Scripting a new story: Independent publishers carving a niche for themselves on the back of their varied offerings

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Published: April 8, 2018 1:28:50 AM

From coffee-table books and translations to feminist narratives and quirky literature, a handful of independent publishers in the country are carving a niche for themselves on the back of their varied offerings

books, independent publishers, story, ritu menon, Shobit Arya, Bikash NiyogiFrom coffee-table books and translations to feminist narratives and quirky literature, a handful of independent publishers in the country are carving a niche for themselves on the back of their varied offerings

Ritu Menon
Founder, Women Unlimited
The fiery feminist

When Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia—who founded India’s first feminist publishing house Kali for Women in 1984—went their separate ways in 2003, the publishing industry wondered what the two would do next. The same year, Butalia launched Zubaan Books and Menon started Women Unlimited, both taking forward the legacy of Kali and concentrating on strong feminist narratives. “Distribution is one of the biggest problems with independent publishing houses. With the entry of large multinational corporations, there is an exponentially larger number of books for more or less the same size of the market. At most, we do 15-20 books a year compared to upwards of 200 titles that a Penguin or HarperCollins does a year. It has become much more competitive,” says Menon, sitting in her moderately-furnished office in south Delhi. “We are constantly struggling to ensure that the little space we occupy remains secure and doesn’t get taken over totally,” she says. Women Unlimited, which has till date published around 100 titles, focuses on scholarly and academic books, fiction, non-fiction, books for young adults and activist material. “What we do, which is to publish for social change, is a work in progress… some of that has been achieved, some is a continuous process.

The fact that a feminist or gender perspective in academic writing is now almost taken for granted is one indication of what has been achieved. Another is the general acceptance of women’s rights as human rights and of equality as non-negotiable,” Menon outlines the objective of her publishing house. “This is an activist endeavour and we are very involved with women’s movements in India and south Asia.” Menon, who previously worked with mainstream publishing houses such as Orient Blackswan and Vikas Publishing, besides Kali for Women, believes independent publishing survives because of “small overheads” and risk appetite. “The kind of risks we are able to take is because we are independent publishers… we have less to lose and more to gain. Also, we are not accountable to other owners,” she says, adding that they publish around 12 books a year, selling over one lakh copies every year. The books, priced between Rs 150 and Rs 1,500, are available both online, as well as in bookstores. Menon recollects how post-2000 the landscape of publishing changed not just in India, but globally as well, with many small publishing houses, especially feminist ones, shutting down due to recession. Today, lit fests and book fairs, which cater to larger publications that can afford to pay the huge rent, are out of reach for most independent publishers, she says. “When we started out, we were operating on a level-playing field, which was largely indigenous. Internationally, there was a solidarity among feminist publishers.

Today, half of them don’t exist any more. Independent publishing worldwide is under duress from large conglomerates. There are no feminist presses left in the West except for Feminist Press in New York. All others have been absorbed by larger publications. So that community of support no longer exists,” she rues. Menon, however, credits independent publishing houses with starting several movements—translations, Dalit writings, comic books, etc—and pushing the boundaries. “To be an independent publisher is to work for development. Half the women we published initially said they can’t write. Vandana Shiva, for instance, said, ‘I am not a writer, I am an activist’. So you develop not just the market, but the writer as well,” says the 70-year-old. For now, Menon says, she has no plans to merge with any large corporation and is focusing on developing new Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Hyder books. “Some books remain three-four years in gestation. Some take 10 years to develop. All of our books stay in print for a very long time and that’s the key to our success. We survive because of our back-list (a list of older books available from a publisher),” she says. For Women Unlimited, the big markets are the UK, US, Europe, China and Japan. “We just sold the  rights of Hyder’s books in Chinese. We are keen on getting another generation of young women interested in doing the kind of writing we call feminist,” Menon says.

