In a certain city, there exist plans for all high-brow books that will be published in India in the next 10 years. These books can change lives, or at least shake up the Western literary canons. A new city lacks history and a commercial city the geography — blame the open sea — to keep these plans safe. In an old city, settled seven times and destroyed six times, lies the vault which holds the plans. The city’s labyrinthine bylanes, guarded by hustlers, knife throwers, spectrum scammers and titular heads, protect the plans.
The man who holds the keys to the vault can be anyone, but we will call him David. Actually, let us call him David Davidar after the giant of Indian publishing of the Eighties and early Nineties. The two men are the same, except that the one who guards the plans today is much older and wiser. You can’t step into the same river twice, said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. You can’t meet the same man again. No, Heraclitus didn’t say that, but never
David Davidar, the man who had published Vikram Seth, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Shobhaa De, Shashi Tharoor, Kiran Desai and Suketu Mehta, was the go-to man in Indian literary publishing.
Between 1985 (when he was just 27) and 2004, Davidar, then at Penguin, ambushed the unsuspecting Indian readers into not only liking, but even paying good money to buy books by these authors. For the first time since the British published that subversive book, the Indian Railway time table, all educated Indians who could travel 3rd AC would end up buying a Penguin India book.
It looked like Davidar would take Manhattan, but he went to Canada instead. He published some books, but soon got involved in a sexual harassment case in 2010. The case was settled but it ended his chances of being the global head of Penguin. A lot of people in the publishing industry felt that he had a real shot at the job.
In 2010, the earlier Davidar was truly history — what remained was a book by him, called The Solitude of Emperors.
The Return of David Davidar
In June 2010, he returned to India. The country that he returned to was nothing like the one he had left in 2004. The year he left, a company known for publishing mass market books and sports books, Rupa & Company, decided to publish a young investment banker and now a very successful columnist, Chetan Bhagat. The world after Five Point Someone was published was a completely different one. Imagine Rome after the Visigoths, London Philharmonic shows after The Beatles and Hindi films after David Dhawan. The proletariat had ousted the bourgeoisie.
Davidar returned to this changed world and was wooed by at least eight publishing houses to come and work for them.
In February, he met an unlikely suitor at a hotel in New Delhi — Kapish Mehra of Rupa & Company. The irony was truly delicious. Davidar would have to work to reignite the fire in literary publishing in partnership with the man who had subverted the genre in the first place. Before Mehra published Bhagat, Indian publishing in English was symbolised by Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai (Midnight’s Children). Now it was Bhagat’s Ryan Oberoi (immortalised by Aamir Khan’s Phunsuk Wangdoo).
But if Davidar is looking for his second chance, his redemption and a shot to recreate the magic, he couldn’t have made a more rational choice. “The meeting lasted for around 45 minutes but we knew that both of us had a common vision and decided the initial plans for our venture,” Mehra recalls.
Davidar isn’t the waiting type.
He likes to seek out authors who have potential.
In August 1997, Granta, the British literary magazine, had published an anthology of Indian writers to mark the 50th year of India’s independence. The issue had some of the best Indian writing of that time. Suketu Mehta, then a little known writer, had an article on Mumbai which caught Davidar’s eye. He called up Mehta and gave him a book deal. The same article later turned into one of the best books on Mumbai, Maximum City, though it took seven years.
Mehta remembers those days with fondness. He feels that the book would not have been possible without Davidar. “[He] is an amazing editor and publisher. It was David who first read my essay on Mumbai in Granta and asked me to turn it into a book, and stayed with it over the next seven years until it came out between bound covers. I’m very happy he’s returned to India, where he can nurture a new generation of writers. He’s doing what he loves best, and readers will be the richer for it,” he says.
But that is how Davidar works. For him a chapter is good enough to visualise an entire novel. He is more like a venture capitalist who is ready to bet top dollar on the next big thing. And that approach needs money. Rupa has cash in its till.
Its four Bhagat books have each sold more than a million copies. Sunny Days by Sunil Gavaskar and The Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur still have a lot of demand. Its other profitable title, Ravi Subramanium’s If God was a Banker, a corporate fiction book, has sold more than a 100,000 copies and is priced at twice as high as Bhagat’s books. Rupa releases around 160 titles a year, which is huge by industry standards.
The high volume gives Rupa the sales network, something that is absolutely critical. “Half the problem is that the books are not available in the stores at the time they need to be when the consumer goes to buy the books. Or they are not re-supplied at the right time. If the books are available to the consumer, half the battle is won. Rupa Publications in India has managed to do that job successfully,” says Davidar.
