Jaya Posts

Interview with Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India on publishing Enid Blyton’s books

For some time now I have been seeing some wonderful new editions of Enid Blyton’s books published by Hachette India. Sometimes collections of short stories that I did not even know existed. Sometimes rejacketed versions of old faithfuls. At other times newly put together anthologies of extracts from Enid Blyton’s books or well-known children’s writers selecting their favourite extracts. And then there are the recipe books appealing to the adults who are nostalgic about the delightful eats Blyton mentions in her books while at the same time catering to the young readers who are fascinated by popular cooking programmes on television. Finally, there are examples of Enid Blyton’s stories being used to create grammar books for school children in the subcontinent.

Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India kindly agreed to a Q&A on publishing Enid Blyton’s books.

Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India

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  1. How did the tie-up with Enid Blyton’s literary estate and Hachette happen? 

There is no tie-up. Hachette is the estate now, having bought up the rights in March 2016. So Hachette now owns the copyright to all of Blyton’s work, except I think Noddy, because that was pre-sold by the estate earlier. Just like rights to the adventure series are pre-contracted to PanMacmillan… so those will remain in place for contract validity. How it began is from our history. We were Blyton’s first publishers in the 1930s and have published her continuously since then.

2. Is the contract meant only for the revival of the backlist? 

No it’s for whatever we want to do. As mentioned, we own the copyrights from the signing of the agreement with the estate where we are the new copyright holders in an outright buy out.

New copyright answered below would depend on what the authors chose—one-time fee or royalties and assignment or transfer. I don’t know that offhand, but the copyright page of any of the new books will state that.

3. Some of the more popular series such as Secret Seven are being expanded with modern storytellers. Why? 

That’s common for most very successful brands, not just Blyton. From Bourne to Bond, to Asterix, to Sidney Sheldon, Margaret Mitchell, Jane Eyre…further extensions through sequels, prequels, and line extensions have always been there. And it’s not just Secret Seven, Malory Towers has extensions too. The Naughtiest Girl and Malory Towers had them over 15 years ago. As to why—simply to contemporize it for current readers…reflecting today’s realities and cultural milieu. So Malory Towers now has an Indian writer with an Indian girl student joining the school. And no this was not done for India—this is to mirror British society which is much more multi-cultural today.

4. Who holds the copyright for these new stories? The commissioned author or the literary estate? What have been the immediate impact of this collaboration between Enid Blyton and Hachette? 

This will be the choice of the new writers—they could opt for one-off copyright sale, or royalties. (So it may vary and I’m not sure, but a look at the copyright page will tell you)

5. a. Enid Blyton’s stories are representative of the age she wrote in. So her references to “Golliwog” or her sexist representation of gendered activities would not be appreciated in contemporary times. Yet she has made a surprise comeback with many appreciating her books.

Perhaps because too much has been made of that bit is my belief. Almost every single English reading adult has grown up on these tales, and they haven’t turned out racists. This comes up from time to time, but is definitely not true when blanketed together like that. Let’s take them one by one.

There is certainly no sexism in her books… seen in the context of today they may not be stridently feminist (Anne being a homebody, is equally complemented by George being the main heroine of the Famous Five series; and the school series all have strong protagonists). Yes, there are stereotypes which existed in that time (of roles boys and girls play) and are there in most books of the era whether adult or children—from Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie. The racism question arose because of the golliwog toy in Noddy being analyzed in that context, which has since in the wave of political correctness been removed as I understand it, but certainly there is no derogatory text anywhere that can be called racist. Our current Hindi mass market cinema is far more racist, misogynist and xenophobic. Coming to xenophobia — hardly any of the books have foreigners, and if they appear as villains (Adventurous Four, the Adventure, the Secret Series) that is because of the setting and character; and inevitably there are balancing good characters from the same country. And statistically there are obviously more British baddies. Snobbery is shown as a clear negative in most of her didactic books, and those snobs always get their come-uppance.

It’s not as though there are not issues or problems… but they are issue of the time they were written in and do not I believe have any sort of impact—given the millions across the world who have grown up on her books. In fact, her books are very strong on the whole ‘moral values’ of the time—almost to the point of ‘preachiness’—which may be one reason they are so popular in India. Honesty, integrity, loyalty, bravery, courage—a veritable textbook of moral values. No matter that some of them like ‘British pluck’ may be outmoded. But what makes her still relevant and in demand is that she is one of the greatest storytellers in the world with an amazingly prolific output and makes children happy.

5 b. Have the Enid Blyton books been edited for a newer audience? If so what are the principles governing the editing of Enid Blyton’s backlist? 

Yes, or updated rather. Plotlines have not been interfered with; and Blyton is fairly timeless. Her stories stay universal because there isn’t too much datable about them. she doesn’t for instance name brands in her detailing. Cars for instance may be described as a “big black car, with a powerful engine” not a Rolls or Morris which would immediately date it. so what has been tweaked is very archaic usage—pinafore for uniform tunics, pullover for jumper etc. In fact the reverse happened when the Famous Five were experimented with…in almost a classic coke vs New Coke backlash the new text was not welcomed; and the old one was reinstated.

6. Do you have cultural sensitivity readers for Enid Blyton’s stories before releasing them? Do different markets have different teams supervising the release or is there a specific team overseeing the global release of Enid Blyton books and product lines?  

A mix of both—it’s primarily central in the Blyton Estate team based at Hachette UK, and we are asked for input when needed. And we create new product for our markets. In India we’ve begun a new non-fiction stream for instance. Essentially the legacy is continued as classic children’s fare with not much being done to change existing stories. New stories are done factoring in multi-cultural societies of today. And the continuations of her series—there are new secret seven, wishing chair, and Malory Towers stories in contemporary settings which are much more multi-cultural… the latest one even written by Narinder Dhami and featuring an Indian character.

7. Some of the new and fascinating array of collateral from this tie-up have been the cookery books and the English comprehension and grammar books. Why and how did Hachette decide to diversify the Enid Blyton portfolio? How have readers’ responded to the new range of books?

