Sterling Publishers

Vol. 7 No. 3-5, February-April 2013
Dear Publishing Professional,

I would like to share my recent experience in the designing of a book cover for our forthcoming book—Destination MBA: Showing you how to get there. The author suggested that she would want to get the cover designed by her friend. I encouraged her for it. The artist came up with a design that had logos of the major MBA schools around the world. It looked good and I gave my art director a go-ahead for finalizing it. Soon it dawned on me that the logos are the copyright of the schools. I tried to contact my legal adviser for a clarification on this but he was busy celebrating Holi. Then I shared my thought with our author and we decided to write to the schools seeking permission to use the logos. She dropped mails to all the schools whose logos had been used and got the following responses:

From Harvard: Unfortunately this does not fall within our logo use policy and we can NOT give you permission to use the Harvard Business School logo on the cover of your book. From Yale: We cannot grant permission to use the Yale School of Management logo on your book jacket. We don’t allow our logo or word marks to be used outside of the school’s own publications or for commercial purposes.

The permission was declined from most of the schools. Friends, we decided to redesign the cover and saved ourselves from legal complications that might have come up.

Talking of breach of copyright, I recall a case about a publisher friend who had compiled the speeches of the former President of India into a book and had got arrested. He was involved in a long legal battle. The lesson learnt is that we shouldn’t use somebody’s property for our commercial use or benefit. So let’s be careful!

Publishing and Asian writing in the Indian subcontinent has come of age. Our publishers have started paying heavy advances. Recently, Amish Tripathi got an advance of US$ 1 million on his forthcoming book, yet to be titled, from Mr Gautam Padmanabhan, Westland. This outstanding deal is an advance for his next book, audio book and ebook rights for South Asia territory through a literary agency Red Ink owned by our friend Mr Anuj Bahari.

For the Indian publishing industry the deal is an empowering step. It clearly shows the maturity of Indian writing and the advent of literary agency business in the industry.
Weidenfeld & Nicholson has signed the Story of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani education activist, for £2 million. She was shot in the head by the Taliban in October 2012 but survived.

I must make a special mention here of our publishing colleague turned journalist Mr Najam Sethi of Vanguard Books, former editor of Daily Times and a popular host on Geo TV, who has been elected as the caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab in Lahore. Congratulations to him!

In this issue I have interviewed Ms Mandira Sen, a social science research and feminist publisher from Kolkata. I hope you will enjoy reading it just as much as I have enjoyed interviewing her.


I met her at a seminar in memory of Tejeshwar Singh and we met again over breakfast on 23 March 2013 for a one-to-one.
SKG Good morning Mandira ji! I wanted to interview you for Publishing Today; thank you for giving me the time in Delhi. Should we start?
Yes, why not?

SKG How did you come in to Publishing?
I started working right at the bottom in publishing in Boston. I had been to school and university in London because my father, who was a civil servant, was posted in London and after he and the rest of my family returned to India I stayed on to complete my BA and MA. Thus, a couple of years later, when I went to Boston in 1972 with my husband (who was doing a PhD) it was not too difficult to get a job at the lowly end. One great thing about the USA is its openness, so the publishers were willing to consider me. They also liked the British English that I had been taught. I first worked for Schenkman Publishing Co at Harvard Square, Cambridge. It was a small publishing house specializing in the social sciences, owned and run by Alfred Schenkman, who had very close ties to the academics of Harvard and MIT. He had a fairly rapid turnover of senior staff, who would get impatient of the cash flow problems the company faced as a result of which salaries were not paid on time. Eventually they would leave, which meant that the juniors would take over the books, learning publishing skills on the run until someone senior was appointed. People who worked in Schenkman later did very well in publishing; for instance, Mary Mendell who was a designer went on to design books for Duke University Press and many of her designs won awards at the Association of American University Presses’ annual competition.

Though I started as a receptionist and general dogsbody, soon I too learnt how to proofread, copyedit, write blurbs, deal with authors and designers and printers and got a hang of what publishing was. After a year, I decided to work part time and spent the rest of the time as a freelance proofreader and copyeditor for other publishers. One of these was Little, Brown and Co, one of the oldest US publishers (now owned by Hachette), who was a major publisher of medical books. Here I was given assignments and later a full-time job as an editorial assistant. From there I went to work as one of the two copyeditors in the trade division of Houghton Mifflin Co (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Like this I worked for five years in the US publishing industry.

In 1978, I came back to India. From 1979 to 1982 I worked with Orient Longman as regional editor in Kolkata, which was a very valuable experience for me as I learnt about the existing state of publishing in India then. In 1983-1984, I was in the UK with my husband who was spending a year at Oxford University, and I was able to work as a freelancer for Oxford University Press on medical books and children’s books. When I returned in 1984, I started the Mandira imprint for publishing children’s books in Kolkata, publishing folktales for children in two languages, English and an Indian language (Gujarati, Bengali, Urdu) which I exported to the UK. I also published social science. But in a couple of years, my parents-in-law were seriously ill; priorities changed and publishing took a backseat.

