Joan Robinson’s comment (now so over-used that it borders on the clichéd) is that the frustrating thing about our country is that “whatever” one can “rightly say about India, the opposite is also true”. Oddly enough, that description, it seems to me, applies perfectly to the current world of publishing.

Nobody reads!
(However,) the number of readers is growing steadily.

More people than ever are reading on phones, I Pads, tablets and Kindles.
(But) e-book sale figures have plateaued. All evidence points to the fact that the physical book still dominates the reading experience.

It’s never been better for writers. So many publishing opportunities; push-button publishing and push-button marketing have made it truly democratic. The whole ivory tower has been demolished as it were.
(Actually,) it’s a terrible time to be a writer. Unless you are a social media influencer, you’ve made your name before the boom in publishing, hold an MBA from a brand-name institute, write self-help or trash, you will barely sell enough copies to buy yourself a fancy bag or pair of shoes.

Publishing as we know it is dying. Piracy is the chief – but not the only – culprit.
(Rubbish!) Publishing in India has never looked so robust. New imprints and new companies have been successfully launched in the past few years – Aleph Book Company, Speaking Tiger, Juggernaut, to name but a few, and are all doing well enough to publish exciting new books every month.

And just the other day, the global giant Amazon, arguably responsible for marking the most dramatic shift in the world of books in the last decade, by firmly taking the game away from bookstores to e-tail, has acquired Westland Books from the Tata Group. Isn’t that a sort of move backwards, techno-determinists were heard asking.
(No,) it’s a brave new world, book-lovers sighed in anticipation.

Re-Enter Karthika

And since in contradictory times and dizzying weather, one is always hunting for portents and omens, much discussion and speculation followed publisher Karthika VK’s resignation from HarperCollins India in November 2016. Everyone and their uncle (“tsk, tsk, I can hear her voice in my head, editing out my un-feminist usage, replacing it, humorously, with ‘aunt’”) were asking around hysterically oh-what-has-happened and where-is-she-going-next.

There was also a lot of rooting around for gossip. The last, of course, was firmly squashed by Karthika, who she has always insisted (a bit annoyingly if diplomatically, as is her wont) that the publishing industry is like one large family and while disagreements are natural, there are no permanent breaks.

Well, finally we know.

After ten years of HarperCollins India – by the time she left she was in charge of their ambitious list of 200 odd titles – Karthika is now going to start a boutique imprint of her own at Westland Books (which, in Indian publishing, is now really Amazon by another name). It will be a small – and one can safely say scintillating – list where, it seems, the old-fashioned editor-author relationship of hand-holding and close editing might be prioritised over the number of books published annually.

This is exciting news for publishing in some ways, especially for serious writers who have begun to feel the pressure of being unable to match their bestselling counterparts working in the fields of romances, misery-lit, political kiss-and-tells, and I-was-a-film-star-now-I’m-an-author. As for us, our hope is that Amazon will loosen the purse strings adequately to back edgy content and popular memes alike. After all, the first book that Karthika had ever commissioned, way back in 1997, was India’s first gay anthology, Yaaraanaa, compiled by Hoshang Merchant.

While one would assume that it will take Karthika some time to set up the new imprint and reassess the industry she’s been part of for two decades in order to chart out a course of action, we have appointed ourselves to compile a brief but heavily idealistic wishlist for her as-yet-unnamed new imprint.

The five desires we have

  • More first books please? After years of looking down on debuts, I’ve come to accept that the rawness of an author’s first book is something very precious. Later books become smarter and better and less embarrassing for the writer, of course, but there is something ineffably delicious about an exciting new voice speaking with that peculiar arrogance and nervousness of that first manuscript.
  • Can we please hear writers from the rest of world? Why can’t Indian publishing become a hub for literary voices from non-hegemonic quarters (there can be no doubt in anyone’s minds about the connection between temporal power and direction of flow of ideas) that bring in fresh currents of thinking? I mean, is it essential for an Indian reader to encounter an African writer only when said writer has acquired an MFA for good measure and been published in the US or the UK?
  • Can one finally use Amazon’s market heft to commission a comprehensive report of India’s reading habits – and how it can be tapped further? A few reports have indeed been published, from time to time, but nothing, really, that can compare with the sort of monumental market research that other industries attempt.
  • It is time someone came up with an Indian analogue of the Murty Classical Library, please. Contemporary and fresh translations of ancient Indian texts, from a wealth of languages?
  • And finally, dear VKK, as you embark on a new adventure, we hope you – and your peers – find the silver bullet solution to make literary fiction published in India, but not backed by gora awards, relevant again!