The grammar, vocabulary and other educational collateral was our idea and exists only in India. I felt that since we owned the brand and the fact that Blyton was one of the best teachers of English you could have…it would be remiss of us not to publish a breakaway stream of non-fiction using the texts. The series were just released last year. It’s early days, and this series will require school channel distribution not just trade, so we’ll know in a couple of years how they fare.

8. Do Enid Blyton’s imaginative stories translate well into other languages? If so, which are the languages that are most receptive to her books?  

Because the storylines and plots are so good, they certainly would translate well just on those terms. Yes, the amazing use of English language which is the other great part, would be lost. Yes, she’s been translated into over 90- languages. So they are all over including Sinhala.

9. Will Hachette ever republish Enid Blyton’s autobiography The Story of My Life

Not on current schedules which is in the first instance republishing all her fiction output. The non-fiction and memoirs will follow.

10. Indians enjoy reading Enid Blyton’s stories. But ever since the revivial of her backlists, has there been a noticeable surge in sales? Also is it possible to discern whether the newly commissioned stories are preferred to the original Enid Blyton stories or does that not matter? 

Enid Blyton has always been a huge seller. The famous Five sell over half a million copies every year, of which India’s share is about 35%… so while that is fantastic, it should also correct the erroneous impression that she sells predominantly in India. The newly commissioned stories join the others so get similar sales, but the original canon still sells just that bit more.

The UK is a very front list market (meaning new books), so while she sells very well (her sales there are still higher than sales in India) she may not rank in the current top five children’s authors for instance. But even recently in a UK poll, she was voted as the most popular children’s author of all time beating Roald Dahl and JK Rowling.

India is still a throwback market, relying on traditional favourites and backlist (older books) is very strong. And Enid Blyton here is still in the top three after recent bestsellers Geronimo Stilton and Jeff Kinney. And this is over 70 years after these books were published.

For context it must be understood that the core and basic readership in the UK or USA is very wide, unlike India where it is minuscule. We also react to the top trends in the world, so Harry Potter, twilight, Hunger games, wimpy kid will make it big here too. But the next level or a wider range of books gets very little exposure—whether they be international books or home grown books.

11. Are any film / TV adaptations of Enid Blyton’s stories to be expected soon? If so which ones are the most likely to be created first? 

Yes, there are a couple in the pipeline though I don’t have details. From the 1940s, every decade has seen a movie or TV series made of the main series. Next year will see Malory Towers from the BBC.

12. How significant is the audiobook market for Enid Blyton’s books? 

Not very significant. The audiobook revolution was in the adult market. I’m not aware of the children’s segment audio. There the experimentation is in book and sound formats. very few standalone audiobooks that I know of.

20 Dec 2019

Guadalajara International Book Fair 2019: Guest of Honour, India (Nov 30 – Dec 8)

India was the guest of honour at the Guadalajara International Book Fair 2019. The Publishers Weekly carried some promotional articles on the engagements — Guadalajara 2019: Introducing India, the Guest of Honor! and India Rights Catalog and Participating Publishers .

The following images taken at the fair by the Indian delegation were shared by the National Book Trust, the government agency, responsible for the collaboration.

19 Dec 2019

“Daughters Opera” (World Premiere), New Delhi: 3 – 5 Jan 2020

Daughters Opera is an inter-cultural contemporary performance work that brings women from diverse backgrounds, cultures and languages in a cross-artform setting.

The opera invites an audience to a conversation about systemic violence and the globally shared experience of women and girls who have undergone trauma and resistance. The performance of the all-female cast aims to address the ongoing everyday acts of gender violence, such as forced labour, infanticide, and injury alongside the expressive form of Portuguese fado music, and live experimental electronics.

Daughters Opera is directed by Anuradha Kapur with libretto written by Tammy Brennan. Music composed by David Chisholm and scenography by Deepan Sivaraman. Movement language and choreography by Victoria Hunt.

Tammy Brennan, Producer and Librettist, Daugthers Opera

Daughters Opera is performed by: Shilpika Bordoloi, Persephone Brennan, Samara Chopra, Aivale Cole, Bhumisuta Das, Melodi Dorcas, Uma Katju, Aashima Mahajan, Kimberly Rodrigues, Ritika Singh and Vanessa Varghese, and Purnima Yengkokpam.

Musicians: Eduardo Baltar Soares, Miranda Hill and Mauricio Carrasco. Live Electronics: Marco Cher-Gibard.

Devising of Hindi Text: Geetanjali Shree. Costume: Marty Jay. Lighting Design: Ben Hughes; Production Dramaturgy: Purav Goswami; Film and Video Design: Kate Blackmore and Midhun Mohan. Production Manager: Taha Abdul Majeed. Scenography Fabrication: Sarthak Narula and Ujjwal Kumar.

The opera is produced by Tammy Brennan and is a direct call to action to address Safety for Women worldwide, and is part of a larger social activism artwork, The Daughters Opera Project.

The world premiere is at The Black Box, Okhla, New Delhi from 3- 5 Jan 2020. For more information, please contact, Tammy Brennan, Producer and Librettist: tammybrennan@gmail.com .

19 Dec 2019

Book Post 52: 25 Nov – 17 Dec 2019

Book Post 52 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

17 Dec 2019

Indo-French Collaboration: Paris Livre 2020 and New Delhi World Book Fair 2022

Picture by Arpita Das, Founder-Publisher, Yoda Press

On the morning of 11 November 2019, Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Institut français India/Embassy of France, invited a few of us Indian publishing professionals to address the visiting delegation. The aim was to give the French visitors a bird’s eye-view of the Indian book market with specific aspects highlighted such as regional language publishing, literary prizes, and literature festivals.

I had been invited to address the gathering on the publishing market of India. I chose to dwell on the characteristics of the publishing market in India along with some important points to consider from the point of view of the French publishers.

