A little over a year ago, publishing veteran Karthika VK had the world of books aflutter with her exit from HarperCollins India after ten year long years with the publishing giant. The news that she would be starting a boutique imprint at Westland Books, then freshly bought by Amazon, followed soon after, leaving everyone wondering what we should expect from her and her team, many of whom were earlier her colleagues at HarperCollins.
The answer is in a new literary imprint from Westland Books. Called Context, it will publish “serious, thoughtful, politically engaged fiction and non-fiction” by writers from the subcontinent in hardback form. Context will launch with Perumal Murugan’s highly-anticipated new novel, Neyaz Farooquee’s memoir on growing up Muslim in India, and an illustrated biography of Indira Gandhi, among others.
The launch of a new imprint is usually a deliberate move to nurture a list that might not get the attention it deserves in a giant publishing house, especially if it is owned by the bookselling game changer, Amazon. Within the sea of commercial heavy-hitters, a carefully-curated selection of serious and challenging writing is a much-needed return to publishing basics.
Karthika VK spoke to Scroll.in about what we should expect, the lineup of fascinating first-time authors she will be publishing, and why we are living in the most crucial time for politically-engaged books.
Congratulations on the launch of Context. What prompted the launch of a separate imprint at Westland?
Serendipity, to begin with. I was thinking about what I would like to do next and Gautam [Padmanabhan], the CEO of Westland, was contemplating expanding their non-fiction and literary portfolio. When we met, it just came together. The name of the imprint emerged much later, and I have to thank an unlikely source for it – Aadhaar, and Shankkar Aiyar, whose book on the subject kept throwing up the idea of contextuality as perhaps the most important lens through which to read anything, whether an experience or a written narrative. I ran the idea past friend and writer Jyotirmaya Sharma, who laughed and said, “Context is my middle name, why not yours?”
Gautam and Ajitha (who is my other half at Context) took to it right away too, and that’s how the imprint came to be.
Do you think literary fiction and non-fiction need special nurturing in an industry where commercial titles bring in the money? Is serious and thoughtful writing not getting the support that it needs right now?
I think it’s a really exciting time for non-fiction publishing. Writers are willing to invest time and effort researching and writing books on subjects that haven’t been worked on before, or need revisiting; the number of readers for such books is growing; and thankfully, there are now a few grants and residencies that help writers take time off from their day jobs to focus on their books. As for bringing in money, you just have to do the arithmetic to know that a high-priced hardback selling over a long period is significantly more profitable than a low-priced paperback. There are different sets of readers for these different categories, with some overlaps, and every publisher’s attempt is to achieve a balance between the two.
The imprint focuses on politically engaged literature. Do you think this is a particularly crucial period in Indian history for books that grapple with the politics of our times?
I think documentation has never been as important as it is now. When different versions of history clash and each seeks to rewrite the other, it’s writers and books one can turn to, to uncover the true nature of that layering of past, present and future; fact and fiction. But over and above that, literature has always sought to capture the minutiae of daily life and a novel can cut through and illuminate situations, people, politics, the very heart of humanity in a way that no other form of narrative can.
How autonomous will Context be as an imprint? In terms of management as well as the its risk-taking appetite for political writing, whether fiction or non-fiction?
I hope as independent and autonomous as any form of creative expression aspires to be, without breaking any of the laws of the land.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the team that will make up Context?
Editorially, we are two. My colleague Ajitha and I are focusing on acquiring and editing the list, and we work closely with Gautam, KK (the head of marketing at Westland), Satish (the head of sales), Shrutika (who coordinates us all!) and other colleagues in sales, marketing and production to plan the process pre- and post-acquisition. We are fortunate to have a design head, Vishwa, who is equally invested in the idea of Context.
Context will publish a fairly diverse set of authors from Perumal Murugan to Anita Nair. What exactly unites these authors and their books under the umbrella of this new imprint?
