Some names in Indian publishing are practically brands in their own right, appearing often on books pages and in the features sections. Tejeshwar Singh, my first boss, an academic publisher and gentleman; Mita Kapur, literary agent, writer, organiser of the Thimphu book festival; Pramod Kapoor, canny publisher and bookseller; S Anand, publisher of unusual books on Dalit issues; Thomas Abraham, sales expert and now publisher; Urvashi Butalia, feminist publisher; V K Karthika, seen as an old publishing hand in an aggressive global publisher.
Not often are all these names seen together in one book. That book was One to One: Glimpses of Indian Publishing Industry (Sterling, 2008). It is a collection of interviews by S K Ghai, a publisher and head of the books export promotion body Capexil. Ghai is a likeable, old-fashioned businessman. His company Sterling Publishers does educational books for children. This is a collection of simple Q&As focusing on each subject’s path to and in the books industry. There are very few books on contemporary Indian publishing.
A second collection is just now out, containing more of Ghai’s interviews with more publishing heads. It is called Face to Face with Indian Publishing Professionals (Institute of Book Publishing, 2012). Some of them are, again, known names. Bipin Shah of Mapin, publisher of glossy books on crafts and culture; Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Penguin India; Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha, the children’s and feminist publisher; R K Mehra of Rupa; Rajiv Beri of Macmillan; Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited; T N Shanbhag of Strand Book Stall. That makes seven. The other 20 are not familiar names, largely because they run distribution companies, or publish textbooks, or books in regional languages. But — and not only because they are less well-known — they are extraordinarily interesting.
Arvind Kumar’s family, for instance, owned a publishing house that produced educational titles. They sold books to university and government libraries. Kumar quickly grew disgusted with the corruption in textbook prescription. “I decided to FIGHT,” he says, “and attacked corruption and the corrupt officials through our house journal, Samayik Sahitya, posted every month to eight thousand addresses.”
Shyam Deshpande of Rajhans Publications brings out Marathi books by the dozen; a number of noted modern Marathi writers were first published by him three decade ago.
Sunil Mehta, of Mehta Publishing House, also publishes in Marathi. He was the first to sell “on cash”, not credit, starting in 1986. His sales fell 30 per cent at first — but eventually recovered. Now all Marathi publishers do as he did. Mehta does 460 titles a year, at print runs of 2,000-5,000. This is impressive.
Most interesting is Gandhi Kannadhasan, of the publisher Kannadhasan Pathippagam. His father was a famous Tamil “poet laureate”, and the company rests on the poet’s vast corpus. We hear that the state government’s threatened to nationalise the copyright. Later, G Kannadhasan convinced the government to set up book kiosks at every bus stand, to sell Tamil books. He is working hard, and apparently effectively, to sell Tamil books to the Tamil diaspora.
What happens in English-language publishing we read about every week. What happens in the underdeveloped, ill-supported and insufficiently networked regional language books markets we don’t hear anything about. There are plenty of good business lessons in this collection, from outside the regular fold.