literary estate 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

Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu’s intervention on copyright at Jaipur BookMark, Jan 2019

Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu, was invited by Neeta Gupta, Founder, Jaipur BookMark, to participate in the JBM Copyright Roundtable.T

 It was held at Diggi Palace and the keynote was delivered by Michael Healy. The other participants were Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, Alind Maheshwari, Arpita Das, Claudia Kaiser, Kannan Sundaram, Maggie Doyle, Michael Healy, Phillipa McGuinness, Prashasti Rastogi, Safir Anand and Urvashi Butalia, moderated by Naveen Kishore.

The cue given to the panelists by JBM was: Copyright underpins everything we do as an industry and without it all opportunities quickly recede. The principle of copyright is threatened at a global level and to a degree we have never seen before. This is true in India as it is in many countries. This session is a call to publishers, literary agents, rights managers, lawyers, authors and international book fair organisers for the protection of copyright.

Kannan Sundaram gave a short speech putting forth the concept of nationalising prominent Indian writer’s works rather than restricting them to a copyright life arguing that this had been done for Tamil poet Subramania Bharathy. Whereas in the case of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore the copyright period had been extended by a decade so that Visva-Bharathi University, the main benefactors of Tagore’s literary estate could continue to earn royalities for a few more years.

Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu

Here is the complete text of Kannan’s speech delivered at Jaipur BookMark. It has been published with permission.

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Thank you JBM, Neeta Gupta for this opportunity to share my views.

I will be making a few remarks on copyright issues in Indian languages in general and Tamil in particular.

The premise of this panel that copyright is facing a threat in contemporary times is not entirely true of many Indian languages. I would not generalize the publishing context of all Indian languages. Every Indian language publishing has its own eco system. However, in most languages the adherence to copyright has never been strong.

I know that Malayalam market is an exception. There could be other languages where copyright is adhered to but that is not the overall picture of Indian language publishing. In Tamil copyright has been an option not a rule. It may have been extended to popular authors, authors who would fight it out, but not to most authors who had no clear understanding of copyright acts. In Tamil publishing adherence to copyright regulations is improving only now. Writers are fighting back using social media and prime time debates in television on copyright are happening. And there are publishers who appear on TV and argue why they cannot pay royalty!

While copy left is an idea and an aspiration for many in the world, in the state of Tamil Nadu it has been practiced legally in some instances for some decades now. This is a practice that is unique to the state of TN. So we have had an opportunity to access copy left in practice.

For over 60 years now the government of Tamil Nadu purchases copyright of an author by paying a lump sum money to the copyright holder and then puts it out in the public domain. This process is referred to as ‘nationalization’.

 This practice was initiated after a controversy surrounding the rights of our national poet Mahakavi Subramania Bharathy. Responding to public demand that no one can own the rights of a poet who was perceived as belonging to the people, first the Tamil Nadu government bought the rights of Bharathy’s works in 1949. Then in the mid-fifties it was nationalized, that is gifted to the people. (If you want read this story I recommend the book ‘Who owns the Song?’ by A.R. Venkatachalapathy).

I would like to quickly compare this to the story of a nationally treasured writer Rabindranath Tagore. Visva-Bharathi University had an iron clad hold over Tagore’s copyright through the term and then succeeded on extending copyright for 10 years!

Following up on the new tradition established for Bharathy, various Tamil Nadu governments over the years have nationalized the works of over 130 writers. It started as a trickle and then became a sludge. When any of the governments in India decide to patronize culture, it usually starts well but the rot quickly sets in and then it typically goes to the dogs. What started as a process of national honour to outstanding personalities of Tamil literature has now gotten entangled in nepotism, patronage and corruption. I would not be able to recognize the names of a quarter of the nationalized writers!

What are the pros and cons of this nationalization process?

Most Tamil writers do not bother to assign copyright when they create a will for their belongings and property. It not valued by them or their families since it typically brings in little money. Therefore, posthumously it often becomes complicated for any publisher that wants to publish them. Nationalising a writer’s works clearly this all up nicely. The family gets some money and the publishers are free to publish the works. This as far as I can see is the only pro of this process. The honour is not there anymore since writers are nationalized with little discrimination.

