Turning a new page

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It’s transition time in Indian publishing families as a new generation faces a difficult market with daring ideas
It is lunchtime, and a family of four is sitting down to their meal—only there are an inordinate number of books lying beside and around them. The Kapoors of Delhi’s Roli Books manage seven minutes for lunch together daily, despite a busy schedule; editorial meetings are held every week, but the discussions, as one might imagine, spill over within the routine of this all-family publishing enterprise.

Debates over thalis? “We may fight over small things like fonts, etc,” says daughter Priya, laughing.

Family businesses, that all Indian phenomenon, are the pioneers and core survivors of a book industry facing challenges it has never faced before, in the form of dwindling buyers of physical books and increasing virtual readers. Father and son, or, often, father and daughter, is the formula that has worked for these venerable publishing institutions, many of them for three generations.

Open spoke to a few of the firms who keep the formula in the family, about traditions both inherited and continued. Most visitors to Delhi’s bookstore-filled Khan Market gravitate towards a green- and-white striped awning at some point during their expedition; an afternoon at Full Circle Publishing’s Café Turtle offers healthful vegetarian snacks as well as full access to their well-stocked shelves. It all began with Dinanath Malhotra’s founding of Full Circle’s Hind Pocketbooks in 1958; he pioneered the paperback revolution in India with one rupee books, and working closely with Penguin UK’s own paperback revolutionary, Allen Lane. Next came Clarion Books, dealing in illustrated books; Global Business Press, with management titles; Saraswati Vihar, publishing a Hindi list; Mainstreet Books, specialising in memoirs and personal development; and, in 1999, Full Circle, the visible face of their business, publishing books dealing with the lucrative ‘mind-body-spirit’ terrain of spirituality and natural health exemplified by authors like Osho.

“[Dinanath] took books into the interiors. He started a book club, and would send newsletters to jails. People would order books as a result,” two of his successors, Priyanka and Poonam Malhotra, tell us today. Director Priyanka Malhotra, 33, inherits her grandfather’s legacy alongside her mother Poonam and father Shekhar, who continued from his father after the foundation had been built in the fifties and sixties, after coming over from Lahore post-Partition. Dinanath, now 90, watches on as the business expands; today, Full Circle publishes 20 books a year and has a backlist of 1300 odd titles (1,000 in English), with a total of 6000 titles and international authors such as Alexander McCall Smith and Francois Sagan.

“I was a little bit of a reluctant publisher, because I wanted to follow a career in music,” says Shekhar. “I took some training with two or three publishers overseas, but most of my training was peculiar to our country and industry. I learnt on the job. I was about 25 when I began and there was a very senior Hindi proofreader who laughed at the way I spoke, and said ‘come, I’ll teach you’. He taught me all about typography and Hindi language. We had a finance guy who was 80, he was really good too. We had a Hindi author who was a great author and shair (poet).”

Pocket Books was doing around 80 books a year in Hindi at the time, and around 30 to 40 books in English. Shekhar’s first books include Ruth Prawer Jhabwala’s Heat and Dust; Colleen McCollough’s The Thornbirds; authors like Khushwant Singh, RK Narayan, Nayantara Sahgal and Manohar Palgaonkar, in Hindi and English both. They printed in large runs, 10,000 to 20,000 copies of English and Hindi books both; in Hindi he published writers like Amrita Preetam and Shivani, Gulshan Nanda (“in the millions”).

“Things were a little different. People took the time to talk to you,” he says. His Jor Bagh office is his small piece of quiet now, in a fast-moving industry. “Once these multinationals came into the country it was rather tough for us to hang on to these authors. The game changed in the 80s and 90s, Penguin came in ’88. Retaining authors and good staff was a challenge, they were being poached.”

Shekhar’s daughter Priyanka, who also earned a BA in publishing at the London College of Publishing, worked briefly with Macmillan, Simon and Schuster and Oxford University Press for experience, before returning to join hands with the forbears of the family enterprise. She played the piano and was musical, like her father; he encouraged her to focus on music, as he hadn’t been able to. Priyanka, however, felt publishing was her ultimate passion, what she wanted to do.

