Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India - “India prefers classic crime titles”
Hachette is publishing a range of classic crime fiction and adventure novels called The Great Yellowbacks. Here, Thomas Abraham, who has curated the series, talks about his passion for these titles
The Great Yellowbacks has been a seven-year-long passion project for you. How did the idea come up, and why did it excite you?
Yes, the yen to publish them was a seven-year itch but the interest dates all the way back to the mid-1970s in my school days when I got hold of my first yellowback at a used books market. Then, over the years, I got a few more. The signature design and livery had a lure of its own and that’s always stayed with me. From the late 1980s on, I collected them wherever I could find them, and they aren’t easy to come by.
So that was the kickoff even before I joined publishing. It all came full circle when I began working for Hachette 15 years ago (Hodder & Stoughton, who did the yellowbacks, were one of the Hachette Group companies), and from there started the germ of the idea to actually publish a whole range reviving the imprint. A further impetus to do this came from the fact that I was interviewed (my personal collection and my interest in yellowbacks is known within the Group) for the 150th year biography of Hodder & Stoughton a few years ago (a book titled The Publishing Game by Edward Stourton). That sort of crystallized what was earlier a hazy plan into a more concrete publishing programme with a release date in the 100th year of the yellowbacks.
Which authors and books are the highlights of this series?
Herein lies the rub. For me, it’s nearly all of them. Because this is a reissue of a classic imprint – and it’s the range in full that makes up the proposition. So the single messaging highlight would be the fact that it is possibly the largest ever single imprint release with about 200 titles that cover all key leisure classic reading genres. But our first batch will also take you through a history of crime and detecting from the earliest days down to the Golden Age.
In terms of books and authors there’s a mix of everything — from standard household names like Sherlock Holmes to absolutely unique editions like The Thin Man. The big highlights would be Solar Pons, the perfect pastiches and ideal for anyone who’s a fan of Sherlock Holmes. For fans of Miss Marple, there are a host of lady detectives — Miss Silver, Lady Molly, Loveday Brooke to name just a few.
For fans of Alfred Hitchcock and his brand of suspense, there are the originals of many of his movies — from The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes), A Shilling for Candles (Young and Innocent), to Rope and The Birds (coming in our next batch). There are other great books that made great films like Gaslight, The Rome Express, The Woman in The Window, and of course the Hammett masterpieces like The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man — all in “complete editions”.
There are a number of lost classics (from comic noir like The Mysterious Mickey Finn or Seven Keys to Baldpate) and even literary curiosities (like mysteries from AA Milne, or James Hilton or L Frank Baum). And while the main thrust is on crime fiction, the yellowbacks were not just that — they covered the entire gamut of entertainment and storytelling. And that is reflective of our reissues too. There are also great swashbucklers like the Zenda and Graustark sagas.
Who is the target audience?
The target audience I had in mind was those interested in that whole retro revival market —and nostalgia reading. Generationally those in their 40s and above — who would know these names and discover some old favourites and a lot of new books in the same categories. The specific group would be crime fiction buffs and thriller aficionados. As to why: because they are a clear segment that exists that we know of by current data and past trends. It’s not a large segment but this range wasn’t also targeting very high sales levels instantly either. It’s my hope that these stay the course ticking over as backlist steadily.
What were the socio-political conditions and economic developments that contributed to the popularity of crime fiction, adventure and thrillers in the period that this series of books covers?
In terms of the original yellowbacks, we are talking of the turn of the Victorian century and the run periods mentioned above. In terms of this current reissue we’ve done, the yellowbacks have also become the umbrella imprint – that in its 100th year covers a range of popular fiction — classics of their time. And in the history of detective works, which is a key theme here, I’ve actually gone back to Voltaire’s Zadig (1747) rather than start with Poe’s Dupin a hundred years later. So, if you go back to the Victorian days of popular fiction, there were two clear streams — what today we would recognize as literary (Dickens, Trollope etc) and what was called the sensation novel (as exemplified by East Lynne or Lady Audley’s Secret or even Wilkie Collins). The writing and content may have separated the two streams but in terms of being commercial the lines were far more blurred than they are today. One tends to forget that Charles Dickens and Jane Austen were best sellers of their time.
However, in terms of socio-political and economic development there was the industrial revolution and the growth of Empire which enabled mass production and distribution (including books and magazines) as well as new experiences (the exotic east, the war campaigns etc). a fascination with Gothic had already begun earlier (one reason why I’ve included Walpole, Le Fanu, and Love Peacock in the range) and that alongside the eagerly awaited weekly or monthly instalment serial (not too different from modern day soaps) ensured that the dramatic was in demand. From here to the sensation novel and the penny-dreadful was just a step and from there to gaslight crime was another. Over the decades that followed came war and campaign experiences whether Boer or Indian or American and from that was born the adventure thriller.
Which of these books did you grow up reading? Why do they have a special place in your heart as a reader and publisher?
Actually, a lot of them across primarily crime fiction, adventure thrillers and westerns. Though as yellowbacks… not many were available here. I’ll explain why.
The yellowbacks had two series runs — first from 1923-1939 and the War interrupted them. Then, in the post-war years, Hodder discontinued the yellowback run when they set up a new paperback imprint called Great Pan (Pan became a Macmillan imprint later when Hodder exited the arrangement) and a lot of the thrillers were published under that imprint. The yellowback imprint came back again from 1949-1957. After that, it slowly morphed into Hodder paperbacks losing the signature look.
