‘I cannot imagine a world without books’

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‘I cannot imagine a world without books’

Indian Publishing giant David Davidar, founder of Aleph Book Company, talks about the printed word — and why it should never go out of circulation

By Sushmita Bose (editor, Wknd)

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Published: Fri 27 Feb 2015, 12:05 PM

Last updated: Fri 26 Jun 2015, 12:32 AM

Reading habits have altered vastly, and everyone’s attention span has whittled down. There is a host of distractions being peddled 24x7. Why would one still want to read books in the future? Even those who like reading per se, have the option of e-books. So where does that leave books — in paperback and hardback formats?

Clearly, book publishing is an industry in crisis in most parts of the world for a variety of reasons — people are reading less, they have several other options when it comes to entertainment or information; publishing is not a very efficient business— it hasn’t been able to adapt well to massive changes in the marketplace and so on. Some observers feel that it might not survive in a world in which the dissemination of creative content is increasingly being driven by digital technology and the Internet. However, it is not dead yet, and although its best days are behind it, it will survive in a somewhat diminished form for decades to come because there has always been (and will continue to be) a core audience that appreciates and &supports long-form narrative that is packaged in book form. Will this audience continue to support the book industry forever and will enough of the kids being born today grow up to become readers? No matter what anyone says  (and you’ll find plenty of industry experts, especially in the West and North America, who will tell you what the future is going to be like), nobody really knows what awaits us in the long term.

Publishers will need to be smart, adaptable, cost-efficient and very much better at all the things they do, as well as those things that they are not really adept at, such as making the best use of digital technology, holding the interest of the digital generation and the like.

In India, we are fortunate — in that it is the only major market in the world that continues to grow. But that is the only real upside. None of the major publishers are consistently profitable, the distribution system continues to be cumbersome and inefficient, there are threats to freedom of expression, few writers sell in large quantities, it’s a price-sensitive market (which affects margins), the problem of piracy persists, and there aren’t enough bookstores or book review pages, and a host of other challenges. None of these problems are new; all these things have been things have been around for decades and I doubt that they are going to go away. All the more reason then for publishers to raise their game.

A lot more people are writing books these days. It’s almost fashionable to write a book, and I’ve personally come across a lot of publishers who bemoan the fact that even substandard stuff is being published because there seems to be no quality control (everyone is encouraged to write). Your comments.

Self-publishing is no longer a bad word and the ease of uploading books on to the Internet has meant that a lot more people have become ‘published writers’. Naturally, in the absence of any kind of filter or professional editing and packaging, quality is not always guaranteed. I’m not too concerned about the explosion of substandard writing — readers are discerning and can take care of themselves. Think of it as the writerly equivalent of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London.

What were you thinking of when you launched Aleph — given that there’s no shortage of publishing houses in India?

Having spent decades in publishing, I was aware of how diff-icult it was to publish books that were truly great and necessary, especially if you were putting out a huge number of books every year. We wanted to publish some of the very best books available in South Asia; if that wasn’t going to be the case, there seemed no point in publishing more books that weren’t really first rate. We decided to try and tilt the odds in our favour by keeping our list small and exclusive, so we could work with writers on making these books the very best they could be.

Think of it this way. Every year, of the tens of thousands of books of fiction and non-fiction published in English for the general trade market in India, there probably aren’t more than a couple of dozen (if that) truly amazing books. We would like Aleph titles to form a high percentage of these great works. We said in our first catalogue that we wanted to publish books that ‘were original ways of looking at our country, our region and ourselves’. We said we wanted to ‘lavish on our books the &sort of hands-on editorial care and attention to design and production quality that we are obsessive about’. And we said we wanted to ‘cherish each of the books we published’. To a large extent, we have succeeded in fulfilling our objectives.

What is your take on independent publishing, which is gaining a lot of momentum — online as well as offline? It basically means that if no publisher is willing to publish you, but if you are willing to spend a bit of money, your book can be published...

I think independent publishing is great. As for self-publishing, as I said earlier, the quality is variable but the reader is not a fool and these books will find the audience they deserve.

What do you think of English writing in India?
English writing in India is first rate at the top end of the spectrum of every genre. However, there is also a lot of rubbish published and in this we are no different from the UK or the US or any other country you’d care to mention.

What is the future of vernacular writing? Do you see English emerging as the language of writing, so to say?

There are some languages in India where the writing is really strong. I’m thinking especially of Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, and Marathi. English is certainly gaining ground, but I don’t think there’s any danger of it becoming the language of choice in which all our stories will be told.

Do you believe writers should have their “fingers on the public pulse” in order for book reading to thrive?

Creative writers who hitch their works to trends are probably not very good at what they do which is why they resort to all manner of stratagems to get their work noticed. This is not to say that writers should not be strategic about the way in which they shape their careers but the best of them don’t worry too much about the public pulse or anything else but focus on writing the best book they are capable of — every single time.

Censorship in the publishing domain: should creative licence be absolute or should there be limits?

I disapprove of censorship. However, when it comes to creative licence I believe we are constrained by the laws of whichever environment we are operating in. That said, &laws that are unfair or restrictive should be challenged whenever appropriate.

Tell us about the new book you have edited and published— A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces. Why did you think of a collection which is so diverse, almost going against a thematic unity? And on what basis did you choose the stories?

There was probably a market for such an anthology. From a more personal point of view, to put together a collection of extraordinary stories seemed the logical outcome of decades of reading Indian literary fiction. There are dozens of anthologies of Indian fiction available, but none in my view offered the reader a broad, readable selection of the best stories from most of the major languages in which Indian literature is created. And that is why it is so diverse — any book that tries to represent Indian literature needs necessarily to be wide-ranging. One of the things we took great pains within the anthology was the way the translations read; the problem with several of the anthologies that are available today is that the translations are too literal or are otherwise poorly executed — as a result they are less than satisfactory.

The top 5 books you have read in your life.

I will not include books by Indian writers because there are too many that would need to find a place on the list. From the other literatures of the world, here are my top five books of our time (not of all time — such a list would be unmanageable): One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; Disgrace by JM Coetzee; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Your favourite author.

Gabriel García Márquez.

If you have to pass one book to a member of the next generation, which one would that be?

As you only want me to choose one, let me choose my favourite book by my favourite international author. One Hundred Years of Solitude yields up new secrets to me every time I read it, and I re-read it ever so often. It’s a book that will reward readers for generations to come.”

Business interest aside, what is your ‘romantic’ notion of books being there till the end of mankind?

As someone who’s been addicted to books all his life I simply cannot imagine a world without them and that’s as romantic as I’m going to get about books.


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