There was a time when writers held an exalted position and belonged to an exclusive club. These days, everyone seems to be writing a book irrespective of their background and profession. What do you think is the reason for this current boom in book publishing and writing?
The recent boom in publishing and writing was inevitable. For a very long time, India was an underdeveloped market for writers and publishers — an unfortunate hangover of our colonial heritage. Not long ago, a writer had to publish in London and New York to be taken seriously. Now we have world class publishing houses in our country. We have writers whose main focus is the domestic market. It is these writers who dominate the best selling lists unlike a couple of decades back when imported books were more popular. This is as it should be. Because in every country with a developed publishing market, local authors dominate the bestseller lists. Readers embrace them, because they address local concerns and use an idiom that works well for their readers. In most developed publishing markets, you will find a small percentage of big name international authors who sell well along with local writers. It is beginning to happen in this country too.
You are known as the Czar of book publishing in India and credited to bringing a lot of Indian writers to the global audience. What kind of ups and downs have you witnessed in this business over the years?
I started in publishing when the trade market for Indian writers was very small but I am delighted to still be around when they have started to make their presence felt. There are still many problems within the book industry such as lack of retail space, media space that is devoted exclusively to books, payment problems and lack of marketing channels. But we are better off than we have ever been before.
How and when did you venture into the book publishing business? Has it been a fulfilling career for you?
I got into book publishing by accident. I was a journalist in Bombay and bored with my job when a colleague suggested that I could attend a book-publishing course at Harvard that she had done. When I eventually got around to doing the course, I was lucky enough to run into one of the great figures of international publishing — Peter Mayer who was then Chairman of Penguin Books. He offered me the opportunity to become one of the founding members of Penguin India. That is how I started with publishing.
Please tell us something about your early life and what shaped your love for books.
I have been a book addict from the time I learned to read. My grandfather who was the headmaster of a school fed my addiction. He would keep giving me books to satiate the voracious appetite I had developed for them.
Please tell us about the genesis of Aleph Book Company. What is your mandate and what kind of books will you be focussing on?
Aleph Book Company is something I have always wanted to do. I figured that at some point in my career I would start my own publishing company and publish only books that I loved. I tend to like books with literary quality. When my current business partners Rupa Publications showed an interest in what I planned to do, I grabbed the opportunity. It is because I greatly value their solid grounding in the Indian publishing market and their expertise when it comes to sales and distribution. At Aleph, we will focus on books that we feel are exceptional in style and literary craftsmanship. We will commission books in subject areas that have a dearth of great books for the general reader. Some such areas will be history, biology, business, travel, humour, current events, natural history. However, literary fiction and non-fiction will be the mainstay of the company’s publishing.
With many book-publishing companies in the fray, do you think competition will be tough in the coming years?
Competition is good because it simply means publishers must invest a lot more editorial quality, design, production quality, marketing and aggressive selling to make sure their books are noticed by readers. You will no longer be able to get away with mediocre publishing, which I think is good.
Often authors in India complain that they do not get their due. It is the publishers who take away a major chunk of the profits accrued from the book. How far are these allegations true?
I think that is an unfair accusation. If you publish with a good publishing company, you will be certain to get whatever you’re due. In actual fact, when all the costs are taken into account, publishers don’t make a whole lot of money. Every recognized publisher I am aware of is scrupulous about paying royalties on time and generally taking care of the author.
What kind of a role can literary festivals play in promoting the culture of books?
Literary festivals are a terrific way of raising awareness of readers when it comes to books. I am delighted by the number of literary festivals that sprung up in recent years.
Do you think e-books may take over traditional books in the coming years?
Yes, e-books will cut into the sales of traditional printed books but this does not worry me too much because I consider e-books to be a different format and so long as readers consume books either in digital form or in print form the future of books and readers and publishers is secure.
Are you keen on exploring hitherto unexplored areas like the Northeast of India while looking for writers and subjects?
I am keen to publish writers from the Northeast because I think they have fascinating stories to tell but as it is with other parts of India, writers from the Northeast should pay great attention to the quality of their writing. It is not enough for the stories to be new and original, style is important and they will also need to practise their art until it is exceptional. We are publishing Mamang Dai’s new novel next year. I truly hope that we will be able to publish many great fiction and non-fiction writers from the region in years to come.
In what ways is The Aleph Book Company different?
For a start, we intend to keep our list very exclusive so that we can lavish care and attention (whether it is editorial, design, production or marketing) on every single book that we publish. We hope that if we have an unremitting focus on quality, readers will always buy our books.
How would you like to be remembered as – David Davidar, the author or David Davidar, the publisher?
I fluctuate from time to time in my estimation of which career I value more. However, as I am not done yet in either profession I think I would like to wait till I make up my mind one way or the other. In any event, I have no control over the matter. If there’s one lesson I have learned in life, it is that you should not waste time worrying about things you have no control over.