In March 2020, India will be the “Guest of Honour” at the Paris Book Fair and in January 2022 France will be the “Guest of Honour” at the New Delhi World Book Fair. This reciprocal invitation for this collaboration was announced during the official visit of President E. Macron in India in March 2018 when he met Prime Minister N. Modi. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. The delegation consisted of journalists and cultural experts: Eve Charrin (Marianne and Books), Gladys Marivat (LiRE magazine), Lorraine Rossignol (Télérama), Sophie Landrin (Le Monde correspondent for India and South Asia — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives), Catherine Fruchon (Radio France Internationale and editor-in-chief/ host of the show Littérature Sans Frontières ), Christian Longchamp ( Artistic advisor and playwright, and co-programmer of the annual multidisciplinary festival ARSMONDO, Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg), Sébastien Fresneau ( VP Book and Entertainment Events at Reed Exhibitions France and General Manager of Livre Paris, the Paris Book Fair) and Néguine Mohsseni ( Press Attachée, Institut Français, Paris).

Here are some of the salient points of the roundtable.

Indian Book Market

India is geographically deemed as a sub-continent. It is large. Politically it is a federal structure with a centre and state governments. The population is over 1.3 billion people. 22 languages are recognised officially by the Constitution of India and English is not one of them; instead it is the lingua franca. Interestingly language spoken changes ever so slightly every 20 kms, making it impossible to consider India as a homogenous book market as there are so many languages and scripts to consider.

The Indian publishing industry consists of multiple players. There are publishing agencies like the National Book Trust and the Sahitya Akademi (the organisation for literature) that were established by the government, soon after Independence in 1947. Apart from these the well-known multi-national players exists and a number of independent publishers. Of late the self-publishing market is a growing segment that has resulted in a lot of people getting their works published and new vendors are being established.

Bookselling happens through brick-and-mortar stores as well as online such as Amazon and Flipkart. Online retail allows many customers/readers to access books from Tier 2 and 3 towns which was not possible earlier. According to Nielsen BookScan, the estimated value of the Indian book industry is approximately US$6.3 billion. It has been more or less at this position since the last Nielsen report of 2015. This is for various factors, most immediate being – GST (July 2016) and demonetisation (Nov 2017). Despite this the book market in India is undoubtedly growing and there is a book hunger. Again this is for multiple reasons, some of them being that more than 60% of the Indian population is under 35 years age, making it young, mostly literate[1] or still studying, so in need of text/books. The K-12 segment constitutes the largest segment of the Indian book market as 50% of the population is below the age of 25 years old. The next segment of interest would be the trade list that consists of MBS (Mind, Body, Spirit) children’s literature, women writing, literary fiction, general fiction (mythology, historical fiction, fantasy, romance, commercial fiction etc.) narrative nonfiction (history, biographies, commentaries, memoirs etc.), cookery books etc. The children’s literature market cannot be ignored for in the past decade it has grown phenomenally. This is not just for the school textbook market but for leisure reading. Some of the factors contributing to its growth have been the presence of school book fairs, literary weeks in schools and writing retreats for budding authors, initiatives started by Scholastic India and now adopted by many other players. Also the insistence of many schools to include supplementary readers and/or books for leisure reading alongside the prescribed curriculum. Also, ten years ago, one of the most popular book festivals for children called Bookaroo was established. Since then it has spread not only to other parts of the country but overseas too. The reading public in this country is growing and this is obvious by the rapid rise of piracy with many of the print editions available at vendors holding large piles of poorly published editions to sell at crossroads and temporary stalls seen on pavements.

Book fairs are very popular too. Unlike some of the international book fairs where the focus is also selling of rights, most fairs in India function as retail outlets. A book fair becomes an occasion for customers to throng the stalls buying their supply of books. The customer profile could vary from individuals, families to institutions browsing looking for titles amongst the front and backlists and often scrummaging through at the remaindered/second-hand bookstalls too. The biggest of these is the New Delhi World Book Fair but then there are many regional book fairs organised too.

A major contributing factor to the book hunger in this country has been the extraordinary growth in popularity of literature festivals beginning with the mother of them all – “Jaipur Literature Festival”. It is organised over a period of five days in January and has many parallel sessions with domestic and international speakers. This model has been emulated across the country with versions of it springing up. Apparently more than 80% of the half million visitors that visit JLF are below the age of 29 years old. This demographic seems to be more or less consistent for other litfests in the country with more and more of the young visible in the audience.

Advancements in digital technology have enabled readers/writers to access books from overseas, participate in online discussion groups, access literature on their phones/pen drives/ebook readers etc. And those that like reading the ebook, then purchase the print copy too. Increasingly it is happening in many scripts.

An indication of the robustness of the publishing are also the increasing number of business conclaves. Four of the prominent ones are the CEOSpeak Over Chairman’s Breakfast organised jointly by the National Book Trust and FICCI (Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce), PubliCon organised by FICCI, Jaipur Book Mark organised by Jaipur Literature Festival and Jumpstart organised by the German Book Office.

Apart from this there are many literary prizes, including specific ones focused on children’s writing, women’s writing, fiction, debut authors, translations etc that have been launched. Some are very lucrative, even awarding the translator, handsomely.

All said and done, the Indian book market is really many markets within a market!  

French Book Market

The French book market is smaller but equally robust. Some of the key characteristics are its Fixed Book Pricing, its protection of the brick-and-mortar stores from online players like Amazon and the prominent book fairs like Paris Book Fair. Also publishing translations of World Literature into French.

Indo-French collaboration

The French Book Office’s presence in India has helped foster Indo-French collaborations in the book industry. From sponsoring visits of Indian publishing professionals to France for specific book-related events and vice versa to actively promotes translations and publications of French authors into Indian regional languages under the aegis of the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore). French books translated in 2018: 75 titles including 1/3 supported by the Embassy of France. In addition to this the French Institute recently established the Romain Rolland Prize that translates French literature into a regional language. Apart from this consistent soft diplomatic initiative with the active cross-pollination of literature and cultures, the Institut Francais in New Delhi, now facilitated the crossed invitation from the governments of France and India regarding the book fairs. India is the guest of honour at Paris Book Fair 2020 and France will be at the New Delhi World Book Fair in 2022.

A great literary feast awaits the literary communities in both nations!


[1] According to the Census of India, the definition of “literate” in India is that person who can sign their name.

