Of Sales, Rights and Book Fairs: Masterclasses with Manasi Subramaniam

The role of marketing in the publishing industry in this day and age has become of paramount importance. To delve into the details of this aspect of publishing, we had Manasi Subramaniam, from HarperCollins, over for two masterclasses. Her comprehensive presentation and explanation clarified all the doubts regarding the Indian book market which is the third largest market in the world for English books with a compound annual growth rate of over 30 per cent. The Indian publishing sector has over 19,000 publishers across all languages, including English, producing around 90,000 books a year. The trend does not stop there; India also exports to countries like Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Even countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Oman import books from India.

The selling of rights form a significant part of any publishing house’s agenda. Generating a foreign rights revenue stream is also a good way to garner readership from across the world, Manasi said. Selling rights can occur in India in two ways: one, between the various language (including English) publishers within India, and second, between Indian publishers and foreign publishers. This is an important but challenging process.

Manasi then spoke about book fairs—not the retail events, but the business to business events—where rights, licenses, etc. are traded and publishers make deals. From the publisher’s perspective, she mentioned four main book fairs: the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest and perhaps oldest of the lot; the London Book Fair, the best way to get into the UK market; the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, exclusive but very important for children’s book publishers, and the Book Expo America, by far the most effective way to enter the US market. She elaborated on the two types of visitors that these fairs get: the exhibitor and the trade visitor. Based on the need and capacity of the publisher, they can either have a stand at the book fair or just visit to make deals.

For any publisher, preparing for the book fair is a major part of the process—to select the titles and research territories where those titles can do well, to research potential publishers, whose profiles match the criteria, to buy/sell rights, and thereafter go about creating a shortlist of publishers to meet at the book fair. So, making a catalogue is the first important step for potential dealmakers. A separate rights catalogue is also made, to make deals with the potential buyers of rights. As Manasi put it, ‘A good catalogue is half the job done.’

At the book fair, however, all that publishers get are really brief meetings. In no more than 15–30 minutes, the catalogue and the publisher’s sense of salesmanship come into play in making the deals. Of course, the meetings and follow-ups continue beyond the book fair, till the deal is made on paper and the contract is signed. Thus begins the journey of the book in the real world, in real terms.

Manasi managed to make the topics of sales and rights seem easier than they actually are. We thoroughly enjoyed her sharp, to-the-point presentation and the insightful knowledge that she shared with us. Our queries were met with clarity. And, like all the other masterclasses, these sessions turned out to be great learning opportunities.

Tuhin Roy

Ideas Aplenty: Masterclasses with Ravi Singh

Recalling the Masterclasses we’ve had so far made me realize this little but rather ironic thing—we have embarked on a backward journey across the life of a book. Sessions taught by Jennie Dorny of Éditions du Seuil on rights and contracts; classes discussing iconic French book covers and the publishing industry in France with Laure Leroy of Zulma, Devalina Mookerjee‏’s extensive classes on technical editing—the formative phase and eventually all that serves a book’s purpose—one stage after another, in reverse! What we were looking for next was the foundation of it all. The driving force. The idea that gives birth to a book. It was a surprising coincidence that our Masterclasses with Ravi Singh had exactly that to offer: the idea, and the clarity of it.

Having Ravi Singh over to interact with us was initially a bit intimidating for us, we had already come to know of his experience as a publisher who had worked at Penguin, Aleph and was now with Speaking Tiger. What we didn’t know, apart from his stature, was how calm and serene he was as a person. On the first of two days, poised before a bunch of aspiring editors, he took his time to talk with each of us, trying to know us and the ideas we have, finally zeroing in on an assignment for the following day.

A Fetish for Clarity

Every book is the fruit of an idea: an idea that is clear in terms of research, cost, scope, and the effort it demands. And that is precisely what is required of an editor. The session on the first day with him, for the most part, began with and went about the responsibilities of an editor. An editor, according to him, is ‘an interested, intelligent reader’, who does all that it takes to keep alive the author’s idea, style and voice, as well as the coherence of the content.

Piracy: The Biggest Threat

Ravi holds piracy as the biggest threat to publishing. Books, music, movies and other similar media available on the internet ‘for free’, however accessible, he says, are what kill the efforts of all the people who work to bring them forth. The fact that he had never accessed or used pirated media was a bit of a surprise in the beginning, yet his sound arguments against the concept and his reasons left us with no room for second thoughts.

