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In 1989, publisher Urvashi Butalia helped bring out a book that would eventually sell more than 50,000 copies. Not a single one was sold from a bookshop.

Called Shareer ki Jaankari (About the Body), it was a simple, prosaic handbook in Hindi on women’s sexuality, written by 75 women from villages in Rajasthan. They approached Butalia, co-founder and then head of Kali for Women, a publishing house dedicated to books “on and for women", with a handwritten manuscript. “It was every feminist publisher’s dream," Butalia says. “To be able to reach out, pertinently, beyond the elite, urban middle class."

Going strong: Zubaan book covers.

“It’s been reprinted many times, and translated into other languages," says Butalia, who was awarded the Padma Shri in January. “But throughout its life, it has never earned or lost a penny."

The book is representative of Butalia’s approach to publishing, one that India’s independent publishers exemplify—walk the tightrope of sustainability, but publish what you believe in, not what makes money.

In 2003, Kali for Women split to form two imprints—Zubaan Books, which Butalia now heads, and Women Unlimited, run by Kali co-founder Ritu Menon.

Over the next two months, Zubaan Books will be making the transition from a non-profit (which it is currently registered as) to a for-profit company. That change means a fundamental shift in the way Butalia approaches the industry, having worked in non-profit mode since Kali’s founding in 1984. “I think Zubaan is beginning to outgrow me and take its own direction," she says. “We need to move to a formalized structure that survives and has a life of its own beyond the founder."

There’s no easy way to categorize Zubaan’s speciality. They’re currently working on an anthology of speculative retellings of the Ramayan, and have just released a set of essays on assisted reproductive technologies. Their most popular book is 2005’s A Life Less Ordinary, the translated autobiography of Baby Halder, a Delhi domestic help. International rights to the title were sold to HarperCollins US.

Only one thing becomes apparent when you look at Zubaan’s current list of books, says commissioning editor Anita Roy. “It’s not the shape it should be if you’re considering a viable business," she says, “because we’re a bunch of eclectic, unruly women who’ll publish everything from speculative fiction to picture books for toddlers."

Zubaan’s mainstay is two-pronged—academic feminist work that carries over from Kali for Women, and Young Zubaan, which focuses on books for children up to the teens. “Children’s books in India are conservative, preachy, derivative and just not very good," Roy says. Zubaan also helped found children’s book events such as the annual festival Bookaroo.

Creating canon

Butalia and writer Ritu Menon founded Kali for Women with no money and an “unintuitive, instinctive business model".

“We both came from salaried jobs, and we had no starting capital to speak of," she says. “We set it up as a non-profit since it gave us access to grants, and we really didn’t see the whole thing as a profitable activity anyway." The company’s first office was in the garage of Menon’s Delhi house, and the two co-founders worked without a salary. They applied for a grant from a Norwegian donor for “the princely sum" of Rs1.4 lakh for two books, and that became their operating fund. They farmed out their editorial services and did a bit of freelancing to keep afloat.

When the first two books (a collection of short stories by Indian women writers called Truth Tales and a history of the women’s movement called The History of Doing)were ready, however, they hit their first blind spot—distribution.

“Distribution was something we learnt only over time," Butalia says. “The atmosphere wasn’t so hospitable back then."

Sales of Kali’s early books were mainly to libraries, and dealing with a multitude of small distributors was difficult. “But we were the only ones publishing for women," she says. “Our books grew out of the women’s movement in India." Book stores around the country were being asked—when is the next Kali book coming out? This was a question that mystified booksellers; they’d only witnessed loyalty to authors, not to publishers.

In the absence of systematic market research and data (a problem the industry still faces), this helped Kali understand its audience better than most general publishers. The specific focus led international buyers to pick up rights for their titles.

“We got $1,000 (around Rs45,000) for one of our books on women and religion (titled Speaking of Faith)," Butalia says. “And little by little, our finances added up."

Kali broke even the third year, and the founders decided to take “an imaginative leap forward".

This period was Kali’s most significant. They published eco-feminist Vandana Shiva’s landmark Staying Alive, on women and ecology, in 1988. Then came Shareer ki Jankari.

Recasting Women, a book that looked at alternate tellings of colonial history, was also released in 1989. It became a feminist academic classic, and has been reprinted every year since then. “Numbers are low for academic works. We usually do a first print run of 500 copies and hope for the best," Butalia says. “If it’s successful, then there’ll be a paperback and a further 1,500 copies." Recasting Women went above and beyond, and has sold about 15,000 copies since its debut. By the early 1990s, Kali was the archetypal independent publisher in India.

“Urvashi is like a role model," says Arpita Das of Yoda Press, an independent publisher in Delhi. “We found our inspiration in what Kali achieved, carving out a space for discourse on an issue."

The model that Kali established hasn’t changed radically with Zubaan. Politics is still the driving force. Grants still propel ambitious projects. Teams are still small—Kali employed six people when it split in 2003, Zubaan now has nine. “Keeping overheads low is tougher now," Butalia says. “An office is compulsory, and rents are expensive." There’s also increasing competition from other publishers, since Zubaan isn’t the sole women’s publisher any more. “We have to offer competitive salaries because our people are headhunted all the time," she says.

Getting the word out

But putting something out there leads to the stalemate of distribution, which remains a tricky decision.

Going with fragmented, multiple distributors ensures a wider reach and better bargaining terms, but payment collections are a headache. An exclusive deal makes that easier, but your independence is limited.

“Publishers get a lot of flak for overpricing, but you have to remember that the distributors get the books at a 60% discount," Butalia says. “That leaves 40% of the cost to cover overheads, taxes, royalty and production. You’re lucky if you can get a 4-5% profit at the end of this."

After much discussion, Zubaan now has exclusive distributors for the two main components of their list—Cambridge University Press for academic titles, and Penguin Books for the other “general" titles. “Professional distributors charge an arm and a leg," Butalia says. “But the luxury of getting a cheque and a sales statement on the seventh of each month is worth it."

Zubaan’s also actively looking at the Internet, staying abreast of a readership that has leapfrogged, in Roy’s words, “from bookshops to apps".

Their site has a rudimentary online store, and e-books are planned. "We don’t fully understand the dynamics of e-books and e-readers and tablets, but we’ve decided to be present there," Butalia says. “I refuse to get on Facebook, but Zubaan has a page there and we use it."

In 2010, Zubaan published a small book of poems by Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila. Called Fragrance of Peace, it was released on the 10th anniversary of Sharmila’s hunger fast for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. All proceeds from sales went to funds supporting Sharmila’s campaign.

“We’ve done our best to maintain the balance between being realistic and idealistic," Butalia says. “The women’s movement has grown and expanded." So too has readership. “I have a problem with people calling our work a niche," she says. “We’re publishing about half the world, and our audience is the whole world."

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