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Urvashi Butalia | I want to prove that feminist publishing can survive commercially

The author and publisher on Indian women and how they’ve changed
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First Published: Fri, Jun 14 2013. 03 19 PM IST
Urvashi Butalia outside the Zubaan office in Shahpur Jat, New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Urvashi Butalia outside the Zubaan office in Shahpur Jat, New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
In 2003, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, founders of the feminist publishing house Kali For Women, decided to go their separate ways. Out of that split came Zubaan Books (headed by Butalia) and Women Unlimited (led by Menon). Although Zubaan carried forward Kali’s legacy of publishing feminist books of quality, it expanded its list to include more fiction, general interest books that straddle academic and non-academic non-fiction, and children’s titles. Mint spoke to Butalia about how her publishing project and feminist ideology have evolved in these 10 years. Edited excerpts:
How has the journey been so far?
It’s always difficult to start out of a split because no matter how clean a break is, one carries a sense of its tragedy. When Zubaan started, it was trying to set itself up against the formidable brand name Kali had established for itself, nationally and internationally, in spite of its small output.
Although the break from Kali did free us to look at other areas, we were extremely fearful that there would not be enough space in the market for two feminist imprints, especially since in the initial days of Kali, we were greeted with a lot of scepticism. We faced the usual problems small publishers do—building up authors, publishing them, then losing them to the bigger publishers.
But the challenges, when they came, were of a different order: excessive competition with the internationalizing of publishing; the kind of advances big publishers were paying; rising price of materials; heavy costs of distribution; and the need to raise salaries to maintain quality. You cannot be a feminist publisher and exploit men and women working with you. You cannot expect them to accept low salaries simply because they endorse the cause. But if you have to hike salaries, you need to increase income. In the early days, in a market dominated by the biggies, this was difficult.
How have your concerns as a publisher changed over these years?
Zubaan has broadened its base, focused more keenly on translation, and on finding a younger profile of writers. As a publisher, I have been especially concerned with the issue of copyright. Although I believe copyright is important, I also see the point of people wanting free access to knowledge. I feel that publishers, especially those who are not in the business for the commerce but for political reasons, are obliged to think about how we can take this forward.
In my own role as a publisher, I am thinking of a mix of copyrighted books and creative commons, of bookstores and books for differently-abled people. We must start making audio books, for instance. As I grow older, I realize the need for books with large print. At some stage, we were keen to do books for new literates. We still haven’t given up on that.
To what extent has feminist publishing been able to address the lived realities of women at a pan-Indian level?
I am aware that by publishing in English, from Delhi, we are constrained by class, language, location, and so on. But we have made a conscious effort to bring in the voices of marginalized women. We also work with publishers of other languages. In 1989, we did a book called Shareer ki Jankari (About the Body), about women’s bodies, written by 75 women from the villages of Rajasthan who did not have the wherewithal to print it—the kind of project that feminist publishers dream of.
When these women came to us with the book, they imposed only one condition: that we would not sell it for profit. We started with a print run of 2,000, but before the copies had arrived from the printers, the women had canvassed in villages and presold 1,800 copies. Over the years, we have sold some 70,000 odd copies.
What is your sense of the women’s movement in India now?
It’s difficult to talk about the women’s movement as a single entity as there are so many things happening across the country that disrupt the comfortable assumptions we had 20-25 years ago. Just to give you an example: back in 1993, a huge debate was triggered among feminists by the song Choli ke peechhe kya hai from the film Khalnayak on whether such open display of sexuality was pornographic or liberating.
Our earlier stances have changed over the years. There is a tremendous maturity in the thinking of feminists who are visible, articulate and by and large happen to be middle-class and urban. The ways in which they relate to the ground realities have also changed.
The 16 December incident last year proves this more than anything else, because the voice of reason in the hysteria was that of women’s groups. Women’s groups also cooperated with the justice Verma committee, and though they were disappointed when the law came in, they did not completely reject it. They decided to work with it and continue with their struggle to improve it. The openness in women’s groups to take up issues of transgendered people as well as violence and sexual assault on men—all of this would not have been around 20-25 years ago.
Also, activism around women’s issues is more widespread than we think it is; it is as much alive in the rural areas as in urban centres. And yet, all this does not change the broad realities: we still haven’t been able to address hunger, poverty, displacement in a comprehensive way.
What are the battles that remain to be won?
The major battle is one of survival. In my 40 years in publishing, things have never felt as exciting as they are now. It truly seems there are infinite possibilities. You have peers with whom you share political standpoints and can have innovative collaborations.
But there is also a real fear as to whether small publishing is going to be eaten up by the biggies. It’s always been my dream to prove that feminist publishing can survive, its politics intact, in the commercial marketplace. I used to be completely convinced of this, but now I am not so sure.
Also, for many Indies, the question of going beyond the founder is something that needs to be addressed. Some are much younger than us, so they need not necessarily bother with this right now. But for my generation there is a real need to figure out where it is going to go after us. Is the cause more important than the person? We are lucky in Zubaan to have a fantastic team and second line-up, so it’s not as if only the founder’s there. But nevertheless somebody needs to step into these shoes.
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First Published: Fri, Jun 14 2013. 03 19 PM IST
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