In a coffee shop in Gurugram, a satellite city of New Delhi, India, four people debate the finer points of humour and horror over chai on a recent Sunday afternoon at a book club.
One of them, 22-year-old digital marketeer Shivangi Singhal, says she reads mostly self-help books but wants to expand her range and asks for suggestions. She is inundated with replies as everyone rattles off titles of books they’re reading, ranging from humour to horror in genre.
This is a meeting of a book club called Bring Your Own Book (BYOB), which was founded in 2015 by book enthusiasts Nidhi Srivastava – then a content editor – and her friend Jayanti Jha.
According to its Facebook page, the club has 3,523 followers with chapters in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. It even has its own lending library. Members sign up for meetings on Facebook, bring along books they are reading and discuss them with other members.
The number of participants varies from four to more than a dozen each time. Discussions usually take place in someone’s house on Sundays, twice or three times a month. “I just went online to see what book clubs I could join and this one had an event. I want to pick up the reading habit which I had when I was in school,” says Singhal.
Old-fashioned book clubs, many driven by social media, have become popular in New Delhi and other Indian cities amid a rising literacy rate of up to 74%, a boom in Indians writing English novels, and busy professionals trying to get back into a reading habit.
Some book clubs begin life as informal gatherings among friends to discuss a book over coffee or tea and snacks at one another’s homes. Others operate online through social media, bringing together strangers with one thing in common: an enthusiasm for reading.
Besides BYOB, clubs with a substantial following include Delhi Book Lovers with over 4,100 members, former Bollywood actress Sonali Bendre Behl’s online book club with 3,100 members, and Gurgaon Book Club, which is followed by more than 1,000 people.
Most of the clubs focus on English-language books, whose market is thriving due to the emergence of local authors such as Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi. Bhagat, whose books have been turned into movies, writes about young, urban middle-class Indians, while Tripathi has written books based on Indian mythology. Together, they have sold millions of books.
“More book readers are enjoying the new era of not just reading but sharing. Social media is playing a big part in getting these people together,” says Gurmeet Wasu Kaur who started the Mumbai Book Club three years ago. She has since set up clubs in Hyderabad, New Delhi and Pune through Facebook.
Even celebrities are latching onto the trend. Bendre, 42, started her Facebook-based book club, called Sonali’s Book Club, early last year. It now has 3,100 members. “I have with me Preeti Shenoy. I am so excited that after all this line-up of authors, I have a woman author. I hope this is a kindred spirit,”’ Bendre says in a recent interview with Shenoy, one of India’s top five bestselling English-language women authors.
The session, posted on Bendre’s book club page on Facebook, has been viewed more than 33,000 times.
According to the India Book Market Report released in October 2015 by market research firm Nielsen, the book market grew at a rate of 20.4% annually between 2012 and 2015, and is likely to expand by 19% yearly till 2020. Book clubs have played a role in this burgeoning scene by serving as venues for budding authors to showcase their works.
One such club is Delhi Book Lovers (DBL), which was started almost six years ago by two friends: 38-year-old IT consultant Kunal Gupta and Meenakshi Goyal, a 36-year-old financial consultant. What began as a humble club of seven people now has more than 4,100 members.
DBL organises regular book discussions, and frequently invites authors to talk about their books. “We started by discussing books by Charles Dickens or something like (Richard Bach’s) Jonathan Livingston Seagull over a cup of coffee,” says Gupta.
“And when we started growing, we were approached by authors and publishing houses who said, ‘Why don’t you hold discussions on new books?’ People continued reaching out to us and we started holding launches for debut writers.”
Publishers say book clubs are a way to get the word out about new titles. Book clubs “have done their homework and it is meaningful from a publishing point of view”.
“It doesn’t necessarily increase sales but its a good marketing method,” says editorial director Priya Kapoor of publishing house Roli Books. “Books are sold through word of mouth. From that point of view, they are quite useful.”
There are also book clubs that cater to a certain demographic. GurgaonMoms book club, as its name suggests, focuses on mothers who often squeeze in some reading when their kids are in school.
The club is an offshoot of Facebook community and lifestyle website GurgaonMoms, which has more than 3,500 members. They meet monthly to discuss one title. At the last meeting, around 11 women showed up for a discussion on The Small-Town Sea (2017) by Anees Salim, an award-winning Indian author.
“We meet in coffee shops at 11.30am when our children are in school. The only thing that is mandatory is that everyone has to read a book,” says Upasana Mahtani Luthra, who is in charge of public relations at GurgaonMoms.
For 55-year-old Ritu Sharma, book clubs are a good way to keep in touch with friends while trying to get back into reading. She started a book club three years ago with a group of friends and they try to meet at least once a month. The last book they discussed was Into The Water (2017), a thriller by best-selling British novelist Paula Hawkins (of 2015’s The Girl On The Train fame).
“I think it’s a meeting point for women. Most of our kids are in university, so a lot of the women have free time and they want to do something constructive,” says Sharma, a travel agency executive.
“This club motivates you – when you meet, you are forced to read a book. I definitely got back into reading because of the club. I read my book club book and always pick up another which I never did before. I now read two books at a time.” – Nirmala Ganapathy/The Straits Times/Asia News Network