How to Survive as an Indie Publisher

It takes more than just the belief that there exists a market for ‘alternative’ books. It takes an intense dedication to quality and plenty of gumption, says Yoda Press’

I thought up the name Yoda Press on a rum-soaked evening in 2003 in Ranikhet. In the sober light of the morning, it still seemed like a great name, but on my return to Delhi, the significance of my decision struck me when a friend thought I was plain crazy. It’s true, though—you don’t really get up one fine morning as a young publishing professional and declare that you are going to run your own publishing house; that is, if your family does not already own the publishing house you want to run. There are indeed very few first-generation publishing professionals-turned-indie publishers in India, although there are many more now than 10 years ago.
About 15 years ago, when I had just joined the trade as a lowly copy editor, I was told something valuable by Ravi Dayal, a publishing veteran whom I looked upon as an iconic figure. On this particular evening, as we sat enjoying glasses of his favourite Aristocrat whisky and soda, Ravi Dayal said to me, “When a manuscript really excites you, as an editor you should be able to close your eyes and visualise it as a published book there and then.” The words have stayed with me, and even now, when I round off my lecture at the annual NBT publishing course, I find myself closing with this anecdote. This nugget of insight into the role of an editor-publisher is what lay behind my keen motivation to start Yoda Press after just seven years of working in various capacities in established publishing houses. I became an indie publisher for a selfish reason—after all, independently wanting to give vision and form to a process of knowledge production, which is what good publishing is all about, is a decidedly self-aggrandising aspiration.
In 2004, the first rather-tame year at Yoda Press, although we brought out just three titles, some things that were to become part of the indelible Yoda blueprint had already become clear. Running an indie publishing outfit trying to develop focused lists in pinpointed areas meant that we would have to be adept at commissioning. This meant actively scanning book ideas, and approaching appropriate people to author those books. At Yoda Press, we saw ourselves as carrying forward the mantle of glorious niche publishing efforts like Kali for Women, Seagull, Tulika, Leftword and Permanent Black. Our focus, though, was somewhat more wide-ranging. We intended to create a list that mined various aspects of the ‘alternative’—sexuality, urban studies, popular culture, new perspectives in history-writing and visual culture.
It was also clear right away that in order for an indie book to be given a chance by booksellers compelled to fill their shelves with fast-selling titles to cover runaway real-estate costs, we needed a distributor who believed in us. Now, despite their role in reaching books to booksellers, retailers and libraries throughout the country and abroad—and even more importantly, collecting payments on behalf of publishers—distributors in the Indian book industry are a reviled lot. This is largely for the large discounts they demand. Due to the lack of a wide and efficient warehousing system like in the West, distributors in India are looked upon from a ‘can’t live with-can’t live without’ perspective.
Large publishers like Penguin and OUP India have dedicated distributors. Small indie publishers, with no sales teams, need a distributor even more. In our case, after a year-long struggle, Manas Saikia, managing director of Foundation Books, representatives of Cup in India, decided to take us under his wing. Foundation Books, soon to become Cup India, became at once our wingman and advisory body, and we continue to feel safe with such a distributor by our side.
We also knew that cutting corners in bringing out books wouldn’t cut it for us. This meant spending more man-hours editing everything ourselves, getting the best graphic designers to design book covers that could make people pick titles off the shelf even without brand visibility, making production specs impeccable, such as using better paper, and, at the end, pricing the books competitively, since, with lower overheads, we could afford to.
Eight years on, we still try to stay true to each of these exacting standards. In the first year itself, we managed to get the reprint edition of an important academic title for our list. The reputed historian of ancient India, Thomas Trautmann, who was my author at OUP India, got in touch on hearing of Yoda Press, and offered us the South Asia rights to his classic work, Aryans and British India. The book is now on every reading list of Indian history, and Thomas went on to give us two more books. With our finances tight, the goodwill we garnered with our authors kept us going.
In 2005, we launched our Sexualities list with an anthology of writings by queer writers, Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India. Not only did the book acquire cult status within the queer community, it was a bestseller for us and our distributor. Also, our Sexualities list got itself queer rights activist Gautam Bhan as a series editor, who has taken the list to unimaginable heights since. This precious little book did something else for us too—overnight, the naysayers who thought there was no market for queer writing began calling us ‘radical’. Cracking the bookstores was tough, though; an eminent bookseller in central Delhi refused to carry the title, so we sent 25 people to his store on the same day to ask for it. He ordered multiple copies.
Errors of judgement were part of the learning curve as well. Our first visual book on the landscape paintings of Paramjit Singh was a disaster because we had spent more time on the text than the design and page layout. On our second outing with a visual book, Sunil Gupta’s Wish You Were Here: Memories of a Gay Life, the author’s preferred designer flew in from the UK. Another instance where our vision matched that of the author and designer perfectly was a tiny graphic book on Indian men called A Little Book on Men by the documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy, which went on to become our most reprinted book ever. Collaborations clearly worked, animosities didn’t.
Two other books, Nandini Chandra’s The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha and Kaiwan Mehta’s Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood played an important role in making our list attractive to young scholars working on cutting-edge ‘crossover’ projects—which became our in-house description of scholarly manuscripts wanting a larger lay audience. Another such book on the history of Bollywood in the USSR, which had Mithun Chakraborty being mobbed by Russian women on the cover, was picked up by CNN-IBN for a story on the subject; imagine our surprise when we put on our TV sets to see Mithunda holding the book to his chest and waxing eloquent about the love he received in the Soviet Union!
In 2009, we felt that the list was long enough and had garnered enough positive reviews and publicity to be given more visibility than it enjoyed in most Delhi bookstores. That is when the idea of Yodakin was born, as I took on a space in the wonderfully eccentric Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi to create a retail outlet for independently published books, music and cinema that had the gumption to document the alternative. In the process, we became familiar with dynamic, young publishing houses like Navayana and Blaft, as well as self-publishing platforms like Pothi. As my ever-enthusiastic colleagues infused the bookstore with energy, Yodakin quickly turned into a popular hub for events.
Earlier this year, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Professor of History at Duke University, approached us to take on the publication of the South Asian edition of a definitive new scholarly volume on MF Husain’s work. We readily agreed. Around the same time, we signed up well-known writers like Jerry Pinto, Saleem Kidwai, Aveek Sen and Lata Mani, kick-starting our trade list. This sets the stage for another new and exciting phase. We can barely wait for it to begin.