Innovative Publishing

Meditations on being an independent publisher

‘I am here to talk about that which defies the logic of the marketplace. This oh so very impractical way of being a publisher.’

There are many ways a child will come to learn his mother’s tongue. The language of birth. Spoken from a far off place while the protective cocoon of the womb holds it secure but allows it to listen. Every murmur. Every whisper finds its way to the child’s heart through its yet to be formed ears.

Later it will hear. Before it begins to speak.

I first learned the language my mother spoke on her lap. More specifically in Kashmir. Even more precisely while I slept. In fact, the first words that reached me were not spoken words. They were sung. I heard songs. As murmurs. As whispers. As lullabies. As language that soothes. And invites the welcoming night to a child’s tired eyes. That it may sleep and rest. These were the night sounds. The ones that lulled me to sleep.

The morning song was different. It had a baser timbre to it. A fine deep throated song that flowed effortlessly from my father’s throat. Not directed at me. This was something he did. He sang. While he dressed for work. It wasn’t a mere hum. It was popular music of the time. It was Kundan Lal Saigal’s ghazals; CH Atma; Talat; Suriya, Noor Jahan. It was the songs that heroes and heroines of the black and white era sang to each other expressing emotions of love and anger and happiness and sorrow and despair and heartache and joy and devotion and war and famine birth and death and just about every emotion known to mankind. He seemed to know them all.

Later. The film folk from Bombay discovered Kashmir. My father as assistant manager and host at the Oberoi Palace would invite the Kishore Kumars, the Talats, the Nargis and Sunil Dutts, the Padmini and Ragini sisters, the Raj Kapoors, the Simis, to his humble quarters at the foot of the hill just above the hotel’s rooms and vast lawns. My mother’s tomato pulao, kheer and gajar ka halwa had been discovered by the visiting stars, who would relax after a hard day’s shoot and happily unwind and make themselves at home. Sitting on mats and eating from thalis the evenings would begin and end in song. Singing soirees at home.

Sleeping in her lap. Comfortable. Secure. Drifting back to memories of a time before I was born. I would listen from afar even as I fell into deep sleep.

Years later I would remember the ghazal and the songs. More importantly. I would hum the tunes. Later. Much later I would begin to speak Hindi and Punjabi and bits of Urdu.

Even later, the nuns of St Presentation Convent would take me into their charge and teach me a whole new language.

English.

II

The dailyness of writing is vital. It is far more important than waiting for an ideal moment of inspiration. To wait for the thunderbolt to strike may take a lifetime. If you wish to write you must not await some kind of “divine” intervention. Flashes of brilliance are great. As is inspiration. When it arrives unexpectedly. But you have to work every day at your craft before anything close to a decent sentence will emerge. You must write even when you are not inspired. Word after word. Jumping as it were from stone to stone with the hungry mouths of alligators snapping at your heels. What you must remember is that language, text, words aren’t going to be patient with you. They will not wait to emerge when you are ready. You have to persuade, cajole, even force them to reveal themselves. Every single day of your writing life.

Later, much later, when you revisit these “uninspired” words you will be grateful because they will be crisp, clear, sharp and loaded with new meaning.

III

It isn’t about size. Or the scale. It is about the choice. The instinct that allows you to take the risk to step outside the structures the world of corporate publishing has so magnificently set up. And publish books that in your opinion need to be read. To find readers who must exist. Despite being warned. Told otherwise. The thing about good sense is that it allows you to chose the meaning you wish to attribute to the phrase. Let me explain. Most folks will tell you that good sense dictates you don’t take risks no matter how calculated. But good sense is also about the sharp gut feeling that makes you do the books that make sense to you and make you feel good.

Independence. The right of choice to do what you want to and not always be dictated by the market and so called target audiences. Target readers out there is a myth. No one can know for certain what people will read. It is always after the “event” of the book being bought and read that you get wise. Not before that. And often the wisdom makes you slip into what can sympathetically be called the mainstream. That which others before you have done. With apparent success. Success that they can replicate. At will. With figures to back them up. Formulae and the familiar formulas of success. If you do this this this and this you will have a bestseller. So do it. Multiply your selves. And your profits. It is perfectly acceptable and in all probability the correct thing to do.

Often the same wisdom winks back at you and asks “What if you throw me out of the window and let your good sense prevail?” That feeling at the base of your tummy. Let it rise and envelop you. Do the thing you want. Not a question of the right thing. Or its opposite. The wrong thing. Just the thing that clearly must be done. Because. Well. Because someone has to so it may as well be you. The independent publisher.

IPs thrive on relationships. With authors and content to begin with. Interconnected clearly. With other publishers and related communities. With cultures as wide apart as your average ocean. With readers equally wide spread. And invisible. Till they chose to show themselves. But to make them do this you need to have books they can relate to. Because no one is parting with their so called emotional truths before the event. Before you unveil the books your instinct has related to in the first place. Books that you have nurtured into making tangible. Books that you have bet your life on. Not once. But each time you publish. You know the phrase “going out on a limb”. Well if you want to be independent get used to building a camp on that limb. That way you can stay on it. In perpetuity.

Image credit: Naveen Kishore
Image credit: Naveen Kishore

IV

Instead. Of opening up possibilities. We set up nation-states that ghettoise the book. Make it a commodity. To be hounded. Chased to the ground. Bought. And sold across territories. Across languages. Like literary slaves.

