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Finding Their Feet

Kanishka Gupta on the new mass market independent publishers

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The last two years saw the Booker winner emerge from the same publishing house, the husband and wife-run independent publisher One World. What made the victory sweeter was the fact that both the winning books, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, had been rejected multiple times before finding a home for themselves.

While Indian Independent publishing hasn’t witnesses this level of success, publishers such as Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan Books, Ritu Menon’s Kali For Women and Yoda Press have been producing some remarkable books targeting a specific niche. Veteran children’s books editors Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar started Duckbill a few years ago and have become the publisher of choice for many writers writing for this segment. Former Penguin head Ravi Singh’s Speaking Tiger Books is doing high quality publishing, not one that is a mere function of print runs. They have an International Fiction series in which they publish authors from around the world, including Man International prize nominees. The publishing house also has an imprint for rare out-of-print books.

However, what is most interesting is the slow but steady rise of a new breed of proactive, risk-taking independent publishers who are determined to go mainstream. One such publisher is Fingerprint!, backed by Prakash Books, the largest distributor of books in India. Prakash has been publishing coffee table books for more than 20 years. However, after a dip in the demand for such books because of the rise of internet and recession, they decided to foray into mainstream publishing.

Shikha Sabharwal, Publishing Director at Prakash Books India, says that for the first couple of years, the publishing house had no concrete direction and used a trial and error method. A few years down the line, they decided to launch Fingerprint!, their flagship publishing imprint. The publishing house now has dedicated imprints for different genres: Fingerprint! Lite for short, breezy romances; Fingerprint! Belief which focuses on books on mind, body and spirit; Fingerprint! Life, a lifestyle imprint, and Fingerprint! Classics that publishes out-of-print books.

Fingerprint! is at ease working with agents and routinely outbids bigger multinational publishers. For instance, in 2016, they won the rights to gymanast Dipa Karmakar’s memoirs for a high, six-figure advance. They have also allocated a significant marketing budget for the book. Unlike many other publishing houses, Fingerprint! also offers on books in different languages. The house’s biggest book to date has been Ratna Vira’s controversial Daughter By Court Order, which has sold close to 25,000 copies. Despite the book’s grand success, the author, Vira, decided to publish her next book with a multinational publisher.

Sabharwal admits that many authors are still tempted by the brand names of big publishers even if Fingerprint! offers them better terms. Novelist and translator Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, who has published with both multinationals and such new-age independent publishers says that it is easier for one to feel comfortable with the latter because they are constantly engaging with you. “It is true that a multinational’s advantage is its branding, but a time will come when the brand equity a book has from a multinational will fade away. It is the content that will become more important than the brand,” says Chattopadhyay. However, Chattopadhyay notes that independent publishers need to streamline their processes.

Panchkula-based Rumour Books has already tasted success with books by Vish Dhamija and Kulpreet Yadav, both of which have sold in excess of 15,000 copies each. However, their biggest achievement has been publishing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat. Founder Reekrit Serai is confident of selling one lakh copies each of the proposed three volume series and is benefiting a lot from large institutional buybacks. Rumour Books has big expansion plans and has already raised funds from a US-based entrepreneur. They are also on a hiring spree and looking to employ more people from within the industry.

Going by the popularity of the new age publishing houses, MNC publishers could be feeling threatened, despite the fact that roughly 30 per cent of the books are published by the top 3 MNC publishing houses in India. A senior editor with a top MNC told me on condition of anonymity that the new age publishers haven’t done much damage. “The quality of publishing they do has definitely improved but other support systems like marketing and distribution are still not good enough However, I still don’t underestimate them,” the editor points out.

Reviewers, in general, too do not make any distinction between multinationals and independent publishers. Sabharwal says that their books are regularly complimented for their production and editing standards. “The reason why our Classics list is so successful is because of the high quality production and attractive covers,” says Sabharwal.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Kanishka Gupta

The author is the founder of Writer’s Side, South Asia’s largest literary agency and consultancy

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