“This was my primary aim. Publishing is a profession, like being a lawyer or doctor,” she says. “We would go to the Shahdara office as kids (Priyanka has a sister who is not in publishing), sit with the DTP manuscripts, the illustrator. It was great fun. It is an adventure we go through together.”

“The bookshops began because none of the bookshops wanted to give our wellness books space; we took it upon ourselves to do it another way,” says Poonam, who ran the company with Shekhar till Priyanka joined in. “The reader wants to feel a certain way and we attend to that.”

Hindi publications are a substantial part of business, she explains. The 10 paperbacks published in Hindi for the first time in 1959 were the beginning of their umbrella of ventures, now including Urdu, Punjabi and Malayalam. Transitions have been organic, says Shekhar; “We sat down and decided where we’d like to go, where Priyanka wanted to go. You have to keep innovating. The biggest challenge is going to be dealing with the book trade, retailers, wholesalers. Suddenly it’s become completely a buyer’s market.”

“We split the work project wise. The bookstores I manage. Children’s books are Priyanka’s project,” says Poonam. There are three Café Turtles in the capital now, and parallel ventures like literary tours are planned. They now employ 24 freelancers and a subsidiary ‘family’ of about 100 employees, some employed for decades. “It is very important not to lose the spirit of what we are. We think of ourselves as one big family,” says Priyanka.

Enter Meher Chand Colony Market’s CMYK Bookstore, founded in 2009, and you are in the presence of Delhi’s homegrown ‘Maharaja’s Press’, as well as many illustrated titles from around the world, some of them rare or difficult to find. Roli Books, which earned the epithet because of their lavishly designed titles—many worthy of the tag ‘coffee table book’ and featuring the decadent delights of the royal class and the history lover, as in Amin Jaffer’s Made for the Maharajas last year—is another longstanding family business.

Pramod’s maternal side is related to the Rupa Publications family, he tells me, and the connection with books began there; of course, extended families are part of every family story. “The day I was going to start another job, I got a telegram from Mr Bombhal offering me a job at Macmillan. I took the job in publishing though it was giving me less money,” he remembers. After two and a half years, he joined a company connected with McGraw Hill in Singapore, and they soon asked him to sell, and then print, their textbooks in India. They did about 15 to 20 textbooks but Pramod’s heart was in illustrated books. Founded in 1978 , out of a home in Sarvapriya Vihar, Roli became known for printed textbooks in colour, before breaking into art and photography titles. Lotus was created in 1992 as an imprint for non-illustrated books focusing on current affairs, history and biography, and in 2004 India Ink was created to publish literary fiction by authors like Allen Sealy and Paro Anand; in 2009, Roli Junior began to publish children’s books. Authors range from Lord Meghnad Desai, MJ Akbar and Rita Kapur Chisti to Raghu Rai and Pushpesh Pant, and exhibitions of Mughal paintings and archival findings often accompany releases. Projects may begin with an image or the discovery of a rare map or illustration; they often focus on a city, often the capital, as in Malvika Singh and Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s New Delhi: Making of a Capital. Roli has links with noted illustrated book publishers like Phaedon and Thames and Hudson; they distribute 60 titles of the latter. Today, it publishes 30 plus books annually, with a backlist of a 1,000, out of their Greater Kailash-III office in M Block market.

“The difficult part was making these books, there weren’t enough photographers, etc. Once the book was done it was so ahead of time it succeeded on its own,” he says. “Our aspirations have moved as things have changed.” He has introduced a ‘limited edition’ concept, wherein just 200 odd copies are printed, new to India; Delhi 360 is sold at Rs 20,000 (earlier Rs 15,000), and is their third limited edition. Is the e-book world a challege? “We all believe there is not much of a difference in the seriousness of content of e-books and physical books.”

Kapil, 33, who handles distribution as managing director, says the firm is entering into digital publishing and Print on Demand in a big way, while the supply chain remains as much of a problem as ever. He graduated from LSE with a degree in Accounting and Finance, then was won over by a publishing degree at Columbia University, after which he worked as a graduate trainee job in London with Phaidon Press for two years, joining Roli Books in 2003.

