Publishers may be a maligned lot, but it's not easy to stay afloat, says Zubaan founder Urvashi Butalia

Business and pleasure have been known to mingle easily enough down the ages. But combining a head for business with an eye for literature is not so easy. Well known publisher, author and historian Urvashi Butalia obviously manages it.

Her publishing house Zubaan, which operates from its frugal premises in South Delhi's Shahpur Jat, is a case in point. Zubaan is an imprint of Kali for Women, which Urvashi founded with Ritu Menon in 1984. Kali, despite its off-the-mainstream objective of publishing books on women's studies and works representing India's feminist movements, broke even in less than five years of starting. And after nearly two decades of making a mark on the publishing and academic scene, the two founders, far from being exhausted by the effort, expanded by setting up on their own. That's how Urvashi started Zubaan, while Menon set up Women Unlimited.

“It's been seven years,” notes Urvashi of Zubaan. “We started to cover our costs around year four.” But the challenge was different this time round. “The difference is, costs have gone up.”

If Kali managed to keep the overheads extremely low — “We didn't allow ourselves anything but travel allowances” — today it is not that easy. Not only have salaries gone up (Zubaan's staff strength is “eight-and-a-half”, according to Urvashi, pointing out her part-timers “work harder than any part-timer would”), but publishing costs too have climbed.

Besides, there are consumer expectations. “Now you can't do a two-colour cover. Nobody's going to look at your book,” she remarks. “It's very difficult to keep up with rising costs.”

But Zubaan, currently celebrating the 25th year of its parent company Kali, is not run as a profit-making venture. “Our brief is not to make huge profits but we need to cover our costs,” says the director. Towards that end, the organisation is looking at investors “which will again push up costs,” she adds.

Meanwhile, the Jaipur Literary Festival nears, where Zubaan is not only sending its books but where Urvashi is also among the advisors. “We will have just two or three of our authors there,” she says, adding, “It's important for authors and also publishers. I think every publisher wants a stall at Jaipur, which is going to be difficult. It's not a book fair.”

One of Zubaan's books, “The Hour Past Midnight” by Salma, translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom,was longlisted (though it didn't make it to the shortlist) for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, instituted this year with a purse of 50,000 dollars and due to be announced at Jaipur.

Though such books are significant in terms of the discussion they generate in academic circles and in the movers and shakers of society, publishers like Zubaan remain businesses that are small, tightly knit groups of people who work hard for every penny earned.

“Mainly the money comes from selling international rights,” she admits. “Baby Halder's book (‘A Life Less Ordinary', translated by Urvashi from Bengali), we sold it in about 23 languages.” The money is shared with the author on a 50-50 or 30-70 basis. That is not the stereotyped image of the publisher to whom a trusting author submits a manuscript and from whose vocabulary the word ‘royalties' disappears.

Urvashi feels that while there are times when authors get chased by publishers, at others, the authors are the ones in queue. But that doesn't mean they should not take care. “Can you imagine hiring an apartment and not reading the lease?” she asks. “But authors will routinely sign the contract without reading!”

However, the scene is changing now, feels Urvashi. “Publishers also realise they have to hold on to authors, so they are not going to treat them badly.”

An author herself, she is currently working on the biography of a eunuch, though her demanding vocation, besides frequent public appearances and lectures, has kept her from finishing it. And while she feels there is nothing ‘new' in the topic as it has already been discussed and published a great deal, she agrees that on the other hand there is more of a ready public to receive such a book.

Zubaan, which publishes both fiction and non-fiction, including autobiographies and academic books, brings out an average of 30 to 35 titles a year. “In a couple of years we plan to take it up to about 50.”

Marketing and distribution are a “big problem”, she concedes. “Publishers are the ones who are maligned. But my distributors charge me 60 per cent discount on my books.” Subtract from the remaining 40 per cent the author's dues and the cost of production, and not much is left for the publishers.

If one were strictly watching for redundant words, one could easily edit out her next sentence. But for over a quarter of a century, this is an editor who's shown she knows what she's doing. So we don't mind when she concludes amiably, “It's not a profession that you make a lot of money.”

We'll take her word for it. It's the zubaan of a professional.