The death of a book

13 February,2022 09:12 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Jane Borges

With Amazon announcing the closure of publishing house Westland, authors whose books had barely reached readers, are going out on a limb to save their books from being pulped

Kitab Khana in Fort has dedicated an entire shelf for Westland titles. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Last week was devastating for poet-writer-illustrator Sharanya Manivannan. Like many authors of Westland Books, she remembers struggling to process the news of parent company Amazon India shutting down the publishing house by March 31. Her graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, published by Westland's Context imprint, is a newborn. Released on December 27, 2021, in the throes of the third wave, Manivannan says she was fortunate to have found a home for this book, and its accompanying children's title Mermaids in the Moonlight - published exactly a year ago. "I did struggle to place these books earlier. But, I am so grateful that Amazon Westland took a risk to publish two full-colour illustrated books that are expensive to produce, and in genres that are not necessarily popular, during the pandemic. I had the opportunity of working with two different editors [Vidhi Bhargava and Ajitha GS] and a fabulous design team [Saurabh Garge and Niranjan Mishra] keen on detail. I knew my book was being cared for," she says over a telephone call.

All through her writing career, Manivannan has wanted to talk about Batticaloa, her native in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. "Both my books, which are companion titles, are inspired by the mermaid motif that can be found everywhere in this region. But, there was no folklore around it. Intrigued by that, I had started researching the absence of stories, and in the process discovered a lot about my culture, which was healing for someone like me from the Sri Lankan-Tamil diaspora," she adds. Westland's closure will be both, a "creative and personal tragedy" for her.

Gautam S Mengle's crime thriller Intersections, published in October 2020 with Westland, at Title Waves, Bandra. The debut author says the book gave him the much-needed boost, when his career had briefly seemed on shaky ground. "With the third wave receding, I was planning to reach out to Westland, to see if there was a possibility of doing at least one physical event." Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

Chennai-based Manivannan remembers experiencing "several days of grief" after she received an official email from her editors confirming the development. "When we publish books, we almost assume that they'll have long lives, and that over time, people will discover them, or that they will find a place in libraries. That hope has almost vanished for us."

Westland Books started out as Affiliated East West Press, a distributor of books, back in 1962, before getting into publishing. It was acquired by the Tatas in 2013 and later, by Amazon in 2017. The publishing house currently has a range of imprints, including East-West, Traquebar, Context, Eka, Red Panda, Westland Non-Fiction, Westland Sport and Westland Business.

Sharanya Manivannan has been using her social media to spread awareness about how readers can support Westland authors

Mumbai journalist Gautam S Mengle who published his debut crime thriller, Intersections, in October 2020 with Westland, says the book had given him the much-needed boost, when his career had briefly seemed on shaky ground. "Despite the pandemic, Westland did everything to promote it across all virtual platforms and at online literary festivals. What I regret is not having a physical launch that would've given it some visibility. I wasn't even able to have a book signing. Sales were bound to be affected," he says. With the second Coronavirus infection wave and the concomitant lockdowns, Mengle says there was little he could do. "But, I was hopeful about 2022. With the third wave receding, I was planning to reach out to Westland, to see if there was a possibility of doing at least one physical event. Then, I got the email…It was definitely heartbreaking. The first book and first publisher are always special. This is not how I'd want it to end."

There's a practical side of you that kicks in, in any kind of grief. Even though I was going through that, I thought about the catalogue. I felt impacted not just as an author, but also as a reader," shares Manivannan, who has for the last few days, been using her social media handles to spread awareness about how readers can support Westland authors. As things currently stand, Westland's backlist titles (list of books published before the current season and still in print) will be available till February 28, while the just released books will be available till March 31. Manivannan and several other authors have been encouraging readers to buy from independent bookstores like Bookworm, Storyteller and Dog Ears, which are currently delivering across India. Foreign bookstores can also place orders, at least for a brief time - Manivannan says that February 15 is the last date that bookstores can place orders for their final stock. Authors have also been encouraging readers who know of local or public libraries to donate Westland titles to these institutions, before they are out of print.

