Interview with a leading publisher

Talking with Sudarshan Kcherry
by Sunil Sharma

Sudarshan Kcherry – SK for friends – has recently published some of the top-most writers of Indian English and at the same time, given platform for young voices not only from India but also from other countries. He has promoted good poetry in a big way. Associated with the Authorspress Group for more than 25 years, SK has created tremendous goodwill both for him and the company.  The author had a discussion with him via emails:

Q.  Let us talk business. The business of publishing. How do you feel as a leading literary publisher today?

A. First of all, thank you for the compliment. As far as publishing goes, it’s both an interesting and a scary time to be in this business. Interesting because there are a whole lot of emerging writers who bring in fresh perspectives, new formats and a refreshing change of voice for even publishers like us who have been in the business for long. It’s a little scary too because the times are changing at a rapid pace- there are new competitors every year, and everybody faces threats from the rise of e-books and online piracy. Publishing outfits now also need to be attuned into the demands of the e-commerce platform.

Q. Have the models changed in the last 15 years?

A. Of course the models have significantly changed over the past 15 years. In fact, even just about 8 years ago, e-commerce wasn’t such a big deal, but with the convenience of a button, people are increasingly getting in touch with their desired books at a more rapid pace, and we have had to expand our own e-commerce presence in order to reach in a better way the prospective consumers. On the other hand, the rise of the e-books and online piracy has eaten into our share of the market, and profits have gone down. Consequently, we have lobbied for stringer laws for the publishing industry. Royalties have also come down, or become nearly non-existent, as emerging authors have become cognizant of how difficult a business publishing is these days. In some cases, they are even willing to pay for being published.

Q. How was the experience when you started some 25 years ago? Was it more of a missionary activity then?

A. As far as Authorspress is concerned, we have always been about keeping a balance between, as you put it, our “missionary activity” of bringing new quality  authors to the fore, and, keeping our profitability also. Over the years, this has become harder to do so, both due to declining quality in a world where everyone fancies himself/herself as a writer, and where the returns for publishing have diminished due to a plethora of market forces. When we started some 25 years ago, it was much easier to publish quality, and get a return on investment, as the publishing circle was more tight-knit then, and one knew well the channels and avenues to focus on for promotion and marketing of books, and which platforms to sell on. Now, the marketplace is a little more chaotic with the digital world, and one needs to keep abreast of trends and developments in a changing world.

Q. How important was the author then?  What is their status now?

AThe author has not lost its focus in terms of publishing priority- he/she remains the crux upon which we have built our business, and remains so. The only thing which has changed is the number of factors which now compete for our attention- market demands, the online world, tightening profits, etc.

Q. Is it not a huge trade now, publishing? Publishers openly demand money, instead of giving royalty? A sad scene for the author. What are the reasons for this attitudinal change?

A. The reasons for the attitudinal change stem from the fact that over the years publishing has become a not-so-lucrative, especially for independent publishers like us who have had to compete with not only the big players but also online piracy and decreasing margins. As a result, we can’t afford to gamble on uncertain titles, and as more people look to get published, they need to choose between languishing for years amongst the hundreds of hopeful manuscripts on a big publisher’s table or find a voice for themselves. As the trend of self-publishing has not really caught on, publishers can choose to demand money from hopeful writers instead of doling out royalty.

Q. What is your focus, while selecting a manuscript for publication? The overarching quality norms?

A. Any work which stands up to our rigorous standards of quality, legibility and innovation pass muster and we do our best to bring these works to light, especially if they are from an emerging or new author. We don’t compromise on quality and are ready to go through numerous corrections and revisions to bring the best output to the table.

Q. How do you view the entire media culture now?

A. There is a lot of media proliferation right now, both print and digital, which makes things easier in terms of avenues for marketing and promotion of books. Literary fests have also arisen, which, apart from more traditional book fairs, give authors and publishers a chance to showcase their works and reach out to a wider audience. However, this also leaves one more vulnerable to media criticism and one need to be more alert about the quality of the output.

Q. Do you not think that writing itself has become an exercise in self-promotion and manipulation? There are lobbies and vested groups promoting and honouring writers, especially in English?

A. As I’ve said before, this is a world where everyone fancies himself/herself a writer, and as a consequence, self-promotion and manipulation have become an inevitable part of the writing exercise. And further promoting this culture, as you have mentioned, are the vested lobbies and interest groups. But this is not an entirely new phenomenon, only more visible with extreme media proliferation. However, this is not to say that one must take a cynical view of things- if anything, quality in some quarters has actually significantly improved, and there are a lot of talented writers out there who deserve more recognition than they have garnered, or given a viable platform to express themselves.

Q. What is the politics of awards?

A. We are not very keen in pursuing awards and its local politics. It is often felt that awards are given only to the big names in the publishing world and others are not suitably recognized by the awards-committees due to reasons best known to them. We do not have the clout of money and other links. As a result, independent publishers like us have to make a name for ourselves via the best available means, i.e., great reviews for our authors and mentions in leading literary magazines and journals. That is enough for us---the love of readers and critics and editors.

Q. Your take on the viral of Lit-Fests? Where is the real author in it? Is it not a big PR tamasha that neglects small-town writers?

ATo be honest, I am glad of the emergence of literary fests in a big way, as at least now, there is more mainstream acceptance of all things literary. While there are problems, such as ignorance of small-town writers, or even regional literature, a good trend has finally been started, and there is always scope for improvement in terms of the diversity and variety it brings to the people. The thing is to look at it positively and understand how we can bring about change in the way literary fests bring together books, people and opinions.

