Look who's taking big steps!
An impressive showing at one of India’s biggest book awards, eclectic author lists and smart, lean structures. The indie publisher is slowly, but surely climbing up the ladder to make an indelible impact on the country’s publishing industry
In 2010 when I assisted in curating the literature segment of the Kalaghoda Arts Festival in the city, I got to observe independent publishers up close. Big publishers had large teams on the ground while independents like Blaft came dragging their big suitcase of books and did all the work themselves; Radhika Menon of Tulika escorted her authors and interacted with the crowd. The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction and English translations of Surender Mohan Pathak’s books (both Indie titles) were my best purchases that year.
By definition, independent/indie publishers are independent of the major conglomerates that dominate the book publishing industry; as Asad Zaidi of Three Essays Collective puts it, “Historically, all publishing was by default independent publishing. Big bad capital developed an interest in it only in 19th century, after the considerable expansion of readership and emergence of a large public sphere.”
In addition to Kali, Tulika, Zubaan, Tara and Ravi Dayal, the recent years have seen a spate of new indie houses (publishing in English). Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar, stalwarts in children’s publishing started Duckbill; Basu says, “Anushka and I were very clear about the kinds of books we thought should be in existence, and which we would love to publish. And we talked about this for many years before we signed an MOU with an investor in May 2012; our first books were published in October 2012.” Arpita Das was working with Oxford University Press India as commissioning editor, History/ Philosophy/Religion when she decided to start her firm; Yoda Press.
Zafar Anjum founded Kitaab in 2005, as a platform to track and celebrate Asian writing in English; now Kitaab has ventured into publishing of formats (short stories) that mainstream publishers show little interest in. Asad Zaidi started Three Essays Collective in 2002: “I realised I would soon turn 50, and there was this great Muktibodhian question before me: ‘Ab tak kya kiya? Jivan kya jiya?’ ”
Passion among pages
The indie lists are a reflection of the owner-publisher’s interests and passion; the editorial and production values of some books are almost works of art. Translations from regional literature, strong feminist voices, LGBT literature, travelogues, memoirs, cookbooks, short stories and essays on a multitude of social issues and more — indie publishers have developed enviable content. Impressively, four of the five children’s titles at the Crossword Book Award Shortlist for 2015 were from indie publishers (three from Duckbill and one from SWPB).
Unfortunately, most indie published titles never receive prominence — on bookshelves, in online stores as recommendations, or even in media. As Anjum puts it, “The drawbacks of being an independent publisher are the drawbacks of being a startup: no financial back up, distribution issues, and hardly any budgets to market your books.” Das rues, “The issue is to stay afloat after paying massive discounts to distributors.”
Not having deep pockets translates into smaller, lean teams that handle everything from editorial to printing and distribution. It also means fewer resources to invest in PR and marketing of books and authors. Big corporate houses have the financial muscle, and as Zaidi states, “(Media) coverage has to be begged, people shamelessly courted, indirectly bought. Independents can’t afford all this without getting into useless compromises.”
Independent all the way
Indie publishers may publish a diverse set of books, but they all have one thing in common — tremendous passion, and a sense of having made a difference. Das recalls, “My heart burst with pride when in 2014, the landmark Supreme Court judgment recognising transgenders in India cited four Yoda Press titles.”
Basu sums it up, “The character of Philip Henslowe in the film Shakespeare in Love says repeatedly, ‘I don’t know. It is a mystery.’ I don’t know what will sell; as an independent publisher each small success is seen as vindication of our choices — though we do not feel the need for vindication except on dark sale-less days, but it is a nice word to use!”
>> Feminists and Science: Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India; edited by Sumi Krishna and Gita Chadha, Stree Samya
>> The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories by Anu Kumar, Kitaab
>> Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India; edited by Arvind Narain and Gautam Bhan
>> The Deadly Royal Recipe by Ranjit Lal, Duckbill
>> Of Gardens and Graves, Essays on Kashmir I, Poems in Translation by Suvir Kaul, Three Essays Collective
>> Being Boys, by various authors, Tulika Publishers
>> The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers by Mike Masilamani, Tara Books
>> Drawing The Line: Indian Women Fight Back; edited by Larissa Bertonasco, Ludmilla Bartscht and Priya Kuriyan, Zubaan
5 smart mantras of the indie publisher
Lean: On an average, an indie publisher releases 8-10 books every year. The big publishing houses may release up to 300 titles every year, through their various imprints, but only 10-20 survive the first edition. The rest are sold somehow and/or abandoned. In contrast, the small indie lists mean that each book gets its fair share of attention. According to Das, “Independent publishers with their individual driven, high-quality publishing stand a good chance to get tremendous publicity — we have always had great success with book reviews and social media.”
Nimble: Zaidi explains, “Independents are quicker on their feet, can take personal care for each title, from pre-production and production stage, to marketing and selling.” Since the decision-making structure is fairly flat, indie publishers can modify their lists at short notice; they also retain complete freedom on the kind of books they want to publish. When they began operations, Yoda Press focused on issues that big publishers did not favour; in response to the growth in the Indian market, they launched their trade list with titles on travel, food and memoir in 2011. Three Essays Collective has added anthologies and free-form analyses to their repertoire.
Author friendly: While Kitaab is focusing on relatively unknown authors to develop talent, well-known authors publish with both Indie and big publishers. Author Natasha Sharma swears by Duckbill, “Anushka and Sayoni throw all their weight behind each book. I am as appreciative, if not more, of them shredding paper by the bagfuls for an activity at a book reading as I am of their figuring out where to find money for promotional material. I enjoy being able to voice my opinion on different aspects of the book’s creation.” According to Anuradha Kumar, who publishes (among others) with Hachette, Kitaab and Three Essays Collective, “Indie publishers take more risks and encourage radical writing by newer writers. The rewards are motivating and always inspiring.”
Collective action: The formation of IPD Alternatives (by few indie publishers) helped ease distribution. Yoda Press and Three Essays Collective are members of this, and Zaidi asserts, “Similar forums should flourish. IPD Alternatives are the main distributors of our books, have a presence in the market and have allowed us more time to pay attention to our editorial tasks.” Zubaan has an arrangement with Penguin India for a joint list of four titles a year; Zubaan retains editorial control and Penguin has production and marketing controls. (Some Indie publishers did not think it was a model they wanted to adopt.)
Using Technology: According to Anjum, “Technology could be a great leveler because what is available to big companies is also available to smaller companies. Think of Uber (taxi business) and airbnb (hotel business). Ten years ago, you had to buy IT systems that needed major investment. Now, you can get almost any IT system on a pay-per-use model, which is great for independent publishers.” Also, Print on Demand books and ebooks ease costs and inventory.