Meet the Publishers

‘We find our writers through unsolicited submissions. We read every manuscript’: Jayanta Kumar Bose

Meet the publisher responsible for today’s stream of successful commercial fiction in English.

The man who gave Indian publishing some of its bestselling writers – including Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta, Preeti Shenoy, and Sudeep Nagarkar – is the quiet, reclusive founder and CEO of the Delhi-based Srishti Publishers. His name is Jayanta Kumar Bose. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that today’s steady flow of fiction written by young people for their peers, some of which dominate the bestseller charts, originated with Srishti. In a rare instance of talking about his publishing strategy, Bose spoke to Scroll.in about his philosophy, his writers, and the future. Excerpts:

You worked in the sales department at Rupa & Co. for several years before founding Srishti Publications. Tell us a little about publishing in those days.
I started my journey with Rupa in the late 1970s, initially with their accounts team in the Delhi office. But soon after, a couple of months later, I was asked to switch to the marketing and sales team. Later I headed the marketing team at Rupa-Harper Collins (a joint venture in India back then) at the national level before being given the responsibility of the publishing and editorial team as well.

I worked closely with prominent authors like Salman Rushdie, William Dalrymple, Gulzar, Ruskin Bond, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Anurag Mathur, Sunil Gavaskar and several others. I was also instrumental in paving the way for the entry of prominent international publishers like Penguin, Pan-Macmillan and Ladybird to India.

Publishing was a nascent industry in India back then, and the focus was primarily on popular international authors and a few Indian literary authors. Most Indian authors who shot to prominence then were published abroad.

I still remember the empty shop we were greeted with when we organised a book-signing session for a Booker-prize winning author at an upmarket bookstore at Khan Market in Delhi. However, the same author was mobbed by readers when his next book was banned in India, and the ensuing controversy around it made him popular here.

Srishti began as a publisher of serious translated fiction and published several renowned names in Bengali literature. What was the market for translations like then?
Srishti has always promoted original Indian literature and we always felt that there is a huge treasure trove in regional literature. In a country as diverse as ours, English was the most common language to bridge the gap. We started the trend of publishing regional language literature by prominent authors across various languages like Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Odia, etc. It was a huge untapped market, where we had the first mover’s advantage before a few other publishers jumped in.

It is a well-known fact that it was the monumental success of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone that made you switch your focus entirely to what came to be known as the campus novel. What were the earliest successes on your list? And how did you find those writers?
We were one of the first publishers in the commercial fiction market. The campus novel/chic-lit/rom-com genre was something which we always found intriguing, considering two factors. India has a young population, a majority of whom are in colleges and schools. And secondly, rom-com movies have been some of the highest grossing films in India.

Our move into this genre was not a derivative of Chetan’s initial success with the genre. (On a comparative scale, he was still an up-and-coming author when we published our first book in this genre.) The key to our plan to enter this market was finding a good manuscript.

We received a manuscript by a young IIT-ian named Tushar Raheja. Our editor read his book in two days and said it reminded her of PG Wodehouse. We decided to publish his book, after suitable editing to bring it down from a gargantuan word-count to a more crisp level. Anything For You Ma’am went to become an overnight bestseller. Actually, the number of our hits in this genre is endless. Quite a few of them manage to sell a good number of copies every year even today.

We found most of these authors through one simple route: unsolicited manuscript submissions by young chaps who felt “if XYZ can write, so can I”. At that time, there were not many literary agents, and certainly none who would entertain commercial fiction.

We have an editorial culture of going through the slush pile on a weekly basis, sifting through them and replying to everyone individually within two to three weeks of submission. Our editors go through each and every manuscript and select what they want to publish. With a rejection ratio of almost 92%, we make it a point to send a reply to authors even when we are not publishing their work.

Even today nearly 85% of our publishing list comes from this source. This is one of the major reasons we have published so many unknown voices who later shot to prominence.

Many of these campus novels were indistinguishable from one another in terms of writing, premise and characterisation. Yet most of them sold much more than the average fiction title written in English for the Indian market. What would you attribute this to?
I don’t agree with your characterisation of these books. Each of them had a different storyline, personal in nature for the author. They were written from the heart and placed in settings that the audience could relate to. All of these books had something unique to this genre – a connection with readers.

The young authors of today write about their own day-to-day life, and romance, relationships and heartbreaks are a part of this. However, they are not restricting themselves to this, but have also evolved into writing about relevant social issues and malaises by voicing the concerns of a whole generation. These young turks have moved on from being unknown young writers to opinion-makers and leaders amongst the youth.

I think you’re the only publisher in India who used to request prospective authors to submit their picture along with a synopsis and chapters. How important is appearance for this genre? Do you think it has played a role in the success of, say, Durjoy Datta and Ravinder Singh?
Appearance does play a role in this genre, though it does not define success. However, the reason we requested for a picture was quite simple – back then our office was in a location where outsiders would not be allowed without prior approval. Hence the requirement of the picture, when they came to sign the contract or visited us later.

