Monday, April 02, 2007
I was shocked to hear about Shakti Bhatt's passing away; it really is difficult to believe. We first met around a year and a half ago (she was working with Random House India at the time), though it seems much longer; since then we'd corresponded often on email and met frequently at book events. The last time we met, a few days ago, she jokingly rebuked me for reneging on a promise that I would give her feedback on a manuscript she had sent across – but she was, as ever, very good-natured about it. She was always warm and friendly, very easy to talk to, and this was tragic, completely unexpected news. Deepest condolences to her husband Jeet and to the rest of her family.
Anything I say here would be too little, but here’s something about Shakti’s professional life: she became the editor of IBD’s newly launched Bracket Books a few months ago and was very excited about the role she and the new company could play in what is a dynamic time in Indian writing and publishing. Some time ago I did a quick, informal Q&A with her for the Sunday Business Standard. As a testament to unfulfilled dreams and also as an indication of her informed-yet-inclusive, warm-hearted attitude towards writers and readers, here are excerpts from that interview:
About IBD's new publishing division: do you think the market in Indian Writing in English is large enough to accommodate more publishers?
IBD has been publishing for a long time, but Bracket Books is a more concerted and focused effort to publish books for a new generation of readers, and to try and do this in a way that is innovative and relevant. I think the market for Indian writing in English is large but not large enough for publishers to be complacent about it and take it for granted. It is now more challenging than ever for a book to be noticed, much less picked up.
On what scale will Bracket Books publish? What kind of writing are you looking at to start with?
We are looking at everything. We are starting without pre-conceived notions – for example, that short stories don't sell. What about Jhumpa Lahiri and Lavanya Sankaran? In the end, there's good writing versus bad writing, and good marketing versus bad marketing. We want to start small and slow, and we will take up only those projects that excite us, projects we can commit all our resources to in terms of editing, production, marketing and sales.
How do you decide whether or not to take on a manuscript? If the quality of writing is middling but it contains the seed of an interesting idea, would you be willing to take it on?
The first chapter of the manuscript is probably the biggest test. Is there a hook? Is the writer saying something new or is it trite? Is he talking about a situation, about a character, in a way that is appealing or tedious? I believe that anything good can be marketed, so the big worry about whether it will sell or not usually comes later. We would certainly consider a book with an interesting idea where the writing can be improved.
What according to you are the gaps in Indian publishing today?
Well, for one thing, we need to appreciate the diversity in Indian publishing at the moment. There's Rupa, Roli, Penguin, Harper Collins, Picador, Permanent Black, Zubaan and Women Unlimited, and many, many others, bringing out a range of interesting books. Every time I go into a bookshop I notice innovative titles. The gap seems to be in the field of editing. I think editors and publishing houses should adopt a zero-tolerance policy for errors – typographical and others. It's the least we can do for our readers. Maybe you could start a blog to document these errors (and god knows there are enough) so editors and publishers can be called on it.
What genres of writing need to be encouraged?
I'm not the first to say that we could do with more narrative non-fiction. It's easier said than done, because writers need advances for research and travel, and few Indian publishers are willing to fork out that kind of money. One can argue that it would be money well spent, especially if they have a marketing plan to back it up, and that bigger publishers should be more open to taking a risk, if there is one. It is a genre that deserves to be encouraged also because of the scarcity of creative journalism in India.
Following Chetan Bhagat's example, there's an emerging trend of mass-market writers – young authors who are providing easily identifiable characters, familiar settings and conversational prose. Will you look at that market or will your publishing be more niche?
Of course we will look at that market, why not? I was surprised at the widespread criticism in literary circles about Bhagat's book. Yes, it could have been better, but there is no denying the enormous connection it made with young people across the country. I happened to be travelling at the time and I would hear his name come up in coffee shops across Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore. That to me is exciting and not something to be taken lightly. You can't be in this business and be snobbish. Anything that makes people read a book is a good thing.