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Small and spunky

At Raspberry’s shop. Photo: K. Ragesh

At Raspberry’s shop. Photo: K. Ragesh  

Sitting across the table in a blue office chair, the plastic wrap on it torn at places, V.P. Sumesh says this is unlike a routine day. “Normally, you will never finding me sitting in this chair and talking,” he says. His designation at Insight Publica may be the editor’s, but his work is hardly clear cut. Commissioning books and poring over proofs are part of the job, so too are off-loading the new batch of books from a four-wheeler and running errands for the company. The two-storey house-turned-office of the publication, the porch where published books are displayed, the many side rooms stacked high with fresh books wrapped in warm brown paper, are all signs of resurrection for Sumesh. His wife, Naseema, is in Thiruvananthapuram putting together their new book on the Kiss of Love revolution in Kerala. The small firm’s big project, the Malayalam translation of Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, is ready for launch. 

The beginnings

The small, cosy first floor office of Lipi Publications looks like a business in groove. But proprietor M.V. Akbar is quick to hark back to a time 19 years ago when he took a loan to begin the small publishing firm. “The only way to sell my books was to do it myself. I took them to parallel and regular colleges, met teachers and students, and slowly built bonds and readers,” he says. Even now Lipi sells largely at exhibitions and through small agencies in different districts. “It really helps that our books are part of the syllabus of four universities,” adds Akbar.

The city with an obvious love for book launches is, not surprisingly, home to many small-time publishers. In a market monopolised by monster brands, the small firms manage on miniscule finance and work from the edges, smudging norms, spotting new talents, identifying trends and subsequently finding a niche. “Writers like Kadamannitta Balakrishnan and Balachandran Chullikkad were first published by small publishers,” says K.V. Thomas, editor, Lipi. Small publishers talk of their long history. “They went for exciting cover designs and superior content much before the big brands,” says E. Rajesh, managing director, Raspberry Publications. The publishers trace the development of small publishing firms to the late 1970s and 80s, soon after the Emergency and Naxal movement. Thomas and Rajesh among them recount at least half a dozen publishing firms like Mulberry, Bodhi, Prerna and Nila that thrived once and introduced readers to new reading and writing sensibilities. “Mulberry had extraordinary cover designs,” remembers Rajesh.

Raspberry for Rajesh and friends was continuing this noteworthy tradition. Started in 2010, they began by publishing Malayalam books on Sufism. But soon, 14 partners comprising journalists, professors and engineers got actively into the nitty-gritty of running it. “We never saw it as an enterprise for profit,” says Rajesh. Instead, they attempted books that teased readers out of ordinary narratives. “We brought out books on Rabia Basri and Lalleswari at the same time,” says Rajesh.

Finding their way

But in a market where size is strength, a small player is often playing a losing game. “We sell out of one shop in Kozhikode and through a handful of shops in other districts. Libraries as customers may not work for us as we do not have the range and volume a big publisher has,” says Rajesh.

The only way to stay in the game is by bringing out books big names never venture into. “For instance, we commissioned writers to interpret Marxism. Marx Vayanagal has 40 essays that look at Marxism from political, artistic, philosophical and literary perspectives. The intention is to stoke debates and we knew we were right when a mainstream publication carried four to five essays from it before the book was launched,” says Rajesh.

Lipi’s niche is music. A little before reality shows became what they are now, Lipi had books that compiled songs of well-known lyricists. “We compiled film songs of Gireesh Puthencheri, Yousaf Ali Kecheri and Mankombu Balakrishnan. Often, we had to collect records from All India Radio, listen and meticulously note down the lyrics,” says Akbar. When he and Thomas recently went to the Sharjah Book Fair, they realised the big market for the music books. From simple compilation, they attempted books that looked deeper into theatre and music traditions. “By bringing out a book on mappila paatu we tried to give it an academic value,” says Akbar.

At Lipi, the obvious pride is in finding new voices though it comes with risks attached. “Out of 10 writers you introduce, five may not click,” says Thomas. Yet with big brands often too far away for newcomers, they naturally flock to smaller players. “We brought out T.P Rajeevan’s anthology of poems Rashtratantram and K. Sreekumar’s Malayala Sangeeta Nataka Charithram. We also got to publish about 10 books of Sukumar Azhikode, a few of M. Leelavathi’s books, so too Sreekumaran Thampi’s,” he adds.

The publishers though have no qualms about their finds moving onto bigger brands. “We brought out novelist Rajesh Kizhissery’s first book, the second is being brought out by a bigger brand,” says Rajesh ” While Lipi sticks to “serious” books, their own Orient takes care of popular fiction — random thrillers and page turners. “So far we would have brought out 1,500 books under Lipi and 300 under Orient,” says Akbar. Translations too make a chunk and a work they are proud of is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

Balancing act

Pranayavum Muladhanavum is a big step for Insight. After a slump which had Sumesh and Naseema contemplating quitting, every new book is now a sign of revival. A game changer was Malala Yousafsai brought out a few days after she was shot at in Pakistan. Insight is finding its feet as a publication that responds to immediate social and cultural movements. “We are compiling literature and works of art associated with Kiss of Love,” says Sumesh. While books on contemporary developments make a mark, they stay afloat with Ganitha Vismayanagal and Paavam Grammar. Well-known writers like Kalpetta Narayanan and U.A. Khader have trusted them with their books.

“Bringing out all kinds of books is a test in fine balancing,” says Sumesh. Now limited to direct sales, Sumesh hopes for a time when he can take orders online even from villages. At Lipi, after a dictionary with advertisements, the publisher is looking at quality children’s books. Raspberry, meanwhile, is trying to fine tune their niche.

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Printable version | Aug 14, 2020 6:09:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/small-publishers-survive-by-digging-out-new-voices-and-finding-new-concerns/article6839378.ece

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