INTERVIEW Publishers may be a maligned lot, but it's not easy to stay afloat, says Zubaan founder 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 expanded by setting up their own imprints. 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. But Zubaan, currently celebrating the 25th year of its parent company Kali, is not run as a profit-making venture. “But, we need to cover our costs,” says the director.
Meanwhile, the Jaipur Literary Festival nears —Zubaan is sending its books there, and Urvashi is among the advisors. One of Zubaan's books, The Hour Past Midnight by Salma, translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom, was long-listed (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 such as Zubaan remain businesses that are small with tightly-knit groups of people who work hard for every penny.
“Mainly, the money comes from selling international rights,” she admits. “We sold Baby Halder's book ( A Life Less Ordinary, translated by Urvashi from Bengali) 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.
Zubaan, which publishes both fiction and non-fiction, 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.
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 you make a lot of money in.”
We'll take her word for it. After all, it's the zubaan of a professional.