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Thomas Abraham interview

Thomas Abraham is President and CEO of Penguin Books India

Q: Penguin represents a lot of international publishers in India,
including a number of leading SFF imprints. At this point of time,
which are the most popular SFF sub-genres in India?

A: –Actually we represent just one serious SFF imprint Orbit. Penguin US has a large range (Roc & Daw) but they’re essentially US territory limited so we don’t bring them in. Bloomsbury, Faber & Puffin have a few children’s fantasy titles but that’s it. Before getting into sub genres, it’s worth noting that Orbit’s YA SFF imprint Atom failed and had to be aborted. So SFF essentially is still cult rather than mass market in India. The biggest sellers would be Jordan (10K) and Scott card (7.5K) from our lists. David Eddings, Terry Pratchett, Tad Williams, Le Guin etc etc—you know the usual suspects—also do fairly well. Looking at the kind of fantasy that sells, well it’s still druids and dragons. Epic and quest fantasy I suppose. SF is still stuck with Asimov and Clarke, with Dick making an appearance in a few bookstores. Can’t really pick a single sub-genre that would rise to the top unless one includes techno-thrillers. These apart I guess it would be the space/parallel universe genre. You’ll find very little new SF available here; though Fantasy has a fair bit of new stuff.

Q: Do you think international SFF agents/publishers are receptive to the
concept of a South Asian writing genre fiction, traditionally a
Western preserve? Is there an increased interest in non-Western SFF
in a saturated Western market, and is it beginning to show?

A:–Not that I’ve noticed. There is always a kind of exotica/novelty interest and South Asian material if it grips somebody may do well. But remember Song of kali by Dan Simmons did really well and the whole Calcutta as chaos motif was one of the key differentiators. So if Simmons could do it, I don’t see we shouldn’t. But I think unlike lit-fic which took the other route, commercial genres will have to break out here first.

Q: In most countries with developed SFF markets, SFF is seen as
low-caste, compared with literary fiction – for adults, at least. Does
this prejudice hold true in India as well? If so, does it also show in
terms of book sales, or do internationally well-known SFF authors sell
as well as acclaimed mainstream literary works?

A:– I wouldn’t go so far as lowering their varna, but yes they’re definitely seen as commercial. Interestingly in the UK, they’re coming out of the closet by as simple an expedient as new jacket design. Men in tights are out. Contemporary mood image covers are in. And sales shot up because, believe it or not, people could now read these books on the tube. India is rather unique in the fact that the differential between lit-fic and comm-fic isn’t much. Vikram Seth for instance would do 25K in hardback and a new Grisham would do about 40K in pb. And yes, the blockbuster level apart, internationally acclaimed SFF writers do as well as second rung thriller writers or literary writers (about 3 to5k). And here interestingly, the commercial tag apart, SF/F is often seen as abstruse and difficult.

Q: Indians living abroad are beginning to make their mark felt in other
kinds of fiction than mainstream literary fiction today – chick-lit
being a prime example. Given that writers of South Asian origin living
outside South Asia have more access to the spec-fic market, in terms
of magazines, conferences and up-to-date reading material, do you
think it’s likely that if there is a substantial wave of Indian SFF
writing, writers from the diaspora will be playing a leading role in
its development?

A:–I don’t see why not. And not just the diaspora but from here. Leaving aside conferences, access is pretty much available to everything else. And even going with the notion that flights of imagination are still inevitably rooted someway to cultural influences; we’re now (at least in urban India) definitely tech advanced for SF and have a mythology that’s definitely richer than celtic folklore to be able to produce world class fantasy. The problem is we need a basic readership here, which I think will be available over the next 10 years. All those Potter and Alfred Kropp readers will hopefully graduate into reading SFF.

Q: Picture your own SFF universe, where the best of South Asian writing
is married to the best of SFF writing. What sort of hybrid children
would you like to see, in terms of themes, content and style?

A:–Fusion as in music is always the most difficult to get right. The probability of falling between two stools is high. The problem is essentially that a lot of good writers won’t try their hand at commercial genres because it would feel low-brow. I ‘m not too sure a hybrid would work or is even necessary. ‘Vikram Seth meets Philip K Dick’ may sound good as a blurb line but may not be great reading. And who loves mutants anyway? I’d much rather a good writer who had the imagination to write SFF, just sat down and wrote a good book. In India we would need some great storytelling to break the genre through. (see last question)

Q: Do you feel that practically speaking, writers from countries not
normally associated with spec-fic markets need to emphasize on their
own countries’ myths/folklore/history in order to provide some kind of
diversity and succeed in the international marketplace?

A: –Not as a generalization, but if they don’t, they have to labour against the prejudice that “there’s nothing new here; this is essentially a western universe”. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. It would be far easier to position their work as rooted in their own cultural contexts and try to break through on the exotica platform. But conversely they would probably come up with the objection from agents that this is too culturally alien to succeed in the west. But that’s now. Increasingly these barriers are being wiped out and hopefully in ten years it won’t matter.

Q: While acknowledging that spec-fic isn’t monolithic and there are a
hundred different directions it’s growing in at any time, what do you
feel are the most exciting fields of work in contemporary science
fiction and fantasy? What area would you like to see more work in? And
what do you think new writers should avoid?

A:–Unfortunately I haven’t really been keeping pace and am not really qualified to comment on any of the questions. Though I think there’s some great work being done in the field of urban fantasy with terrific crossovers into the graphic novel. But the biggest hope emerges from the fact that almost all the top sellers in the children’s segment now are SF/F variants.
But coming back to my thesis that we really need to build a homegrown SFF blockbuster, I’d love to see a classic SF thriller that would sell 50K here. And staying with the marketability and the need to establish the genre by bringing in new readers, my own gut feel is that a good SFF-alternate history a la Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee is what’s needed.

About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.


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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
July 2006


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