Guwahati-based Akshita Ajitsariya, a reader, who is currently interning as an editorial assistant with a publishing house, says, "When I first heard the news, I couldn't get it out of my head, especially because I was beginning my career in publishing. I was thinking about the fate of writers, issues related to saleability of books, and our actions as readers." On the spur, the 22-year-old started an initiative "to help Westland titles reach more readers and foster the reading atmosphere the books intend to do". She is using her Instagram to get readers to contribute Westland titles to a public library, Marwari Hindi Pustakalaya, in Guwahati. Her target is to raise a donation of at least R10,000. "Through this entire process, I've realised that a book is always incomplete without its reader; so many people have came forward to support this initiative."

Sridala Swami's collection of poetry, Run For The Shadows, published by the Context imprint of Westland Books, launched on December 20. While she had a virtual launch recently, Swami says that she hasn't seen a single person hold a copy of her book, except for her family. The book has been seven years in the making. "It was Karthika VK [publisher, Westland] who first reached out to me, asking if I had a manuscript. For me, that was such a big deal," remembers Swami.

Swami, who has two other published works, says that the support on social media has been overwhelming. "But, it should not take a crisis of this kind, for a book to find its readers," she feels. "The book should have been discovered at poetry readings, or on a bookshelf, where a reader chanced upon it. [With what is happening right now] we are compressing the lifetime of the book. I never saw myself trying to sell the entire print run [of my collection] in less than a month-and-a-half, out of sheer panic. A lot of work has gone into the making of this book. To have it disappear in two months is tragic."

Swami says she doesn't know what will happen to the unsold copies yet. "My publishers have told me that their priority right now is to ensure that none of the copies are pulped, and that the book reaches as many readers as possible. Should any copies be left, I'd hopefully be able to buy them back."

Bookstores in Mumbai too, have been doing their bit to facilitate the sale of Westland titles. Fr Francisco Thazhathel, director, Title Waves in Bandra, says that their distributor had told them that they could return unsold Westland books to them before February 15. "But, we intend to keep the books on our shelves till the final verdict comes out. Westland Books are popular among our readers. As a retailer, I think the publishing house deserves every chance, and should survive. Things uncertain at this point, so it's best not to speculate."

Fort's Kitab Khana has dedicated an entire shelf to Westland titles. Chief Operating Officer T Jagath says that in the last one week, the reading community has been going all out to show support to authors from the publishing house. "Sales have picked up in a big way," he says. "We have reached out to Westland to share their entire catalogue with us, and we are doing our best to get all titles to our readers." According to Jagath, Westland's non-fiction titles have been doing exceptionally well, and it would be unfortunate to see them go out of print.

Anish Chandy, founder of Labyrinth Literary Agency says that it's an uncertain period not just for new and recently-published authors, but also for those whose books have been out there for a while. "It's a complex situation. If the books are to migrate to another publisher, it would depend on the genre, author profile, sales history and if there was prior interest from other publishers in the work. So, naturally, most authors are apprehensive," he says, adding that at present it's mostly non-fiction that's doing well. What everyone is hoping for is that an acquirer for Westland emerges. "This will be good, not just from an author's perspective, but also from an ‘industry health' perspective."

Westland's recent popular titles

. The Silent Coup: A History of India's Deep State by Josy Joseph
. Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India by Rukmini S
. Modi's India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy by Christophe Jaffrelot
. Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India's First Women in Medicine by Kavitha Rao
. Price of the Modi Years by Aakar Patel

. Qabar by KR Meera; translated by Nisha Susan
. Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed
. Hellfire by Leesa Gazi; translated by Shabnam Nadiya
. Delhi: A Soliloquy by M Mukundan; translated by Fathima EV Nandakumar K
. Funeral Nights by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih

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