The Alt in Publishing
Papercuts interviews those who put “the other” at the forefront
At Papercuts, we know that for a unique and compelling literary voice to see the light of day, it requires not just a talented author, but publishers and editors who believe in it.
We live in a time where big publishers get the lion’s share of the publicity and market, even when the books that really push the envelope in terms of original and exciting prose most often owe their existence to smaller publishing houses—lean, cash-strapped establishments that function on little more than a stubborn belief that a diverse and inclusive publishing industry is a good thing.
Volume 19 of Papercuts directs attention to this “Other Side” of South Asian publishing: three independent presses that have been quietly influencing the regional landscape of literature from its fringes.
Seagull Books, Yoda Press, and Blaft Publications produce very different books and have dissimilar histories of genesis. Yet, in its own way, each publishing house has successfully created demand for content that didn’t seem to have a “market”: Seagull’s titles today include some of the best writing on theatre and cinema, and translations of works by noteworthy authors writing in several South Asian and world languages; Yoda Press’s publications have changed conversations about gender and sexuality in South Asia; and Blaft has reinvigorated genre fiction as well as experimental writing across different languages.
Papercuts Associate Editor, Torsa Ghosal, and Reportage Editor, Pooja Pande, caught up with Naveen Kishore from Seagull, Arpita Das from Yoda, and Rakesh Khanna from Blaft, to learn more about their individual (in one case, intergalactic) journeys in indie publishing.
Papercuts: What was the vision behind establishing your own independent publishing house?
Naveen Kishore (Seagull Books): There was need. There was desire. [We wanted] to document the theatre, art and cinema activity we were involved in prior to publishing. No one was doing it at the time, but it felt possible. The possibility to create a niche. One that wasn’t there before.
Vision for me is retrospectively palpable. At the time one is up close to the excitement of making something happen. In fact, the interesting thing is that there still isn’t a publisher doing theatre, art, cinema! This may be because the numbers never match. The vision you speak of can often be an entrapment. It makes you see so clearly that you stop yourself from risking your life.
Arpita Das (Yoda Press): I had worked with HarperCollins Publishers, Sage India, and OUP India before I started Yoda Press in 2004. At that point, I wanted to publish lists of books that I felt were not being entertained by the big publishing houses in India, both in terms of genre and category. Creative non-fiction and essays, for instance, and subjects such as LGBT writings, pop culture, urbanism and so on.
Once I started developing these lists, and the books on them received tremendous feedback, I decided to stay the course for some time. Sticking with non-fiction was an important part of that course. Because this was the post-Arundhati Roy-winning-the-Booker period, when absolutely everyone wanted to try their hand at Indo-Anglian fiction, as it was called then, and there was a glut of rubbish novels. I wanted to develop a publishing list quite different from that.
Rakesh Khanna (Blaft Publications): To be honest the Blaft alien doesn’t see well in the visible spectrum. Its eyes are most sensitive to soft X-rays, but can also perceive very low frequencies, such as those emanating from distant radio galaxies stretched by cosmological redshift. The problems it was attempting to solve through its publishing activities here on Earth were therefore likely caused by events in our universe’s remote past, perhaps involving collisions of matter and antimatter. To us humans, the nature of these problems remains somewhat opaque, as does the question of whether they were ever solved.
Papercuts: Why a publishing house? At the time of its inception, did you view your publishing house as “alternative” to an existing “mainstream”?
RK: In a country with 22 scheduled languages and dozens of smaller languages—many of which blur into each other in dialect continuums, but nonetheless have active publishing scenes—the contours of mainstream publishing are quite tricky to describe! You could maybe think of it as an m-manifold in an n-dimensional space whose set of basis vectors is fuzzy—if you’re feeling optimistic. And Blaft is a publishing house instead of a record label because we believe vinyl is the ideal and not nearly enough people in India have gramophones. Certainly, it is alt: in fact, the name of the company is an acronym for Alt FB.
AD: A publishing house because that’s what I knew best: books. My father too belonged to the book trade in India. He worked with what was at that time the largest book distribution company in South Asia, UBSPD, and he was one of the handful of people who spearheaded the export of books out of India. And not books on Indology to the West which had been the norm for long, but exports of books on social sciences and sciences to the African nations, the Middle East, and to Southeast Asia. My mum worked with NCERT, the government body which wrote school textbooks and trained teachers in schools across the country. That is the sort of household it was—books, writing and education is what we mostly spoke about.