Shobit Arya
Founder, Wisdom Tree
On the middle path

Ansari Road in Old Delhi is an unusually busy street. It’s where most publishing houses and booksellers have set up their offices. Most buildings are nondescript, with paint peeling off their facade. But take a quick peek into any office and you will find stacks of books neatly lined up the walls, and a palpable smell of fresh ink in the air. It’s in one of these lanes that Shobit Arya set up the office of Wisdom Tree, an independent publishing house he found in 1999. Ask him about the early years and he gives a deep sigh followed immediately by lengthy recollections. “I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair (with Wisdom Tree) in the first year itself. I was frantically preparing Bharat Thakur’s yoga books to take there. A lot of my friends in the trade asked me why I was working like mad to go to Frankfurt. They were like, ‘Who goes from India to Frankfurt to sell a book? All of us go to buy’,” the 43-year-old reminisces. “But we had beginner’s luck. In the first year itself, we sold the Portuguese rights of Bharat Thakur’s yoga books. We were also able to initiate the global distribution of our books, though it didn’t materialise for the next two years, as we didn’t have enough books at that time,” says Arya. From just five books in the first year, today Wisdom Tree’s books have been published in about 16 foreign languages and are distributed worldwide. “This year, we added a new language to the list: Hungarian,” he says. Wisdom Tree started out initially with a series of books on different subjects, such as yoga, spirituality, communication, etc, written by subject experts in the field. In 2004, it branched out into non-fiction titles, including coffee-table books, bringing out 10-15 titles a year. Today, their speciality is indigenous non-fiction titles, as well as coffee-table books. It was the lack of creativity in his printing business (Print Perfect, which Arya started right after school, printing books of other publishers) that prompted him to start Wisdom Tree in 1999, managing both enterprises simultaneously till 2010. Talking about the printing press, Arya says, “I had a successful printing career… There was a point of time when we had more than 100 people working for us in three shifts. But I stopped enjoying the mechanised process of printing and shut it down in 2010,” he says.

For the success of Wisdom Tree, Arya gives all the credit to his strong distribution network in places such as Australia, North America, Europe, UK and Singapore. “Since our focus was primarily on identifying Indian authors and making them global, we started to look at translation rights. That was the core of our genesis,” he says, adding that their books have been translated in as many as 15 foreign languages. “We also brought out Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist in Hindi. It’s by far amongst the most popular books of ours and goes into multiple reprints every year since it was first published in Hindi in 2005,” says Arya. Wisdom Tree has had many firsts. In 2009, it was the first Indian publishing house to debut on the e-book reader, Kindle, with the book Mantras: The Sacred Chants by Swami Veda Bharati. The publishing house, which has even won the Federation of Indian Publishers award for excellence in book production, also found mention in 2013 in the Limca Book of Records for innovations in publishing, which include creating a full-length song in 2012 around the book Whispers in the Classroom, Voices on the Field: Stories of School, Friends & Life, becoming the first Indian publisher to do so. It was also the first to get Garfield books into India in 2003, tying up with coffee chain Barista, which sold the books at its stores across the country. Like most independent Indian publishers, however, Wisdom Tree, too, took a beating in the post-recession era. “The time from 2008 to 2010 was the golden period of publishing. From 2011 onwards, coffee-table books took a beating. Their production now is 10-15% of what it used to be in 2010,” rues Arya, adding that these books are mostly bought by tourists or booked for corporate gifting, etc. “Recently, somebody from Gujarat ordered a few hundred copies of The Indian Woman, a coffee-table book on prolific Indian women, which was published in 2014. It was reprinted to cater to their request. He was giving it as a return gift to celebrate his daughter’s first birthday,” says Arya, adding that the book, which was curated by him, was originally commissioned as a public diplomacy initiative of the external affairs ministry and is used as a diplomatic gift by the Indian government. It has been published by Wisdom Tree in French, Arabic, among other languages. Within India, coffee-table books used to be sold through large-format bookstores, but many shut down after the entry of online portals such as Amazon and Flipkart.

