Bookselling in India - highs and lows for publisher-writer David Davidar
Last month was a paradoxical time for Indian publisher and novelist David Davidar. On December 12, his Delhi-based publishing house Aleph released the anthology A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present , dedicated to K.D. Singh, the owner of The Book Shop in Delhi who died last year. A much-loved figure among book buyers, Singh had a more intimate connection to Davidar: his eldest daughter is married to the 56-year-old publisher.
But here's the catch: Davidar's book was not available in Singh's store - or even any store in India. Rupa Publications, the promoter of Davidar's publishing house, was selling his book (along with President Pranab Mukherjee's memoirs) for the first few weeks exclusively on Amazon.in. The business deal sparked outrage among Delhi's bookshop owners who fired off angry emails and threatened to boycott books by Rupa and Aleph.
It was a tricky situation for Davidar, as he tells Mayank Austen Soofi.
Your book is dedicated to K.D. Singh. How ironic that it was not available in his bookstore.
K.D. Singh was one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever known. Everyone knows him as a legendary bookman and a pillar of the Indian literary establishment, but I was fortunate to have seen other sides of him as well - as a friend for close to three decades and later as my father-in-law. Indeed, The Book Shop means so much to so many people. But regarding Amazon, all that needs to be said is that it was a sales initiative we were trying out.
What are your thoughts on independently owned bookstores?
They had a large role to play in my life, especially during their heyday. Unfortunately, many of them no longer survive or if they do, are owned by large chains (like Hatchards in London, which is now a part of Waterstones). My favourite bookstore, naturally, is The Book Shop in Delhi. I'm biased, but in my view it is the epitome of the independent bookstore. It has a great selection of books, it is perfect for browsing, and K.D. Singh was the greatest friend, philosopher and guide any bibliophile could have. Other favourite independent bookstores would include the old Higginbothams in Chennai, Mr Shanbhag's Strand Book Stall in Mumbai, Manneys in Pune, Fact and Fiction in Delhi, the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, run by Rick Simonson, and McNally Jackson in Manhattan.
Apparently English-language readers don't understand the real India. How much has your understanding evolved following this anthology?
It's incorrect to think that readers who only have English do not understand "the real India". Their India (whether real or imagined) is as real as any other India. It might be correct to say that without languages other than English it is difficult to get under the skin of rural and small-town India. However, in the same way, someone who only speaks Telugu or Manipuri is enclosed by the limits of their particular linguistic stockade.
Your sister company (Rupa Publications) recently published Pranab Mukherjee's
It was a major milestone in Indian publishing because to my knowledge no sitting president has written about the politics of his time (presidents Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam published non-political books). The three politicians I would really like to publish, because I think they would have fascinating stories to tell, are Sonia Gandhi, Omar Abdullah and Vasundhara Raje Scindia. They have been at the centre of some of the country's biggest political developments and in all their cases their political lineage is fascinating and largely unknown to the reading public.
Tell us about Vikram Seth's forthcoming novel.
All I know about A Suitable Girl is that it is being written. Vikram tends to show his publishers the manuscript when it is complete. I have been hugely enriched by the experience of being Vikram's editor. I believe A Suitable Girl will be the novel of the decade in which it is published. I say this without knowing what else is going to be published two to three years from now, but I'm sure that Vikram's novel will be a monumental work and will blow readers away.
What aspects of Indian publishing worry you?
We could publish fewer books, pick our books better, we could edit better, we could market better, we could sell more innovatively and so on, but it isn't as though publishers aren't trying to do the best by their books. Lest we forget, they are up against major obstacles - shrinking reading habits, diminished retail space, retailers who don't pay, print and online media that doesn't give much importance to books, to name just a few of the bigger hurdles they have to negotiate. One area in which we have improved tremendously over the past quarter century is in the look and feel of our books. The best books produced in India compare favourably with books published anywhere in the world.