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


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