It was on March 19 this year, when we decided to close our office and bookstore at the iconic Book Building in Chennai, that the realisation actually hit home – we were literally shutting shop.

Until then, as news of the pandemic came in, we weren’t able to get a clear sense of what was happening or exactly where we were headed. “Let’s work from home for the time being,” was the thinking, “until the situation sorts itself out.” It seemed possible to keep ticking over somehow, provided everyone had access to a computer and a mobile phone. We were basically biding our time, not getting too much done, but not overly stressed about it either.

Tara Books is a small team of 12 people, and the publishing company is owned jointly by the group of people that runs it. As a collective of writers, designers and book-makers – we generate most of our titles in house – we function more like a creative studio than a conventional publisher. We enjoy playing with the form of the book, and also run a book-making workshop which employs 22 skilled artisans who produce our signature handmade titles.

Working together is crucial

Our way of publishing is innately collaborative – not only because we believe in working together as a collective – but also because, since we experiment so much, we have to put our heads together in a purely practical sense. We rethink and correct course constantly, and most of this requires the physical presence of the people involved.

So having to close the office indefinitely was worrying, to say the least. What now? The first step was to get our regular meetings going again: editorial, design, marketing, production and financial matters had to be discussed, and there were ways to continue doing that, obviously. But there was a more fundamental problem to tackle, for which we honestly had no solution.

Printed pages from a new book.

It had to do with the fact that much of what we did in the office – ideas for new projects, publishing decisions, course correction – happened in a contiguous, almost casual, manner. A chance remark during lunch could spark off a new idea, or a visitor to our bookstore might give us feedback that set us thinking. It was a personal, intuitive, and fairly organic way of functioning. There was an intangible creative energy when we worked together – which, in many senses, had come to define Tara’s work.

The absence of this would be the hardest to handle. So would be the loss of a very special physical space that everyone enjoyed working in. We didn’t become aware of just how vital all this was, right away. It was only with hindsight, when some of us – especially younger colleagues – felt increasingly lost and unproductive that we began to sense the true extent of that void. But there was, simply, nothing to be done about it. The situation was what it was.

The need for workflows

So – like others around the world – we got down to putting virtual channels in place to meet and talk regularly. After the initial awkwardness, it seemed to go alright, although network speeds in various locations had a large say in how successful the conversations were. We also started chat groups, which turned out to be surprisingly efficient and effective.

Communication across different work areas actually improved, oddly enough. No one missed out on an important conversation because they happened not to be in the same room at the same time. And we all had far less to do to bring others up to speed on ongoing discussions – it was all there, ready to refer to, anytime.

Provided, of course, that everyone was disciplined about putting things down, and in the right chat thread. Being systematic in this fashion, sadly, has not been one of our strengths. Our informal way of functioning never really required this kind of diligence – if there was something missing or needed correction, it was easy to simply walk across our open plan office to sort it out in person. And since our small team handled all the steps that went into publishing, we were always able to correct mistakes at – almost – any stage of the process. Not all mistakes, sadly, but a fair few.

This implied that there was no formal “signing off” of a particular stage of production that we consistently followed – edits to be carried out in the final file going to print, for instance, was not an uncommon occurrence. Sure, we had honed our workflows over many years of experience, and things were surprisingly smooth on the whole. But there was always a niggling feeling that it would help to make sure that certain steps in the publishing process were set down for everyone to follow.

1965 vintage letter press.

Meanwhile, as our list grew, the need for more automated management of inventory and logistics was evident, and these were now in place. And we had worked on building a sophisticated website, convinced that connecting directly to our readers around the world was the way forward. But when it came to other aspects of publishing, everyday tasks always seemed to take over and we never quite found the time to formalise those workflows. After all, things seemed to be working fairly well.

Now, in this new set of circumstances where we were all working remotely, efficient systems became an absolute necessity if we were to survive as an enterprise. A few of us set to work, taking on the painstaking work involved in getting good planning and project management software tailored to our needs, across all facets of publishing. The process is still ongoing, and we’re gradually bringing on board colleagues used to a different way of working, which is a task in itself.

For those of us involved in setting up these systems, it’s been a curiously satisfying experience. It’s allowed us to join the dots in the publishing process, from the initial idea for a book to actually creating and putting it out for the reader. Publishing is and will basically remain a personal (or collective) vision, but the act of bringing out a book is labour – a set of tasks that need to be carefully carried out to turn that vision into something tangible. Mapping it out for ourselves – with painful asides on what we’d missed out on or not paid enough attention to – gave us clues on where we could improve concretely.

