Author Rupi Kaur’s book Milk and Honey can only be described as a global phenomenon. The illustrated book of poetry began as a series of Tumblr posts, which migrated to Instagram, and were then self-published as a book in 2015, when the author was 23 years old. The rights were picked up by Andrews McMeel in the United States, and it was republished. With more than one million copies in print, the illustrated poetry book continues to be a bestseller in Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. Foreign rights have been sold to China, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Spain, among other countries.
Kaur, now 25, was born in India, but her family emigrated to Canada when she was four. She lives in Toronto and is prepping her next book, The Sun and Her Flowers, which is also to be published also by Andrews McMeel. The Canadian rights have been purchased by Simon Schuster in Canada. “We are printing 100,000 copies and fully expect this to be just as popular as the previous book,” says Kevin Hanson, president and publisher, Simon Schuster Canada.
Kaur isn’t the only Canadian author of South Asian descent to hit it big at home and abroad. Lilly Singh got her start on YouTube, posting under the name IISuperwomanII, where she’s attracted more than 12 million followers. Her book, How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life, was published in March and hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for advice, how-to, and miscellaneous books. In Canada the book has sold 60,000 copies.
“Initially, it was perceived as a YouTube book, which tend to go big and go home,” says Brad Martin, CEO of Penguin Random House Canada. “But this book has not been transitory. It continues to sell. It ticks over and over and over and over.”
Why? “I think it has an important message to tell,” says Kristin Cochrane, president and publisher, Penguin Random House Canada. “It’s not just about celebrity, it’s about empowerment, and building confidence and self-esteem. The message is you will accomplish more by working hard than sitting home bingeing on Netflix.”
Singh’s media savvy has helped to promote the book, according to Cochrane “We let her take over the Penguin Random House bookstore downstairs in our building and it was a phenomenon. We also took her back to her high school in Scarborough [outside Toronto] for an event, and the room was packed with girls and their mothers who are reading the book, too.”
Singh’s audience is about to grow even further as a result of her first major acting role, as a vlogger in HBO’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.
That Kaur and Singh are both bestselling authors from the South Asian community in Canada may be more a coincidence than anything. But others from the community are making their mark in literary circles. Scaachi Koul’s One Day We Will All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter was published earlier this year by Random House Canada. Koul, who together with Kaur is repped by Toronto’s the Cooke Agency, sold the book to Random House Canada while she was working at the company, writes poignant and humorous essays about the challenges of being the daughter of first-generation immigrants to Canada from India. The work has traveled, having sold in 10 territories around the world, including India.
“The biggest challenge we face in publishing is globalization, so it is important that we can find books that resonate with readers here in Canada, as well as abroad,” SS’s Hanson notes. “Because the Canadian story is itself still evolving, and our country has been so open to immigration and new voices, I think we as a country and a publishing culture are in the best position of anyone to provide that to the market.”