Home > mint-lounge > features > Publishers up against major obstacles: David Davidar

New Delhi: The last year’s final month was a paradoxical time for publisher and novelist David Davidar. On 12 December, his publishing house Aleph released an anthology edited by him. A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th century to the present was dedicated to K.D. Singh, the owner of The Book Shop in Delhi who died last year. A much-loved figure among Delhi’s book buyers, Singh had a more intimate connection to Davidar. His eldest daughter is married to the 56-year-old publisher.

But here’s the catch—Davidar’s book was not obtainable in Singh’s store. In fact, it was not to be seen in any store in India. Rupa Publications, the promoter of Davidar’s publishing house, was selling his book (along with President Pranab Mukherjee’s memoirs) for the first few weeks exclusively on Amazon.in. The business deal sparked outrage among Delhi’s bookshop owners who fired angry e-mails of comradeship to each other, some even threatening to boycott books by Rupa and Aleph.

This must have been a tricky situation for Davidar, who, as he confesses, had his life shaped by independently owned bookstores. In an interview, Davidar spoke with great caution on this subject although he talked in detail about the new book, which has 39 tales translated from various Indian languages.

Edited excerpts:

Your book is dedicated to K.D. Singh. How ironic that it was not available in his bookstore!

K.D. Singh was one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever known. Everyone knows him as a legendary bookman and a pillar of the Indian literary establishment but I was fortunate to have seen other sides of him as well—as a friend for close to three decades and later as my father-in-law. Indeed, The Book Shop means so much to so many people. My mother-in-law constantly has people coming up to her to say how much KD meant to them and how much they miss him.

Regarding Amazon, all that needs to be said is that it was a sales initiative that we were trying out, rather like the various sales initiatives publishers undertake from time to time.

Talk about independently owned bookstores.

They had a large role to play in my life, especially during their heyday. Unfortunately, many of them no longer survive or if they do, are owned by large chains (like Hatchards in London, which is now a part of Waterstones).

My favourite bookstore, naturally, is The Book Shop in Delhi. I’m biased but in my view it is the epitome of the independent bookstore. It has a great selection of books, it is perfect for browsing, and K.D. Singh was the greatest friend, philosopher and guide any bibliophile could have. Other favourite independent bookstores would include the old Higginbothams in Chennai, Mr.Shanbag’s Strand Book Stall in Mumbai, Manneys in Pune, Fact and Fiction in Delhi, the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle, run by Rick Simonson, and McNally Jackson in Manhattan. I must also mention three stores, owned by large chains, that I love because they have the look and feel of indies—Hatchards, especially under the great Roger Katz who retired a few years ago, the Barnes & Noble flagship store in Union Square in NYC, and the Kinokuniya store in Singapore run by my friend Kenny Chan.

Apparently English-language readers don’t understand the real India. How much has your understanding evolved following this anthology?

It’s incorrect to think that readers who only have English do not understand ‘the real India’. Their India (whether real or imagined) is as real as any other India. It might be correct to say that without languages other than English it is difficult to get under the skin of rural and small town India; however, in the same way, someone who has only Telugu or Manipuri is enclosed by the limits of their particular linguistic stockade.

In all, my friends and I must have read over 1,500 stories, in addition to those that had remained with me for decades, to arrive at the final selection (for the anthology). Needless to say, putting together this anthology, which could be seen as the logical culmination of a lifetime of ‘engaging with’ Indian literature, gave me a new appreciation of the richness, range and diversity of the modern Indian short story tradition. No other country can claim that its literary culture is created in over 30 major languages, and over 100 other languages and dialects. This treasure trove of stories unfortunately is largely hidden from view because not enough of our literature is translated well for the benefit of readers in languages other than those in which they are created. I hope there will be several dozen more anthologies like this one.

Your sister company (Rupa Publications) recently published Pranab Mukherjee’s ‘The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years’.

It was a major milestone in Indian publishing because to my knowledge no sitting president has written about the politics of his time (president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam published non-political books).

The three politicians I would really like to publish, because I think they would have fascinating stories to tell, are Sonia Gandhi, Omar Abdullah and Vasundhara Raje Scindia. They have been at the centre of some of the country’s biggest political developments and in all their cases their political lineage is fascinating and largely unknown to the reading public.

Tell us about Vikram Seth’s forthcoming novel.

All I know about A Suitable Girl is that it is being written. Vikram tends to show his publishers the manuscript when it is complete. I have been hugely enriched by the experience of being Vikram’s editor. I believe A Suitable Girl will be the novel of the decade in which it is published. I say this without knowing what else is going to be published two to three years from now but I’m sure Vikram’s novel will be a monumental work and will blow readers away.

I’ll mention an incident about Vikram which dates back to the very beginning of our relationship. I was very keen to publish him at Penguin, the company I was working for at that time. The book that was on offer was a collection of poems, All You Who Sleep Tonight. Looking for a way to impress the author, I made my offer in the form of a sonnet and he accepted by way of a sonnet—this marked the beginning of our friendship and author-editor relationship.

What aspects of Indian publishing worry you?

We could publish fewer books, pick our books better, we could edit better, we could market better, we could sell more innovatively and so on but it isn’t as though publishers aren’t trying to do the best by their books. Lest we forget, they are up against major obstacles— shrinking reading habits, diminished retail space, retailers who don’t pay, print and online media that doesn’t give much importance to books to name just a few of the bigger hurdles they have to negotiate. One area in which we have improved tremendously over the past quarter century is in the look and feel of our books. The best books produced in India compare favourably with books published anywhere in the world.

There was a time when one imagined publishing houses to be places that entertained a refined sort of writing.

In the first half of the 20th century many great literary publishing companies such as Alfred A.Knopf, Faber & Faber, Andre Deutsch, Hamish Hamilton, Harcourt Brace & Co., among others, were founded. They were all exclusively literary but today, with the exception of Faber, none of them exist in their original form. So you might say that for a brief period, almost a century ago, in the world of ‘modern’ trade publishing, there was a ‘golden age’ of literary publishing. Since then the majority of publishing houses have had to broaden the range of their offerings because it is impossible to survive on literary publishing alone. Publishers after all do not exist in a vacuum. They have to cater to the market.

Which writers you will like to ‘steal’ from other publishers?

I wish I could tell you that but I am not going to. What I would like to say is that I’m not a fan of poaching writers from other companies. However, I have no problem with taking on a writer I admire if he or she approaches us. Also, we do commission writers published by other companies to do specific books for us as one-offs. When I was at Penguin I tried to interest Chetan Bhagat in moving but now that Rupa promotes Aleph, the question does not arise.

Are you writing anything new?

I am so completely involved in Aleph’s publishing that it doesn’t give me either the time or the creative energy to work on my own writing. However, there has been a novel that I’ve been thinking about for many years now. It is based on a historical incident that took place in south India, which has now passed into myth and memory. I hope to get to it in the New Year.

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