If I have to think of one word that unites the list, it’s conviction. Editorial conviction, first and foremost – that this is a book we simply must do because it’s challenging / entertaining / topical / experimental. The reasons could be different but if it’s something we are passionate about, we will do our best to acquire it and publish it the way it deserves to be.
One of the other things we’d like to focus on is publishing young and first-time writers – Krupa Ge, Anushka Jasraj, Suprabha Seshan, Rimli Sengupta. Ajitha has been working closely with them on their first books, and we are both particularly delighted that we have so many female voices to work with.
What should we expect in terms of a pricing model? Is this a move to segregate lower-priced commercial titles from higher-priced serious books?
Co-existence rather than segregation. The market is growing in different directions and it would be so good to be able to reach readers with different tastes and needs, to publish the best in various genres and do right by them. You know how you might read the most serious work of non-fiction in the week and come Saturday night, the need to sink into a crime novel or a historical romance overtakes you? I’d like to publish for both kinds of readers, even if that sounds greedy.
As for pricing, yes, between Rs 499 and Rs 799 is the approximate range, with the occasional outlier. What I am really excited about is the coming together of the editorial sensibilities and requirements of literary and non-commercial publishing with the commercial sense and marketing wisdom – plus ambition – of Westland, which publishes some of the biggest names in popular fiction and non-fiction.
This is a list that focuses equally on fiction as it does on non-fiction. Will all literary fiction now fall under this new imprint? What are the fiction titles we should be most excited about?
We started by thinking of Context as a hardback imprint. Only the graphic novels in the first list are being published as paperbacks, among them Appupen’s mesmeric Indie take on the superhero novel (The Lotus and the Snake). Literary fiction originating in paperback will be published under Tranquebar [an existing literary imprint of Westland]. For instance, I’ve been working wth Daman Singh on her novel about the Anglo-Indian community in the early days of the Indian Railways and with Bulbul Sharma on her next Giripul novel, and I think they work best as paperbacks.
About the other fiction I am most excited about, Parismita [Singh]’s stories set in Assam (Peace Has Come) are the finest I’ve read in a long while, and we couldn’t have asked for a stronger lead title for our list. Mirza Waheed’s new novel (In His Hands), publishing later in the year, is a stunning reflection on medical and human ethics. And rounding off the year is Paul Zachariah’s first novel in English, The Secret History of Compassion.
Two of my favourites you’ve already referred to – Perumal Murugan (his novel Poonachi, a heartbreakingly beautiful tale about the new India, will be out in February) and Anita Nair (Eating Wasps, about itinerant lives and a literary voyeur in Kerala). Then there is an unusual work by Devapriya Roy and Priya Kuriyan, which combines prose fiction and graphic non-fiction in the telling of a prime minister’s life (Indira).
On a personal note, the launch comes a year after your move to Westland. Was the ability to develop a specialised list of titles the goal you’ve been targeting?
I must confess it has been particularly pleasurable to be able to focus on a compact list and try and shape an identity for it, while continuing to work in different genres. When I look at the titles for this year and the next, I know every single day is going to be exciting for all of us at Context – Neyaz Farooquee’s memoir of growing up Muslim (and male) in northern India, Chidanand Rajghatta’s reminiscences of Gauri Lankesh, Maxwell Pereira’s inside track on the Tandoor Murder, Nisha Susan’s book on Kerala’s most impressive and least understood export, the Indian nurse, Akshaya Mukul’s biography of the great Hindi writer Agyeya, TM Krishna on the history and cultural ironies of the mridangam, Aparna Jain’s stories about iconic Indian women, Karthika Nair and Sampurna Chattarjee’s collaboration in poetry, Revati Laul’s investigation of communal violence and the anatomy of hate, Rajeev Gowda and Varun Santosh’s analysis of India’s electoral politics, Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar and John Dayal’s recounting of the Karvan-e-Mohabbat, VK Saraswat and Saurav Jha’s tech history of India’s military complex, and our very latest sign-on, Namita Devidayal’s wonderful new biography of sitar maestro Vilayat Khan. And there are at least two other books that I am thrilled to be able to publish but can’t talk about yet...