17 December 2019

Interview with New Zealand picture book author and illustrator, Ruth Paul

I met award-winning picture book author and illustrator Ruth Paul at the residence of the New Zealand High Commissioner on 4 Dec 2019 for a tête-à-tête. It was such a pleasure meeting Ruth Paul! I had read a clutch of her marvellous picture books, each with its own distinctive style. I had also heard about Ruth from the legendary children’s writer Gavin Bishop. Befittingly we met in the Sunshine Drawing Room as a distinctive characteristic of Ruth Paul’s picture books is her fondness for light and the manner in which she plays with it in her illustrations. It is fascinating to immerse oneself in the artwork.

Ruth Paul has written and illustrated over 20 picture book titles and is a recent recipient of a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate Award (August 2019).

I Am Jellyfish recently won the 2018 award for Best Picture Book at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Mini Whinny: Happy Birthday to Me! illustrated by Ruth and written by Stacy Gregg is shortlisted for the Best Picture Book Award, 2019. The King’s Bubbles won the Children’s Choice picture book award in 2008, and five of her books have made the Storylines Notable Book List over the years.  Stomp was a finalist in the NZ Post Book Awards 2012, and Bad Dog Flash was selected for the US Kid’s Indie Next List in 2014. Her books have sold in New Zealand, Australia, USA, Canada, the UK, China and Korea, with translations in 5 languages. Cookie Boo! Is her first book to be initially published in the USA, with a Harper Collins USA release in summer 2020.  Ruth’s poetry is included in A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children, Penguin Random House NZ 2014. Her original picture book illustrations have contributed to touring exhibitions for Painted Stories (previously Te Tai Tamariki Trust) and two are held in the Mazza Collection at the University of Findlay, Ohio.

Ruth lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house on a farm just outside Wellington, New Zealand. As well as writing and illustrating children’s picture books, Ruth has worked as a costume illustrator for Peter Jackson movies. She has two teenaged sons and is actively involved in her local community, having previously chaired her local Community Board and School Board of Trustees. Over the years, Ruth achieved a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History from Victoria University, a Diploma in Visual Communication Design from Wellington Polytech (now Massey University), and most of a law degree.

Ruth says every new book is a challenge and presents the opportunity to get better at the craft she wholeheartedly loves.

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  1. How do you prefer to introduce yourself as — picture book author / author-illustrator / illustrator? Which came first — illustrator or author? And if it is “illustrator” then when did the transition to “author-illustrator” happen?

I call myself a picture book author and illustrator. A child once called me an “author and alligator”, but my teeth are not so big. I studied design and worked as a commercial illustrator first, illustrating books for a couple of other writers, then eventually wrote my own books. It is more common for author/illustrators to start as illustrators as this appears to be the more time-consuming craft to learn. Now that I do both, however, I’m not so sure.

2. When you envision a picture book — do you write first or do you create illustrations or do both the processes work in tandem?

It used to be that I started with words then added mages later, now it’s more a tandem process. Overall, I try to get a “concept” working first. I see (or wish for) a perfectly formed concept and story – both words and pictures – then I slowly destroy this perfect imagining as I put pen to paper and try to wrestle it into reality. The challenge is to preserve the magic of the story during this process.

3. What are the mediums you prefer to use for illustrations? Do you preserve your art work? Do you rely on digital tools to assist in your illustrations and text design?

I work and have worked in multiple mediums, traditional and digital. Having many techniques available is one of the advantages of previously attending art school. I change my style and technique depending on the needs of the book. Plus, illustrating a 32-page picture book is a big undertaking so I can get bored using the same technique twice in a row. Sometimes I use Photoshop and a Cintiq tablet to draw and I find that digital illustration almost replicates the real mediums and processes now so there’s less of a divide than people think. Whatever medium you use, you still have to be able to draw and compose, to have a sense of colour and communication. I try to change between computer and traditional forms just so I don’t get too reliant on one. I will say that generally publishers prefer me to supply my artwork digitally as opposed to hard-copy now, so that is a cost that needs to considered at the outset.

4. When you embark on a new book project, do you leave book production details to your editors or do you like to be involved in them as well?

I always plan images around words on the page, so I inevitably design the type layout as I go. However, as I use every last minute before book goes to production to work on the images, I leave the typography and final design to the publisher. I am usually always consulted on the final look of things, though often there is little you can change given time constraints. Publishers are very particular about the typefaces they use and you have to give their designers some room to work also.

5. Do your books get translated? If so what are the pros and cons of having picture books translated?

I love seeing my books in translation, but only having one language I usually have no idea what they read like! As some of my stories are in complex rhyme, I can’t imagine they work in any other language. My guess is that the substance not subtlety of the text is translated, for instance, in one of my books a sentence saying “Jump over the hump” in English, with a picture of dinosaurs jumping over tortoises, is (I am told) translated as “Jump over the turtles”. A little less fun, but it does the job.

6. How do you remain so enthusiastic and fresh about storytelling, appealing to a child’s imagination? Do you create picture books with your target audience in mind or is it yourself?

I am an adult writing for the child in myself. Fortunately, the audience for picture books this is both the adult-reader and the child so it shouldn’t be a problem. I myself am easily bored, so I guess that’s where I start when telling a story.

7. What are the essential elements of a picture book? Do you think children’s literature needs to be didactic? Is there a difference in creating picture books for the school market as opposed to those created for leisure reading?

Like most things, I can tell you what a picture book shouldn’t be more easily that telling you what it should be. A picture book shouldn’t be boring, ugly, preachy or mean. It should be intriguing, satisfying and a joy to hold. Obviously books for the school market have to be educationally correct, whereas a trade picture book need only appeal to the buyer’s taste. And we all know it is easier to sell a child chips rather than salad.

I don’t mind books with a message to convey as long as the message is held safely within the story and is not beating it to death with a club. I do like books that leave you with a good “feeling” of some kind, be it safety, quietness or a thought to chew over. I don’t like books that leave a child worried, fearful or over-stuffed.

8. Your sense of perspective especially in the double page spread illustrations is incredible. These seem to have slowly transformed to become the centre point of your later picture books such as The King’s Bubble and I am a Jellyfish. Do you envision your picture books as one long spread or do you see them as a 32-page book at gestation itself? 