Calcutta Rains, and Ideas over Coffee

The roads had clogged after a night of ceaseless rain. But we had hardly any idea that it would, very serendipitously, take us to a world book-bugs like us call ‘paradise’. The Seagull Books office. With cookies and coffee to begin with, the second day of our Masterclass with Ravi Singh had a definite purpose. It was aimed at the kind of book we would like to publish, if given a chance. One by one, he listened to our ideas, made notes and made suggestions to help shape and thus transform our coarse ideas into potential plans of action. His experience as a publisher was evident in his patience, in his curiosity to know the driving force behind our ideas, and in his generous guidance to help gain more clarity on the abstract, in this case the idea, which is far more difficult to deal with than the tangible.

An encouraging mentor in a field where experience plays a major role, Ravi’s approach towards publishing, and towards rookies like us, places him a notch higher than many of the present-day publishers.

Muralidar S. Ram

The Business of Books

Among all the Masterclass guests whom we have had the opportunity and privilege to speak to and learn from, Kalpana Shukla is one of the veterans and actively associated with the publishing industry for forty years.

In 1975, Kalpana started her career with Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing, where she worked for eleven years before starting her own publishing house—Knowledge World Publishers (KWP) based in New Delhi.

KWP brings out academic books aimed at the higher-education segment of the book market, with a special focus on Security and Defence Studies. They publish around fifty new academic titles every year, relying primarily on freelancers for copy-editing and proofreading the manuscripts. Editorial coordination, marketing, sales and typesetting are all carried out in-house by a small team of nine.

In her presentation, Kalpana began by giving an overview of the Indian publishing industry: In India, over forty thousand English titles are published every year and it is the third largest market for English language books in the world. These broad strokes set the tone of the class. Kalpana spoke to us as a business strategist and offered us a wider perspective about the publishing practice, what usually falls beyond the purview of editorial and design departments. She emphasized on three personal qualities that one must possess to consider a career in publishing: love for books, entrepreneurial acumen and an intuitive instinct to decipher the quality and value of a manuscript. She also stressed on developing personal skills—of building and sustaining sound professional relationships with all stakeholders such as authors, distributors, book sellers and so on. Kalpana openly reminisced about some of her own sustained relationships, and shared how her big ‘break’ as an independent publisher was in fact the result of a long-term professional relationship.

For many of us who are enamoured by the world of fiction and non-fiction, Kalpana revealed that academic books, especially textbooks for schools and universities, are the most profitable segments of book publishing. Despite the fact that once a book gets prescribed in curriculum, repeated annual print-runs are assured, the academic-book segment is tricky. Bulky print-runs, if not sold, may, at the end of the year, return to the publisher, thus leading to major losses. Having faced one such setback early in her career, Kalpana has introduced the system of print-on-demand at KWP. As a business strategist, she stresses on objectively understanding the demand and, accordingly, keeping the supply realistic.

Kalpana also emphasizes on timely collection of payments. And, according to her, only a good working relationship with distributors and sellers can ensure timely collections. What also keeps KWP stable is Kalpana’s openness to look at change positively. She feels that the growing popularity of digital media is a great opportunity. She predicts that textbooks in e-format will be the next big step. However, she is confident and convinced that printed books will stay, come what may, even if the demand may dwindle a little.

In understanding KWP’s business model, the uniqueness of their original list of nuclear-science and security-and-defence titles cannot be overlooked. Kalpana holds it most important for any publishing start-up to carve out a niche in the market with a well-defined and unique list. She insists that the distinctness of a list along with a credible authorship can do wonders in the long term. Talking further about lists, she informs that in addition to promising new titles, a publishing house substantially profits from back list(s)—titles published in previous years. These titles, if marketed well, can bring recognition.

Amid all the discussion and learning about the business of books, two sociological observations also emerged.

1) Indian publishing has only recently (‘within the last decade’) begun to accept women in key roles. Kalpana’s own struggles as a woman publisher have involved having to confront and overcome numerous challenges of patriarchy, foremost among which has been an underestimation of her business acumen on grounds of her gender. In response, Kalpana has simply ignored all the gender stereotypes imposed on her and has focused firmly on her goals.

