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Take her word for it!

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

SIGN, SEAL, DELIVER Urvashi Butalia
SIGN, SEAL, DELIVER Urvashi Butalia

B usiness 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 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. “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.

Meanwhile, the Jaipur Literary Festival nears, where Zubaan is not only sending its books but where Urvashi is also among the advisors.

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.

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.

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