Home >Companies >People >The turnover has risen; the number of books per year has come down: Kapish Mehra

New Delhi: This year, Rupa Publications India, which publishes one of India’s most commercially successful authors Chetan Bhagat, completes 80 years in the business. While at first it largely distributed imported books, it gradually made its entry into publishing with books by Sunil Gavaskar, Gayatri Devi and Anurag Mathur’s bestselling novel The Inscrutable Americans.

At a time when mainstream English publishing houses in India focused largely on literary books, Rupa had its fingers on the pulse of a new growing readership for English general trade books, which it could easily tap into because of its established distribution network. Kapish Mehra, who joined the family-owned business while still in college because of his father’s ill health, is now managing director and mainly responsible for the expansion of Rupa over the past five-odd years.

In a bid to keep the right mix going, the company now publishes well-packaged literary books through Aleph, children’s books through its imprint Red Turtle and since January, business and management books with Maven.

Mehra shrugs off any criticism of publishers seeming more like printers nowadays, stating that only readers, and not the so-called custodians of publishing, can influence decisions on the books to be published. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Take us back 80 years to when Rupa started.

My great-grandfather was actually a hosiery seller in College Street, Calcutta (now Kolkata). There he met an English gentleman—the owner of Collins—who was impressed with his salesmanship and asked him to sell books. That’s how he got into books. Then, the name—he went to watch a play in Bengali, (which had) two characters, Rupa and Sona. He thought sona (gold) was too pompous, and chose rupa, which in Bengali means silver. And then, the logo: that happened because Satyajit Ray walked into the office one day and (offered to make one). The original Rupa logo that you see was done by Ray himself. He made it in exchange for a few books, that’s it.

(The first books we published were) two slim volumes of Bengali poetry. We really don’t know whose poetry this was; record-keeping wasn’t very strong at that point of time. Then we did a lot of distribution of books imported into India. Gradually, we started publishing in the 1970s and the 1980s (with) Sunil Gavaskar, Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur, Rajmata Gayatri Devi, Gulzar, Ramesh Menon.

Are you the one who gave a thrust to the publishing initiative?

I think it’s a combined effort; you need the energy, but also the guidance. Senior Mr Mehra (Kapish Mehra’s father) has given us a lot of knowledge and continues to guide us. When I took over, I didn’t know different forms of publishing—what literary publishing was or commercial publishing was. But I believed the commercial space was a large vacant space where there was readership. The third generation of English-speaking Indians were coming up, there was more money in their pockets because of the job opportunities created by call centres and banks. This was mushrooming in 2004-05, if you remember, and there was high disposable income. I believed that was the space one needed to tap into, and that in 10 years’ time, we should become the No. 1 general trade publisher. And we have.

Then I thought we should do literary publishing because that’s the next obvious move. Literary publishing is dominated in a large way by the editor—as in all forms of publishing, but in this case more—and personal relationships, as literary publishing is a more niche space than commercial. So we spoke to David Davidar and joined hands to form Aleph.

Then we believed we should start something with children, so we formed Red Turtle. This year in January, we moved into business and management with Maven. It’s a continuous journey, one has to keep developing.

Is general trade publishing still the mainstay of Rupa?

General trade publishing continues to form a big part of Rupa’s revenues and shall do so going forward. But it’s just the mix that has to keep changing. At one point, self-help was very big. But now business and management is very big. At some point of time, fiction was a big thing. And fiction is great in certain aspects, but non-fiction is the greater pile, from business and management to self-help, mind-body-spirit, biographies and parenting. Even in children’s books, it is non-fiction that sells more. So the business keeps evolving and changing.

It’s our responsibility to serve the reader, we’re not here to make a choice for them. It is our responsibility to assess, understand what the reader may be looking for, and publish books to suit readers’ tastes. There should be no hang-ups. In this business of publishing, the first responsibility of a publisher, I believe, is to try to identify the reader and publish a book for that person—which is missing in most cases. People believe that decisions should be made by the custodians of publishing, which is not correct. It is our responsibility to put out content. That as a belief has helped us sail through all these years, successfully.

How do you identify the book to sell?

The first is originality of idea. That’s very important. You can’t replicate a bestseller. Then there has to be continuity of thought. The third is the target audience. That access is very important. And I believe that is something we’ve been able to do reasonably successfully.

As far as I can see, all media seem to be thrashing their hands and legs around in the digital space in search of a formula for success.

Consumption patterns have to be viewed very carefully. Therefore, the success of the digital strategy is still evolving, it is still to be achieved. We believe that if the last 10 years were dominated by technology, the next 10 years are going to be dominated by content. Now we have almost reached a glass ceiling in terms of devices being created. The core differentiator now will be content that is loaded onto these devices. I think publishing has to be viewed from a perspective where it is no longer a business of just publishing, it is a business of content. One has to be very clear to say that some things in print will not work on the digital space.

I was once told by a general trade publisher that the last bestselling authors were discovered when bookshops still did well, not since the e-business started thriving?

I don’t think so. I think it’s the complete reverse of what I’m thinking. You can’t expect to be successful in the digital space where you have 25 million people and believe that their consumption pattern will not affect your growth, will not allow discoverability.

So, no doomsday scenario for publishing houses?

Not at all, I don’t think there is a doomsday scenario. As I said, we have to change the definition of how we view publishing. It can’t be looked as a traditional “look at a manuscript, publish the book, sell it to a bookshop or online". It is a far bigger animal. Unless we view it like that, it is impossible to grow.

There is a growing critique that publishers are becoming more of printers?

And why is that critique? But in our case, we used to publish 210 books a year, now we are down to 140-160 a year. We have done that consciously. So the turnover has risen, but the number of books per year has come down. I don’t think the strategy of publishing anything and everything is a good one. There is a cost to publishing: editorial, manpower, printing, everything. It is not sustainable.

Since pricing plays such an important role in your business strategy, is Aleph then a vanity project?

The vision for Aleph was clear. We wanted to be India’s best literary publishing company, which it already is if you see the number of awards that it has won in last three years. The vision is to publish quality fiction and non-fiction in the literary space. And Aleph books are priced higher. We understand there will be certain volume that these books will generate. And pricing plus volume will reach a certain overall number. We are happy with the way it has gone.

Do you publish in Hindi?

We do, but very little. I think Hindi is a great market. But Hindi book sales need effective retailing, which is where the challenge lies. Retailing in Hindi, if it is developed and more organized, it will certainly help. It is a large volume.

When you published President Pranab Mukherjee’s memoirs, there was a three-week exclusivity deal with Amazon, which meant the book was not available anywhere else for that time. In retrospect, was it a wise decision?

It was a strategic business decision that we made at that time for a variety of reasons and we honoured that decision. That’s all I want to say on that.

Have you made such a deal for any other book since?


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