When I started Yoda Press in 2004, there were these established diasporic and Indo-Anglian voices at the time—Rushdie, Seth, Ghosh, and also a new emerging space which was really not very discerning, just very energetic. Then there were biographies and autobiographies, which have always worked well in India, and academic books and educational texts. The creative non-fiction space was almost non-existent. Alt genres like graphic novels were unheard of. Subjects like sexuality and pop culture were considered non-starters. The large companies at this time had been around on their own or via collaborations for some time. The second influx of multinationals had not yet happened. Children’s lists were unbelievably limited. There were, of course, fabulous independent houses by this time, iconic ones like Kali, Katha, Tulika, Leftword, Three Essays Press, which were forging out in entirely different directions. And they were very much Alt. So, I was very keenly aware that with Yoda Press I would be part of that space, and hence, most definitely Alt.
NK: We decided overnight to publish books in the performing arts and media with a focus on translation. No one sat there with labels like alternative and mainstream. We were doing things. Hands on. Discovering how to publish, with a lot of help from a wonderful printer editor, P K Ghosh of the legendary Eastend Printers in Calcutta. We were discovering quality of paper. Our own deep commitment to design and production aesthetics. Quality was paramount. In an environment that did not produce great-looking books, we learned to negotiate excellent paper, binding, block-making. This was a pre-computer time [Seagull was founded in the 1980s]. Later the technologies would make things differently possible. But while these wonderful letterpress books were being printed and published, it was the sheer pleasure of that particular engagement. That and trying to find ways of making the books available to a specialist audience.
The other larger publishers, or what I suspect you are calling mainstream, were also doing all kinds of books in a pre-Penguin era. Penguin India happened much later. As did all the other multinationals. Yes, independents like Sage, Kali for Women and so on were beginning to do wonderful books too. There were the big OUP and Orient Longman-type houses who did the bulk of a certain kind of academic and text book publishing. All this would soon change once the technology became more accessible. Ours would remain small and niche.
Papercuts: Is the current landscape more favourable to an independent publishing house? Over the years, have you increasingly felt that yours is less of a lone voice – that there are many others, and many more, who share its thought process and inclination?
NK: Independents have always thrived. If you look at the world context. Similar problems faced by us all and climate of favour happens where there is intent. Yes, I do understand what you are saying, but would suggest that 36 years ago when we were starting up we were part of a nascent movement of small independent presses. Now there are so many more and this is a welcome situation.
And no, I have never actually looked at us as an isolated voice. Always been a part of the publishing community and one that nurtured us from the very beginning. Orient Longman proudly distributed our first offerings. As did the more mainstream publishers and distributors like UBS. Never felt alone! Again, it is wonderful now to have so many wonderful presses our size and with the kind of energy needed to face up to the stresses of niche publishing.
AD: I was joining a group of fabulous indie spaces when I started YP (Yoda Press). And yes, after YP many more emerged as well. For me personally, being a feminist publisher with a fairly alt vision has become easier in one sense and harder in another. Easier because there is a much larger audience now, a much larger market, the niche that became a nook has now transformed into a nice cul-de-sac. And social media has made it eminently possible to not just connect with similar voices in other parts of my own country, but even across the world.
Harder as well though because of the political climate which has been hardening over the last few years, becoming more rigid, less tolerant, more surveillance-based. And that is a worry, which is there on a daily basis. But then, it also motivates one to push the envelope more and more.
Papercuts: Arpita, how has Yoda remained indie and feminist as a business?
AD: Through constant strategizing—I feel sometimes that I am even strategizing in my sleep! It’s been a real job keeping YP afloat. But we were very aggressive from the beginning in doing a lot of outsourced publishing work which kept the office running and the salaries paid. It has always been a very small team so there is always a lot of work. But the most fabulously committed and talented young people have worked with me over the last 14 years, and they have never balked at the prospect of more work. When our office was situated in a little attic above our bookstore Yodakin, we all ran the store in shifts as well.
More recently, collaborating with Sage for our academic list has been the best thing for YP. It has ensured that our academic titles get the visibility they deserve, and it has left us free financially to experiment more with our own list. The idea, of course, is never to get too comfortable. Then we will lose our edge.
Papercuts: Rakesh, in the context of running a publishing house and the several activities it entails—related to distribution, marketing, and promotion—where do you feel Blaft suffered the most? Was the audience always too niche?
