Our first acquaintance with Dr Petra Christine Hardt, rights director at Suhrkamp Verlag, the esteemed German publishing house, was through her book Rights: Buying, Protecting, Selling published by Seagull Books. Having met Jennie Dorny previously, ‘rights’ was no longer a really scary term for us but more knowledge on that was definitely welcome. Who better to impart that knowledge than the rights director of a publishing house that has published some of the greatest names in Social Sciences and World Literature and has been buying and selling rights for decades?
Dr Hardt took us through the Suhrkamp journey, right from the time when Siegfried Unseld and Peter Suhrkamp started the publishing house. Suhrkamp has a backlist of 9,000 titles and approximately 1,500 of them are available as e-books and the books have been translated into more than 101 languages. They have published Herman Hesse, Walter Benjamin, Jurgen Habermas, Thomas Bernhard, Paul Celan, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz and many others.
First and foremost, the duty of the rights department is to protect the authors, she asserted. According to her, copyright is essential to generate income for the author, the creator of a work and the publishing house, which contributes in making that work accessible as a book. Intellectual property needs to be protected. Dr Hardt said that if a publishing house has rights for all editions then there is more scope for creativity. She spoke in detail about buying and selling rights, highlighting the major points of a contract like duration, language, region, edition, etc. We learnt about the various kinds of rights that a publisher can buy—print, media, digital, translation and more. Suhrkamp sells around 500 translation rights every year.
On the subject of e-books, Dr Hardt mentioned that according to her, within the next few years ebooks will replace a lot of the paperback collection. She also feels that there will be an increasing demand for bound books, as people will want to own an e-version for reading on the go and a bound version for their home library. This brings to mind a thought that many of the visiting publishers expressed—that to survive, the hardbacks and paperbacks need to be beautiful as objects. In India, unlike in the foreign countries we are yet to see everyone in the bus or metro reading from their Kindle or ipad. This allows us the luxury of believing that the day when e-books will become a threat to physical books, is not of immediate concern. Nevertheless, it is a reality that one can’t ignore. She said that back home, she tells her colleagues to work on preparing an e-book catalogue, not later but ‘now’, with 1,500 titles in the e-book format, a catalogue is needed. We learnt that with new books, creating an e-book is easier but converting an old book into the e-format is a much more expensive process.
Perhaps, the most important thing that we as students have learnt from her is the importance of widening one’s horizons and being aware and excited about what’s happening in the world of publishing in different countries. She said that translation into English is what excites many authors the most, but there are other languages too! She spoke enthusiastically about the East-European nations, about the market in Japan, China and Korea, about the publishing industry in countries like Brazil, the scenario in Scandinavian countries. One has to look beyond America and Europe too. She is now exploring the African market and intends to know more about it very soon. She was not ready to accept that an independent publisher cannot go beyond his or her own nation, according to her they should visit book fairs and reach out to other publishers. She believes that even in the age of e-mails and Skype, nothing can beat a personal conversation. She believes that with patience and perseverance every barrier can be overcome, one should get the funds, one should concentrate on building a good backlist and then reach out to the world. She agrees that it takes time and that it is difficult, but it is possible.
Dr Hardt believes that India which has ‘more people’ can do much more. The world outside is interested in our literature but to reach out is ‘your job’, said she. She cited Seagull Books as the perfect example—a publishing house from Calcutta reaching out to the rest of the world.
To instil within us the confidence to reach out to publishers with our own unique content, she urged us to present proposals for our favourite books to her. This generated great excitement and a bit of nervousness. But the following day’s discussion about our projects was a rewarding experience. Students presented proposals of various authors and Dr Hardt discussed each one in great detail with valuable suggestions. She ended her session on a high note by saying that one thing that publishers should never have in this business is ‘doubt’—‘You should have no doubt about your author.’