David Davidar on building a publishing company from scratch in India

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Aleph Book Company was founded ten years ago, in 2011, as a new way to publish books.

A lifetime ago, in the bright glare of the noonday sun raining down on a small cottage on the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, my grandfather gave me the gift of reading. I must have been six or seven at the time and an indifferent student. The headmaster of a local school, my grandfather had despaired at my poor academic performance and had recently told my mother that I would never amount to anything.

One Friday, more out of desperation than any sort of design aforethought, he went to his school library and pulled out half a dozen books – abridged classics of the Treasure Island variety, along with a couple of adventure stories for boys, and a gorgeous illustrated edition of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows – and brought them home for me. To his astonishment, I finished the books in two days and asked for more.

At first, he was suspicious, he didn’t think his indolent grandson could have actually read the books, and quizzed me on their content. However, once he was sure that I wasn’t bluffing he would routinely plunder his library for books to feed my appetite for reading. The unlikeliest book of the first lot that was handed to me that long-ago Friday was The Wind in the Willows.

Its setting and story couldn’t have been more different from my own surroundings and reality: kites soaring in the thermals above a red-tiled cottage fringed by coconut palms, cashew, and jackfruit trees; and a “reading nook” that looked out onto an enchanted garden in which “bloodsucker” lizards nodded along the garden wall, squirrels chittered in a blue mango tree, and sunbirds hung like jewels of molten amethyst and jade beneath carmine and gold hibiscus flowers.

Surrounded by all this, I sprawled on a planter’s chair that stood on the veranda, eating banana chips and reading about a cold, alien land in which a river glinted, gleamed, sparkled, rushed and swirled (to paraphrase Grahame) between banks crowded with rushes, purple loosestrife, and willows among which Toad of Toad Hall, Ratty, Mole, and Badger went about their lives for the most part in snow and lashing rain.

I had never seen snow or loosestrife, had no idea what bubble-and-squeak was, and only knew what a badger or a mole looked like because of the glorious EH Shepard illustrations in the book. The unfamiliarity of the setting and characters mattered not at all, the story was so well told and engrossing that I became a reader for life. Moreover, the book was so beautifully made that somewhere in my subconscious an idea lodged itself that it would be fun to be involved in the making of stunning books.

As perfect as we could make them

Fast forward to 2011. It’s thrilling when you are thinking of starting something new, and it’s even more exciting when the venture is something that you are passionately invested in. After decades in the publishing industry, a long-held idea to set up an independent literary publishing house began to take shape. The company would put out singular books of fiction and non-fiction which would be on a par with the finest books published anywhere in the world – not just in terms of editing and design but also where paper, printing, and binding were concerned.

As the notion started to firm up, I thought back to the time when as a boy I had dreamt of making beautiful books, circles do have a way of closing! My wife, Rachna, suggested that I share my vision with my friends Rajan and Kapish Mehra of Rupa Publications India, one of the country’s oldest and most successful publishing firms. They were enthusiastic and agreed to promote the new enterprise.

A few months after we began confabulating, we became partners in a publishing venture that I named Aleph Book Company (more on how this came about a little later). It was decided that Aleph’s books would be as perfect as we could make them, and if that meant reading proofs one extra time, colour-correcting covers until they were true, and working with our authors for as long as it took to get the text absolutely right, that’s what we would do. If that seemed excessive in an age where most products, books not excepted, were seeing a fall in creative, material, and production values, with expediency and shortcuts being the norm, so be it.

Our age, which could be variously designated the Age of Rage or the Age of Credulity or the Age of Mediocrity, depending on which angle you chose to look at it from, seemed only to celebrate anger, illiteracy, ignorance, incompetence, and their offshoots and the book industry reflected all this and more. In such an environment would a publishing concern, whose only focus was literary quality, be able to survive, or would market forces spell its demise? Given that there wasn’t an exactly similar model for us to follow, the only option seemed to be to try, following the well-worn dictum: Build it and they (writers, readers) will come.

Easier said than done

Before I go into some detail about our early years, a bit about Indian publishing to provide some idea of the opportunities and challenges an operation like Aleph faced. India is one of the world’s largest producers of books in the English language, and has been so for at least half a century. Indigenous publishing in the trade publishing segment, though, was rather undeveloped until the advent of Penguin in the 1980s – today, this part of the industry has at least a dozen world-class companies.

Trade publishing, while the most visible, is dwarfed by textbook publishers (who also publish exam guides and generic children’s books), who are the behemoths of Indian publishing, followed by academic publishers. Be that as it may, trade publishing has now become a significant player in Indian publishing, having grown exponentially from a small base. Many of the leading houses have diverse lists and will usually try to balance their literary publishing with commercial books in order to generate adequate revenues and profits.

Most of them are defined by the 80-20 rule, common to many industries – in which 20 per cent of the products provide 80 per cent of the revenues and profits. Naturally, every promoter or CEO would like 100 per cent of their products to succeed but it’s hard to make this happen, and even harder in the so-called creative industries – a term that includes firms that make movies, TV programmes, books, and so on – where it is difficult to tailor products to suit the needs of the consumer unlike, say, cell phones, cars, or cement.