RK: After the success of our Tamil Pulp Fiction anthologies, there were several disappointments in pursuing translations of pulp fiction in other languages. We had hot leads on some very cool crime, detective, and horror books written in Hindi, Bengali, Konkani, Malayalam, Oxomiya, Malaysian, Swahili, and Indonesian… but many of those projects fell apart, either because it turned out the authors had plagiarized or transplanted their stories from Western novels, or the rights ownership was too murky to be reliably tracked down, or we just couldn’t find the right translator. (It’s sadly quite rare to find people who have solid English but are also really well-versed in lowbrow fiction written in their mother tongue.)
Still, we’re very happy that we were able to bring out translations of Ibne Safi’s “Jasoosi Duniya” novels (from the Urdu, translation by Shamsur Rahman Farooqui) and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home (from the Hausa, translation by Ailyu Kamal.)
Other projects, like Kuzhali Manickavel’s weird short fiction, or George Mathen’s dystopian graphic novel “Moonward”, were sort of always destined to be niche—there’s an anti-gravitational force between ultracool work like that and the m-manifold, which serves to keep the bubbling tentacular morass of bland college romance novels and mythological adaptations bounded, preventing it from expanding and devouring everything. We are proud of our small contribution there.
Papercuts: Did Blaft explore the path of collaborations and strategic partnerships with more mainstream publishing houses or spaces?
RK: We did, and it went well for a minute, and then it didn’t go so well, and then there was a big flood and a bigger cyclone and some pretty wet books, and then Amazon came and gobbled everything up. So.
Papercuts: Naveen, what has been Seagull’s approach to curating content? Are there any guidelines you set for what kinds of books will be acquired? Or do you believe in establishing longstanding relationships with authors and then, acquire their work?
NK: We are on record saying that we don’t do books we publish authors. Not just the one-off book but many more from the same author as the relationship grows. The approach to content as you call it has always been a very personal one. What rings a chord inside our collective head, what we respond to, worry about, marvel at. Anything that concerns the human condition is a possible Seagull title. It is a process that defies labelling. It is, in fact, a practice. A vulnerable one because you never know how many other book readers will also react and respond in the same way to your selection. So, when they do we feel a heart-warming sense of community.
Papercuts: Seagull books’ covers, which Sunandini Banerjee has been designing from the 2000s, are also iconic. What role do you play in the process of cover designing? As a publisher, did you always intend for Seagull books to not only be valued for their literary content but also as art objects?
NK: Our publishing life can be divided into two periods: One that was pre-Sunandini and the one after. In the world before her, I used to design everything myself in a self-taught mode! She pretty much discovered the joys of design through the use of computers. My role was one of recognising a wonderful sensitivity and a world enveloping sensibility. One that used her editorial skills, her wide ranging personal reading, to create design that blurred traditional boundaries. Major publishers will tell you a certain cover works only in the USA and another only in the UK. Hers go across sensibilities. The world over. The same cover design. My role, I suppose, was to allow her the freedom a space like Seagull does. As a publisher I only intended to do books that looked great! The rest is for you to infer.
Papercuts: Do you feel that you occupy an “against the grain” space in Indian publishing today? Will it always be intrinsic to the identity of your publishing houses?
RK: Contrary to popular opinion, it’s extremely easy to go against the grain, and we are certain that various minds – human and otherwise – will continue to do so, in dramatic fashion.
AD: ‘Against the grain’ is the only thing that comes naturally to me. The mainstream has never interested me. But it’s important to say at this point, that a society’s ‘against the grain’, too, changes over time. Which is why, right now, we are deepening our Psychology list, because I feel that is where the challenge lies currently.
Papercuts: What direction do you see your publishing houses take over the next few years?
AD: Staying this new course again for the next few years, making the trade/more popular list as reputable as our academic and crossover non-fictions lists. In non-fiction and academic titles, we want to do more in the field of psychology. We need a corpus of book written by Indian practitioners on the subject and I am very interested in working on that. Our recent book by child therapist Nupur Dhingra Paiva called Love and Rage: The Inner Worlds of Children is an example of such a title. As for fiction, I am keen to make it an eclectic, political list with not just Indian and South Asian writers but some really standout voices from across the world. We have just bought South Asian rights to the brilliant Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar for the list, keeping such a goal in mind.
NK: A continued intuitive literary life is all I crave. There are many wonderful plans for the books, and also, for our six-year-old initiative The Seagull School of Publishing. So, yes, we continue to enjoy making books.
RK: We await the second coming of the gramophone in India. On that day Blaftrock will descend, along with legions of zombie-slaying kumaris!!
Alternatively, we may start publishing digital textbooks for middle-school students.