I am a big fan of the double-page spread.  It is a big painting or image with everything in it and I guess I like the logic of a single proposition that conveys all the necessary information. But sometimes vignettes are necessary to explain all the action of a story. The King’s Bubbles was my third book, I Am Jellyfish my sixteenth, but they share a personal sentiment and immersive style even though technically quite different. So I think your question relates to “flow”. I want the child to climb into the world of the book, and I work to make the flow of the page-turn seamless and logical so the spell of that world is not abruptly broken. So – a bit of both?

9. What are the kinds of questions children and adults ask of you? Have you had diverse reactions to the same story?

My favourite question ever was asked at a school in Delhi just recently. It was “If you could live inside one of your books, which one would it be?”. I had to really think about the answer to that. I love that younger kids always want to tell me something about themselves, rather than ask me questions. I will say “Do you have any questions about writing a story or drawing pictures? A question is something where you want to know something from me, and I answer”. Then all the hands will go up and the first questions are inevitably “I know a story!” or “I’ve got a dog!” etc. Cute.

Certain books are for certain audiences. I have picture books that are rollicking good yarns to recite or act out with kids, and some that are for one child only while cuddled up and quiet. There is a book for every situation so the trick is not doing a quiet introspective story with a group of 80 school kids, and vice versa.

10. How much research do your picture books require?

Enough to know you’re not wrong. Enough to know there’s a sound basis for your idea. Enough not to overthink and kill the idea. Enough to add flavour and nuance to the story. Reading everything and anything around your subject always helps to not inadvertently repeat what’s been done before and also to add seasoning.

11. What are the kinds of art forms that you appreciate? Which of these do you think work well in children’s literature or would that be immaterial as long as the illustrator is appealing to the reader’s aesthetic sensibility? 

I like folk art because it is not elite, is often telling a story and frequently appeals to a child-like sensibility. I love everything in any art from that blows-my-mind – the extraordinary building, the tiny piece of lace, the kids talent show. I am omnivorous when it comes to art and craft and only know that the older I get the less frequently I am ‘moved’, but when I am, the most surprising things will reduce me to tears. I recently cried during a hip-hop performance, and also when looking at a young girls drawing of a monster. I am moved when I see the feeling – be it vulnerability, bravery, fear, love, joy or sorrow in art. Good art can do that.

12. Who are the artists, illustrators and writers that have influenced you?

Now there’s big question. The answer is in the multitudes and the top of the list rotates from year to year with my changing taste. To narrow it down to children’s authors and illustrators, from New Zealand I love the work of the pre-eminents Gavin Bishop and Lynley Dodd; from everywhere else there’s Emma Chichester Clarke, Roger Duvosin, the Provensons, Brian Wildsmith, Freya Blackwood, Etienne Delessert, Brendan Wenzel, Ayano Imai, Sophie Blackall … there is just so many! I can’t answer this properly!

13 December 2019

List of Ruth Paul’s books:

Trade Books:

The Animal Undie Ball Scholastic 2004

The Little White Lie Scholastic 2005

The King’s Bubbles Scholastic 2007

Superpotamus Scholastic 2008

Two Little Pirates Scholastic 2010

Stomp! Scholastic 2011

Hedgehog’s Magic Tricks Walker Books 2012

Red Panda’s Toffee Apples Walker Books 2013

Bad Dog Flash Scholastic 2013

My Dinosaur Dad Scholastic 2014

Rabbit’s Hide and Seek Walker Books 2014

Go Home Flash Scholastic 2014

Bye-Bye Grumpy Fly Scholastic 2015

What’s the Time Dinosaur? Scholastic 2015

My Meerkat Mum Scholastic 2017

I Am Jellyfish Penguin Random House 2018

Little Hector and the Big Blue Whale Penguin Random House 2018

Mini Whinny, Happy Birthday to Me! by Stacy Gregg, illustrated by Ruth Paul, Scholastic NZ 2018

Upcoming Trade Books:

Little Hector and the Big Idea Penguin Random House 2019

Mini Whinny: Goody Four Shoes by Stacy Gregg, ill. by Ruth Paul,Scholastic 2019

Cookie Boo! Harper Collins USA 2020

Little Hector Meets Maui Penguin Random House 2020.

Mini Whinny: Bad Day at the OK Corral by Stacy Gregg, ill. by Ruth Paul, Scholastic 2020.

Interview with Dipankar Mukherjee, founder, Readomania

Dipankar Mukherjee is the Founder & Director of Readomania, an independent publishing house based in India. Under his stewardship, the house has produced more than 80 books in five years of its existence. Dipankar holds an MBA degree from IIT Madras and has been a management consultant in his professional avatar, working in organisations like IBM and Ernst & Young. Apart from publishing his business interests include a consumer electrical products brand, Aeronova and literary resort, Faraway Renz. He loves traveling and can be found playing with his daughter, if not at work. 

  1. Why did you start Readomania?

An entrepreneur starts with a dream. Mine was, and is, to build a company that is known for creating and curating good content. Readomania was, and is, a manifestation of that dream. There is a lot more content waiting to be discovered. There are a lot of stories that need to be told. We want to be a part of this ecosystem that takes this content, and the stories to a wide audience.

2. What attracted you to publishing?

A publishing house plays a very important role in the society. It can drive narratives, influence points-of-view, and be a catalyst for change. This is what makes publishing a perfect choice for someone who wants to bring out a change for good. I aspire to take Readomania to a position where it can do this effectively, along with being a profitable, sustainable venture.

3. What is the focus of your publishing programme? How many titles have you published so far?

We started in September 2014 and our annual publishing list was streamlined from 2016 onwards. We have published 80 odd titles since 2014. As of now, we publish about 18–24 titles a year. Our list includes literary, midlist, and commercial fiction across multiple genres, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and children’s fiction. The current focus of our publishing programme is diversity in content. We want to bring in as many flavours as possible. We are delving into mythology retelling, historical fiction, period drama, crime, thriller, romance, short stories, poetry, children’s fiction, humour etc.

