fiction or fact

Same editors, different companies: How will Delhi publishers ever produce better books?

An author asks why publishing companies do not get fresh blood from elsewhere in the country

For a couple of summers when I was a kid, I had two new playmates, Subbu and Seenu. They were part of extended family from Andhra Pradesh, visiting exotic Madras. Both were roughly the same age as I was. One day, I found out that Subbu was not, as I had thought, Seenu’s cousin, but his great-uncle. Plus, I was given the additional information that Subbu’s mother was also Seenu’s sister-in-law. And that another aunt was actually an uncle (which has no bearing on this piece).

This was my first encounter with incest.

That night, I dreamt my mother was my sister. But neither this, nor the rest of my childhood, perusing the complete works of Harold Robbins and Sydney Sheldon, prepared me for the goings-on in the wonderful world of Indian publishing brought to my notice by a timely, if disturbing, infographic by a friend and editor. (Incidentally, the infographic represents the switcheroo games of only the last two years.)

The regularity, speed, and seeming pointlessness with which publishing professionals have been trading and re-trading places in Delhi, it’s a wonder how the publishing houses are even keeping track. (“What? You’re still here? Thought you’d left. Oh, you did. And came back? And are leaving again next month? Cool.”)

While this is a tailor-made opportunity for a Priyadarshan-style revolving-doors sketch, this subject seems to require a piece involving stubble-scratching and looking profound on my part. Because it doesn’t augur well for the Indian writer, that poor fellow who has over the years been reduced to the role of fluffer in this orgy called publishing.

Let me begin with my own history as a fiction writer.

Six or seven years ago, when I wrote my first book, I aimed for and went to a particular publishing house. It was a big one. And I “chose” it not because it was a childhood dream to work with Ram Singh, their watchman. I chose it because I didn’t want to be published by the only other option then, a bigger publishing house, for I’d heard of how they treated authors.

I was lucky to be accepted. I wrote a couple more books and they were “accepted”, too.

Without going into the details of my relationship with my publisher (which are chronicled right here for those who are interested in stories of S&M), let us say it’s been a bumpy ride, and I wasn’t treated like, say, Rishi Kapoor by them. Or Shakti Kapoor. Or even Pinchoo Kapoor, for that matter.

So, when I had a new book out, resetting my previous stand, I went to a mint-fresh publishing house in spite of the fact that it had been put together by the erstwhile core team of the big publisher I didn’t want to be associated with.

I asked for it. And got what I deserved. And the healing is going to take time because the bruises are in places where the sun rarely shines. That this publishing house is currently rolling away towards the edge of a cliff, as its name clearly betokened had I paid any attention, offers little consolation.

But as I turn around and look, the caretaker of my intellectual property, the warden of my literary offspring, the holder of my short hairs, my original publisher, has morphed right before my very eyes into the big publisher. Except for the darn logo.

And vice versa.

Meaning, thanks to a chief evacuation officer, everyone has left. And joined the big publishing house. And the remnants of the big publishing house have whooshed in to fill the brief vacuum at my publishers.

I can see them all now, two smug parades – of editors, marketing/PR folk, sales reps – trooping out of their old offices, updating their statuses, and high-five-ing as they pass each other midway (a couple of them on rival sides married to each other, as a matter of fact), to occupy the seat left vacant by their counterparts and embark on the time-consuming job of mistreating a fresh set of writers.

Excuse my French, but WTF?

The position of the Indian writer today is that, in the event of his being dissatisfied with his publisher – which is a given, let me tell you – and he goes to another publisher, in a magic-realist twist he could find himself with the same publisher.

(Reminds me of an old joke:

Hollywood Kid 1: My dad can beat your dad.

Hollywood Kid 2: My dad is your dad.)

Seriously, what the hell are the white bosses of these big-name publishing houses thinking?

If they want to shake things up, why in god’s name would they think a jaded marketing head of one publishing house is the ideal replacement for the shiftless head of marketing who just skulked away to the neighbouring publishing house? What bold new strategy or insight, even if he’s been signed up for a higher salary, is the candidate going to bring to the organisation that he didn’t come up with in his previous job…while posting selfies with the PR intern?

And what do you think an equally indolent editor who has moved out, tilde and typo, with the exact same team of incompetent yes-women, going to do? Bring out a sparkling publishing list, bristling with brand-new authors talent-scouted from unlikely places, for the new employer? Or recycle the same tired writers from her coterie of co-dependents?

Hark, Markus Dohle, Jeff Bezos, Charlie Redmayne, Arnaud Nourry, et al: if you want to save Indian publishing, by which I mean increase your profits, maybe take a detour from the Dilliputians? Infuse fresh blood sourced from other cities? Yes, folks from Hyderabad, Madras, Bombay, Bangalore, etc., can read. And write. And edit, too. Honest. Maybe it’s time you began looking for aquifers elsewhere to irrigate the toxin-ridden colon of Indian publishing.

For the nitpicker, yes, I am aware that this situation is not unique to India. New York and London more or less monopolise US and UK publishing, too. But how is it that these places continue to regularly bring out good books, many from the big houses? Worth thinking about?

And hey, Big Publishing, noticed something? The last two Booker prizes didn’t go to you. They went to books from the same small independent publishing house.

Hmmm. Wonder why.

Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is a writer and columnist. He comes from a family notorious for its rampant inbreeding between writers, artists and poets.

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