Practical Lessons in Publishing with Thomas Abraham

‘If you want to join the publishing business just for the love of books or reading, becoming a librarian would be a better option.’

With all thy love of reading, smell and sight of books, publishing contrary to popular myths is a business much like any other industry—though with a literary and cultural symbolism attached to it. Our masterclass with Thomas Abraham was as candid as it was entertaining. Thomas focused on the forces that drive the book business around the world.

He began with a sneak peek into his own career—from a highly successful stint in advertising, after studying literature at St Stephen’s College, he ended up publishing the first edition of Limca Book of Records and subsequently forsook the financially rewarding career for a job in academic publishing with Oxford University Press then moved on to Penguin India, and lately, established the Indian chapter of world-renowned publisher Hachette. He shared insights on his personal milestones, for example, Oxford Dictionaries, the Harry Potter series, Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My Way, etc.

One immensely valid point he made was that unlike many Indian brands that attempt to make a mark overseas but don’t succeed, our writers have an indelible influence on the literary sphere across the globe. Indian authors, such as, Amartya Sen, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, among others, have made a huge contribution in the contemporary world of writing. And it’s time we take greater leaps to overcome the limits of borders and markets and promote fresh talent for a larger readership across the world.

Thereafter, Thomas presented a slideshow tracing the evolution of publishing in India: how various indigenous publishing houses and distribution networks were setup, their stories of survival, the later onslaught of the multinational trade publishers like Penguin, HarperCollins, McGraw-Hill, Routledge and Pearson, etc.

Then, the discussion turned to an interesting topic—he spoke about the evolving contemporary market which has had an exponential effect with regard to developing new genres, like the much criticized ‘campus romance’, ‘historical fiction’, etc., which often comprise the best-selling or the more popular titles. At this point, he cautioned that lists cannot be entirely built on what editors personally like or dislike; at times, the editors might have to take on a manuscript even though they may not endorse the genre or the style of writing. In order to strike a balance in the market, one needs to understand that different people have different tastes, and publishers have to cater to readers across the board.

Furthermore, he talked about Hachette’s focus on building new lists, especially with debutant authors, since they are not part of the ‘rat race’ to produce mass-selling commercial fiction, which he reckons may not be profitable in the long run. He shared his ideas on how publishers can negotiate subsidiary rights for films and other media reproductions which are often more profitable than selling printed copies exclusively. Thomas ended the session with an exciting contest! He displayed some of the most iconic covers in the history of publishing and we were asked to identify the titles. The winners would receive their favourite Hachette books as their award! The excitement in the class was palpable . . .

But, above all, we enjoyed knowing about Thomas’ incredible career and his practical views towards publishing and the session turned out to be a great learning experience for all of us.

Parinay Jain

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