The cons are many.

  1. If it is a bestselling author, there is a price war between publishers undercutting quality of the books published drastically.
  2. Most of the books of authors that have been nationalized remain out of print. This obviously is because their works are not valued turning the process of nationalizing their works irrelevant. Also if the author is a slow and steady selling, thena publisher with exclusive rights might do limited editions but when there exists the possibility that somebody else too might publish it and eat into the limited market, then there is little initiative to publish it.
  3. When copyright goes, no one exerts moral rights of work. This may not be the legal position but that is how it works in practice. This means publishers take liberties with the text. They feel free to edit, delete, change, condense and adapt the text in any way they like.

One publisher who publishes only nationalized books dedicates all the books to his mother. After sometime this publisher realized that the readers do not understand that he is dedicating all the books to his mother but wrongly assume that all writers are dedicating their books to their own mothers. So now the dedications are accompanied by photographs of his mother! A very commendable sentiment but ethics of it is debatable. Since no one can represent a nationalized book or can sign a contract, essentially any possibility of translation becomes very slim.

Thank you!

3 Feb 2019

“Beowulf” A translation and commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Beowulf” is the longest Anglo-Saxon epic poem in Old English, and is dated to the early 11th century. It is about Geatish prince Beowulf who comes to the aid of Danish king Hroðgar, slaying the monster Grendel and his mother and fifty years later a dragon guarding treasure. Tolkien’s date for the poem is the 8th century. In 1920 Tolkien began teaching Old English at the University of Leeds. He finished translating the poem in 1926 but never published it. He was thirty-four.  He was in a dilemma which he expressed in a letter to Rayner Unwin of November 1965 concerning his inability to compose the ‘editorial’ matter to accompany his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

 I am finding the selection of notes, and compressing them, and the introduction, difficult. Too much to say, and not sure of my target. The main target is, of course, the general reader of literary bent but with no knowledge of Middle English; but it cannot be doubted that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters. 

Forty years after his death Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, decided to publish the translation along with his father’s series of lectures given at Oxford about the poem in the 1930s and the unpublished ballad Sellic Spell — an imagined story of Beowulf in an early form. Also included in the book are two versions of Lay of Beowulf. As Christopher recalls in the Preface: “His singing of the Lay remains for me a clear memory after more than eighty years, my first acquaintance with Beowulf and the golden hall of Heorot.”

For years now there has been speculation about the translation. In fact in 1999 Seamus Heaney published a brilliant translation of the poem which won the Whitbread prize too. In 2014 Tolkien’s estate announced the publication of Beowulf. Tolkien has in his translation retained the spirit of the poem, its descriptions and rawness but changed the alliteration in the original to run-on lines — a prose translation. There is considerable debate about this dramatic restructuring of the form in the “modern-day” translation by Tolkien. The majority view is that the clunkiness of Old English forced an alliterative structure to the poem for it to be narrated but this was no longer a necessity with modern English. It was possible to create a story in a nuanced fashion and hence Tolkien’s preference ( or presumably ease) with a prose version. Yet the shift in structure does little to spoil the beauty of the poem. There is a wonderful review-article of the book in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella. It was published within weeks of the book’s release in 2014. She gives a brilliant background to the possible compulsions ( read monetary) that drove Tolkien to consider a translation of this long poem before embarking upon an exquisite textual analysis of the poem. She compares the new translation with the original while comparing it to the Seamus Heaney translation. At the same time Joan Acocella brings in Tolkien’s fascination with languages — already told to fabricating new ones as he did famously for the Hobbit series with Elvish or the private language, Nevbosh, that he shared only with his cousin Mary. All these talents of Tolkien go into making the wonderful new translation of Beowulf.

It is a delicious translation enriched further by the endnotes and lectures. This volume is a keeper.

Beowulf ( Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien) Edited by Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollinsPublishers , London, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 799