The best editors are invisible, says David Davidar. And he should know, after an ignominious stint with Penguin Canada when he hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. However, Davidar is back with a bang with a new publishing house, Aleph Book Company, in collaboration with Rupa Publishers. We caught up with the man in his Yusuf Sarai office. Davidar opens up to Millennium Post about the business of publishing, the amount of junk on the bookshelves, best ways to select a manuscript and even travels back to the past to reminisce how situations could have been handled better. Excerpts:
Buying and reading books is at an all-time low. Do you think it makes economic sense to start a publishing house now?
India is an exception to the rule. There is a lot of churning going on in the world of publishing because of the impact of digital publishing, self publishing and players like Amazon. In this country, there is no telling where digital sales will be in the next five years. It can go from less than one per cent as it is presently to 25 per cent or more very quickly. At the moment, however, it is the traditional form of publishing and selling that prevails. This is not to say that there is no change in the Indian market, far from it. It’s expanding. Chetan Bhagat can sell more than a million copies. This sort of thing couldn’t have happened 20 years ago. Of course, there are problems of payments, production, distribution and lack of shelf space. But, on the other hand, every book that catches on now has an opportunity to rack up good sales. And I couldn’t have set up Aleph anywhere else, there is nowhere else in the English language publishing environment that is as conducive to a trade publishing startup. Also, my greatest expertise is in publishing books in this country.
How will Aleph be different from the rest?
We want to be uncompromisingly literary and find the best authors - novelists, historians, biographers and journalists. The language should be first rate. Our list will be small and exclusive in terms of of what we publish, but thanks to the partnership with Rupa, the finest distributors in the country, we will have the same muscle power in terms of sales and marketing as the bigger publishing houses. What we’re hoping to do is marry the exclusivity and attention to detail of a small publisher with the resources and strengths of a big house.
These are early days yet, so we’ll have to see. But we are hopeful it will work. And our expectations are realistic.
What do you think about the Indian literary scene?
I didn’t keep a close tab on what was going on for some time. But when I came back I was very encouraged by what I saw. When we started Penguin here India was a wasteland so far as trade publishing was concerned. Then in the next decade or so you had the emergence of the giants in Indian writing in English. Now, you have an explosion of writers of commercial fiction and non-fiction but the Indian market is still quite immature. We have few great historians, biographers, thriller writers, translators, science writers... there is so much to be done. But I’m very optimistic about a lot of things. I find it great that Indian readers today are prepared to make up their own minds about what is worth reading and what is not as opposed to previously when London and New York made up our minds for us. It is fantastic that the bestseller lists today are dominated by Indian books as opposed to foreign imports. But a lot remains to be done and there are tons of opportunities for publishers who know what they are doing.
Everyone these days is an author. Do you think there is need for quality control?
Of course. With the democratisation of publishing, the amount of rubbish that is published is going to increase exponentially. The pundits predict the demise of publishing as we know it, and say that in the future all authors will do their own publishing. However, I believe that there will always be a role for publishers. Some authors will of course self-publish, but a lot of them will want someone to edit, package, and market their work, and an advance to survive. From the point of view of Aleph, we’re hoping that if a reader wants to read a good book, that our logo on a book will be a guarantee of quality.
How do you select a manuscript?
In trade publishing no matter what anyone might say, the assessment of a manuscript is always subjective. And the only way an editor can get any good at recognising the intrinsic worth of manuscript is if he or she has read widely, and for a substantial portion of their lives. And no one editor is going to be good for every kind of book. Genres like horror and romance need different editors.
A good editor starts getting better after half a dozen years in the business. A good editor has to be able to look at a manuscript from the point of view of a reader, and understand how the book works. A good editor never forgets that the book belongs to the author. Any improvement in a manuscript as a result of a collaboration between the author and the editor, can only happen if the author is okay with it. The best editors work from within the author’s voice. Or to put it differently, the best editors are invisible. That is why authors move with their editors.
Author/publisher/journalist. which role do you enjoy most?
All. Otherwise there was no reason for me to continue to be a publisher for 25 years. Since I came back it must be something I like. There is great joy in working with people whose work I find thrilling. There is still a thrill to see a book that you have worked on finding its way in the world.
I find it really difficult to write. Every book I write goes through four drafts. The first three are discarded and I find working on the fourth draft quite wonderful. But I write because I feel I have something to say, a story to tell. As a journalist, the excitement goes on. I like the idea of working within a set word limit.
You have published so many accomplished authors. Who among them do you prefer when you pick up a book?
I think I will leave a posthumous note on that (laughs), especially where subcontinental authors are concerned. Right now, I am reading a slew of wonderful crime writers like the Icelandic novelist Arnaldur Indridason.
At Penguin, the work you selected was high brow. Rupa is mass-market. Do you think the new venture is a compromise for you?
Not at all. Rupa will continue to publish in the areas that it is dominant in, and Aleph will chart its own course.
What about digital publication?
Within six months of print publication, the e-book version should be available. We will be considering standalone digital books when we perceive the demand for them.
For a new establishment, what is more important – to break away established authors or to develop new stars in writing?
Ideally a mix. Every publisher is looking for that really exciting debut. The first Adiga, or the first Seth. There is something about newness, but there is also a thrill in seeing someone grow. There is no reason why an author would leave a publisher unless there is something lacking – money, distribution, marketing – or a desire to move with the editor. We intend to have a mix of established writers and truly exciting new talent. The common thread between the two will be that the writing will always be first rate. For our part we will do everything in our power to ensure that the editorial, design and production quality we provide is unimpeachable. We will try to ensure that our marketing and sales effort is innovative and gets our books moving off the shelves.
Will you be coming up with another book?
I have started working on one and have already written six chapters. I started a year and half ago. It is a novel and the central character is an outlaw, a Robin Hood kind of a figure set in early 20th century India.
Moving back, when you faced charges of sexual harassment as head of Penguin in Canada, do you think you were given a media trial without getting a chance to defend yourself?
You know, there is nothing that I have to add to what I said initially. Yes, the situation could have been handled differently, but there was very little I could do about that. It was a very strange period. I haven’t moved an inch from my position that the allegations were fabricated, and I’m glad I have nothing further to do with that toxic situation.
The House of Blue Mangoes
Price: Rs 425 | Pages: 432 | Publisher: Penguin Books
It is the last year of 19th century in the village of Chevathar in Southern India. Solomon Dorai, the headman, is desperately trying to hold together the fraying ends of village life at a time of huge social and political unease. When violence finally erupts, it takes Solomon and the traditional structure of the village with it.
Price: Rs 399 | Pages: 280 | Publisher: Fourth Estate
In the early years of 21st century, sweeping change is taking place in publishing industry. Ill-equipped to handle the transformation, a number of publishing houses struggle to survive – one of these is Litmus, an independent firm in the UK. The onus of ensuring that the company remains viable falls upon its publisher, Zachariah Thomas.
The Solitude of Emperors
Price: Rs 495 | Pages: 256 | Publisher: Penguin Books
Suffocating in small-town world of his parents, Vijay is desperate to escape. His big chance arrives unexpectedly when the servant, Raju, is recruited by a right-wing organisation. As a result of an article he writes about the power of sectarian politicians, Vijay gets a job in a Bombay publication, The Indian Secularist.