Coping, holding up, getting through, surviving, managing, carrying on and their synonyms are the instinctive verbs I’m ambushed with when asked about our publishing venture adivaani’s well-being in the wake of Covid-19. The assumptions and predictions that my tiny outfit has to have been upended by this crisis are reflexive. The pressure to admit that things have gone askew for my enterprise is such that admitting otherwise would be bizarre.
But I’ll have to say it anyway – the lockdown doesn’t impact my publishing work – as I run adivaani like we’re in a perpetual crisis anyway; and if anything the quarantine is an extension of our everyday work reality since our inception.
adivaani is housed in a 600-square foot rented space in Kolkata. We’ve been a home-grown, home bound set-up since 2012, with no possibilities of scaling up eight years on. We are as small as it gets with me as the only multitasking full time staff and an occasional multitasking volunteer, producing books (and other cultural expressions in multiform) by Adivasis and tribals (indigenous peoples of India) in English.
Home and the workplace overlap, just like adivaani and I do in many ways. Housework and publishing activities happen synchronously. A reliable internet connection, a computer, a phone, a printer, an induction cooker, a refrigerator, a washing machine and a coffee-maker hold it all together. In-house work meetings and houseguests share the same space and sometimes I want to desperately throw both kinds out.
Working hours run into the personal and only night sleep possibly separates the two. Sometimes days turn to weeks before I’ve been able to leave the apartment or have anyone visit. My clothes don’t hold clues to my being at work or home. A work life in confinement is one I’m well accustomed to. It is the only way I’ve known to publish and all 19 of our books and allied products were fashioned here.
Why (and how) we publish
I publish not because it is a brilliant entrepreneurial idea or a rewarding commercial undertaking, but because it had to be done – and I couldn’t wait for another Adivasi to step up to take it on. I strayed into a publishing course in 2012, and started adivaani (the first voices) when I encountered Adivasi invisibility yet again, in the experts we were to learn from and the batch composition.
I had reached the threshold of my lifelong lived experience of exclusion and discrimination and this became the tipping point of how I was going to address this marginalisation. And that’s how and why I set up the publishing, archiving and documentation initiative – without knowing how to, without any seed or social capital.
My first generation formally educated primary schoolteacher mother and theologian father invested in my sisters’ and my mainstream education, and bequeathed to us the links to our Santal ancestry, identity, culture and roots.
Apart from that there was no blueprint for adivaani, no business plan and no safety net, but publish I would, in English, whether we knew the language or not. If that was what it took to be paid attention to, to be seen and heard I’d do it.
When that’s the prompt to action and that’s all you’re armed with, you rely on resolve and human ingenuity to see you through.
Being called an indie publisher is flattering and empowering, but I’m not one, rather, I’m a dependie. We’re dependent on several factors to keep us going. Securing funding support (we’re set up as a trust) to keep our operations in motion – mainly the printing overheads – is one major factor contingent to the continuity of our work. The goodwill of our printers in Kolkata, CDC Printers, who have given us a generous pay-when-you-can-deal, has enabled us to publish regularly. But we’re still in debt and with the amounts due mounting, we’ve decided to only print when we have pre-funded book projects, while I continue to source finances to clear the backlog.
All pre-press activities are done in-house and we don’t pay ourselves if our funding doesn’t allow it. It is fellowships, speaking and writing assignments – some entailing travel, consultancy and advocacy work for Adivasi and other human rights issues, that sustains my daily life. Whenever I can, I put any surplus monetary resources directly into sustaining our publishing activities. Thus, we continue to remain operative from home because that’s manageable.
My publishing deal with my Adivasi authors is one of no financial transactions because I can’t pay, even if I’d want to. Our authors don’t expect payment as well, as their work is a contribution and investment into the larger Adivasi movement of resurgence. The reward is the ultimate purpose, the collaboration, the process and the book itself – making a tangible product for our peoples. The authors get their royalties in the form of books – 10% of the print run – being shipped to their homes for them to sell, gift, or do as they please with them. I’m sure that if we wanted, rice, meat, and rice beer would suffice too. This in many ways is community publishing, and that’s why I often slip into “our” while addressing adivaani.
No author has been bound by our tailored contract, and we tell them that they’re free to pitch to traditional publishers.
We only have book releases when we can, and don’t especially organise them, but instead combine them with other Adivasi events – fairs, conferences or seminars. We don’t have multi-city book promotion tours – simply because we can’t afford them. And we don’t grudge those who do it otherwise, and neither do our authors.