2) The reason(s) that led Daryaganj, New Delhi, to become the hub of the publishing activity. According to Kalpana, Daryaganj owes its success to its proximity to conducive infrastructure:  Inter-State Bus Terminus, North Campus of Delhi University, and Chawri Bazaar—a wholesale market of paper. Daryaganj, even if ‘becoming filthier by the day’, still remains the hub also because of a large presence of book retailers and distributors, which means that even in the age of Amazon and Flipkart, a seller might literally come running to her office to buy copies of a particular book.

Kalpana’s class was full of insights gathered over a career stretching four decades, offering us a much-needed glimpse of the realities of the publishing business. The timing of this class was appropriate too. Scheduled after the classes on academic and technical editing, this overview helped take our attention from the service end of the spectrum to the business end.

It was enriching, definitely. And a rare privilege.

Thank you, Kalpana. Thank you, Seagull.

Jitendra Arora

Backstories: Masterclass with Urvashi Butalia

What do bicycle stores have to do with editorial competence and what have swimming and surfing got to do with a Fulbright scholarship?

A simple Google search will tell you that Urvashi Butalia started out on her publishing career as an editor at the Oxford University Press, Delhi; that she taught a course in book publishing at Delhi University; that she joined Zed Books, London, in 1982, and that she returned to India, in 1984, to co-found Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house. What these web searches lack are the generous, hope-instilling backstories. The unbelievable—unthinkable even—remarkably funny events that resulted in something unforeseeably wonderful. In a way, that’s what our Masterclass with Urvashi was about—the unheard incidents that go into making great stories. Imagine children clustered around a storyteller, listening with awe to tales of wonder and adventure and bravery, of overcoming odds and learning lessons, with generous dollops of wisdom that only experience can bestow. ‘I’ve been in publishing longer than most of you’ve spent living,’ she began! Sitting around the table, with coffee, biscuits, and few interjections, Urvashi told us stories, and it was one of those rare occasions when the true story is even more strange and exciting than the wild rumours.

Urvashi had joined publishing as an editor—‘a glorified paster-upper’—at Oxford University Press. At a time when the British publishing houses in India were trying to Indianize English textbooks and little boys and girls with blonde hair and blue eyes on paper were being turned into boys and girls with black hair and brown eyes, Urvashi’s job was to rechristen, with precisely measured paper strips and movable glue, these newly transformed Johns and Marys to the equally imaginative Rams and Sitas for a textbook series called Active English. Where did she get this movable glue—the rubber solution found in bicycle stores.

Our jaws dropped and we could only exchange looks of incredulity when she said that, during a stopover at London, she had decided to give up her Fulbright PhD scholarship to Hawaii for a ‘ratpataa old office’ and ‘sunbathing loony editors’ she’d always admired. They had convinced her that Hawaii was pointless if one didn’t know how to swim or surf! It was at the ratpataa old office, working on the Women and Gender list of Zed Books, that Urvashi worked out her plans to set up her own Indian feminist publishing house—Kali.

Urvashi spoke to us about what it means to be a niche publisher and the multitude of challenges that shadow independent publishing. When she and Ritu Menon co-founded Kali, they worked out of an empty garage and with no pay. Day jobs and ‘jugaad’ were necessary to keep Kali afloat. While money was a huge problem, there were two greater problems—prejudice and scepticism. And so, the task of building a list and finding authors to write for them was compounded by having to instill confidence in their potential authors and convincing them that what they had to say mattered and was worth being published and read; that the existing market did not, in any way, render their stories less ‘serious’; that there didn’t need to be just one ‘acceptable’ variety of writing; and, there would be a market for their writing, if not then, eventually.

Hardship does not only build character; it also adds up to a lifetime supply of stories to pick and tell from. Being an Indian publisher is its own reward too. It may mean going to the author’s house to wake her up with a mug of black coffee, and hounding her to write. And it may mean doing this for nine years. But it’s worth when what’s yielded is The History of Doing. It entails doing a title like Sharir ki Jaankaari, which can attract a readership beyond the elite, a project that can lead to a search for women binders in Daryaganj—as it will have never seen the light of day in the hands of young male book binders. It’s almost like charting your baby’s progress, marking notches on the wall for every centimetre of growth. It means nudging your book along by buying it at full price when seen for the first time at an airport bookshelf, and ensuring that you talk up the author and the publisher to the man at the counter! And it means taking heart in the fact that there is a support group out there rooting for you. All this besides editing, of course.

