Tricks of the Trade

What has and has not worked in Indian publishing

31 July 2022
People buying second-hand books at a stall at the New Delhi World Book Fair. The Indian publishing world is still guided by innumerable forces. Production costs keep increasing and the average Indian wants to spend less and less every year on books, too.
AJAY KUMAR / SOPA IMAGES / GETTY IMAGES
People buying second-hand books at a stall at the New Delhi World Book Fair. The Indian publishing world is still guided by innumerable forces. Production costs keep increasing and the average Indian wants to spend less and less every year on books, too.
AJAY KUMAR / SOPA IMAGES / GETTY IMAGES

WHEN SI NEWHOUSE JR—the former chairperson of Advance Publications, which owns titles such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker—sold the Random House group, in 1998, to the German media giant Bertelsmann AG, several editorials expressed shock and dismay at the seemingly abrupt decision. The handover had been code-named “Project Black” in emails and company memos, so that the deal remained under wraps.

The questions abounded. Why would you sell Random House and not, for instance, the fledgling Vogue, which was consistently second to Elle in the number of copies sold? Surely the behemoth that had published renowned authors such as James Joyce and William Faulkner could not be written off? Were the profits not reasonable? “I would hope that at this late stage in my career I won’t have to find a new home,” the Pulitzer-winning US novelist John Updike told The Observer, visibly perturbed. The fog around Project Black lifted only a few weeks later, when Random House revealed that it had made a profit of just 0.1 percent. In The Business of Words, André Schiffrin notes that when the New York Times reported this abysmal number, many believed it to be a typographical error.

In February 2022, when the Amazon-owned Indian company Westland Books decided that it would shut shop, authors stared at an uncertain future in which all their books would be pulped within a month. Many theories floated. Had Amazon given into the Modi government’s pressure because it had been publishing supposedly “anti-establishment” books under its Context imprint? Or, simpler still, had Amazon simply taken a hard-headed commercial decision, with Westland losing money?

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    Arman Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers the intersection of gender, travel, sexuality, queer culture, and lifestyle. His work has appeared in publications such as ThemVice and Femina, and the Indian editions of VogueGQGraziaArchitectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveller.

    Keywords: Indian publishing publishing industry publishing Hindi publishing
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