Chicago Posts

“The Journey Of Indian Publishing” by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

I recently contributed to How to Get Published in India edited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.

Here is the essay I wrote:

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AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher.  My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi.  These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.

In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of  The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.

To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!

The Daryaganj  Sunday  Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.

From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.

In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.

By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins  India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.

Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.

As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality  is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses. 

The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting! 

3 Feb 2019

Play with Me

Play with Me

Ananth 1Today, Ananth Padmanabhan’s debut novel, Play with Me, goes on sale. It is a slim novel
about a successful photographer, Sid, in a boutique ad agency. He is focused on his job, till he meets Cara, who has applied to be an intern at the agency, specifically working with Sid. Cara has relocated to India from New York. Her father is an Indian diplomat and her Turkish mother is the Islamic Art Consultant at the Met. Cara and Sid have a rollicking affair. They are sexually obsessed with each other, but slowly the relationship evolves. Cara introduces her girlfriend, Rhea to Sid too. But Sid discovers he is falling in love with another women altogether–Nat. It does make for a complicated situation. Play with Me

In a recent interview, Ananth Padmanabhan said “One day, when we were discussing EL James [author of the notorious S&M fantasy novel Fifty Shades of Grey] and commissioning erotic fiction, Chiki [ Sarkar] said, ‘A, you have to write this’; R Sivapriya [Penguin’s managing editor] had seen my work and told her about it. I said I’d give it a shot. On my commute from Gurgaon to Delhi every day, I would think about what I would do,” says the publisher’s unlikely erotica debut, Ananth, senior vice-president of sales. “It’s very difficult to get it right.” He couldn’t have picked a better or more difficult place to try his hand at writing about pleasure; your average head of sales is both perfectly placed to understand his market and new to playing the role of author. ( Rajni George, “Between the sheets”, OPEN, 31 July
2014  http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/books/between-the-sheets ) 

Ananth Padmanabhan, is Vice-President, Sales, Penguin Random House India. He has been with the firm since 1997 when David Davidar, then Penguin publisher offered him a job. As an experienced book salesman, he has a sharp sense of what it requires for a book to sell. At the same time he has a keen eye for detail as his passion for photography shows. In fact, two years ago he held an
exhibition of his black and white photographs called ‘Calcutta Walking in the City’–each frame had a story to tell. He blends his professional and personal interests well in his debut novel, Play with me. The book may have been commissioned out of a need to look for the Indian middle-class English reader of Fifty Shades of Grey, but as is the wont with good debut novelists, they tell a story with a fresh voice, anchored in details that they are usually most comfortable with. Ananth’s love for photography makes Play with me work at many levels– erotic fiction with competent and nuanced storytelling.

AranyaniPlay with Me is one of the few books published by prominent Indian publishers that deals with the genre of erotic fiction. Some of the others are A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories by Aranyani ( Aleph Book Company, http://alephbookcompany.com/pleasant-kind-heavy-and-other-erotic-stories ) and Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories from Sri Lanka, edited by Ameena Hussein ( Tranquebar Press, Westland, http://www.westlandbooks.in/book_details.php?cat_id=4&book_id=304 ). Over  a year ago, Rupa Publications launched the Confession series of low-priced books written by ordinary folks, sometimes anonymously, of sexual encounters that they had experienced  in their daily lives. Apparently these were “true” accounts written by tutors, housewives, young office workers etc. Unfortunately I am unable to locate the link to these stories now.Blue

The publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey also attracted Hindi publishers such as Mr Narendra Verma, Chairman, Diamond Books. In an interview to me last year he said, “…we translated Fifty Shades of Grey, but it has been a trying experience with this book. As this book is written in English, translating it into Hindi first was not an easy task. It was primarily because all the words could not be translated, nor were they appropriate to be published in Hindi. The main hurdle was to not offend the middle-class reader’s sentiments. The translated text had to be edited many times before it could be released for publishing. The translation was done in-house with one of our empanelled translators. The first volume was released into the market with a print-run of 5,000, and was soon sent in for a reprint. It has been priced at Rs. 175. We are not expecting sales as phenomenal as those in English.” ( p.55, Narendra Verma, “We publish one book everyday”, PrintWeek India Book Special 2013.)

