REMEMBER THE DAYS when you lugged a stack of books to read on your summer vacation? You don’t? Well, that’s hardly surprising now that you can carry an entire library on your e-reader or tablet without having to think twice about tipping the scales at the airport’s baggage check-in. Book lovers across the world might be cheering the convenience of digital technology on their travels, but not everybody is so ecstatic. The most furrowed brows are in the publishing business, with many small publishing houses and brick-and-mortar bookstores forced to shut shop altogether. Book lovers in Delhi won’t easily forget stores like Fact & Fiction and Galgotia & Sons, which closed down a few years ago.
But none of this deterred publishing veteran Ravi Singh from setting up his own publishing house around three years ago. At a time when many publishers in India are moving into digital or mobile publishing, the 48-year-old industry veteran dared to buck the trend. He quit boutique publishing house Aleph Book Company, following a controversy over the withdrawal of American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s On Hinduism after a backlash from right-wing groups, and co-founded Speaking Tiger Books, a trade publisher that does an eclectic mix of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
“In our minds, there was never any doubt that it would be conventional publishing,” says Singh, sitting in his book-lined office in a nondescript building on Old Delhi’s Ansari Road. “I never believed and even now do not think digital publishing is ever going to replace print publishing. The two would be complementary and parallel platforms.”
Many in the industry might have been sceptical at the time, but Singh’s bet seems to be paying off. Speaking Tiger, which he set up with Manas Saikia, an old Cambridge University Press India hand, has almost doubled its titles since it began and is hoping to break even at the end of this financial year. It began with around 45 books in 2015, increased that to 80 in 2016, and is now looking to produce 95 books by the end of this year. With an initial investment of a “couple of crores” cobbled together from personal reserves, the company aims to eventually release 100-120 titles every year.
Business has been good so far: Speaking Tiger recently signed a co-publishing agreement with storied Hindi literature publisher Rajkamal Prakashan, under which both companies will select around 20 titles every year from each other’s list and publish them in English and Hindi, respectively. Speaking Tiger is also launching its own children’s imprint, Talking Cub, this month. “There is a very clear identity that Speaking Tiger has developed over the past one year. You can’t define it in one or two words but you know the kind of books that we would do,” says Singh. “I think we are occupying a space between bigger publishers and the really small, niche ones. We are kind of middle-of-the road in terms of size and we also take risks as is apparent from our list.”
A glimpse at its July-December catalogue gives an idea about Speaking Tiger’s identity. A prominent academic’s book on folk and oral narratives in Urdu literature, an unlikely love affair between a 55-year-old widow and a 25-year-old street thug in conservative northern Nigeria, a biography of the Zika virus, an insight into the mind of two murderers in a Raj-era crime of passion, a memoir against the backdrop of trans-Himalayan trade, a look at former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s era through an iconic Arabic writer’s eyes, and the history of dressing and undressing globally … these crossover subjects may qualify as academic titles but Speaking Tiger has pegged them for the general market. “Some people think only a certain kind of non-fiction works for the general reader. Anything which is seen as scholarly, or based on rigorous research, is only for the academic market; it should be priced very high; only institutional libraries will buy it. All this is not true,” says Singh.
Some of the titles might seem a bit esoteric, but they’ve still been flying off the shelves. For example, the slightly academic The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry by Doniger has sold 3,600 copies since it was published in May, which is quite impressive in a business where average sales of academic titles rarely go beyond 1,000. The steep Rs 800 price does not seem to have deterred readers. Similarly, award-winning author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s book of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, banned by the Jharkhand government for being “disrespectful” to Santhali women, has sold 10,000 copies since it was published in 2015. “Others have also written about Adivasi realities, but he is using the language interestingly. It never struck me reading his books that English is not the appropriate language to convey the realities that he’s trying to convey,” says Singh.