Our relationship with money
I’m pretty much improvising, customising, experimenting and basically stumbling from one thing to the other while finding ways to keep going.
We don’t depend on book sales to sustain us, as they are far and between, and also with a list of 19 books, the rotation and revenue cycle of returns is limited. The alternate bookstores, like Earthcare Books, People Tree, Walking BookFairs, Dogears, Mayday have been supportive allies in keeping our work visible and in circulation and that’s sufficient for us.
We also don’t price our book as per the industry standards and we have to mark down prices so they’re affordable for our people. Nonethe less, our books are made with the utmost care, without compromising in editing, quality of paper and production – comparable to any other in the market.
Sure, we keep count of the online sales, because the packing of books for Amazon and Flipkart is done by ourselves, which the lockdown halted automatically and was an easy adjustment for us. What comes from the sale of books is a bonus that goes back into producing more. So revenue from book sales is not an income loss now, but a circulation loss – which, though difficult to control, is the aim of adivaani: getting our words, thoughts and ideas out.
I’ve been scoffed at for my unprofessionalism and frivolity in running this “vanity project”, but I’m dead serious about publishing. We’ve been close to shutting shop every few months and doing so makes practical sense, but I keep it alive because it is not a business but a means of claiming our collective place in our species, as human beings, refusing to be forgotten and marginalised.
Our funding challenges come from the inability to present indigenous knowledges and expressions as something worth sponsoring because of the limitations of showcasing it as a large-scale, life-changing outcome. That for example does not happen when you seek funds for health initiatives – cataract operations, food, shelter, blanket distribution, etc. A prospective funder once asked me: “Don’t your people need hand (water) pumps or artificial limbs?” Sure, they do, but this is not my area of intervention.
After all, how do I market the insight, experience, memory, history and traditions all contained within books?
We’ve had personal donations come our way, unexpectedly at times, bailing us out of a deadlock.
Crowdfunding has been suggested, tried, and has failed twice. And I now realise that one can’t crowdsource funds from an online or offline social circle like mine – made of first and second generation struggling Adivasis who can’t afford to donate to my campaigns financially. I don’t move around in moneyed circles. I know for any of these campaigns to be successful, they’d have to be fronted by someone from another socio-economic background, whose networks are different from mine.
After the pandemic
I’m a publisher who hasn’t published anything new in almost two years, except two reprints. There’s one funded book that goes to print as soon as the lockdown is lifted. But the delay in its production doesn’t impact our standing or sales.
We have a stack of manuscripts and publishing ideas waiting to see the light of day and they will in good time, through the dead ends and quick fixes to stay afloat.
The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has already steered our publishing work life conversations and strategies to new world, new normal, and a post-covid era. The urgency to jump over a phenomenon that we’re still living through, with the readiness of robotic precision, is unsettling.
We’re not in a competition – we don’t let publishing lists, sales targets or profit margins define or restrain us, and there is no finish line. Instead, ours in an assertion of our right to exist. Whether we are ready or not – we need to have our say, we need to nudge our way into shelves just to be. These books will be the links to our ancestry that we leave and entrust to our descendants as our shared legacy.
Sales and fiscal revenues determine the success of a publishing house, and even a rags-to-riches story ends with an accumulation of wealth – the greatest accomplishment. adivaani will never be one of those. Mine is a rags-to-patchwork story.
A work life in confinement has not been one of restrictions or unproductiveness for us but of possibilities, testing the limits and boundaries of inventiveness and resource crunches and our work coming to life in its own time.
We’ve been struggling before the coronavirus, and in spite of it, and will do so afterwards too.
Should I panic that my work life will be no different in a post-Covid-19 era? Are familiar ways, however unimpressive or unfruitful, so loathsome? What is my model of work that allows me to declare that I’m not collateral damage in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown?
It is my wisdom teeth. When they began sprouting in my mouth, pushing through my gums, however painful, I didn’t rush to have them extracted. I wanted to assume part of me wholly and then I was confronted by something odd – an overcrowding of teeth, an unfamiliar sensation in my mouth. But then I owned the new formation organically and made the adjustment. That’s the adivaani way of publishing and working.
I can’t hide behind Covid-19 for my situation. I can never use it as an excuse or pretext for my undertaking or failings. My old world will transport itself to whatever world comes next, whether I’m ready or not. Whether they merge or not, or whether my old, known ways remain in the margins of the new world waits to be seen. I surrender to the unknowable.
Ruby Hembrom is the founder and director of adivaani, an archiving and publishing outfit of and by Adivasis.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.