A publisher's response in trying times

Frederick Noronha / Creative Commons
16 April, 2014

There is a certain caution built into the publishing system. Call it prudence, call it cowardice or just plain pragmatism. When a publisher signs a contract with an author, the possibility of plagiarism, libel, defamation, obscenity, are all flagged as potential causes of breach of contract. Long discussions can follow on the indemnity clause, which fixes responsibility on the author and ensures that if the book ends up in litigation of any sort, the author will have to fight the case all the way through, alongside the publisher. But events don’t always unfold this way, as we saw in the Wendy Doniger case, where a book was withdrawn even before the matter reached the courts.

Most publishers will run content past a lawyer when it treads overtly political territory or mentions names in contexts that may be read as grounds for defamation. I remember changing the reference to a specific company known to be involved in dubious business dealings to “a group based in Delhi” in a book we published earlier this year. My colleagues in the art department have spent several hours pixellating penises in a graphic novel and masking other potentially “offensive” body parts on the basis of legal advice and to general hilarity in the office. Yet, none of this is a guarantee of safety because the laws, far from being clear on the subject of what can cause offence, encourage multiple interpretations, the full range of which no lawyer or publishing house could possibly anticipate. As a result, we often sought legal advice and then set it aside because it seemed to defeat common sense.

In mid 2011, we were hit by a controversy that in some ways exemplifies the situation. Great SoulMahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, by Joseph Lelyveld, was about to go to press when the Daily Mail in the UK did an early review that highlighted an alleged reference in the book to Gandhi as homosexual. The first reaction in India came in the form of a ban by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi—not that he or his advisers had read a word of the book. The central government was quick to follow, though it hurriedly withdrew its “condemnation” when it became clear that there was no public support for the ban, not even from Gandhi’s own family.

What gave us the courage to go ahead with printing and distributing the book then was, one, the reassurance of friends and friends-of-friends whom we called for advice—historian Ramachandra Guha, journalist Aniruddha Bahal and lawyer Prashant Bhushan; two, the understanding that there were enough legal precedents in our support; three, knowing that in this era of online retail and e-books, it would be near impossible for such an arbitrary ban to be upheld in practice; four, the assumption, which proved right, that the loony fringe would be uninterested in fighting a battle unlikely to fetch quick communal or caste dividends. And so it happened. We ended up selling three times the numbers we had hoped for pre-ban, and although retailers in Gujarat did not stock copies of the book, anybody who wished to read it could get their hands on it quite easily.

Has anything changed in the recent past to make things different, more difficult, perhaps, for writers and publishers? Yes and no. There is a greater awareness of the law, its loopholes and its policing, which makes publishers reluctant to bypass legal advice. At the same time, both writers and publishers have become careful to the point of self-censorship, crossing out what might cause offence to an individual or a community, at least to the best of their understanding. The argument in favour of such action is not indefensible: would you rather have the book out in some form and read than not give it a chance at all? If the joke earlier was about attracting a ban to drive sales, now there is a very real fear that even a controversy not backed by law could spell the death of a book. In the case of James Laine’s book Shivaji, for instance, the Supreme Court in 2010 may have struck down the ban on the book, but the fact remained that there was a great reluctance, especially in Mumbai, to display the book visibly. In the week the ban was lifted, a bookseller told me that he had received several phone calls from the local police station, ostensibly checking on the availability of the book. “When he asked if he could get a copy, the policeman was actually telling me, there had better not be one on sale,” he said.

When the system seems to connive with the mob to prevent free expression and dissemination of content, what is a publisher to do? The easy thing would be to follow the letter of the law and not test the ideals—if one could call them that—or patience of any part of society. An insider’s account of life inside an ashram in southern India? Dangerous. A novel that dramatises caste conflict in Uttar Pradesh, based on a real incident? Potentially provocative. A study of the violence implicit in religious conversion in different parts of India? Best avoided. An erotic fantasy that stars a young Muslim girl? A definite cause of anxiety. And so it could go on, a seemingly endless list of  “dangerous” subjects and by extension, “unmarketable” writers.

The other way to respond would be to take the route further north: instead of throwing water on the wood even before the flame is lit, to sit down and plan the fire. Publishing houses, especially small, independent presses with a clear political agenda have been doing this for years; it’s the bigger houses that have for the most part cultivated fairly neutral profiles. But neutrality can fade into inaction, even compromise, and in the ever-shrinking democratic space in India, that isn’t an option any more—it isn’t even good business. A large publishing house has infrastructure, the assurance of legal help, the ability to underwrite reasonable legal expenses, and access to the media. What it lacks, perhaps, is a clear understanding of publishing as a political space where choices must be made not merely on the basis of literary aesthetics or commerce, but as part of a continuing and intellectually vibrant engagement with society. Rather than trap a trend and stay with it for as long as it generates sales, publishers must actually intervene in debates and actively commission books on subjects that could shape the way people think about governance, conflict, human rights, environment, history. In these times of self-publishing and the infinite resources of the internet, not doing so would be to fade into irrelevance.

The views presented here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

Karthika VK is publisher and chief editor of HarperCollins Publishers India.