“One of our coffee-table books, Kamadhenu, which is on indigenous cow breeds, was published last year and all 2,000 copies were sold out. But now, we have another order for a few copies and we aren’t able to fulfill it. That’s another challenge of coffee-table books,” says Arya, adding that large-format books are only printed in a lot of 2,000 copies. So what keeps them going? “In publishing parlance, we have a ‘bestseller’ category and then there’s the ‘mid-list’ or ‘backlist’, which is the tail of your list. So small publishers like us sustain on our mid-list. Our yoga books, for instance, were selling more in 2009 and 2010 than in the first year of publication,” says Arya, adding that they publish 12-15 books a year and sell a few lakh copies each year. Their books, priced between Rs 200 and Rs 450, are available both online, as well as in bookstores. Since there’s no desire to appeal to the mass market, Wisdom Tree, which has just 12 employees, including Arya, stays away from mass market authors. And yet, almost 80% of Wisdom Tree’s list has been reprinted. “But now, it’s difficult to stick to 15 books (a year) and still remain profitable. It’s like we are playing cricket on a slow-turning track on the fourth day of a Test match,” says Arya, adding, “Our back-list is our survival strategy. It’s the fruit of distinctiveness that we bring to the market.”

Bikash Niyogi
Founder, Niyogi Books
From printer to publisher

A small library co-founded by his elder brother with some friends in 1964 in Kolkata was Bikash Niyogi’s first introduction to the world of books. Just 13 years old in 1968, Niyogi inherited the library from his brother who got busy with college life. “It was just a single room. We had a membership of 50 people, who paid 50 paise as membership fee every month. We would be left with `15 after we paid the rent, electricity bill and took care of other utilities. We used to go to the publisher, ask for discount, ask members if they were keen to give us some more money for a new book… that’s how we ran it till the time I was in college. And that’s how I got addicted to books,” Niyogi recollects. But his interest remained just a passion for many years. It was in 1988 that Niyogi, after working for a decade in the automobile industry in New Delhi, quit his job and started an advertising and printing business called Niyogi Offset. In 2005, he started Niyogi Books with a coffee-table book on dancer Geeta Chandran titled So Many Journeys. “I used to personally visit libraries with the book and ask for their feedback. After my first few books, I learnt during a visit to the UK that coffee-table books shouldn’t be made with glossy paper, as it casts a reflection when reading. Matte paper should be used instead,” says Niyogi, who attended the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair with five-six books that he had published. In 2017, that number rose to around 100. Initially, he and his wife were the only people involved in the running of the publishing house.

“I used to approach freelance editors and designers, and ask them how much they would charge to edit and design our books. We brought out around 10 books with freelancers. It took me two years to recruit my first employee,” he recollects. Today, they have around 1,100 dealers across India, besides distributors in the US, UK, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. Sitting in his office, housed in a bungalow nestled among the warehouses of industrial units and residential blocks in Okhla, New Delhi, Niyogi tells us that they now publish 60-70 books a year. The independent publishing house, which is known for its well-curated coffee-table books, recently celebrated 13 years of its existence and launched three new imprints—Thornbird (for translations), Olive Turtle (original fiction) and Paper Missile (non-fiction)—to mark the occasion. Coffee-table books, in fact, form 50% of their catalogue, says Niyogi, who has some interesting anecdotes related to some of his books. A photograph published in their 2005 coffee-table book, Jama Masjid: Call of the Soul, for instance, was sourced from a local photographer during a chance meeting. “One of the minarets of the Jama Masjid was broken from the top due to lightning and the photographer had captured it at that exact moment. It was a priceless picture, which I chanced upon while rummaging through his photographs. I picked up around 25-30 photographs from him just so I could use that one picture,” the 63-year-old says. In another book, Dilli’s Red Fort: By the Yamuna (2007), there was a section on how the Kohinoor diamond changed hands over the years. “I wanted to put the original Kohinoor picture in the book, but at that time, no one in India had a photograph. I asked my editor to leave a blank space in the book and went on a dead-end mission to procure the photograph from the UK royal collection. I flew to London several times and our book was delayed by six months.