Back cover of Play with meErotic fiction is a genre that is slowly developing a space in the mainstream Indian market. As I write this, there is talk of one more eagerly-awaited for book, a memoir. A collection of erotic short stories by women which has been slated for publication for a while now has been stalled due to legal hassles. So erotic fiction continues to be a niche book market but in India it needs to be handled sensitively if it needs to sell well. As Mary Anne Mohanraj, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Chicago told me, “good erotica should be held to the same standards as any other good fiction, but in addition, it should also set an erotic mood, much as horror sets a horrific mood.” Hence it is not surprise then that Ananth Padmanabhan’s Play with me is already being spoken of as a sleeper-hit.

Ananth Padmanbhan Play with me Penguin Books India, 2014. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 250

7 August 2014 

Naomi Wood, “Mrs. Hemingway”

Naomi Wood, “Mrs. Hemingway”

Naomi WoodOne afternoon she finds a copy of Ernest’s tribute to the president.

Ernest had greeted the request from Washington with something close to cold fright. For too long, now, he’s been an unhappy writer. To lose his ability to write was to have lost the ability to clear his mind of itself. To write was to come into a wonderful house:  a clean well-lighted place where the light fell in large white blocks on the good wooden floors. To write was to be at home, to be able to see well. 

The request was for a few handwritten lines for Mr. Kennedy. That week in February Ernest sat in his study, looking with nervousness over the barrel of his stomach. Misery hovered close. She had often wondered why he couldn’t give up on this wretched business. They had enough money from royalties, film options, magzine deals. If he could send off the Paris stories and then put himself to the work of hunting or fishing, he might have a better chance of happiness. But writers and their woes: they couldn’t be parted. Not for anything. 

( p.245 Mrs. Hemingway )

Naomi Wood’s second novel, Mrs. Hemingway is about Ernest Heminway’s four wives — Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer or “Fife”, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh. The book is divided into four parts: each part focused upon a Mrs Hemingway with Ernest Hemingway a strong presence but not the centre of attention. The story flows smoothly with the structure of each section devoted to the current Mrs Hemingway, their lifestyle — parties, gossip among friends, children, and marks the entry of the next Mrs Hemingway. Each section is imbued with the distinct personality of each wife, whether it is the practical and hardworking Hadley; the comfortable lifestyle that Fife could provide for Hemingway, giving him the leisure to write without any financial worries; a common passion shared by Martha Gellhorn and her husband for journalism, writing and reporting World War II; and finally Mary Welsh, who unlike her immediate predecessor, was happy with her life of a writer’s wife. Unfortunately it fell apart with the sudden death of her husband.

There are details about Hemingway and his wives life that are authentic. The meticulous research shows but only sufficiently to create a rich backdrop to the story, a personal one of within a family, the torment the wives experience with the appearance of another woman in their lives, the ensuing divorce and surprisingly how some of them, like Fife and Hadley, remain good friends. The author was given a three-year doctoral grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She did her research at the JFK Library in Boston, Beinecke Library at Yale University and at the Hemingway heritage homes in Oak Park, Chicago; Key West, Florida; and San Francisco de Paula in Cuba. The best description of this novel would be to call it “bio-fic”, a term coined by David Lodge. In 2014, when there will be deluge of literature being published focused upon the centenary of World War I Mrs. Hemingway sets a high benchmark for fiction set during this period. This group biography maybe “a work of imagination” as asserted by Naomi Wood, but it is so deftly done–it is a pleasure to read. 

Naomi Wood Mrs. Hemingway Picador, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 330 Rs. 599

6 March 2014

Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull’s acceptance speech for the Goethe Medal, Weimar, 28 Aug 2013

Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull’s acceptance speech for the Goethe Medal, Weimar, 28 Aug 2013

4_GM2013_Kishore_Foto_Schuck (1)( From the Goethe Institute website. In an outstanding way and at the highest level, Naveen Kishore represents dialogue and cultural cooperation between India and Germany, according to the statement by the Goethe Medal commission.

