and much more. Another significant trend for publishers over the last couple of decades has been the series factor seen in the popularity of the Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson, Goosebumps, and other such series that have sustained over the years. Another winning trend has been the diary format, from Adrian Mole, Wimpy Kid, and Tom Gates to Amos Lee and several others. The comic book and graphic novel are popular formats too. It also works well for kids who are not readers or struggle to read books with vast bodies of text.
Non-fiction has perhaps undergone the most revolutionary changes of all the genres, from a dull and formulaic approach to a more perceptive approach and more engaging and visual formats. The books are well-researched, organised into well-defined segments, and supplemented with the source material, bibliographies, and relevant graphics. Children find these image-rich books with smaller nuggets of information easier to engage. ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’ sparked off a global trend, including biographies that are a mix of powerful visuals and crisp, concise text. There is also growing popularity of narrative non-fiction: authors and illustrators are representing text in different ways, such as mixing fiction and non-fiction, mixing science fiction and history, or using multiple narrators and perspectives. There is also a greater acceptance and willingness to try new formats such as books with augmented reality, audio formats, and books that involve an engagement online in addition to the print version, such as game books.
Finally, the reading preferences of young adults who are social media savvy and quickly tap into global trends to seek international bestsellers. They make reading choices based on personal taste and preference and consume a variety of genres. But this is also a segment in which themes trend for a while and then slip away to the background like the vampires did or sick lit. It is the most challenging yet exciting segment to publish.
Frontlist: What problems do all parents face when it comes to building reading habits in their children?
Udayan and Tina: Parents face several challenges when they set out to build reading habits in their children. What should my child read? Where to start, and what is the best time to start? While there are no hard and fast rules, there is no denying the fact that to create readers, it is best to start young. And a home that has reading material readily available and where parents read aloud to their kids from when they are very young is sure to set their children on a path of a lifetime of reading. For parents and educators, a useful place to find the best books for their children is the curated reading lists such as the 100 Best Books for Children, the 101 Children’s Books We Love! and other useful guides to good books, also easily accessible online. Following the recommendations of popular bloggers and bookstagrammers is also useful and popular.
Another way to build a bond between books and children is to let them participate in the selection of the books they’d like to read. And to also find new reading experiences for children through new formats or to explore different kinds of learning experiences in the form of activities, play materials, science experiments, botanical explorations, etc. When their minds open up to the immense and rich world of discovery that lies outside the pages of a book, they will be ready to read and discover more within its pages too.
Parents also need to be cognizant of the fact that a lot of what children like to read is peer-driven. A book, a series, or a character will trend very quickly at school, in a classroom, or on a bus, and every child will aspire to read it out of interest, curiosity, or both. So it’s good to keep track of these parallel reading trends.
Parents can also build on what interests their children. For a majority of children, seeing a book about something familiar – something that reflects their life experience – is all it takes to get them excited about reading.
Parents and educators can also interest children in reading and engaging with learning-based content by offering books that are infotainment – a mix of information and entertainment, content that doesn’t just educate but entertains as well. Starting with educational picture books that are a mix of fiction and non-fiction, to storytelling to teaching academic subjects to make the learning of history engaging and interesting. For example, Anne Frank’s ‘Diary of a Young Girl’ which can be used effectively to teach both social studies and history, or Malala Yousufzai’s ‘I Am Malala’, which captures the atmosphere of a militancy-affected nation.
While all parents and educators are aware that strong reading skills are critical to a child’s success in school, it is also true that kids will not simply take to reading just because they are told to. They need stronger motivation than that, and that’s where the parent’s role is critical – in providing books and creating a reading environment conducive to developing the reading habit and wherever possible to be effective role models too by reading themselves!
Frontlist: Being a leading publishing house in India, what approaches can we apply to promote holistic reading development among readers?
Udayan and Tina: I would say one of the things that we must try to encourage – apart from the obvious desire that more people should read and that everyone should read more – is that all of us should talk about books as much as we can. Back in the days before social media, word of mouth was the most important platform for spreading information about books and sharing thoughts on the joy of reading a book. Social media and the various communication networks available to us now enable us to talk to each other much more frequently and much more easily – but outside certain readers’/publishers’ groups, we don’t talk much about books, do we? More conversations about books – and reading and writing – would certainly pull us together as a community, which is what we certainly are. As a publisher, one of the few heartening things for me in the pandemic years was the realisation that in the face of so much becoming uncertain, so many of us turned back to books, reading, and writing. This is a habit we must not let go of.
Frontlist: How has Digital Revolution influenced the readership among fiction and non-fiction books?
Udayan and Tina: For me, the most obvious benefit of having books available as digital editions is their easy accessibility and portability. You can store hundreds of books on one device and thousands more on the cloud, carry an entire library with you anywhere and download a new book at the click of a button from anywhere. This simply makes it easier to read – gone are the days when some bibliophiles would need to plan their packing around the number of hefty volumes they would carry with them for a week’s holiday, leaving little space in the bag for other ‘essentials’…
I feel there is a larger impact to this as well – it is easier than ever to carry a long book with you and read it in your good time; I would argue that this doesn’t discourage us from picking up long books, and consequently, doesn’t discourage writers from writing long books either. This is a positive sign for the future of long-form narrative – a tradition that has been around for centuries. One of the aspects of the digital age is that it supports short form content and its consumption – but interesting, it enables long form narratives as well!
Frontlist: The growth of digital media has increased the amount of content available to users. What impact does this have on the growth of physical books?
Udayan and Tina: At least where the Indian market is concerned, the growth we’ve seen in ebooks and current interest in audio books hasn’t meant a decline in physical book sales. There are multiple ways of encountering and engaging with a book that is now available to readers, and I feel that they coexist nicely. One can argue that books do have to compete against the audiovisual media that has gained strength in the digital age: but my view is that the human sensibility is fascinated by stories, in whatever form we might encounter these, and stories pull us to books just as they do to films or OTT series – to my mind these are not necessarily competing platforms but complementary modes of encounter. Many books today lend themselves to film or OTT series just as they become ebooks and audiobooks – I think we are offering a reader/viewer a multiplicity of options to read/see/hear a story.
Frontlist: How significant is it to create a literary milieu to spread the joy of reading?
Udayan and Tina: I think it’s extremely important. Both writing and reading are activities largely conducted in isolation – but books build a strong community among readers, writers, and everyone else who is part of the publishing industry, as few other things can. When we’ve read a good book, we all feel the urge to share that joy of discovery and fulfilment with others; more conversations among ourselves about books can help strengthen the literary community that we belong to and also expand it manifold.