“There is nothing like holding a book and being able to turn the pages”
says Narendra Kumar, chairman and MD – Har-Anand Publications, in conversation with GS Jolly, deputy editor, All About Book Publishing (ABP).
Chairman and managing director of Har-Ananad Publications – Narendra Kumar (NK) is considered the leading light of Indian publishing. He has been doyen of Indian publishing industry for many decades and has been hailed by Washington Post as “A legend in his life time.” He has written extensively on Indian publishing and lectured both in India and abroad to promote its cause on global scale. He has been a member of various UNESCO and WIPO groups. He has held various important posts like the president, Federation of Indian Publishers; chairman, CAPEXIL; Trustee, National Book Trust, and member, National Book Development Council. He has been the youngest publisher to have been included into the Indian publishing Hall of Fame. He has won many national and international awards including “Order of the State of the Italian Solidarity” conferred by the president of the Republic of Italy.
Acknowledged among India’s most distinguished educationists, he has been responsible for creating an education system responsive to the changing social needs at national and international level. He has been chairman of DPS Educational Society for almost a decade. Here, he shares his views on the Indian publishing and its various aspects with GS Jolly (GSJ), deputy editor, ABP. Excerpts.
GSJ: India has a pulsating book publishing industry with literacy rate touching 74.04 percent in 2011 census and the industry bringing out around 80,000 new titles every year, is it too much or too little ?
NK: Indian publishing industry has enormous potential and it has still a long way to go. You have to bear in mind that we have around 300 million children going to schools and still many millions who need school education. This clearly indicates that Indian publishing industry, along with US, could become the largest book publishing hub. Like British publishing in the 19th century, Indian publishing can meet the educational needs of the countries of Asia and Africa now. India publishes books in more languages than any other country of the world.
GSJ: On the piracy front, India herself is a victim. What measures do you suggest to contain it?
NK: The menace of piracy can be confronted on two fronts- moral and legal. People should be ethical in dealing with intellectual property and stern measures should be in place for the violators.
GSJ: With the changing scenario in the creation and distribution of knowledge due to rapid growth in information and communication technologies, what role the book is expected to play in dissemination of knowledge in the days to come?
NK: The book remains the single largest disseminator of knowledge. No matter how much you believe in the information technology, there is no greater joy than to have a book as man’s companion. As a person who has spent a quarter of a century in education and connected with the largest chain of schools can say that the modern technology has a role to play but only as an additional factor, not as primary tool of education.
GSJ: It is generally said that an Indian is a stranger in its own country because of multiplicity of languages. Does it have an effect in the overall growth of Indian publishing Industry?
NK: Multiplicity of languages is an important factor in making Indian society plural and inclusive. It could have been a major factor in the further growth of Indian publishing industry, if the government had played a greater role in promoting same book in various languages. There should be an organisation which could on a regular basis fund the translation of books and their promotion instead government spending millions of rupees in publishing books. National Book Trust was set up to perform two functions – promoting reading habit in the country and promoting Indian books abroad.
GSJ: Publishers may say that every manuscript which reaches their office is faithfully read but that may not be always true, but there is an accusation that publishers reject manuscript without reading. What do you have to say about it?
NK: The idea that publishers return manuscripts unread and not interested in the works of beginners is a delusion which will never be eradicated from some minds because supply of manuscripts is the life blood of the business. A publisher on the other hand cannot afford to spend time on reading a manuscript beyond the point at which he gets convinced that it has no chance of acceptance; no purpose would be served by such pointless reading. It will only delay conveying the decision to the author. How much a manuscript is read could vary from a few pages, through a few chapters, to a whole book. But the point that publishers as a class are not interested in the works of new authors is not to be accepted without reservation, it has to be said that nowadays there is no lack of material submitted for publication. Unsolicited manuscripts pour in all the times even though a few pompous publishers actually refuse to accept work that has not been invited or commissioned. But if everybody adopted this prissy attitude, there would have been no Gone with the Wind – the classic example of a bestseller that literally came to its publisher through the post.
GSJ: Authors normally complain that publishers do not pay attention towards promotion of their books. How far they are justified?
NK: Authors tend to forget that promotion costs a lot of money. Most authors think that their books have not been adequately advertised or promoted. It is very unfair remark. Who else would be interested in promoting the book than the publisher? It is a matter of maintaining a balance between expenditure and returns.
Advertising does help to promote a title. But you cannot sell a book by advertising alone. There is a clash of interests and only mutual sympathy and forbearance can steer the book to a much greater height than an atmosphere about the publisher’s intent. Who can deny the role played by publishers in making a book popular?
GSJ: Distribution is generally called the weakest link in publishing chain. Please enlighten.
NK: Distribution depends directly on the demand of a book. Books are sold on sale or return basis. One should keep in mind the fact that each book sent to a bookseller or returned by the bookseller costs money and that adds to the publishing cost. You would appreciate that publishing is a financially weak industry with hardly any public equity in it. Even when a possible market is in sight, and the actual sale is doubtful and promotion costs add to the total publishing costs, a publisher will try to reach the market which is certain than trying in an uncertain arena.
GSJ: What makes a bestseller – the reputation of the author, incredible writing, quality of production or aggressive marketing. If the last alternative has anything to do with it, tell us about some bestsellers created by you.
NK: Bestsellers cannot be created, they just happen. But still many factors play important role like reputation of the publishing house; author’s cooperation in promotion of the book; subject of critical interest at that point of time; and the ability of the publisher to judge its potential. Among the enumerable books that I published, the books that particularly stand out are – Rape of Bangladesh by Anthony Macarenhas and Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins and Z A Bhutto- If I Am Assassinated.
GSJ: As the book is changing form, how do you visualize the future of reading?
NK: I am a great believer in the future of book as it is the medium of education, entertainment and knowledge. There is nothing like holding a book and being able to turn the pages that no other device can substitute. I don’t see any danger to reading.
GSJ: It is believed that an impressive display of editorial skills, while not fool proof, is probably the best guarantor of successful author – editor relationship. What is your take on this?
NK: Of course, there is no doubt that a competent editor plays a critical role in strengthening the relationship with the author. However, editor has to remember that eventually the book is that of the author and not his.
GSJ: Publishers by and large do not mention the print run in the contract. Any reason for that?
NK: I don’t understand why print run is an issue. The issue is the total number of books sold. However, authors are given the information whenever they ask for it. Contracts sometime cover not only just one printing of a specific quantity but also reprints and new editions during the legal term of copyright.
GSJ: Copyright these days is divisible into many rights as there are different kinds of buyers. With each passing year and its new technologies, new rights appear. Who do you think will do justice for full exploitation of these rights- Author or publisher?
NK: Publisher is the best guarantor of the interest of the author.
GSJ: Willful desertion by successful and favored authors is another vexation that all publishers experience from time to time. What is your take on this?
NK: There is no solution to the issue raised by you. It makes me sad. The relationship between author and publisher is sacred and meaningful. I wish we could go back to the traditional publishing where such things were not happening.
GSJ: How do you visualise the Indian publishing ten years from now?
NK: So long as student population continues to grow, Indian publishing will grow from strength to strength. It has a great future.
GSJ: With everybody going digital, how long the book made of paper will last?
NK: I am not a prophet of doom. I am a strong believer that book will remain till eternity.