David Davidar combines the acumen of a businessman with the intellect of an author. ZIYA US SALAM speaks to the man confident of his body of work.
If you took his words out of context you could call him a management guru. Or you could mistake him for being either arrogant or conceited, maybe both. With David Davidar words are nothing, context everything. He is no management guru. Nor is he arrogant. Far from it. He is simply a man confident, very confident of himself and his product – he has the track record to generate that optimism too. After all, he was the man who told us that far from Antarctica Penguin was a literary bird that deserved a place on our bookshelves. He brought in authors otherwise inaccessible some 30 years ago. And quietly, unobtrusively changed the way we read. That he was himself a no mean author became almost a footnote. Now into his second innings as the Aleph publisher – an independent publishing house he founded with Rupa and Company’s Kapish Mehra earlier this year – he is happy to tap a niche market, grow slowly, steadily. Call it brick-by-brick approach, if you will. But knowing David, bricks will probably soon turn into a tower.
Sitting at the Hyatt’s coffee house, David speaks with the airs of the man who has just slayed his Goliath. The words come in measured scoops, the happy smiles generously so. He holds back about some of the “big” authors he has signed. And dismissed any talk about his writing with “Yes, I got to do that too.” He talks of writing books with the same ease as a man talks of shaving every day.
Now, though the author has taken a seat few rows back and the publisher in David is in full public glare. Neither competition from other publishing houses nor even the so-called digital revolution overawes him. “Everybody was worried by digital publishing. Right too when you consider that a digital book costs around 1/3 of a printed book. Today it is not a bad word to say I publish myself. There are so many digital books but in this part of the world, book publishing is thriving. Look at the Booker winners or even those on the shortlist, so many are from developing countries.
As for other publishers, I pay no attention to competition. We deal with authors we would want to read. Focus is on unsparing quality. We get so many proposals but both Ravi (Singh) and I don’t get swayed easily. We filter most of the books. We will do only 25 books a year. We will produce across certain genres.
At the end of the day we want to produce great books in economics, politics, films, even food. The challenge is to retain the same quality all through, the same intensity has to be there. I cannot put a finger at how many books we want to sell simply because publishing is an inexact science.
At the first stage, the inexact nature of the business comes to the fore: the writers write the books the way they want. Publishers buy the manuscript. The books are marketed subjectively, reviewed subjectively.” Then there is the small question of distribution too! Is that why Aleph has tied up with Rupa – a kind of win-win situation with Aleph getting the best authors and Rupa providing its distribution network.
“Absolutely but there is more to it. Rupa also wanted to be associated with some top-notch authors and get into newer market. As far as distributorship is concerned, Rupa is streets ahead of the competition. Look at how they have grown over the past few years.”
That growth, at least in part, is due to a phenomenon called Chetan Bhagat. He does not appear in too many literature festivals but is read by millions. He may not be richly awarded but he sells. He is a Mithun Chakraborty to Aleph’s Naseeruddin Shah! David does not like the comparison. But is happy to chip in, “Chetan Bhagat is the country’s best selling English author. Rupa is number one in commercial fiction because of Chetan Bhagat. There is no overlap. He stays with Rupa.”
Meanwhile, Aleph that has just launched Shankar Aiyar’s Accidental India, prepares to roll out books by Gen V.K. Singh, Valmik Thapar, Devdutt Patnaik and Barkha Dutt, among others. “Barkha’s book called This Unquiet Land talks of India’s faultlines. We hope to sell tens of thousands of copies. We have Valmik Thapar tracing the tiger journey. And Devdutt Patnaik’s on history of business. Rajmohan Gandhi has come up with history of undivided Punjab, probably the first book in the genre. Of course, we are bringing out Pavan Varma’s Manifesto and young Shovon Choudhury’s The Competent Authority.”
These are titles David rolls out in a hurry. What he says at leisure is the series he has planned on most Indian cities, trying to capture the soul of say, Delhi, Chennai and Patna. Yes, you got it is right, even Patna, the age-old Patliputra whose past has often been overshadowed by the present. Well known novelist Amitava Kumar is putting pen to paper for Patna as is Nirmala Lakshman for a story of Chennai, the city of late finding favour with literati. The come the stories of Dilli, Calcutta…
He has his hands full. Yet David claims to be a niche publisher, very choosy about his authors. Master of understatement, one would say. He has the text and the context right!