They were apprehensive as to why I needed the Kohinoor’s picture. Then I sent the digital dummy of the book to them and assured them that the picture won’t be used for any purpose other than in the blank space in the book. Finally, they relented and sent across the photograph,” Niyogi says. As luck would have it, a day prior to the launch of the book, Red Fort was declared a Unesco heritage site. “And overnight, we decided to change the cover of the entire print run, as we had to put the tag of ‘Unesco Heritage Site’ on the cover,” he says. But does this huge cost of publication yield profitable dividends on coffee-table books? “I like to call them ‘illustrated’ books… we have 300-400 visuals, but most also have 80,000 words,” he says, adding that an illustrated book such as Mapping India (a 2012 book, which presents an overview of the important maps of the country that shaped its political and social landscape) is priced at `4,500. “It cost us around `10-`15 lakh to print 2,000 copies. We had to source the first map ever drawn of India and the entire process took us three-four years. But most of these books recover their cost by having a long shelf life. They are never dated,” Niyogi explains, adding that their books, which are priced between `200 and `5,000, are available both online and in bookstores. Every year, they sell approximately one lakh titles. So what are their plans for the future? “Right now, we aren’t aiming at any big-ticket authors because we have to mentally reach that level… we are focusing on new writers. We are creating infrastructure not just by putting money, but by doing good work,” he says.

Rakesh Khanna & Rashmi Ruth Devadasan
Co-founders, Blaft Publications
Making translations mainstream

Blaft Publications would have turned out to be just another small publishing house from Chennai had it not been for Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan’s vision of creating a space where translations ruled the roost. In a departure from the oft-travelled road of mainstream publishing that focused mostly on the mass market, Blaft, which the two friends started in 2007, instead opted for translations. “The idea behind Blaft was to publish books we strongly believed needed to be out there. The first nudge came from Tamil pocket novels that you find hanging in every local tea shop across Tamil Nadu. These have amazingly lurid albeit creative covers, featuring wild photoshop collages, original handpainted cover art, etc, with enticing titles such as Thriller, Horror Blockbuster, etc. We asked around and realised we had been living under a linguistic rock, so to speak. These pocket books were the works of legendary home-grown detective, romance and horror writers, who had been authoring these cult classics for three decades and counting,” says Devadasan, co-founder, Blaft Publications, adding that these books have hardcore fans throughout the state, with print runs of thousands of copies. And that’s what led to the germination of Blaft and their first book, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol. 1 (2008), which features English translations of short novellas by some of the most prolific and loved authors of Tamil popular fiction. It was followed by a second and third volume as well. Blaft Publications’ paperbacks, priced between Rs 295 and Rs 495, are sold both online, as well as in bookstores. Blaft, however, isn’t only about pulp fiction. It has a huge range of titles such as a quirky collection of black-and-white drawings titled When This Key Sketch Gets Real Tongue is Fork Hen is Cock When This Key Sketch Gets Real My Baby Eagle’s Dream Comes True and Zero Degree, a transgressive novel that probes the wounds of humanity. Today, Blaft focuses on translations of popular regional fiction, indie comics and illustrated stories. In its decade-long existence, Blaft has published around 22 books—its latest,  The Blaft Book of Mizo Myths (which has six short mythological tales from Mizoram) by Cherrie Chhangte, was released last year. Being a small publishing house, however, distribution is a big problem, as large bookstores and fairs are out of reach. Even then, Devadasan finds the vocation rewarding. “Every book that we have brought out, we have worked on it with the author, translator, illustrator and designer. To see our books in somebody’s home or on a shelf in a bookstore is quite an inexplicable feeling,” she says. Publishing quirky literature is what keeps the business partners going. When asked about their survival strategy, Devadasan smiles and says, “We’re hoping a sentient organism from another galaxy will drop a hermetically-sealed glass tube containing the codes/blueprint for publishing success at our door in the near future.” Till then, she says, they will continue to publish what they know best: quirkiness.

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