SKG Did you ever think of staying back in the USA or UK?
No, neither did my parents or sisters. Though a sister did move to the USA after her marriage but we always wanted to return. Of course, the years that I spent there were my formative years and helped me immensely in initiating my career in publishing; what I learnt there made me what I am, and it undoubtedly influenced my publishing interests.

SKG When did you restart again?
I needed guidance and it was around 1986 that I met the late Dr. Amrik Singh, educationist and publisher of Indian Book Chronicle, who was always supportive. It was he who pointed out that someone who had much to teach on distribution was Tejeshwar Singh, who was then setting up Sage. He sent me to meet him. I am obliged to both of them. Dr. Singh helped me to become a member of the India International Centre. I received a lot of kindness and help from him and Tejeshwar and am grateful that I got to know them.

Around the same time, I met Mr. Ramdas Bhatkal, then the managing director of Popular Prakashan (now its chairman) at a conference organized by the International Association of Scholarly Publishers (IASP) in Delhi during World Book Fair in 1986.I had published one book, Domination and Dissent: Peasants and Politics by Javeed Alam, and so was just about eligible to attend. Like many who are absolutely confident about what they do, Mr. Bhatkal came across as unassuming and easy to talk to. In fact, it was only later that I realized he headed Popular Prakashan. To my surprise, as I considered myself as a beginner, Mr. Bhatkal proposed that I could distribute their books in Kolkata. I found this to be quite a struggle as I did not have a team but just a part-time person in sales. I thought he might end the arrangement when instead he suggested that we could start a publishing venture.

The partnership is with Harsha Bhatkal, his older son, who had grown up surrounded by the wonderful books published by the firm that his grandfather, G. R. Bhatkal had founded. That is how Bhatkal and Sen, a joint partnership, was formed in 1990.

SKG When did you initiate Stree and Samya imprints and how did the idea come to you?
Bhatkal and Sen wanted to publish a different kind of social science. So we started Stree, an imprint that would publish women’s studies, bringing in the new ideas, concepts and tools that the women’s movement had brought to the creation of knowledge. The women’s movement had transformed the way people looked at knowledge and explained how women’s contributions to life, culture and work had been overlooked for centuries. Popular Prakashan had published distinguished scholars like D. D. Kosambi, G. S. Ghurye, A. R. Desai, and were ready to support an innovative women’s studies’ list. The pioneer of women’s studies in India was Kali for Women, set up by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon in 1984.

Today, we publish in English and in Bangla on the status of women, covering anthropology, sociology, politics, economics, and women’s writings in translation. I can only mention a few titles here to show you the range: Ajita Chakraborty, My Life as a Psychiatrist: Memoirs and Essays (she was the first woman psychiatrist in India); Rani Bang, Putting Women First:Women and Health in a Rural Community; Sarmistha Dutta Gutpa, Identities and Histories: Women’s Writing and Politics in Bengal, two translations, one fiction, from Marathi; Vibhavari Shirurkar, Shabari, and nonfiction, The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs by Urmila Pawar.

We were interested in publishing books that would not fit into women’s studies. In 1996, we started the second imprint, Samya (equality), focusing on caste and could be the first publisher to have done this kind of publishing. Samya covers the way society is changing, as the discussion on caste reveals, and we also wanted to publish on new kinds of knowledge and on Dalit writings, often in translation. In 1996 we started with Kancha Ilaiah’s Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. His was a new voice, speaking for the downtrodden. His life was transformed by the success of this book, which was seen as a manifesto for the Dalit Bahujans. He was asked to write columns in English dailies like the Hindu, the Hindustan Times, the Deccan Chronicle, and so on. We also publish Dalit autobiographies like Joothan: A Dalit Life, by Omprakash Valmiki, which was the first book to receive the New India Foundation’s Award, given by Infosys in 2004. We do collections of essays by Dalit scholars to show a new kind of social critique—Ravikumar, Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics; Ashok Mitra, A Prattler’s Tale: Bengal, Marxism, Governance; Jolly Kaul, In Search of a Better World: Memoirs, new interpretations of history and society, Achuthan M. Kandyil, Writing History: A View from Below; Anand Teltumbde, Hindutva and Dalits, and so on. Currently, we are in the process of publishing a new psychological study on the partition in the eastern region: Jayanti Basu, Reconstructing the Bengal Partition: The Psyche under a Different Violence.

SKG What are the challenges you are facing in Publishing Today?
Distribution has always been a problem for small establishments. Getting collections remains difficult and messes up the cash flow and planning. Now the question of the ebook has also transformed publishing programmes and complicated policy. Co-publishing agreements are tied to territory, and ebooks cross borders easily. Of course, these are what other publishers are also grappling with, and there is much discussion on how to reframe agreements to take care of new developments. Here working together as an industry is most helpful as most of us are not experienced in this area. For instance, how does one price ebooks versus the print edition and how are agreements with authors being framed now.

Another problem is retaining authors. Small enterprises take risks and develop new authors and once the latter are established the mainstream moves in. They can offer much more than we can.

