A publisher's response in trying times

16 April 2014
Frederick Noronha / Creative Commons
Frederick Noronha / Creative Commons

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 But events don’t always unfold this way, as we saw in the Wendy Doniger case, where a book was withdrawn even before the matter reached the courts.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.

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