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How a ‘Man of Books’ is Changing Publishing

Saket Suman
(Saket Suman can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)

Ever wondered why so many books that seem of little value and are never sold or reviewed get published in the first place? That’s because most publishers worldwide follow the old 80-20 rule, in which just about 20 per cent of the books pay for the 80 per cent that fail.
But ascertaining which 20 per cent of the books will succeed is “an inexact science”. Thus many of them are published only in the hope that a few may do well.

When seasoned publisher David Davidar, who was hired by the legendary Peter Mayer as one of the founder-members of Penguin India in 1985, floated Aleph Book Company in 2011, it was this model that he wanted to disrupt — and seven years down the line, he seems to have done it successfully.

“We wanted to change that model and have 60-70 percent (if not more) of our list work really well, so that we were able to cut down the business risk while underlining Aleph’s commitment to quality,” Davidar told IANS in an interview.

And so when the foundation of Aleph was laid in partnership with Rupa Publications, Davidar stated the firm’s mission — that he wanted to publish “the best literary books” by Indian (and other South Asian) writers from anywhere in the world.

Rupa agreed with his plan to publish an exclusive list that would focus on quality over quantity, even though it was quite contrary to its own model.
But what exactly did his Mission Statement mean? It seemed no different from what scores of publishers around the world claim —their lists have at least “a couple of first-rate literary books” by authors who are Indian or of Indian origin.

“What they don’t do is have their entire list devoted to books of the highest literary quality about this part of the world and this is the niche we wanted to occupy. This is rare in India as well. So we figured this was an opportunity that was ripe for the plucking.

“We would find the best books about India and South Asia and work with their creators to infuse them with a uniformly high degree of nuance, excellence, polish and originality. A number of our books are examples of extremely fine writing about very Indian subjects, and are often the first books on whatever it is they are about. It is this that has helped us make a mark,” Davidar said.

Some of Aleph’s most recent books winning critical acclaim include: “Reshaping Art” by T.M. Krishna; “Why I am a Hindu” by Shashi Tharoor; “Indian Culture As Heritage” by Romila Thapar; “The Sensational Life And Death Of Qandeel Baloch” by Sanam Maher; and “Daughters of the Sun” by Ira Mukhoty.

A “fair number” of Aleph’s books have also been reprinted.
“I believe that of all the trade books published in India in English every year, even if one were being generous, there are probably no more than a couple of hundred books (I am talking here only of the literary end of things) that are any good. I’d like a high percentage of these books to be Aleph books. We want readers to take the Aleph colophon to be a badge of high literary quality. If we manage to achieve that, readers will support our books for a very long time,” he said. He said Aleph was determined “never to publish more than 40-50 new books a year”, and “to ensure that every single book was the best it could possibly be”.

“In order to make books of very high quality you can’t rush things. We start off by working with only the very best writers — established or new. We turn down over 90 per cent of the manuscripts and proposals submitted to us. So, right from the start, we are extremely picky. We then work hard with our authors on every aspect of the books — and this pays.”

He said it is very exciting to be a publisher in India, especially for the trade market, as there are many, many subject areas, even core areas like popular history, biography and culture that have not been addressed with “any degree of competence”.

“In a way, this is not surprising as large-scale trade publishing in English in India is less than 50 years old. So the market hasn’t reached its saturation point as other markets have. As a consequence, there is a lot of opportunity for writers and publishers who are enterprising and strategic. We assess the opportunities available very carefully and commission over 95 per cent of our books to fit specific gaps we see in the market.” Asked about the journey on the business front, Davidar said it has been steady and is “delighted to say that we are now a profitable business”.

Tharoor’s “An Era of Darkness” — over 100,000 copies in hardcover sold — is among their key successes.

A “man of books” for most of his life, Davidar — Aleph’s Managing Director and Publisher — has published several of the country’s finest writers, including Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Khushwant Singh, Ruskin Bond, R.K. Narayan, Amitav Ghosh and Jeet Thayil. He has also authored three novels: The House of Blue Mangoes (2002), published in 16 countries that became a bestseller in six of them; The Solitude of Emperors (2007), shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; and Ithaca (2011). (IANS)

About the author

Ankur Kalita