She gave some fantastic advice on things to watch out for while editing fiction and generously shared instances and anecdotes from experience. She spoke of becoming a Partition-story-tracker, of old havelis in Lahore and khaas paanwalas, of anger that wins the tug of war forty years later, of needing a friend to lighten the weight in the throat from listening to Partition stories, of the story of R, whose truth she’s spent years tracking but not written yet.

Urvashi spoke openly of the fear that independent publishers have of trying to reconcile themselves to the purpose of their existence once their work becomes mainstream, once their authors go to bigger houses, of their own sustainability. She also spoke of the conundrum of marginalization and integration—being alternative and struggling to be mainstream, and once mainstream, struggling to remain alternative—a struggle that never lets up.

Over the years though, seeing big houses move from scepticism to realizing the potential for a market, Urvashi says, therein lies the independent publisher’s purpose of existence—in having changed the playing field. The independent, she says, might be bought by a big house. Or might continue to be independent, perhaps dying a slow death, but dying in a blaze of glory. It is precisely (the possibility of) this death that reaffirms and justifies their work, lends meaning to their being alive in the first place.

————————————————————————————————————————-Here’s one of the best things I’ve heard on resolve and steely determination, from Urvashi Butalia: ‘When I have to do something, I have to talk myself into it. I talk and talk and talk and talk until it becomes embarrassing not to do it.’

Purnima Mahesh

A Visit to the Jadavpur University Press

On the last day of our classes on technical editing, we went to visit the Jadavpur University Press to get an idea of how a university press functions. Upon reaching the Jadavpur University premises, which was buzzing with youthful energy, Dr Devalina Mookerjee (our instructor for the past week on technical editing) introduced us to her colleague, Dr Abhijit Gupta, director of the JUP. Both of them were very welcoming and made us feel at ease.

Dr Gupta talked to us about the various kinds of books that the JUP publishes. Apart from scholarly research and translations, JUP’s effort towards restoring and publishing rare and old manuscripts is really commendable. They talked to us about some of their recent books such as Essays on Half-Tone Photography by Upendrakishore Raychowdhury, which is a collection of rare essays put together in a single volume for the first time and Five Thousand Mirrors: The Water Bodies of Kolkata by Mohit Ray. Dr Gupta also spoke to us about the paucity of funds, the initial struggles with the press, problems that come with publishing Bengali books—mostly due to the use of outdated technology—and their vision of becoming an independent press some day.

Dr Mookerjee talked to us about two of JUP’s latest projects that include the translation of Dante’s Inferno and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore into Bengali. Dr Mookerjee encourages students to explore their creativity. The press is also involved in fun and creative sessions with students. I noticed that a lot of the students’ works have been used to decorate the press. Despite limited manpower, massive workload and deadlines, the workplace at the JUP is well maintained. In an attempt to explore newer pastures, the press is also planning, in partnership with HarperCollins India, to publish graphic novels. JUP has already received brilliant submissions from the students at the university. I was completely awestruck by some of the illustrations!

Towards the end of the session I still found myself admiring the book covers. It was the perfect end to the week-long technical editing classes.

Kritika Mahanti

Masterclass on Technical Editing with Devalina Mookerjee

It takes someone as competent and enthusiastic as Devalina Mookerjee to make seven days of academic and technical editing a stimulating and rewarding experience. This module had all the potential of being a boring one, full of dry academic texts and painstaking untangling of references, but Devalina turned it into a productive, informative and immensely useful series of sessions which we all enjoyed thoroughly. She believes that ‘A piece of text is infinitely perfect-able’ and showed us, in seven days, the practical and systematic way of doing that. It summed up much of what we’ve learnt at Seagull over the past two months and effectively dispelled any apprehensions we might have had.

One of the best things about Devalina’s classes was her hands-on approach. She brought in samples of different kinds of academic texts—literature, social sciences and management—to give us a taste of what editing in these different subject areas entails. In class, by way of assignments, we worked through these texts—fishing out coherent ideas from the marshes of convoluted writing, hunting down missing punctuation marks and stringing the components of the text together to form a comprehensive whole. As we went through the texts line by line and figure by figure, Devalina gave us little nuggets of wisdom gained from years of experience in this field which included keeping the target audience in mind, giving priority to coherence and cohesion, and to deal with tables and diagrams separately. She encouraged us to think about the issues in the text and come up with solutions on our own, however with the assurance that she was around to help us out when we got stuck.

