Frontlist | A peek into the other side of books
The renowned British agent and publisher, and editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing for more than twenty years, Alexandra Pringle, known for publishing books of famous authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood and Kamila Shamsie was all jolly speaking about her passion for publishing, her journey over the decades in this field and witnessing sea changes since the time she began in conversation with Indian publisher Karthika VK, known for publishing authors like Anuja Chauhan and Aravind Adiga, in the virtual session titled “Out of Print! What’s Plaguing Publishing?” that streamed live on January 23 for the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2021. Excerpts:
Karthika: Publishing has evolved and has attained a fairly mature form now. No dramatic changes happened in the last few years but happened in the last few decades, since the time of independent presses to the big five that we have now. What has been your journey like?
Alexandra: My publishing journey has been varied and in some ways it has followed fortunes of publishing in the larger world. When I joined publishing in the late 1970s, in my early 20s, it was completely different. Virago had just begun. I was literally the first person to join the company, a tiny office in Soho (London). We worked in one room, two typewriters and there were no computers. We had to parcel and send manuscripts. It was all manual work. The world was much slower and more radical too. Virago changed the position of women in the world and it was completely run by one or two feminist persons in the UK. But they also wanted Virago to be a financial success. We published books that were very radical and about Indian women’s lives. I was 25 and learnt everything there and grew from being the office assistant to being the editor of the Modern Classic series and then publishing the books. When I was 30, I became the editorial director and was part of the management team that went into a little group which was Chatto, Bodley Head and Cape (CBC) and then we brought ourselves out a few years later to become independent…
Karthika: That’s really interesting! Can you dwell a little bit on why you did that?
Alexandra: We realised within about a year that because we had taken the overheads of a larger company, our profitability was being damaged. We lost power to do what we want to and we wanted to reclaim that power. So the management team of five started to negotiate and just as we did the deal, it took us a year, that was when Random House bought CBC and that was really the beginning of the explosion, the growth of these corporations and we witnessed it. They wanted us to stay but we refused and went independent. But our independence lasted for only a few years. Later, I left and went to Hamish Hamilton. I joined the big Penguin group and started corporate life. But Virago was later bought by Little, Brown and it is no longer the little fiery independent house that it started as.
Karthika: Do you think it was something to do with the independent presses having trouble coping or was it just Virago?
Alexandra: There were other small feminist presses. But a lot of them just got bought up and small literary imprints like Chatto and Cape came up. When I joined Penguin at the end of the ’80s, I joined Hamish Hamilton. Hamish Hamilton has been a small publisher, very distinguished which then became an imprint of Penguin. So really there were very few independent publishers left bought up by a larger group and that went on.
Karthika: Did you see your own work changing when you went from Virago to a larger publishing house?
Alexandra: First of all I started acquiring men (both laugh) because at Virago, we didn’t publish any men. That was quite exciting. I encountered a different world of publishing, thinking about the market. At Virago it was completely editorially driven. At Penguin group, the decisions were group decisions made by marketing, publicity and sales. At Penguin the hardback in prints had to get a partner in the paperback side in order to buy a book — it was like dating, if you couldn’t find a paperback pairing you couldn’t acquire it. And it was a real problem for me because my literary taste wasn’t very well aligned with the editors there. For example, a first novel that I wanted to buy when I joined the company, which I did end up buying but it was a huge fight… I didn’t get any editors to pair with me and I remember, at the end my boss Andrew Franklin said okay, we will buy it and we will sell the paperback right outside Penguin. We published it and it was a huge success… and the funny thing was we auctioned the paperbacks and Penguin bought them (laughs), as they didn’t want it to go outside the Penguin group.
Discovering Kamila Shamsie…
Alexandra: The other thing I found in my career is that often you start with a writer and you think there is an amazing talent here but you know that it will take years for that to happen — one of those in my life is Kamila Shamsie. I met her when she was still a student at a creative writing conference. There was one shining beautiful story about a little boy flying a kite on a roof in Pakistan and at the end of it the girl who had written it came out and said to me, I think you published my great aunt. When I was at Virago, I had published the classic series by Attia Hosain. It was such an extraordinary thing, and I gave her my card. I said to her, I think there is a longer narrative in here if you want to work with me, keep in touch and it became In the City by the Sea and that was the beginning of our relationship and we worked together since. When I joined Bloomsbury, she came to me.
Karthika: As a parent company expanding in places like India, how do you keep the brand cohesive? Do you then leave the Indians with their business with certain revenue targets or whatever. How does it run?
Alexandra: Bloomsbury US started before India and that has been going for pretty much 18-20 years and it is a long process and I don’t think it is something that can be done overnight cause publishing is such an organic thing, but the general feeling is that each country should be its own thing. Even local publishing is local publishing and we would not dream of saying to America that we know you should be doing this kind of books. We would like to publish together as much as we can. It is a particularly good thing but we recognise that, it is not without trials, that one editor can’t buy a book for different territories. It is not easy and there was a period with America where we were trying to buy world English on everything and that was very difficult for the editors because you couldn’t say that you loved a book that you didn’t love or it was right for your market if it wasn’t right for your market. With India, I personally was involved at the beginning of it when it was set up. I was involved in the trade side, the social side and hiring. We would talk on the phone every week, we would Skype, so we had lots of conversations. And I think those conversations are very important. I loved coming to Jaipur every year. I have been to the Indian literary festivals and it is a very important part of the work I do. And there is a social cross-pollination, that I think is very helpful. But it is all worthy progress and I don’t see any straightforward way.
Karthika: You have absolutely lived the best of publishing , seen all the great changes for the better but if there was a way you would re-imagine publishing and set up a company by yourself with every freedom to decide what would happen in there and if profit wasn’t the biggest motive of all what would you do?
Alexandra: I would break publishing down (laughs) into small small units. I would just publish books that I love. I am just so driven by my own taste that I would love not to ever hear the word market!
Karthika: (Laughs) I am very sorry to tell you I don’t think this is going to be very easy to achieve. But I wish you good and if you do please give me a call. I will come join you from wherever I am and find some books of that sort.
Source: Telegraph India