4. How do you decide what to publish? Do you commission books or select manuscripts from unsolicited submissions? Or do you look at what agents supply?

Publishing a book is like making a movie, it is not possible to accurately predict how will the audience—reader in this case—react. Though the uncertainty is less for books.

Selection is based on a potent mix of analysis, instincts, and market trends. Analysis focuses on the content, market trends on the genre and competition. Instincts are hard to define but is based on experience, author interaction, and a bit of in-built bias.

We still don’t have fat budgets for commissioning books, so that has still not started. We do, however, discuss projects and potential books with our existing authors and take them forward. Manuscript selections also happen from unsolicited submissions and those that come through agents.

5. Do you think there is an appetite for print books or is the preference for digital books increasing? What are your comments on the digital versus print debate?

Print is winning this debate by a significant margin. I don’t think this will change much in the near future. There will definitely be better adoption of digital formats (text and audio) but that may not dent the market for print books.

Device fatigue is setting in. People want to stop looking at the blue screen. As the awareness for this increases, I feel print books will take up the gap left by some of these devices. However, this may not happen for first time readers. Many of them may directly start reading on a device.

6. Do you look at translations too? If so how does the translations programme operate?

We want to look at translations as well. But we have not started as yet.

7. What is your average day like?

I wake up in a room full of books and start reading with a cup of coffee next to me. I then go to a nice bistro, eat some nice food and drink coffee and read more. I then go to a nice park, sit below a tree, read some more and drink some nice chai from the local fellow, until it’s time to go back home. Back there, I sit next to my window and read, until I fall asleep.

Well, I can always dream about this kind of a life. Reality though is a little different. My regular schedule includes sales and collection follow ups, editorial discussions, an hour on social media, an hour on online reading, marketing discussions, and author discussions.

8. How do you distribute books? Via online retail or brick and mortar stores? Why did you start an online store on your website? Isn’t that rather unusual for an indie publisher?

Distribution has been strong for us, at least amongst indie publishers. I think we have done this well. We distribute through all possible modes. For brick and mortar stores, we work with the regular distributors like IBD, Prakash, Variety and Jaico. In addition, we directly sell on Amazon, are represented on Flipkart and as you mentioned sell through our website as well. Our own website is also a very big channel for sales. Since we are very active on social media, it is easy to drive sales through our own website.

9. What is the kind of publicity you invest in? Do book launches help you sell books?

Publicity is a nemesis for indie publishers. The ROI on publicity is questionable and hence we are careful treading this path. We use a lot of online resources, bloggers’ community, and outreach for marketing. We do work with the stores and on Amazon. We still have some work to do in PR and co-branding concepts. However, we keep trying out different methods of communication and branding for books. Some work, some don’t.

As for book launches, in my opinion they do not recover the investment made and are a drag on our resources. A book launch, or any event for that matter, works well only when there is a good PR angle.

10. What are your thoughts about the Indian book industry? Is it growing or not? What are the pain points if any? What makes this book market stand apart from the others?

Deciphering the Indian book industry is quite a challenge, especially the trade book segment. There is growth. However, that growth may not be real. Many systemic issues lead to this problem. First amongst them is the concept of Sale-Or-Return. How does one explain growth when returns can potentially come after the financial year is closed? Does one go back and revise growth figures?

However, there are a lot of positives that do point to the growth-story. Many more titles are coming up, online sales are strong, and sentiments are good.

As far as pain-points are concerned, there are a select few that I would like to mention, both on cost side and revenue side. On cost side we have GST, payment terms that publishers have with distributors and distribution margins as major issues. The cost pressures have significantly increased. On the revenue side, I think there is over-supply of books. If I may say, India is now a land of more writers than readers. This coupled with shrinking shelf space makes it difficult to reach out to the readers. The power may be shifting away from publishers to distributors or platforms like Amazon, especially since distributors and platforms are now operating as monopolies.

11. What are the changes you have seen in publishing since you began Readomania? What are the genres that sell the most amongst your readers/customers and do you think these align with the more popular buying sentiments amongst Indian readers?

Since our inception, quite a few things have changed. I have seen the self-publishing industry grow significantly over the years. There has been a good growth in new genres like true-crime, celebrity-autobiographies, bureaucrat narratives. Growth in the regional language publishing and demand for translations also is a positive change. For publishers, a big revenue stream has opened up through rise in book-to-screen deals. However, there has been a fall in per-title print runs. I also feel there is now an overload of marketing content for readers and a big boom in book-marketers who promise the moon but not sales.

Popular genres for us include mythology, historical fiction, non-fiction, and light reads. I think the market too would have a similar trend.

12.   What are your future plans for Readomania?

We are just five years old and we have many miles more to go. Readomania aspires to be one of the top five publishing brands in the country with a strong list, a few international awards in our kitty, and be the publisher of choice for authors and readers.

13 December 2019

Agni Sreedhar’s “The Gangster’s Gita”

The Gangster’s Gita by Agni Sreedhar is a slim book. It is a conversation between a hit man and his victim. They are waiting for the appointed time of the killing which will be indicated by the hit man’s boss. While biding their time the two men start conversing. The “victim” is a hit man too. So call this conversation a kind of swapping professional notes or just sharing thoughts as the end draws near. Even so the calm and composed manner in which it is narrated, even by making allowances for the written word, the last few pages come as a jolt. At times it feels as if it is two men merely chatting across the lawns of the farmhouse where the hostage has been spirited away and not that the victim is standing on the balcony of a locked room looking down upon the hit man who is sweating it out doing his daily routine of exercises. For inexplicable reasons they start conversing, knowing full well that their breaking their profession’s codes of conduct. It is not advisable to become too familiar with each other in this nasty business.

Set in the Bangalore underworld of the ‘90s, The Gangster’s Gita—published in Kannada as Edegarike is set to become an instant cult classic in English. The writer is an ex-gangster, Agni Sreedhar, who also won the Sahitya Akademi award for his memoir — My Days in the Underworld: Rise of the Bangalore Mafia. His column in a Kannada paper was called “Editorial from Behind Bars” which he wrote while incarcerated in Bellary jail. Apparently in the literary circles of Karnataka it was well known that before Agni Sreedhar strayed into a world of crime, he was a voracious reader and deeply influenced by Albert Camus and Carlos Castaneda. Once he famously asked a friend to get him Camus’ The Outsider to re-read in jail.

