Naveen Kishore, Urvashi Butalia, and Vera Michalski in conversation with Manasi Subramaniam
Presented by Seagull School
For over thirty years, Naveen Kishore has been one of the leading figures in the Indian and global publishing scene. After being told that as an Indian publisher he should focus on Indian writing, Naveen set up a publishing house in the west as a statement. It now has a back catalogue of over 600 books published. Europe and the Americas took notice and responded by awarding him with a Goethe Medal and naming him Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. A firm believer in loving what you do, Naveen Kishore regards publishing as his life’s work and has brought a passion and commitment to his work that has been instrumental in making him one of the biggest names in the business. An erudite and entertaining public speaker, his talks at innumerable events across the world have been replete with observations that are simultaneously pithy and profound.
The founder of the first feminist publishing house in India, Urvashi Butalia has made it her business to ensure that she can provide a platform for the voiceless to voice themselves. Unafraid and unflinching, she has long been one of the leading luminaries in the Indian social justice sector, advocating for the marginalised, and speaking out against the patriarchy and other institutional forms of discrimination. Her award-winning book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, has been noted for its stark and poignant description of the largest mass migration in human history and the violence that ensued in its wake from the point of view of people who were trapped amidst the storm. A popular speaker known for her penchant to speak truth to power, Urvashi Butalia has carved a unique niche for herself in the consciousness of India.
Vera Michalski-Hoffman is one of the most widely renowned publishers in the European literary market. The president of several publishing houses across France, Poland, and Switzerland; her Libella Group is responsible for bringing out over 350 new books every year. Her thirty-year long career in the world of publishing has seen her win numerous awards and honours, from being named an Officer of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, to being awarded the Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Republic as well as being awarded the Decoration of Honor Meritorious for Polish Culture and the Polish “Bene Merito” honorary distinction. Her work as a publisher has been augmented by her dedication to charity. The Jan Michalski Foundation, named in honour of her late husband, has been at the forefront of providing writers with the tools and platforms they need to flourish.
Beyond the realm of art, where all that matters is the beauty of the text and the originality of the idea, the world of literature is ultimately a business. The first session of the second day of Jaipur BookMark at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival saw some of the world’s leading publishers discuss the present and future of the business of books.
Session moderator Manasi Subramaniam, Senior Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House India, opened the discussion by asking the panel of seasoned publishing experts how they view the business to which they have devoted themselves. Writer and Publisher Urvashi Butalia, who opened India’s first feminist publishing house Zubaan, quipped that publishing was “the love of my life”. Naveen Kishore, Founder of Seagull Books, regards publishing as his “life’s work, so I treat it with passion and commitment”.
Apart from, or perhaps due to, old clichés of the struggling artist, the romanticization of books, and the passion-led nature of the publishing industry; innovative approaches are often required to make it work as a business. Butalia expressed that “if you are excited to be in the presence of new thinking, new writing everyday, it’s hard not to love it”. Publisher and founder of the Jan Michalski Foundation, Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, believed that “The book trade is in a more optimistic place than where it was a couple of years ago”. The panel agreed that reports of the demise of the book have been greatly exaggerated.
Subramaniam highlighted that publishing is “not competing with other publishers” but rather it’s “competing with coffee shops, Netflix, YouTube, and social media.” The panel acknowledged that navigating this brave new world is a tricky affair. Michalski-Hoffman stated, “When people complain about how expensive books are, it’s still one of the cheapest ways to acquire knowledge.” Kishore’s approach involves “opening up many fronts to confuse the enemy. The enemy is the marketplace, which you cannot claim to know or understand.”
Subramaniam warmed the panel discussion on a cold and overcast Thursday morning by stoking a few flames. “What is something you do not love about publishing?” was a question that every member of the panel appeared prepared for. Butalia confirmed the suspicions of most writers by declaring that “Many of my authors drive me up the wall!” before advocating that the “hostility between authors and publishers” needs to end as they are both in the same business. Butalia also expressed her annoyance with “deeply patriarchal men” who think that women with years, if not decades, of experience in the publishing business might not be aware of subjects that they deem too technical.
Kishore felt that there was “not enough community across publishing, despite the fact that it is not a cut-throat industry compared to other businesses.” Michalski-Hoffmann felt the provincialism of the French literary scene was her least favourite thing about publishing. “It’s really infuriating”, she expressed, “it’s just judgement, it’s not objective”.
The business of books is fickle and changes almost every year, but the love, passion, and commitment on display at Jaipur BookMark was an indicator of how dedicated professionals are, straddling the line between art and business to ensure new ideas and new voices find avenues for expression.