It isn’t hard, therefore, to see why textbook publishers or the publishers of tried and tested board books for toddlers, are the largest corporations in the publishing ecosystem of an aspirational society like ours, as they can, to the extent possible, publish what their market needs.

We wanted to try something different – we wanted a higher percentage of our books to succeed than was normally the case. This, of course, was easier said than done. If it were that easy, why wasn’t every single trade publisher in the country doing exactly that? Despite the nature of the challenge, we figured we had a few things going for us – we had the experience, we were backed by one of the largest and most efficient selling and distribution networks in the country, and we had some ideas that we felt might work.

Almost impossible to engineer at the outset

We decided to keep the size of our list small, not more than fifty books a year, a number that we would build up to gradually, so we could control the quality of the books that we put out – quality, quality, quality, that would be the hallmark of every book we published. Also, if we weren’t too big, it would give us the sort of agility we would need if we were going to track down ideas and authors that larger outfits might miss.

We would publish only literary fiction and non-fiction, so the Aleph colophon was sharply defined. Nor would we publish just any book that could be deemed literary, we would look for keepers, timeless books as defined by the Argentine maestro, Jorge Luis Borges: “A timeless book…would be just as admirable if it had been published a hundred years before or if it were published a hundred years later. A book that can only be defined by its perfection.”

Such books are, of course, rarer than blue tigers and are what every publisher, agent, and scout is constantly on the lookout for. Despite the desperation with which these books are sought no more than a handful are published every year. These are books that transcend awards, reviews, bestseller lists, and literary fashion, they are books that will be read and discussed fifty years, a hundred, from the date on which they were first published.

I’d been a publisher for almost thirty years when I co-founded Aleph, and hadn’t published more than a score or so of such titles, how on earth were they suddenly going to materialise out of nothing to be the foundation of Aleph’s future? We had a simple solution to that conundrum, but one which would prove almost impossible to engineer at the outset – we would, we thought, bypass some of the more established ways of acquiring books (we would try not to participate in agents’ auctions for all but the very biggest books, for example), and commission virtually all the books we wanted to publish.

We would look for gaps in the market, and look in places we hoped no one else was looking, to find the phenomenal writers and staggering books that would fuel our ambition. And, once we had commissioned them, we would do everything we could to make the books monumental. I felt that readers would buy books that were ambitious, superbly written and imagined, and unlike anything that had hitherto been seen on the subject. And it didn’t matter that the world seemed to be dumbing down, there would be still enough people who valued quality.

Sales remained modest

For some years, it appeared that our experiment wasn’t working quite the way we wanted it to. The books were fine, we had a few masterpieces, along with other good books, some of the country’s best writers published with us, my business partners were patient and supportive, and my colleagues worked themselves ragged to keep up the high editorial, design, marketing, and sales standards we wanted to become known for. Despite all this, for the most part, sales remained modest, while overheads were what they were; as a result, the company did not break even let alone make a profit.

But we persevered and then, all at once, things changed. We had a run of books that sold briskly followed by the game changer. In 2015, the eminent writer and thinker Shashi Tharoor made a speech at the Oxford Union debate excoriating colonial injustice, greed, arrogance, racism, and incompetence when the British ruled India. The speech rolled like a tidal bore through the internet. Soon after, I asked Shashi, a long-time friend, many of whose books I had published at Penguin, whether he would consider expanding the speech into a book.

He allowed himself to be persuaded and wrote a superlative history of colonial rule in India, An Era of Darkness, which sold exceedingly well – sales have exceeded 150,000 copies in hardbackSince then, we haven’t looked back, and, until the pandemic struck, progress was steady and, more to the point, for all those of us who believed in, and were committed to Aleph, exhilarating.

Our joy obviously sprang from the extraordinary books that we were able to publish and the success they were having. As we have nearly three hundred books in print at the moment, and a forward publishing programme of approximately fifty books a year, I can’t write about all of them, but I’d like to mention at least a few.

I have already mentioned Shashi’s bestseller on British rule but he has also written several other books for us, including his non-fiction magnum opus, The Battle of Belonging, on contested ideas of nationalism, patriotism, and what it means to be Indian; and talking of magnum opuses we are privileged to be the publisher of Vikram Seth’s magnum opus, A Suitable Boy, although he might well outdo that work of genius with A Suitable Girl that we are looking forward to publishing in the not too distant future.

Profoundly original

Some of the country’s best historians produced magnificent books, such as Romila Thapar’s insights into the past’s influence on the present (The Past as Present), Rajmohan Gandhi’s history of South India (Modern South India), and Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s disquisition on an idea that seems to be doomed to extinction, Twilight Falls on Liberalism. There isn’t a photographer anywhere in the world who has photographed India in quite the way Raghu Rai has done and it gave us immense pride to publish a folio of his finest pictures, Picturing Time.

In similar fashion, Valmik Thapar, who has been studying Indian tigers all his life, published the last word on them, Tiger Fire. And, while we are on the subject of peerless books of natural history, we were delighted to have been able to publish Stephen Alter’s Wild Himalaya. Amazingly, there hadn’t been a major biography on the Mughal emperor Akbar until Ira Mukhoty rose to the task and wrote a biography (Akbar: The Great Mughal) that gave the iconic ruler his due.

