As I enter Aleph Book Company’s subtly done-up office space in Yusuf Sarai, its co-founder and MD David Davidar walks in, exuding a candour that comes from years of multi-fold experience spent, in a way, formulating India’s publishing scene. The conversation begins instantly, picking up from the last time we met – when he set up Aleph two years back.
Recalling his ‘smooth’ journey with this relatively new publishing venture, Davidar says, ‘We didn’t have to fight for the authors we wanted. A lot of them came to us and the others who we wanted to target, we had no problem in getting them to sign with us. In these two years, we have probably published about 20 books, signed on about 100 authors and aim to publish 50 books a year from 2014. We have signed on Shashi Tharoor, who we will publish by next year. We want to be a very exclusive publishing house which brings out only select numbers of very up-market novels and quality fiction. We have done what we wanted to do and now let’s see how the market responds to us.’
Maintaining his quintessentially calm demeanour, when queried about Aleph focusing on a particular genre of books, especially on being a niche up-market publishing house, he goes on to say, ‘We are a specialist publisher and I am very clear about that. Having spent most of my life being a general publisher, I know how it works. For example our sister publisher, Rupa, is exactly like the company I used to run, Penguin, which, again, is similar to HarperCollins. These are very large companies which publish hundreds of books a year. They have to do so to maintain their turnover. They have to publish everything under the sun - from chic-lit to very high quality books. Aleph, however, is an extremely focused publisher. We only publish literary fiction and high quality non-fiction and nothing else.’
So, with quality as a benchmark, would he be ever venturing into publishing poetry? Davidar instantly replies, ‘I will never publish poetry because I don’t know how to publish poetry. Anyone can sell poetry but I don’t know how to make it sell.’
With the current onslaught of social media, what is the format of narratives dominating the publishing scene now? Davidar mulls over the question for about a second or two, and then goes on to say, ‘The minute people stop reading long-form narratives, we might as well all pack up and go home. I don’t think that is ever going to happen. You know all the stuff people talk about, on our attention span waning and so on, that is not completely true because from the beginning of time, we have always fallen back on story-telling that uses long-form narrative. When you watch television serials, you are willingly submitting to the long format.’
He pauses awhile, then adds, ‘Just forget these classifications – of book, movies, television serials, magazine articles that are in long format – they have just been packaged in different ways. The minute we stop feeling involved in it and our interest absolutely shifts to the Twitter kind of short form narratives, then, naturally, these forms will go away. So, I don’t think there is any fear about that. Yes, the forms might change. You might read in the e-book form. At that time, book published might vanish, movies produced might vanish, but how does that really matter? Somebody still has to make money. I think the question to ask is till how long the long form narrative would last. And the answer to that, I think, is, forever. People will always want a good story. And there will always be people who make up stories.’
Rupa has their Chetan Bhagat, has Aleph found its own? Davidar chuckles and says, ‘Well, Chetan Bhagat is the commercial end of the spectrum. He is an exceptionally good storyteller, but, we too have our own storytellers. They may not sell in the same number but let’s not forget we are exactly two years old and Rupa is 77 years old. So give us time. I am sure we will find our Chetan Bhagat.’
But would he really want to find someone like him for Aleph? ‘I would love to sell a million copies, who would not? But we are proud of every single book we publish. Because if we publish only 25 new books a year, each one has to count, make a real difference, whereas when you publish hundreds of books a year, you tend to get a little more relaxed about one book which does not do well. Right now, I am not at all in that frame of mind. For me, every book has to count,’ comes Davidar’s frank answer.
When is his next book coming out? ‘I know what I want to write, but I think I am going to give myself one more year for Aleph to settle down. When I was running large companies, I did not do much actual hands-on work. I just spent time telling other people what to do. But now, I actually have to do hands-on work. Now, if I don’t edit a book, then it does not get published. So, I am very busy actually editing books. Because I am doing so much of first hand editing myself, I can’t find time to write my own books. I will have to wait for at least another year for that,’ confesses Davidar.
How does he manage to separate the editor-publisher from the writer? Davidar remarks, ‘I realise that I am able to compartmentalise the disparate traits quite well. I don’t think too much and now I don’t care. I don’t read any reviews of my books. I don’t care about how my books are received. So, that helps.