While mass market fiction is a volume game, literary fiction is a margin game where the readership is not huge. Publishers in the literary fiction business don’t want to publish more than 20 to 30 books and concentrate on selling these books in limited numbers. Frankly, both Mehra and Davidar are ambitious and it is possible that the new company, Aleph Books, will look at publishing quality writing, but in reasonable volumes.
“These kinds of partnerships are not considered unusual in the publishing industry because companies want to put their strengths together. I think the combination of Davidar and Mehra is unbeatable because they are bringing different strengths to the table,” says Urvashi Butalia, publisher of Zubaan, an independent non-profit publishing house.The Model
The model followed by Rupa and Davidar has been used in other geographies. Many publishers across the world invest into firms that are started by talented editors or publishers. This way the editors benefit from the marketing muscle of the giant publishing house and it also helps the bigger firms retain good talent.
“This model has worked in Europe as well as America and I don’t see why it will not work in India. After all, Davidar and Rupa Publications is a very good combination,” says Badri Sheshadri, founder of New Horizon Media, a known name in regional publishing.
However, distribution strength is a necessity but not the sufficient condition. What the new company will need is a supply of writers who can generate the buzz. Both Mehra and Davidar feel that the present publishing industry isn’t doing its job.
Try telling Davidar that the Indian publishing market is Rs. 3,000 crore. “India has 20 million English language speakers. That’s the population of Australia or Canada and their publishing market is much bigger than ours,” he says. Mehra has a slightly different way of approaching this topic. “Tell me one author — after Arundhati Roy — who has achieved international acclaim,” he says. It is hard to disagree with that.
Davidar himself is a writer and has been a publisher and editor to the likes of Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and Shobhaa De. He understands how to get the best out of writers in all kind of conditions. Over the years, he has realised that working with new writers is very difficult as they throw tantrums on little things like removing a particular character or for that matter, the structure of the story. Professional writers have given him the least amount of trouble and they take criticism without any problems.
“One should never forget a basic underlying assumption: The book belongs to the writer. The editor is trying to improve it with the writer’s consent. Editors or publishers make suggestions to improve the book and if the writer doesn’t accept it then that is fine too,” he says.
Overall, Aleph plans to release around 25 books in the first year and probably will take the number to around 50 and above in the second year. Neither Davidar nor Mehra are talking about any names as yet, but that’s understandable.
Apart from discovering talented young writers in fiction, Davidar wants to do the same in non-fiction as well.
Aleph will typically like to bet heavily on children’s books. These are the books that can benefit heavily from sound and other graphic designs and can be viewed on an iPad or other mobile devices. The opportunity to make a book interactive is tremendous and Aleph wants to seek this opportunity, apart from looking for the next J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer in this category.
The second area of focus for Aleph is non-fiction books where Davidar will actively look for a journalist’s account of current events that can be written with a novelist’s eye. This will include business, science and political writing.
Since the whole focus of Aleph will be on literary fiction and other quality writing, the audience for this market will be different from those that Rupa had catered to in the past. Mehra is clear that mass market fiction and literary fiction are two different things and he will take a totally new approach for Aleph.
“Books from Aleph will be sold differently. We will have to use a different strategy to look at Aleph writers. But the whole idea is to keep the business simple and deliver to customers what they really want,” says Mehra. He hopes that within the Rupa-Aleph umbrella, they can take care of the budding as well as the major authors of the country, as the combination covers the entire spectrum of mass market as well as literary fiction.
Davidar’s experience of working in the North American market will come handy in getting ready for the future. Indian markets work differently from the international markets where the majority of the books are sold through retail.
In India, retail in general is a high growth area, but has a long way to go. Titles that don’t do well at the retail stores in India have always done well in smaller book stores. Book stores like A.H. Wheeler, which are based on the railway network, have seen old titles do well at the railway stations, compared to other outlets.
Aleph will take advantage of the network built by Rupa Publications, but also wants to get ready when retail becomes huge in the country a few years down the line.
Digital publication is a big thing in the international market and 20 percent of the overall sales in the West happen online. In India, this market is only taking off. But Davidar feels that he should get ready for this market right away. He wants to be prepared for the time when ebooks become common in India and feels that there are huge opportunities as far as digital publication is concerned.
“The beauty is that with Aleph, there are no legacy issues. We can look into digital marketing, online marketing and digital publishing. These are some of the things that I have studied there which I would like to enforce here,” he says.
In the Jorge Luis Borges’ story, ‘The Aleph’, after which the new book company takes its name, the Aleph is a point in space which contains all other points. To see through the Aleph is to see the world for what it is and without distortion or confusion. Davidar will hope that somewhere in the old city of Delhi, in its old locality of Daryaganj, in a vault, will lie the Aleph. (Additional reporting by N.S. Ramnath)
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(This story appears in the 17 June, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)