Kiran came into her own role in the company after dealing with her empty nest, and she manages CMYK and Designwallas, the publishers’ stationery line, using her training in art. “I had no formal training in publishing. I started learning everything from packing, dispatch, marketing to accounts. For many years I looked after the most difficult job: credit control.” The next generation joins in, while also playing the role of innovators. Daughter Priya, 35, is editorial director and the originator of many titles focusing on style, history and food, often from a contemporary perspective. The young face of a series of events and initiatives, she worked for a year at The Indian Express, went to London to study at LSE; then stayed on at Routledge for a year or so. “Kapil suggested I try working here; he had already been back for two years by then,” she says, running through a list of forthcoming books. “At present, I’m looking forward, thinking ahead to our next list.”

Is it difficult to have four voices in the mix, and how is this transition working? “The main transition is in terms of internal functioning. More day to day operations are taken care of by us, whereas my father takes on more of a Chairman role to guide the company,” says Kapil. There are differences of opinion, of course, Priya says; Kapil may like a book like S Hussain Zaidi’s From Dongri to Dubai, (which sold more than a lakh copies), but will back her up on a book she really likes which may be radically different.

And what does Dad say? “We sit together, take everyone’s opinion. This has the advantages and perils of democracy. Sometimes, three out of four can vote against something. Invariably we come to a consensus.” In the end, he adds a small aside: “I suppose I get a little weightage for my age.”

The pioneer of the family publishing business—and indeed Indian publishing— is Rupa Books, now in its 78th year and publishing 50 odd books a year, among them titles selling 20,000 copies a year, out of the book trade’s warm, beating heart in Daryaganj. (Offices in Noida for printing and Yusuf Sarai for editorial are its satellites.) Today, Rupa’s backlist numbers around 2,000 titles.

“From the 70s, trade in Delhi had been growing rapidly,” says RK Mehra, who left Calcutta because of the Naxal problem to move to the capital to become of Indian publishing’s most well-known figures—and not just because his author Chetan Bhagat is said to call him daily. A large, perhaps messily growing titan that long dominated the field of distribution before it began to publish its own books, Rupa began by distributing Penguin, in the late 80s, and its distribution business continues on. “In those days, during the lunch hour we would sit and talk about books; Srikanth Verma, Jug Suraiya, Gagan Gill. They would ask questions and I got interested.” Thus began his publishing enterprise. “I met Sunil Gavaskar and we published Sunny Days. There was The Art of Cricket, Dilip Sardesai, Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare.”

By the end of the 80s, Rupa was reprinting, and the joint venture with Penguin began in 1991. “We worked well with our partners abroad to develop our relationship. Deepak Chopra, Sheldon, who would come personally to meet us, HRF Keating, Eric Newby, Salman Rushdie.” Those were heady days for the publisher. Though, of course, “When the foreign companies came in, 1997 onwards, book publishing took the automatic route.” There were many competitors, though the pie was also bigger.

In 2012, the publisher’s son and firm’s managing director Kapish Mehra launched Aleph Book Company, Rupa’s more literary imprint, which David Davidar, former head of Penguin Books Canada, heads. In 2013, Red Turtle was launched, for children’s books.

“How do you take a certain book to a certain part of the social pyramid?” says Kapish, a quick study at 31. “We know how to take certain books to the middle segment, and to target a specific readership. We are here to serve the readers.” Kapish found Chetan Bhagat, out of banker oblivion, securing the company one of their biggest steady earners—a million copies per book—and the megastar of the contemporary Indian mass market. Connecting with their audience is indeed Rupa’s specialty, and new authors are a big focus, both Mehras agree. Mehra once, unbelievably, issued an advertisement in the 90s looking for new writers under 40. He lists Ranjit Hoskote, Tabish Khair, Anirudha Bahal and Upamanyu Chatterjee as Rupa debuts.

The e-book market is the bogey all publishers are dealing with, and Kapish has his strategy. “There are those who will read e-books as well as the physical books,” he says. “And those who only read e-books. The key is to have the first market covered. The NRI audience is to be considered here. I only wish people would read more. There are unique challenges; how do you target the reader who only wants to read on his mobile?”