I guess what I am attempting to express is that in this. Our world. Of publishing. Too much time. Energy. Money is spent. On creating structures that ultimately box us in.

And yet. These precise boundaries do melt. And blur. When so many emotions springing. From what you do. And what we do. The way you do them. The way we do them. The tingle and the excitement of the words we find. Translate secure bind in the nicest possible manner. For a community of interested readers who don’t really know. Or if they did. Know. Don’t always give a damn. About labels. And territories. And conveniences both public and private. Knowing very little about how a book makes its way into their hands. As long as it continues to do so. With regularity that can only be described as unrelenting and reliable. And timely.

V

You don’t make beautiful books. They exist. Already. In the air around you. The very air we learn to breathe. From the moment of our birth. Both acts of beauty. Of aesthetics.

What we learn to do as we grow into the world is to recognise it. Through observing. This aesthetic. Hold it in the palm of our eyes. Nurture it. Make it our own. Not the own of ownership. Nor the hidden own of the possessive. This is mine. I mean the ability that turns the everyday presences of all that surrounds us into a thing of beauty. To be easily and simply shared with as many people as possible through as many ways as possible. It doesn’t matter what it is. There is an aesthetic in nature. As there is in the grimy squalor of a crowded urban city. It doesn’t matter. Create your own frames. Place the good and the indifferent or downright ugly into it. Shift it around. Use the space in a manner hitherto unseen. Let the objects relate to each other. Or not. Let them oppose. In a tense and edgy relationship between them. What is important is the response. First yours. To this “thing” of beauty you are in the process of creating. Then others. The ones who will receive it. View it. Hold it in their eyes. And hands. And hearts. And minds. Once you un-cage the bird. Let it go into the world. Stand on its own. And grow. And last. In our case. As publishers and people of design. The art and the craft of making something that lasts, lingers, resides inside us. Making beautiful books.

VI

The battle is about space. Space that is calculated in relation to the range of fast-moving products that are like occupation armies. Ever expanding. Showing off their battle-gear and preening for the world. The books are a different kettle and will always get pushed into ghettos. Slow moving and thoughtful these will always lose out to competing products for shelf-space.

Nothing to be done.

Something to be done.

But what?

Image credit: Naveen Kishore
Image credit: Naveen Kishore

VII

Today’s publishing is all about shelf life. How soon can you turn a book over? Vacate space, for it is at a premium. There are other transients in the queue seeking a night’s rest before moving on or before they are asked to move on. Expensive real estate. Like over-crowded cemeteries where we are starting to bury people in tiers of three. Sometime five. Or like multiple bunk-beds for families of four. One atop the other. The youngest one getting to touch the ceiling. The idea that a bookshelf is a place of discovery where different generations of book buyers can find books that are sometimes out of print is outdated. Out of vogue. You are looking for cash crops. The stores are no longer stocking backlists. The computer is a good enough substitute. The new and the “bestsold” are on the shelves and a certain range of “perennials”. The rest can be ordered online so why bother parking them on your shelves.

Why indeed?

VIII

There is no breathing space between the practical and the impractical. No limboesque oxygen tents where you may take a deep breath before plunging into either of these two worlds. By choice. Or default. The practical is a successful brand. Replicable in the nicest possible manner. Spawning industries worldwide that both promote and live off the practice of practicality. You are practical. Therefore you succeed.

There is however the reality of the impractical. With its own allure. Bordering on attraction. The impractical can often be the dream you wish to follow. The one that everyone around you says don’t follow! “Wake up Sid.” “Smell the coffee.” “Don’t bash your head against a wall.” “This isn’t the way to make it.” And so on. You’ve heard it all. Don’t let the babel faze you. Let the impractical be your muse. You have a choice. Exercise it.

I am here to talk about that which defies the logic of the marketplace. This oh so very impractical way of being a publisher. In a world that is increasingly becoming clone-like. We all publish the same kind of books. For that matter. You are all expected to write the same kind of books. Differently. I will grant you that. But similar. Figure it out. Because that is what a perceived market wants. The self-same rationale for why our films are so bad. Because this is apparently what our audiences want. Don’t buy it. Don’t get swayed by these arguments of look-alikes. There is a limb out there. Go out on it.

IX

One comes back to the words. Always. The ones that make you tingle. Ecstatic. Or those that lead to boredom and ennui. Fungus bearing. Like the first brush against the cold as your steps stumble upon winter. Like premonition. And the shiver that accompanies it. Travelling companions both. The wind beginning to stretch. Loosen its voice. The words begin their wilful keening. Something is about to happen. The air full of words that are restive. Impatient. Dissatisfied with themselves. Unruly and disorderly. Not willing to cooperate. Defiant leaning towards the rebellious. The air turns leaden. Rust. The headstrong leaves abandon the trees. You avoid walking under them. The tall trees. Disturbed by the lack of wind. Strangled stillness. The storm remains a threat. The promise of a deluge. You sense with your skin. And the bumps it raises. But nothing happens. Except the waiting. The pacing in your head even as you speak what everyone excepts to hear. Insubordination in the ranks. The words that must arrive fail to come. Lodged in your throat. Perverse and contrary. Or perhaps wary of reception. Imposing a gag. Difficult for those that bear their headstrong ways on their shirt sleeves.

A censorship of self.

You do want to say the right thing don’t you?

Image credit: Naveen Kishore
Image credit: Naveen Kishore

He swept the words off the page. Staring at the silences left behind.

The weight of the letters. Like footsteps in the snow. Weeping.

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