We had a couple of theory classes interspersed with the practical sessions in which Devalina distilled all that we had inductively learnt into a set of general guidelines. She reminded us that academic and technical editing is different from editing in general because it relies heavily on accuracy; claims must be adequately supported by facts and figures. Among the many information in the theory classes, four points really stood out in light of the practical editing work we had done:

  • the importance of checking the validity of claims through data triangulation,
  • the need to remember that not everything interesting is relevant to the text,
  • the precedence that should be given to signposts and linkers, and finally,
  • the uncluttering of academic language when required.

Words, Devalina told us, are just ideas that are dressed up, and it is the editor’s responsibility to correctly identify the essence of the idea and present it in its simplest and most accessible form. There is no room for ambiguity in academic texts since clarity is the bottom line, and anything redundant, obscure or faulty has to be modified or removed.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Devalina’s classes was her willingness to listen to all our doubts and ideas, correct us when required and tell us very clearly but gently, exactly why she thought we were wrong. Though she did intimidate us at first with her stern instructions (she laughed when we told her this on the last day and confessed that she was just feeling her ground!), we quickly realized that she is extremely approachable, helpful and always ready to crack a joke or laugh at one of ours. Her enthusiasm and passion for what she does were evident and infectious, and we were left wanting for more.

Roopa Leonard

Joie de livres—Masterclass by Laure Leroy

For years, the death of the print medium has been prophesied over and over again. With the arrival of the e-book, this prophecy seems to be looming large, more than ever, over our heads. Then you meet someone like Laure Leroy, still so genuinely invested in the tactility and the ergonomics of the physical book, still so enamoured by the power of transformation of good literature, and all your worst nightmares are put to rest.

What comes across, above all else, is her fervent and almost hopeless love for ‘good literature’. She says, ‘It’s like this huge crush or like falling in love, over and over again.’ And it is these visceral and all-too-real feelings that she harbours for the books that fuel her seemingly never-ending source of energy when she runs a publishing house like Zulma—in existence since 1991, in France.

Laure is quick to talk about her mistakes, forthcoming about her failures and extremely humble narrating her innumerable success stories. To us, she came across as an unassuming, warm French lady whose eyes would light up through her sea-green rimmed glasses each time she spoke of a manuscript she had discovered, almost lost in the many that find their way to Zulma.

She went on to talk about how she receives hundreds of manuscripts on her desk these days—but the small team at the publishing house doesn’t publish more than twelve books a year. It is something they learned after trying to publish every book that excited them, which meant some years they were publishing more than 50 books, a Herculean task for a team of six people. They are also keenly aware of what kind of books they want to publish—French translations of exciting world literature as well as original French literature.

Over the course of two days, the conversation with Laure Leroy swept fluidly across various subjects—entrepreneurship, willingness to take risks, aesthetics, the many joys of reading, book cover design, list building and more. Two of them particularly appealed to the editor in me, and I’ll just summarize what must have been two hours of discussion.

Editorial responsibilities
As newbie editors, I think it’s quite easy to feel high and mighty when you’re wielding the red pen, ready to slash open someone else’s work, leaving a slash here, a poke there. Laure constantly reminded us that the job of an editor—first and foremost—is to preserve the voice of the author. The author is the artist. ‘Ask the author what his/her book is about. Keep the conversation going at all times,’ she said. As editors, we urged to understand the logic of the flow of the book. Everything in the book is useful to the telling of the story; how it is arranged and presented is what ultimately makes or breaks a book—and that’s where the editor steps in. ‘All the reading you’ll ever do is preparing you to become an editor—read more, ever more.’

Pattern-based covers
The French love their minimalist and repetitive book covers. And while Zulma sticks to a strict code of design, compare it to their competitors and colleagues in the French publishing world, and you’ll find that their books are a riot of dazzling colours and patterns (thanks to their go-to designer David Pearson), and will stand out on any bookshelf, France or anywhere else. Zulma covers do a little more than just managing to tease you with very little information about the book, in effect letting the book and its blurb do the actual talking, while gently drawing the reader in; the covers must at the same time scream ‘Zulma’, and stand out as individual entities. French and world authors get similar covers, thereby indicating that literature is one, no matter where it comes from.

Having Laure over at the Seagull School of Publishing was nothing short of a morale boost that most of us probably needed, just when we were beginning to dread the uphill ride that’s in store for us as we begin our editing careers. ‘Nothing comes to you if you don’t give it a good fight,’ she said. And fight, we will.

Shyama Krishna Kumar