Finally, greater focus on marketing

One of the areas definitely in need of an overhaul was marketing and distribution. It was a standing joke in the office from the earliest days: we would focus on creating a great book, and once it was done, we’d rejoice, forgetting that we needed to sell it, and just move on to the next project. Another office truism was the fact that foreign publishers who bought rights to our titles seemed to be able to sell far more copies than we ever did.

In truth, we have got better over time; but there is no escaping the fact that our books have far more potential than we have managed to tap. Our marketing budget has always ranged from modest to non-existent, but we did have other valuable assets: genuinely rich content, a good website, and a growing on-line following.

With new systems in place, we were ready to streamline our online activities – workshops, events, readings, social media posts – more strategically, spending more time and thought on each one. Directing readers to our website took on more urgency, given that sources of revenue had shrunk to a worrying dependence only on web sales.

The bookshop.

We had had to close our lucrative bookstore in Chennai, and were saddled with huge outstanding payments from other retailers. Rights sales to overseas publishers, another important avenue of income, was ruled out as well for the time being. International book fairs – where we did at least a third of our yearly business – had been cancelled. Not that publishers anywhere in the world were actively looking to acquire rights, in any case. Everyone was in the same boat.

The point of no return seemed to arrive with the total lockdown in March, when all avenues – including courier services – were shut down. So no further web sales, and now much of our time began to be spent on anxiously going over finances. Not paying salaries or reducing them was not an option we wanted to consider, and we decided to hold out for a couple of months, running on a bank overdraft. Miraculously, we did manage to hold on.

By and by, courier services resumed, and who would have thought? Our web sales shot up to levels we had honestly not anticipated, given the circumstances. It became a lifesaver. We did have loyal readers around the world, but perhaps we were also doing something right in our efforts to win new supporters.

Our offerings of new work, discounts and incentives seemed more considered, our communication had been more consistent, and we had been more efficient in sending out orders and heeding special requests. The adversity we were facing did seem to have shaken our whole team up to see the necessity of doing everything they could to keep the enterprise going.

Uphill road ahead

But the story doesn’t quite end on that upbeat note. We work with a number of indigenous artists, and almost all sources of income have dried up for them in the absence of fairs and other events to which they regularly travel. Some of them call and ask for help – and while we continue to try our best to find ways to support them, including advancing royalties – we’re still overwhelmed at times with a feeling of sadness at the vulnerability of these indigent and marginalised communities.

On another note, our own situation was one where the immediate worry of paying salaries to the team was deferred, yet our current income didn’t stretch to producing all the titles we’d lined up for the year. There were hard decisions to be made on which projects to publish – after all, we couldn’t just run on our backlist. But on what considerations would we decide?

The time-honoured way of following our instincts seemed too risky, within such limited means. It had to be a more measured exercise: another new milestone as far as we’re concerned. One factor was the need to keep our handmade book workshop running, with more than 20 families dependent on the work and income. A second one was to include a book at the other end of the spectrum: something inexpensive, for a very different audience.

A third was to try and find co-publishers for particular books, now that overseas publishers were beginning to review projects again. And the fourth was to use resources we had on hand, like reviving an old letterpress machine that was lying around.

Finally, this is what we’ve come up with: a new handmade book called The Deep, in collaboration with two extraordinary young artists from the Warli community. It came with the added bonus of partnering with the Japanese company Muji to produce a version for them. It will be the first (and, we hope, not the only) rights sale this year.

Art Sparks.

We also brought out a paperback art pedagogy book called Art Sparks, which argues for the value of art education in the Indian classroom. We’re currently printing a Tolstoy story illustrated with lithographs on our letterpress machine, called Little Girls Are Wiser Than Men. And to bring in extra income for ourselves and our artists, we’ve also produced a range of affordable art prints and stationery.

And that’s where we find ourselves currently: balancing the need to keep up the spirit of what we’ve built during these last 25 years, with doing what the situation requires. The irony is that we’ve never been known for trying to minimise risk as much as possible, but that’s probably not a bad thing to learn, provided we don’t make a habit of it.

Gita Wolf is the founder of Tara Books.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.