It is impossible to share the gist of the freewheeling conversation between the two men except to say that this book is worth reading. Also it is hard to distinguish how much of this is fiction and how much the truth. An extraordinary book. It is a book that will travel well overseas too as a fine example of World Literature. It exists. Read it. Mull over it. You will not regret it.

9 Dec 2019

Of debut novels

2019 is proving to be a year of debut writing. Perhaps it is also an indication of the disruption that digital technology has made of print publishing. It is becoming more and more expensive to publish and if the advance against royalties is also included for publishing established names, then the unit cost of printing a book escalates. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why 2019 has been the year of debuts. Presumably publishers feel that the ROI on a debut author can be easily absorbed in their P/L sheets. Who knows?! Fact is, extraordinary amounts of literature across the globe by debut writers has been published in the past year. Some of it is stupendous. Three worth highlighting in this blog post are: Varun Thomas Mathew’s The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay , Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s The God Child and Rehana Munir’s Paper Moon. Three very distinct voices. Three distinct stories. All three debut writers who will shine in the future.

Varun Thomas Mathew is a lawyer by profession but has written a dystopic novel set in the near future where all humanity in India seems to be concentrated in a towering structure called Bombadrome. It is inhabited by people who have no memory and hence no sense of history. They have no recollection if this place was once called Bom Bahia or Bombay or Mumbai. It is a colony where there are specific functions allocated to each section. Occupiers of each section are identified by their uniform. Every task, evey person has a specific role that is designated by the powers that be and there seems to be no existence of free will. It is a “memoir” being written by a former bureaucrat called Convent Godse. The Black Dwarves are manual scavengers who resorted to splashing buckets of filth on to walls to create “arresting art”. Thus capturing the imagination of the media. But the black dwarves are like multiple versions of the real-life Banksy. Despite the Police Commissioner claiming to have arrested the Black Dwarves, a movement arose that could not be ignored. Like this there are many instances in the immediate past that Convent Godse has witnessed and finally opts to write them down. Another one is of the flautist who would stand at the Gateway of India playing tunes that “made passers-by of different religions fall in love” — love jihad. Convent Godse seems to retain a sense of perspective and sanity as he chooses to stay outside the boundary walls of Bombadrome. One of the people incarcerated in the medical quadrant who is a witness to the current chief minister’s past atrocities and the day the politician gains power, the witness “loses his mind” and is taken away. This is a sharply told tale that despite being set in the near future is horribly close to present realities. It is a powerful debut for sometimes fiction thinly masks the truth. Read it. Perhaps one day Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty and Varun Thomas Mathew can be encouraged to have a heart to heart talk about the literature they make and what propels them to write these extraordinary stories.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim is a Ghanaian writer, art historian and filmmaker whose debut novel is The God Child. It is about Ghanian expatriate Maya who is brought up in Germany and England. Later she is joined by her cousin from her mother’s side, Kojo. Maya’s mother belongs to a Ghanian royal family and is fairly regal in her ways. The children are close. So when Kojo is bullied, Maya is a witness and his confidante. Later as an adult she visits Kojo in Accra where he is trying to put together a museum that will revive their past royal glory. He is working very hard to put it together but tragedy strikes. Once again, Maya is a mute witness to a dream shattering. As with most debut novels, there is always a strong autobiographical element. The God Child is no different with Kojo’s drive to establish a museum in Accra is closely aligned to Ayim’s project of establishing an open-source encyclopedia of African history. Ayim’s fascination with art history resulted in her being the curator of the African pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. As with the link to the lecture posted below, Ayim’s debut novel is preoccupied with the different ways of seeing. The protagonist of the novel is equally at ease in Germany, England and Ghana but Maya is constantly made to feel an outsider. The insidious racism that exists in society is horrendous. Kojo and she bear the brunt of it. Ayim has an unabashed critical filmmaker’s lens to talk about society across three lands — Germany, UK and Ghana. The clash of cultures and the insidious and deep seated racism which continues to persist in the poshest of places. Also the complete unacceptance of these so-called developed nations to accept the stories of children from Ghana, simply because they are black and speak of being descendants of kings and living in palaces. It is to the white world a myth that the blacks weave. The writer shares unpleasant truths which will not go down well in the polite world which speaks constantly of diversity and inclusivity but when it comes to practice what they preach is unable to truly accept wholeheartedly how difficult it is to embrace differences. I also like the surety with which the author writes in three languages — English, German and the African dialect, Twi, without necessarily explaining it immediately or contextualising it. It is much like the French used by Wodehouse in his novels. You either know it or don’t, so most readers learned to skip those passages and yet enjoyed the storytelling. Same here. As she says in this TED Talk that she has the power to define her own narrative — “We deserve to be in this place“. It shows a calm and confident writer who has been dissed in the early reviews for writing a “promising but uneven novel” — which it is not. Far from it. Read it for yourself. Unsurprisingly, Ayim has dedicated her novel to John Berger.