So many yellowback writers were available as Great Pan editions here. The most commonly available were, of course, Edgar Wallace and Leslie Charteris’ The Saint. Wallace was hugely prolific — at one time, one in every four books read in the UK was by Edgar Wallace, so it’s not surprising that a lot of them flowed in here too. But his yellowback editions were not that common.
One of my other favourites was E Philip Oppenheim, who was tagged “Prince of Storytellers” (another yellowback first by the way, introducing “branding” without being aware it was that. They actually had signature taglines for their lead authors. It was “impossible not to be thrilled” by Edgar Wallace. You read “Horler for excitement”. And so on. I read all the westerns they published from Zane Grey to Mulford to Max Brand. The swashbucklers of Graustark or Rafael Sabatini.
However, a lot of my favourites that I’ve showcased in this range are also from outside the core yellowbacks. Leaving out the really familiar names like Holmes, Wimsey and Father Brown, in terms of detectives, the ones I really enjoyed were Rouletabille (who is possibly the only detective to have been blurbed by other detectives… both Poirot and Dr Fell have praised him), The Thinking Machine, Uncle Abner, The Old Man in the Corner and Max Carrados, to name a few. I myself discovered Martin Hewitt while curating the list.
They are special because of what the yellowbacks actually stand for and what this range/imprint reissue pays tribute to — the art of storytelling and entertainment.
What are some of the sub-genres within crime fiction that tend to sell better in India? What might be the reasons behind this?
Crime has evolved quite a bit since the days of Dupin, Lecoq and Holmes. So, from straightforward detective, cosy country house whodunits through hard boiled and noir, down to procedurals and psychological crime solving, Scandinavian noir, and now domestic noir it’s come a long way. India, however, has remained primarily a throwback market largely preferring classic crime. That’s why Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie are still so popular.
Sure, whenever there’s a bestselling wave from the west we will see ripples here too, but the genre or subgenre itself doesn’t really stick. Stieg Larsson sold lakhs and Mankell and Nesbo also had spikes but the rest of the genre writers haven’t made a dent. The same with Japanese crime. Higashino is a household name but hardly anyone else is. So if its got buzz, and is trendy it will see a spike but the average for the rest will be low.
Is it a coincidence that a whole slew of Indian detective fiction written over the past few years are all harking back to classic period pieces? No less than four or five series in as many years are set in turn of the century Raj era coming down to immediate post-independence.
If I were to guess I’d say (as a rule to which there are exceptions) we prefer our leisure reading light and escapist… going for storyline and plot more than psychological nuance. Our movies, however, have made the transition from light to gritty and hard-boiled or noir if you look at the success of a Johnny Gaddar or Andhadhun.
Have film adaptations and web series played a role in boosting the popularity of crime fiction, or do you find audiences turning to films as a substitute for books?
Not really. Outside Gone Girl (and even there the book was a sensation before the movie arrived), I can’t think of a direct cause-and-effect comparative the way Game of Thrones or JRR Tolkien had book sales spikes from the movie. Yes, I do believe in the battle for eyeballs for entertainment, books are losing out to the screen. So, if you look at the chart toppers on OTT and films, its thrillers and crime fiction that dominate the lists, but not on the books side of things. When it comes to books, it is still a get-ahead-to-do-better and info-knowledge approach that dominates – one reason why non-fiction is so big in India.
To what extent have people’s expectations of crime fiction changed with greater awareness of concerns around representation of women, LGBTQ, people of colour and people with disabilities?
Abroad, quite a lot! In India, there is no clear pattern that one can see. The classic crime novels had blind detectives like Max Carrados or Thornley Coulton, and while that may have been a gimmick rather than exploring alternate representations, they did exist. Recent critical readings of The Maltese Falcon see clear textual evidence of clearly gay characters in Hammett’s universe. But these concerns will grow with more awareness.
How does Indian crime fiction written in various languages compare with the classics that you are bringing back? What are the similarities and differences in terms of writing style and thematic concerns?
I must say I haven’t read that much crime fiction in translation so am not really qualified to comment. The classics here like Byomkesh Bakshi or Feluda are unsurprisingly derivative of the Holmes tropes. And while I have read some Hindi pulp fiction, those were in the mould of James Hadley Chase from what I remember. These are formulaic genres and so the influences are to be expected and not necessarily a bad thing. The commonality from the little I know, is certainly escapist entertainment.
In India, it is common for pirated versions of classics to be sold in offline and online marketplaces. How does Hachette plan to tackle this phenomenon?
That is generally restricted to the top two rungs of bestsellers so the yellowbacks aren’t really in danger of that. That apart, there is an industry-wide movement now to come together and take on piracy because it is getting completely out of hand now that pirates seem to have safe havens online. Previously, a traffic light or pavement piracy — bad as they were — were constrained by limitations of space. With the spectre of online piracy going up exponentially, now legal action will need to be taken.
What would you say to critics of crime fiction who believe that reading about crime brings out the worst in people and pushes them to harm others?
That it is a truly absurd notion! If somebody actually believes that, they shouldn’t read crime fiction. Likewise, perhaps they should stop reading newspapers, and watching TV news. Real life is rife with crime stories too, and without the entertainment quotient of detection.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.