Q. What is your assessment of the young poets in English? Is it a happening scene?

A. I wouldn’t exactly call poetry in India a “happening scene” – poetry never has been so that way in this country and it looks hard to be that way. The very nature of poetry with its minimalism makes it a rather niche genre, and unlike prose it never gathers much attention. Nonetheless, a lot of young poets under our banner, such as Varsha Singh,Sonnet Mondal, Shubhangi Joshi, Arnapurna Rath and Thumpa Chatterji, are extremely exciting talents, and should provide a new direction for the Indian poetry scene with their charged verses. Here, I would also like to express my gratitude for senior poets like Shiv K Kumar, Sitakant Mahapatra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Ramakant Rath, Keshav Malik and many others for publishing with us and giving lot of love. It is great feeling to have such eminent poets with us. I feel blessed by them.

Q. How do you promote the young writers?

A. Digital media has become an important platform for us to promote new talent. The younger generation has been nurtured on it, so it makes sense for us to latch on to it for its benefit- greater reach, quicker dissemination of information, etc. Otherwise, we do have media releases from time to time, where new writers are felicitated for their efforts and are promoted via traditional media as best as we can.

Q. Please do a summing up of your career as a publisher of literary and academic books?

A. As a publisher, I have always tried to maintain a level of quality that does not in any way compromise with my idea of good writing, and a scan of our catalogs over the past few years will speak of that ethic. I have also been partial to the emerging voices in literary fiction and poetry, as I believe that there are not enough platforms which give them a viable presence in the country. As a result, you would find that we have been extremely supportive of those who choose to make their debuts with us.

Q. Your plans for the digital age?

A. To keep ourselves evolving and being abreast of literary trends, we have joined Facebook, and have a huge following on the platform. We constantly update the page with news of new releases, awards functions, media mentions, etc., to maintain our digital presence, and it has become a viable platform for us to express both our thoughts as well as maintain our connections with our literary friends. We believe in keeping up with the times, and digital media has become central to this philosophy.

Q. The role of social media in the spread of literary literacy is very big and almost liberating so far. Do you agree?

A. Oh indeed. The rise of social media has enabled a new surge in literary interest as well as awareness about the literary world, and just a quick scan of the digital landscape will attest to that fact. Not only that, there are multiple avenues, both national and international, which enable readers to know about, dissect and discuss various literary works and forms, and connect with other literary-minded folks. As a result, it is a deeply liberating medium, enabling one to further immerse oneself in one’s interest and love for the written word.

Q. The flip side of it is that it has become – social media – a place for deep narcissism as well. Is it good for the health of the writer?

A. Well like everything else, the digital media has its pros and cons. Narcissism is just one aspect of the whole scenario- whilst it is true that the digital media can inflate one’s sense of importance in the literary landscape, what bothers me more is the troubling, addictive nature of social media. As a writer, whilst one needs to observe humanity in its varied hues to capture its essence, one also needs time away from the online world, to be alone with one’s thoughts, to put pen to paper and jot down one’s ruminations. I am afraid that social media hardly helps in this aspect, and every writer with an active social media presence needs to give some thought to it.

Q. What advice from you to a writer dreaming of getting published and seeking mass recognition?

A. The term “mass recognition” is rather ambiguous- the Indian publishing scene is host to a whole lot of writers who have gained public following and adoration despite an appalling lack of quality in their works. So for a new writer, my only advice for writing would be to stick to polishing a work to the utmost level of great story-telling and a compelling narrative that he/she can. Nothing should be compromised in making a work as accomplished as it can seem to be. As for getting published, that can be a task easier said than done. With literally hundreds of manuscripts to go through each day, big publishing houses can take their own sweet time in getting back to you, if at all, and a majority of them are averse to publishing new voices because of the marketing costs involved. This does not mean however that one should lose heart and not work on pursuing their dreams; merely that there are a lot of alternatives out there, like independent publishers, who can give you a voice for the audience at large.

Q. Is publishing getting more lucrative, with writers ready to pay their way into the published world?

A. Whilst the decreasing trend of paying royalties and the increasing need for making a mark for themselves seeing a lot of writers ready to pay for being published, the truth remains that publishing remains by and large a non-lucrative business. It is only our sincere efforts to push through good content that has managed for us to recover costs, and our steadfast adherence to the principle of maintaining quality has garnered us a reputation. This helps in keeping an independent outfit like us afloat.

Q. How do you manage the temptation of market over arts? With an impressive list of senior writers, you have shown that publishing can be still a decent trade by publishing quality over the mass?

A. It is always easy to give in to market forces and try to publish only “best-selling” material – after all, publishing is not the most lucrative business to be in today and we need to recover costs as soon as possible. However, Authorspress was launched with the express desire to posit quality over quantity, and we have been very conscientious about it. At no point have we tried to move away from this position, despite the various temptations present. I must stress that this is not an easy choice to make- at various points we have grappled with this dilemma, and it is only a strong focus on our core identity as publishers who aspire to bring out works which satisfy our quality standards that has helped us to maintain it. There are plenty of other publishers who don’t find it hard to keep it so, and give in to the demands of the market, and I am the last person to judge them over this.

Q. Thanks a lot.
A. Thank you so much for giving me the platform to express myself.