He is the founder and director of Seagull Books in Kolkata, which, with branches in London and Chicago, is established internationally like no other Indian publishing house. The house owns the worldwide English-language publishing rights for authors such as Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Bernhard, Imre Kertész, Yves Bonnefoy, Mo Yan, Mahasweta Devi, Peter Handke and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Naveen Kishore is led not by the market, but by personal convictions and passions. By launching the German List book series, a collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, he lastingly altered prevailing circumstances for the reception of German-language literature in the English language not only in India, but worldwide. Over the past five years Seagull has acquired the publishing rights to over 60 books from German publishers. Seagull Books is the first to publish German authors such as Brigitte Reimann and Ralf Rothmann in the English language, in carefully edited and excellently translated editions. I am reproducing this speech with Naveen Kishore’s permission. )

Medaille

I found the words that had escaped.
Rounded them up at gunpoint.
Marched them into the compound ringed by barbed wire.
Knocked them senseless with the butt of my gun.
Watched them collapse into a heap of meaninglessness.
Lit a match.
Flicked it on to the heap.

It took several lifetimes.
But at last I succeeded.

To set the words on fire.

The rising smoke drew across the sky
the meaning of my life.

To write is to delve. To hope. To write is to set off on a journey. There’s no arriving. There’s no ‘getting there’. Just the tramping. The walking. The dust tracks as signs of life. Someone has walked this way before. The reassurance. The comfort of friends. And of course the words. Words as solace. Words as recollection. Incomplete words seeking salvation. Broken words in limbo. Premature ones spewed into the gutter even as they are born. Words without moorings. Or roots. Homeless words seeking shelter from the storm. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Words that act like an opiate. Words that sing a lullaby. Unashamed words. Naked and stripped of veils. Harsh and therefore often truthful words. Words of the people. Words that refuse to die. Or be buried. Fighting words. Words with a cause. Borderline words strutting to a neutral tune. Neither-here-nor-there words. Our words. Their words. Words of attrition. Those that feast on anger and prejudice. Words of war. And those that want nothing but a happy ending.

The freedom of language as we used to know it is under a cloud. The very clouds that we grew up turning into sentences are now under suspicion. Trusting words to mean what they say is no longer an option. Sure, we hear them. Often, we even ‘see’ them as they sway down the ramp of language. Stony eyed and anorexic in their transparent gowns. Unblinking in the harshness of the flashing lights. A dull salute to conformity. Or words in the grip of fear. Wrap your tongue round such a word and you see it thrashing and struggling to slip away. The desire to spit out words is unadvisable. Surreptitious tip-toeing after a cautious glance to the left. The right. Then scurrying across the road to safety That’s the way, today’s way, with words.

I have a disease, I see language. I was reincarnated as a publisher in my eleventh birth. In my tenth, I was born in the land of frostbite in upper Alaska and my mother taught me how to chisel the frost off my words as swiftly as the cold north wind froze them once again. In my seventh, I was a lighting designer, learning to backlight words that other people wrote and spoke. Sometimes, I simply lit the silence and waited, with the empty stage, for the entry of a new sentence.

How do you find your way without a compass or a map? Especially when you have set out to grasp that which is intangible? I say to you what others have said to me:
Let intuition be your compass.
Look for a credible (or incredible) way to slip out of the confines of your head, your brain, your training—to unlearn all that you have learnt.

Why does this magazine page or catalogue or book cover look the way it does? Is the designer in me expected to come up with an answer that will make you gasp with admiration at its insight, its erudition, its grasp of designer theory? YES! I’m afraid so. When you ask me ‘Why?’ I’m often tempted, even compelled, to say things like ‘I was attempting to render through a visual metaphor the metaphysical doctrine of XYZ . . .’ or ‘The poststructuralist theories of something-something ‘. Anything.
The sad thing is that I would never have the guts to simply look you in the eye and say: ‘The air above my head and yours is full of lots of somethings. I’ve just learnt to pull out the odd one and spread it evenly across a page. Like butter. Or jam’.
I would love even more to say: ‘Because . . .‘