But the really big sales have come from well-known writers Doniger, Ruskin Bond, and Jerry Pinto. Bond’s autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing, is a bestseller, with 19,000 copies sold and counting. Doniger’s The Hindus has sold 14,000 copies. With marquee names such as these raking in the big bucks, Speaking Tiger has the latitude to publish books that are unencumbered by business necessities. This has led to some surprise hits such as food historian Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, an illustrated book on India’s regional cuisines, which sold an impressive 5,700 copies, and Gut, a German scientist’s humorous look at a crucial but little understood organ of our body, which has sold an unusually high 11,000 copies.
Literary agent and publishing commentator Kanishka Gupta believes Speaking Tiger is one of the few independent publishing houses in India which is taking huge risks by highlighting literature from around the world and promoting hard-to-sell genres like short stories and poetry. “In fact, their International Fiction series—under which they’ve published acclaimed voices from Indonesia, Mauritius, Turkey, Congo and so on—is unlike any other list in the entire subcontinent,” Gupta says.
Singh’s gut feeling about the publishing business was obviously right. A 2015 Nielsen study, The India Book Market Report, found that demand for printed books in India is still growing and the Rs 26,060 crore market will, over the next few years, top its 20.4% annual growth rate between 2012 and 2015. The report also says that e-book earnings of English-language trade publishers have lagged far behind, with a barely 2% increase in total sales revenue.
India’s English-language trade publishing industry is dominated by larger multinationals such as HarperCollins and Hachette India, but the market also has many educational publishers who form the backbone of the business. Still, print publishers face some economic challenges. Even though books are GST-exempt, all the physical constituents that go into printing and binding, such as paper and ink, and services, such as delivery to warehouses, are not. That pushes up the cost of production. Also, publishers can’t claim input tax credits on the GST paid by their suppliers because there is no GST on books. To add to their woes, royalty rates have gone up because publishers now have to pay 12% GST on royalties on behalf of writers who are not registered for GST. Royalties were not taxable earlier. Saikia also rues the dearth of credit for the publishing industry: “No bank will finance us because we can’t show a balance sheet with all kinds of profit. Bankers will lend against blank paper. They will not lend against a printed book.”
Small publishers like Speaking Tiger face other problems. Online retailers like Amazon and Flipkart have helped widen the reach of their books, but e-sales are a double-edged sword because these retailers also demand huge discounts. To make things worse, mergers and acquisitions are a big disruptive force in publishing as big firms get bigger or gobble up smaller firms to monopolise the market and kill biblio-diversity. For instance, Random House took over Penguin in 2012 in a merger deal worth £2.4 billion (Rs 23,623 crore) to become Penguin Random House.
In a world where sales depend on high-profile champagne-and-oyster launches, Speaking Tiger prefers to maintain a low profile. It doesn’t do book launches unless sponsored and relies mostly on social media and word of mouth for publicity and promotions, apart from banking on a reliable network of distributors, retailers, and small bookstores to achieve maximum visibility. Singh should know: He spent 17 years at Penguin Books and three years at Aleph developing a rich and diverse list of authors like Ruskin Bond, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Wendy Doniger, Mark Tully, Jerry Pinto, Suketu Mehta, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, and Khushwant Singh.
But he has now learnt to say no to big names at Speaking Tiger. “If you have so many stars on your list, it kills diversity and doesn’t let other voices emerge as strongly as they should. It is liberating not to have to deal with some divas,” he says. Some of the books he is most excited about in the coming months include TV journalist Ravish Kumar’s The Free Voice, a collection of essays on the state of Indian society and politics; a classic by Marathi writer Baburao Bagul translated by Jerry Pinto, When I Hid My Caste; Nigerian writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s novel Season of Crimson Blossoms; and Shubha Mudgal’s collection of short stories set in the music world. “We have not brought out any bestsellers. We don’t have a Chetan Bhagat. We don’t have an Amish Tripathi or a Durjoy Datta,” says Saikia. “What we do have is a lot of serious writing, books that may not break even, but will earn a lot of goodwill.”
(The article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of the magazine.)