The last debut novel under discussion is Rehana Munir’s fabulous Paper Moon. It is about Fiza inheritance from her absent father stipulating that she run a bookstore. Well, she is left a lump sum of money to do whatever she likes but he would love it if she made his dream of running a bookshop come true. This is an idea that she too has been secretly nursing but once the possibilities exist she quickly swings into action. Practically overnight from a quiet, good college girl who listens to whatever her mother, an ex-Jazz singer has to say, Fiza becomes a businesswoman. She sets up a bookshop in a old Bandra mansion. It is named after the popular Jazz song, “It’s Only a Paper Moon“. It is an enterprise that is thrilling, allows for a variety of visitors to troop in, it is a peek into the bookselling trade and getting books on consignment from the distributors etc. More than that it gives her the opportunity to introspect her own life, her relationships with her ex-boyfriend, Dhruv and the mysterious stranger who frequents her store, to the wide network ( safety net) of well-wishers. Paper Moon is written in a beautifully restrained manner making it hard to believe that this is a debut voice. The characters are so well etched. The plot moves at a controlled pace. There seem to be no awkward edges in the storytelling or clunky pieces in the plot. What is truly refreshing is the confidence with which Rehana Munir presents life in Mumbai and Goa for what it is — with its diversity, the ease with which everyone is comfortable with each other’s beliefs and practices. There are no apologies or fear presented. It is normal life. This despite her belonging to a generation that may have not witnessed the World Wars or the horrific aftermath of Indian Independence — the communal riots which accompanied the partition of the subcontinent. But while “contemplating the post 9/11 world… . Babri Masjid happened, dividing Fiza’s city forever. Not there was the gore and gloom of Gujarat. Every generation thought of itself as unique. Of negotiating historical events without precedent or the possibility of recurrence. Yet, how was this rapid descent into madness any different from the countless ones that had previously occurred?” This is the undercurrent affecting everyone and yet life carries on. Surprisingly Rehana Munir’s narrative, albeit fiction, affirms that if we see around us, life is different to what is told to us in hegemonic discourses which are increasingly being controlled by politicians. Much like what Hans Rosling laid out in Factfulness. Both are equally hopeful books in an otherwise depressingly dystopic age. Rehana Munir’s Paper Moon is a story that deserves to be converted to film without compromising on the story at all in the screen adapatation. It must run as is. Paper Moon leaves such a happy space in one’s mind of hope and joy for the future. And it is not a book I would classify as Up lit. It is good old-fashioned storytelling. Share it widely. Give it the love it deserves. Gift it happily.

7 December 2019

Elton John’s “Me”

I read Elton John’s autobiography Me that has been written with the assistance of journalist Alexis Petridis. It is so full of enjoyable trivia about the music scene. There is not much about the business of music except for passing references to his hunt for a reliable manager or how he founded his own company, Rocket, and discovered new talent. He readily admits he was good at discovering talent and not necessarily nurturing new talent. He talks about his upbringing and never once is his family left out of the narrative. They are always present in his story. It is not as if stardom went to his mind and he forgot his roots.

It is also a memoir that documents his coming out as gay and then his stratospheric rise as a performer. Outrageous acts that helped him become more of the man he was. It also points out that gayness and being gay was not fashionable then as it is now and yet when he came out to his friends or dressed flamboyantly, the circles he moved in did not bat an eyelid. Interestingly he was always so astonished at his meteoric fame that when he began to hobnob with the rich and famous, he could not get over the excitement. A memorable line in the book is about the door of his green room opening and musicians of The Band trooping in. He was astonished. He says it was as if the record sleeves of his music collection had come to life. There are so many instances like this. All along it is so obvious that he simply had the talent to play the piano and he had no qualms catering to the masses as long as it made Bernie Taupin and him money. Even so, they were very critical of some of their very commercially successful songs and albums.

What I find extraordinary is the confident voice. Also he has no problem damning people. I do not know if it is that he has been more than fifty years at the top of his profession that he really could not care less about what others think of him. He has a very refreshing way of talking except that after a while it begins to pall and you begin to wonder when will the showman be done with this gig. Even his arguments with his mother and her bad behaviour on the day of his civil partnership with David Furnish is so much domestic drama detail. Quite unnecessary. It is of course delightful to come across anecdotes of Elton John doing drugs with John Lennon in a hotel in USA when there is a knock on the door. It is Andy Warhol which astounds Elton John who is still very starry eyed about the business but John Lennon does not allow Elton John to open the door as Warhol is known to always carry a camera and Lennon did not want a picture of two rock stars doing drugs becoming known publicly. There is another delightful one of Elton John and his then partner sitting by their swimming pool in their London home when they spotted an old lady cycle up their driveway. They thought she looked very much like Katherine Hepburn. And lo and behold, it was her. She had been told by a neighbour, whose guest she was, go across to Elton John’s home where you can use his swimming pool. 🙂

I wish there had been an interview or an essay by the Guardian journalist who helped ghost write this book. He has captured Elton John’s voice marvellously well. But there are so many questions I would like to know for instance, how on earth did Elton John remember so many details over the past decades? How much of this is really accurate? Did he research this for a while as a passing reference to his being awarded a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame is available on YouTube? How long was this book in the making? How many interview sessions and how many hours of tape were recorded? How many pages of transcript were there? This is the kind of autobiography that Richard Holmes is not exactly fond of the step-by-step account of a person’s life but I suppose a super star’s life cannot be hid. It is so much gossip and at the same time I get the feeling that much of the gossipy sections of the book are mainly about those who are long dead and gone and cannot really speak up for themselves.

On the other hand, compare this autobiography with that of Karan Johar. Both are showmen. Both had their autobiographies ghost written. These books were created after innumerable interview sessions. But Elton John’s maybe frivolous and champagne chatter but it is definitely not insipidly thin as Karan Johar’s book is. I also liked the fact that Elton John is respects himself tremendously — as it should be. In his first live-in relationship, his partner was violent and was known to have a bad temper. Elton John tolerated him because he was in love. But the day the partner hit Elton in their own home and Elton John’s nose was bleeding and face was scratched, Elton John swore he would not remain in an abusive relationship. The self-realisation of a DV victim is so critical irrespective of genders.

I would think an ideal book launch or a panel discussion should be between The Boss and Elton John. Both of them have written autobiographies that seem to ring true. Bruce Springsteen’s biography is stupendous especially his account of his childhood. Both musicians come from tough backgrounds, the Boss more than Elton John. Yet they were astounding successes and it would be fascinating to hear them in conversation with each other about deciding on how much of their life should they make public, what is the best balance to strike, is less more or do you give your fan base more or less how you perform on stage etc. It could be moderated by another book man who comes from as impoverished circumstances as Bruce Springsteen, Damian Barr, and he too has written a tremendous memoir.

Regrettably except for a stray reference and that was because the paper dedicated a section to “celebrity memoirs”, Me has been overlooked in most year-end recommended reading lists. Sad. Nevertheless, read it for yourself. It is a rollicking read!

6 Dec 2019