I am often asked about ‘sustainability’ and ‘structure’, about ‘vision’ and the ‘ability to reinvent’. I never have convincing answers simply because I have no scientific or rational methods to explain my life’s work and the choices that have come with it. I live hand in hand or hand in glove, and therefore complicitly, with ‘the uncertain’ and ‘the intangible’. With the opposite of ‘structure’. I am aware that I also live in a time that does not lend credence to that feeling at the pit of your belly often referred to as the ‘gut’. Instinct is frowned upon, even in the arts.
Each new engagement brings with it a new insight, both in its execution and with its response. Over the years, this style of working has developed into a strategy that:
a) responds flexibly and immediately to a perceived need, be it that of an individual or a group;
b) cuts through the bureaucracy of thought that usually strangles such a dialogue and acts quickly and decisively to meet it; and, more importantly,
c) refuses to get jaded. Nothing is static. Everything has a dynamic plasticity about it.
This award recognizes my life’s work. My life. And, like life, the work is ever evolving, changing, coping, dying, renewing, responding, sustaining, nurturing . . . The closest I can come to describe the Seagull vision is to say: ‘Think of animation’—not a frozen piece of text nor a well-articulated, expertly crafted, neatly phrased all-encompassing legend that can be engraved on a brass plaque. The Seagull way of life is a mercurial, flexible, broad-minded, tolerant and philosophical practice. We respond, therefore we practice. The urge to keep doing, to keep working away at something that enhances things cultural in some form or the other; that benefits those that practice ‘things cultural’ and helps take them further, from Point A to Point D— that’s what drives us at Seagull. Every day.

Ours is therefore a practice that will always remain vulnerable. Not the vulnerability of the weak but of those receptive to new impressions. Our vulnerability to ideas makes us receptive to all that is new and untried. Especially in these dark times when culture is slowly but surely being hijacked by forces that are anything but benign. I do feel watched in a way I never have before. And I am afraid that a technology that I do not understand is both spying on me and entertaining me. I am under surveillance even as I am seduced by It. The all pervasive It of our lives. The It as State. As a state of mind. As a powerful presence that will have its way. It as Corporation. It as newspapers. As television. As theatre and cinema. It as Media with a capital ‘M’. It as power that knows no boundaries. It without conscience. Yes. It is like listening to music that is both hypnotic and evil. That attracts. That refuses to let go of my attention.
I listen to the songs but I do not understand the words.
The space for our songs is not as free as it used to be.

I have a flaw. I want to do everything. Don’t you wish that you could do everything? Or, at least, a lot of things? I want to experience. I want to be part of a process that has no apparent game plan. I want to be part of something that does. I hate the thought of being restricted. Allow us this day our daily attempts—at anything and everything. Why not?

Underlining all of this is an urge to survive and to do things. Not just any thing but ‘something in the arts’. And this is precisely what we have been doing for the last 40 years or so. ‘Survival’ carries with it a sense of the precarious, a kind of ‘just about keeping your head above water’. This is true but it need not necessarily make you unhappy! As long as you manage to take care of what you define as your daily necessities—the urge to produce a certain kind of book that few wish to buy; or organize an experimental performance because you feel it needs to be seen; or exhibit an artist’s work that needs to see the light of day—the rest will fall into place.

One day I will write something where each word is made up of a million waves and each wave sings its own story and each story sheds its own tears and the tears do what they must to carry on they smile and smiles come bearing the strings that make music and strings quickly learn to caress the bark of the finest violins which in turn play melodies that weave a magic spell over the hearts that beat and throb and every throb breathes new life into words words that bear echoes echoes that sound like the bells that adorn churches bells crafted out of the finest metal safeguarded over centuries for its ability to turn word into sound sounds that are pregnant with words words that bear the seed of silence silence that accompanies stillness stillness as we know is the mother of echo echo that every word carries within it of a life before the birth of language language that was once sensed rather than heard like the morning breeze celebrating a birth the birth of poetry

I am a man of words.
To me, the words matter most of all.

Naveen Kishore
Weimar, August 2013