This means being innovative on what to publish, doing what independent publishers do best: publish in a new area. Today greater gains are coming from entertainment, not education. Independent publishers are best at education, at packaging knowledge, which has smaller print runs that have not increased over decades. At the same time, the large multinationals who are grappling with the mass market in this new phase of publishing are also uncertain, and to fortify their presence in the market have moved into the academic market. So we have to be very clear on what we are publishing and for whom. We have to make sure that we are publishing books that sell.

Finally, recruitment has changed: up to about five years ago, experienced and inexperienced people would be anxious to work for the quality enterprises. They would learn editorial and production skills that would be very competitive. But now the salary level matters, and it is harder to find experienced professionals as they now want high salaries that usually the large companies can pay, often for lesser experience. It is still easy to get interns since they want a foothold in the industry and are eager to be trained.

SKG How many new titles do you publish in a year?
We do about nine substantial books a year, which may have taken about two years in editorial work, though we also do books that move through editorial and production much faster or we would not survive. And we reprint about five books a year.

SKG How do you distribute your titles?
We do some distribution ourselves. We are six people, and one is a sales executive who has been with us for twelve years. And we distribute through Popular Prakashan and a group of independent publishers’ distributors of which I am one of the eight partners This is called the Independent Publishers’ Distribution Alternatives (IPDA).

SKG Please share your experience regarding Indian Publishers Distribution Alternative network.
This group was founded in 2005, its partners are Leftword, Navayana, Sanskriti, Stree-Samya, Three Essays, Tulika Books (scholarly, Delhi), Tulika Publishers (children’s books, Chennai), and Women’s Unlimited. The marketing director is Amrita Akhil. IPDA is headed by Indira Chandrasekhar of Tulika Books, Delhi. IPDA has certainly helped us. The group also distributes for other small publishers. This network has the advantage that we can consult each other and have brainstorming sessions, which really beneficial.

SKG Which title of yours has been a bestseller?
We have published four books by Kancha Ilaiah and Why I Am Not a Hindu is a bestseller since it was published in 1996; it reprints every 16 months or so, had nine reprints before going into a revised edition (2005) and it has a Hindi translation Main Hindu Kyun Nahi. The revised editon has been reprinted a number of times. The other three books are: God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism; Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism, which also get reprinted very often, as does Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan. The Samya books do very well because these are reaching out to a new readership. In Stree, Pinjare Basiya (‘Inside the Cage’) by Kalyani Dutta, talking about women’s lives across several decades, is in much demand. Her critique of Bengali society, say of how child widows were treated by the Bengali Bhadraloks is distressing because it is so gently written.

SKG Federation of Indian Publishers gave you an award in 1999. What was the award for?
This was for ‘Distinguished Woman Publisher’. It was also given to Sharda Chawla of Madhuban Books and Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia of Kali for Women.

SKG What are your hobbies apart from publishing?
I am a fanatical gardener. I listen to Indian and Western classical music. I also enjoy cooking, especially baking.

SKG Please define a good book.
Something that stirs you up and makes you think. In my office room I have framed a shopping bag that I found in a German stall at Frankfurt. It is a quote from Kafka in German, of course. It translates as ‘A good book is the axe for the frozen sea inside me’.

SKG What are you reading these days?
Akira Kurosawa’s Something like an Autobiography, a slim book that stops in 1950, though he had many more decades to live; and Alice Munro, Dear Life

SKG How do you take the challenge of ebooks vs printed books?
We are trying to have a clearer policy as opposed to doing something ad hoc. The Bangla books will be dealt with a company that offers a platform of mostly Bangla books. On the English books, IPDA is going to take a joint position, although we also do ebooks on an individual basis, we think coming as a group would be an advantage. We plan to consult with Popular Prakashan, which is fairly ahead in ebooks and online selling. While there is no need to panic the way the Western publishers did a couple of years ago or so, ebooks are going to increase in numbers. I have heard that for Columbia University Press, the ebooks outsell the printed books, and assume this is the same with the other US university presses. Among the differences with ebooks are the facts that Manish Purohit of Popular Prakashan pointed out: that an ebook does not go out of print the way a print book does and that it does not cost anything to keep it going. There is still a lot to find out about the way ebooks will work out in India.

SKG Is any member of your family helping you in your venture?
Not on a daily basis. My husband has always been supportive. He is a good sounding board. My sister Ranjana, who has worked as a senior publishing executive for Penguin and is now a consultant with Aleph, also willingly advises me if I am stuck. We get a lot of support from designers and printers in our area. I am fortunate to have helpful colleagues.

SKG Any other point that I have missed and you would want to share here?
Possibly the very areas we publish are going to change. What we think as ‘knowledge’ will be less consolidated and more fragmented. Thus the humanities and social sciences are changing and we have to be watchful of what should be published. We focus on the margins of society—Dalits, migrants, women, and many have moved to the centre, leaving the margins to newcomers. I believe the growth will come from Indian language publishing as the new readers will be from smaller towns and cities. Translations, which we have been doing for twenty years, will take centre stage at last.

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