“In other businesses, there is the thrill of entrepreneurship,” says Mehra. “Publishing is the icing on the cake. It’s a numbers game. The spirit of the gentleman’s trade has faded. But one is able to reach out to a huge audience.” He gives the example of Kalam’s book, which sold 100,000 within a year, Kishore Biyani’s, which sold 200,000, Natwar Singh’s memoir, which they say, crossed 62,000 within a month.

Father and son seem to run a tight ship, as they deal with transitions within and without. “I don’t interfere with regular work at the company, I make suggestions,” says Mehra. Do we detect a twinkle? He seems as vital and involved as ever. Serious, he continues, talking about his broad parameters of business. “We have forty years of experience combined, and in Kapish the exuberance of youth. Publicity and distribution are game- changing, but we are internally strong.”

Among the most inventive of smaller publishers is Natraj Books, which has found a regular base of consumers in the army. The publishing house specialises in environmental books by authors ranging from Vandana Shiva to Jim Corbett, and in countless, often esoteric defence titles, making up a backlist of 1,000. Many of them are, remarkably, a component of ‘must reads’ the army stipulates as ‘golden’ books; guaranteed long-term revenue.

“In the army, a hundred golden books must have been read at a certain stage in your career. Luckily for us these books are ours,” says Upendra Arora, who lives in Dehradun, where he runs their retail outlet, The Green Bookshop, where favourite authors like Ruskin Bond, who dedicated a book to him, visit. Almost all of the extended family, in fact, are veterans in the book trade, running bookshops in their respective cities all over north India, Arora’s daughter, managing director Divya Arora, tells me. “My uncles, my cousins, all of us have grown up around bookstores,” she says, the mistress of all at their Shahpurjat office at 37.

Arora’s father had a bookstore, though it all began before him, with his grandfather, who was the head of defence accounts when he began a new project, in 1925. “British officers were voracious readers and wanted books from England; WH Smith proposed he started his own shop, and they said they would cater to his needs.” In Ferozepur—Arora’s birthplace and the family home after they came over from Pakistan post Partition—20 to 25 people were recruited and put through the paces. By the 40s, the Indira Gandhi National Academy, out of which 250 officers graduate every year, Arora describes, had become regular customers. In 1955, Arora moved to Dehradun and told him he had found a place for a bookshop there; in 1965 he began his own shop, after a division in the family. Natraj Books’s publishing began in 1967 (distribution began in 1965).

Early hits like Himalayan Blunder by J P Dalvi, Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War, classics by Churchill and Eisenhower and many others are regular hits with the soldiers, retired military men and history lovers who order them.

“They don’t go online, they order directly. Even officers who have shed their uniform still order from us, for 29 years I have kept in touch with some of them,” says Arora. “We give credit easily as we know everyone so well. The confidence of our customers—we’ve managed to survive because of their loyalty.”

This company is also diversifying. Etch, an imprint featuring general non- fiction titles for all ages, focuses on design, and there is a coffee table book on Mahatma Gandhi as well as a travelogue from the Raj era. Divya tells of a book she conceptualised, featuring prominent personalities and their dogs. And the company is also diversifying into children’s books; India: An Alphabet Ride is a colourful, glossy illustrated title priced at Rs 699, new domain for Natraj.

Divya, an LSE graduate who was selected by the Indian School of Business for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship Programme last year, is having to bridge a lot of gaps as she inherits the new front of the book trade. “He’s the boss,” she says of her father. “Though I have to make the decisions here. I’m still learning.”

“In Divya we get the technical knowhow, as well as the personal,” says Arora. “The book trade is not a soft trade, it is full of cutting edge, intellectual people. And all said and done, it is still a man’s world. I am worried about those challenges she will face. When we discuss books, her decision is final. If I’m doubtful, if she still wants to go ahead, I tell her go ahead. She’s not afraid of unknown waters,” says Arora. “After all, it’s her show now.”

The common theme of many a family business, transitioning to book trade 3.0 in this fast-moving industry.