Then there were a bunch of marvellous Bombay novels by Jerry Pinto (Em and the Big Hoom on madness and family), Jeet Thayil (The Book of Chocolate Saints on the golden age of Bombay poets and their particular forms of insanity), and Cyrus Mistry (whose Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer illuminated a rarely glimpsed aspect of the Parsi community).

Another Bombay writer, Annie Zaidi, wrote a slim novel with an edge of steel, Prelude to a Riot, that laid bare the festering poison of sectarianism that lay just beneath the skin of the country; its equally powerful non-fiction counterpart, My Son’s Inheritance, by Aparna Vaidik, showed how widespread the rot had become.

There were first-rate books of popular history, especially when it came to war – Shiv Kunal Verma’s account of the 1962 war with China (1962: The War That Wasn’t), Salil Tripathi’s reconstruction of the 1971 war with Pakistan (The Colonel Who Would Not Repent), and Sudeep Chakravarti’s portrait of a short war which cast long shadows (Plassey: The Battle That Changed the Course of Indian History). There were other works of popular history whose subject matter was not as grim, such as Jonathan Gil Harris’s The First Firangis, on early European visitors and adventurers in India.

Wendy Doniger produced a landmark study of Hinduism (On Hinduism), that she called her “book of books”, and the best-selling mythologist and philosopher, Devdutt Pattanaik, published a profoundly original work, Business Sutra, that crafted unusual and effective business and management precepts out of Hindu scriptures and philosophy. Canonical classics found renewed life in lucid, contemporary translations that didn’t eschew scholarship, notably Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s translation of the Tirukkural and Meena Arora Nayak’s retelling of the Kathasaritagara.

Sumptuous cookbooks, especially The Lucknow Cookbook by Chand Sur and Sunita Kohli and Bengali Cooking by Chitrita Banerji, worked well for us, as did feted fiction debuts such as Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor, The Competent Authority by Shovon Chowdhury, and The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy. From across the border, noteworthy books by Pakistani writers included Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (this novel was our first ever published title, and is doubly beloved for that reason), New Kings of the World by Fatima Bhutto, and The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher.

To end this glimpse of our greatest hits, I should mention a couple of long-running series – one of brief, striking books on our storied cities – by, among others, Amitava Kumar (A Matter of Rats, a book on Patna that he tossed off in between novels that we published to acclaim), Nirmala Lakshman (Degree Coffee by the Yard on Chennai) and Naresh Fernandes (City Adrift on Bombay) – and the other of translations into English of matchless short fiction written in the major Indian languages, kicked off by Arunava Sinha’s The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told.

And, finally, a couple of books it gave me especial pleasure to publish, were definitive editions of the work of writers I have published throughout my career – 99: Unforgettable Fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry & Humour brought together the very best pieces by Khushwant Singh, one for every year of his life, and Miracle at Happy Bazaar is the definitive edition of the children’s stories of Ruskin Bond, arguably India’s best-loved writer for kids. Most of the books I have singled out have won awards, or been otherwise feted, and many have sold very well.

Restating of objectives

Importantly, we are proud of some books that have, in a time of corruption, deceit, and growing authoritarianism, spoken truth to power, investigated injustice, and exposed falsehood. However, the single surpassing quality that characterises pretty much all these books is their timelessness, the Borgesian quality I referred to earlier in this piece – it is because of this attribute that decades from now many of them will still be read, discussed, and cherished.

Anniversaries are a time for introspection and the restating of objectives. As we contemplate the next decade of our existence, I return to what we set out to do when we started out – we wanted to publish exceptional literary books from India and the subcontinent to world-class standards. But what were we hoping to achieve beyond commercial and literary success?

At the time I was mulling over the possibility of starting a publishing company, I read a few accounts of those who had gone before. One founder wanted his company to be a beacon, lighting the path to knowledge and enlightenment, another intended to put worthy literature in everyone’s pockets, a third looked to resurrect forgotten classics and books of quality that others had overlooked; all very worthwhile objectives but what was it that we wanted to be?

For that I should take you back to the inspiration for the name of our company. One of my favourite stories is “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. In its English language version, here is how the Aleph is described by the narrator of the story:

“I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance [our colophon, created by Rymn Massand, with the letter A spinning within a turquoise sphere, was inspired by the Borgesian artefact]. At first, I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished…In the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth…I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon – “the unimaginable universe.”

Sublime books make known the unimaginable universe, or parts thereof, within their pages and further kindle it in the minds of readers. Every great book that we were able to publish at Aleph broke into the light that which had barely been imagined until then. It was, at the beginning, and continues to be now, a fundamental reason to exist. Especially in a publishing environment like India, where despite all the ground-breaking trade publishing that has taken place over the last forty years, much remains to be done. We are an ancient civilisation, so there is a lot to be written about, and we have hardly begun. We have enough unworked material and unimagined books to keep thousands of writers and dozens of publishers busy for a hundred years. And so, we go on.

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