But then, some of the pictures we received would range from funny to downright hilarious. One of the popular authors of today – the “king” of his genre – had sent a picture of himself showing off his muscles, shirtless. We asked him to shoot a picture in formal clothes for the book, and chose a photograph which had a more poised and pensive pose. I still see the same pensive pose in all his new pictures and promotional material.

Once the campus novel had been explored to its full potential, Srishti shifted its focus to mythology. Of late, you have been publishing a lot of crime novels. What has the success rate been like with these new genres?
We have published books in genres as varied as fantasy and mythological fiction, all the way to satirical fiction, political novels, and spy thrillers. Some of these books, particularly the thrillers, have done phenomenally well and have gone on to become bestsellers in their own right. Currently, we have a few of our thrillers in the Top 100 bestsellers of Amazon/Kindle. We have not exploited the potential of the fantasy/mythological genre. Satire is something we feel we are yet to explore fully, though it has done well for us till date.

Several bestselling Srishti authors have left you for multinational publishers. In hindsight, do you feel you could have retained them? Are you in touch with any of them?
The wordsrishti” refers to the creation of the universe by Brahma. The creator creates and nurtures; the nurtured choose their own path.

We started off with the principle of giving debutant authors a chance and making them the next big bestsellers. We have been following this ever since. Moreover, there are also authors who have had their books published by bigger names in the industry and and have then come back to us. It’s a two-way road. We look ahead at the challenges of creating more such bestselling writers, because there’s no dearth of talent in India.

Also I have always felt that we should support our authors and help them grow. We have even gone to the extent of supporting two of our young authors, who left to start their own publishing house, by distributing their books and giving them the rights to bestselling books to start their own publishing list. That partnership did not survive, but I feel we did the right thing in supporting new talent in whatever way possible.

The decision to part ways, however, is never taken frivolously, and always with a heavy heart, but it is done after considering the best options for everyone concerned. I am not only in touch with quite a few of them, most of these authors still send me a signed copy of their new book, seeking best wishes. A few of them, especially Preeti Shenoy, makes it a point to acknowledge us in all their books, which is quite magnanimous.

If I am not mistaken, most of Srishti’s manuscripts were outsourced to freelance editors, who were mainly English professors. Do you have a full time editorial staff now?
We always had a full in-house editorial staff. Our editorial team was earlier headed by Dr Rani Ray, a scholar with great credentials, who gave form to our translation programme back then. Currently our editorial team is being guided by Dr Purabi Panwar, along with Stuti Sharma, who is one of our senior editors, with a team of talented and young editors with some experience.

How has your son Arup’s involvement changed Srishti’s outlook?
Every organisation needs young blood to stay in touch with the times and reinvent. Arup had always been an avid bookworm and devoured books by the dozen even when he was in school. After completing his MBA and working for a year as a corporate risk consultant, he decided to join Srishti to follow his passion for books.

He currently runs not just the publishing programme, diversifying our list into new genres, but also manages marketing and growth strategies for new verticals and new markets. Our digitisation and global availability programmes are his personal projects and it has been an absolute pleasure working with him for the past four-and-a-half years.

How is Srishti planning to keep up with technological advancements?
To quote Heraclitus, “change is the only constant”, and our industry is not a stranger to it. We have constantly adapted to, and thrived under, change. We are not only present on multiple digital platforms – including mobile books – but are also actively planning and working with new upcoming platforms.

How successful these will be remains to be seen, but we are not shying away from these changes. More than half of our catalogue is available on these platforms, and Arup is working on a project with a target of 85-90% digital availability of our catalogue before the end of this financial year.

You are known to be superstitious, ensuring that the titles of your books have just 19 characters and that book contracts are signed on a Wednesday. Do you continue to follow these rules, and do you have any others?
We have no set rules per se regarding signing of contracts or titles, though I do consider both 19 characters in the title and Wednesdays to be auspicious. However, if you notice, many of our bestselling books do not have 19 character-titles. Nor were the contracts signed on Wednesdays. The first few of our successful titles in the chic-lit genre had 19 letters, which was by coincidence, and hence the belief was born around it.

Srishti published Chetan Bhagat’s brother Ketan Bhagat. Did you ever try and approach Chetan himself? Have you ever met him or spoken to him?
We have always been keener on creating and promoting new authors. Hence we never focused on acquiring Chetan or any other established authors from other publishing houses.

Do you enjoy reading the kind of books you publish?
Since my early days at Rupa-HarperCollins, I always made it a point to read whatever books we were selling. This habit was driven home by a few knowledgeable booksellers – who themselves were very well-read. As a publisher I feel it is compulsory to be aware of the content we are publishing.

This is a habit that I still have, and although I might not be able to read all the books we publish, I do make an effort to read most of them. Arup makes it a point to actually read all the books before they hit the market and can be quizzed in detail on the storyline of any of the books published during his time here.

This is a habit which has percolated to even our sales and distribution team. Whenever they have some time you can see them grabbing one of the latest releases. We encourage all of our employees to take home any book they like. On Saturdays, we have an open house at the office to discuss and get feedback from them about the books in terms of the storyline and their likes and dislikes.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.