academic publishing Posts

On Sridhar Balan’s “Off the Shelf”

Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.

The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.

Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.

Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)

Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.

This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.

31 July 2020

A response to Sudhanva Deshpande’s article on “fair use”

A response to Sudhanva Deshpande’s article on “fair use”

After uploading on the photocopying case/IPR in Delhi, I received the following email from Sudhanva Deshpande. I am uploading it on my blog with his and the anonymous author’s permission.

JAYA 23 Sept 2012

“Here’s a response I got, from someone who works at a multinational academic publisher.”

* * * * *
Sudhanva Deshpande
—– Forwarded Message —–

1. Publishing companies have no qualms about violating copyright when it serves their interests. Aspiring — but unqualified — authors in positions of influence at Indian universities routinely get published by leading publishing companies. Some of these books are heavily plagiarized from books by other publishers and even without attribution from Wikipedia — which publishers so readily dismiss with contempt– a fact which everyone in the industry chooses to ignore. Publishers publish these manuscripts with minor changes in language to skirt the issue of copyright; this involves re-writing sentences. Copyright violation in spirit, if not in letter. The author, being in a position of influence, guarantees sales of a certain number of copies, usually in the thousands. For the publishing company, such agreements cement a good relationship with the author, enabling access to his/her colleagues who serve on the advisory board which recommends textbooks in that university.

2. These boards are corrupted by the influence of sales managers from publishing companies. It is not uncommon for unpublished books, only in the manuscript stage, to appear in the recommended list of university syllabi. It used to be the case that the syllabus for a course was framed first, and then books matching the syllabus are recommended. These days, the reverse happens — syllabi are framed from the contents of a book by a favoured publisher. What goes in the book is dictated by self-appointed editors at these publishing companies.

3. Publishing companies are concerned with selling their books to the syllabus review committees and not the students. Prices are sometimes kept artificially high for the simple reason that multinational companies do not want to be seen selling their books at the “cheap price-points” of their Indian competitors.

4. Editors of highly technical textbooks often have no subject knowledge at all. It is a miracle that a student gets a usable book after passing through their hands.

5. Contrary to what they may claim, editors do not “value add”. Manuscripts usually fall into two categories. Those written by expert authors, where an editor can do no more than beautify it and prepare it for “production”, an act which could just as easily have been done by the authors themselves. The other kind of book involves heavily-plagiarized work, or manuscripts so badly written, that the editor involved practically has to become the co-author. Such authors scarcely deserve to be published and amount to cheating the students.

6. The “production” of a manuscript by a publishing company takes months, which is totally anachronistic in today’s world — especially for technical manuscripts, where one can produce a beautifully typeset work using LaTeX instantly. This “production”, in fact, is where a publisher incurs a huge chunk of the cost of any project and then proceeds to justify the price-points at which the end product is sold. Notwithstanding the fact that numerous errors are introduced at this stage, all this is justified in the name of “value add”.

7. The authors are milked to the limit and paid peanuts for their hard work. Royalty is never more than 10%; any author who demands more is “greedy”.

8. Perfectly good manuscripts by Indian authors are sometimes rejected if they pertain to topics which have no “sales potential”. Or are deemed to be written at a “higher level” than is suited for the “average Indian student”. This not only does these scholars a disservice, but also forces them to turn to publishers based abroad, who are usually more willing. Thus, Indian students have to either turn to expensive books by foreign authors, or to expensive books by Indian authors published by foreign companies.

9. Publishers assume that students only like to read “syllabus-oriented” books. Only such proposals are accepted — if not, the author is forced to dilute the book’s contents and “simplify” it. This deprives students in India, at least those of us who like to go beyond the syllabus, of quality material.

Academic publishing, as it stands, is a fundamentally unethical business. Nowhere is this more evident than in journal publishing, where the publisher collects money from the author for publishing, gets it peer-reviewed for free, and collects more money from the readers. No qualms.

Publishers are terrified of the potential of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to up-end the whole education ecosystem. And as Clay Shirky says, “Publishing is not a process. Publishing is a button.” Tomorrow is, no doubt, brighter for those of us who believe knowledge should have no gatekeepers and this is something we should fight for.

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