“Industry has given me a lot; now it is my time to return”
Says Subhash Sethi, president of Federation of Publishers & Booksellers Association of India (FPBAI), who has to his credit an illustrious career of 50 years in the publishing industry. Subhash Sethi, president of Federation of Publishers & Booksellers Association of India (FPBAI,) has been gifted by nature the inborn qualities of clairvoyance, enthusiasm, dedication and zeal to grow for himself and also to assist fellow human beings with utmost compassion and help them grow simultaneously. In his five decades of publishing profession, Subhash Sethi passed through innumerable phases of agony and ecstasy, thereby constituting a fortress for his family, friends and himself from the strong bricks of his experience. A successful publisher, in conversation with our deputy editor, G. S. Jolly on his latest book Pages From My Life A publisher’s Autobiography, who found him more of a saint than a publisher.
Q: You have mentioned in your book that your philosophy of life is to “see things through.” Will you kindly explain?
Sethi: This is exploring yourself before exploring others. He who has explored himself means he has found the God. When God is with you, you can even see what is behind the wall. This is my philosophy of life. I see to myself first to know where I am wrong; I treat myself my own teacher. I ask my conscience whether I am right or wrong. Once I get an answer from my inner self, then I put all my efforts to accomplish that thing. I listen to my conscience. That is the voice of God in you. The last chapter of my book Pages From My Life is my Philosophy of Life. I also believe that do whatever you feel is right. My philosophy of life is never run after money. Whatever God has given, one should be contented with that. Even Lord Krishna says in Geeta, “Nothing belongs to you.” The younger generation should understand that nothing belongs to you except your deeds. I don’t look toward others. See downwards and not upwards, you will be happy in life. I believe in philosophy of Karma.
Q: In one of your chapters, you have mentioned that you are a dreamer. You dreamt to become a chartered accountant and landed yourself in book publishing. How did that happen?
Sethi: When I was in college, being a Chartered Accountant was a status symbol. I even worked as article clerk for three months. But my destiny was to take me somewhere else. There was some financial constraints, I joined publicity department of Mohan Meakin. I worked for a year, always thinking that this is not the place for me. I thought I am not contributing anything. It is the brand that is selling. I then got a job with Lyall Book Depot of Ludhiana. Here I wanted to learn about the ins and outs of book publishing. I travelled a lot and developed rapport with lots of people. The turning point of my life was when in 1975, I got job with Jaico (Bombay). Within two years, I opened an office in Delhi. I attended international book fairs and projected the company. After some years, I started a company Crest in collaboration with Jaico. In 2005, Crest was dissolved and I opened my own imprint by the name of Indiana and I am here now with a large successful list and with the grace of God, doing fine.
Q: You have described yourself as ‘Clairvoyant.’ Were you able to foresee comfortable future that was in store for you keeping in view the early turbulent period of partition of India and the fact that you spent early childhood days in refugee camps?
Sethi: I was always confident. Punjabis have all the leadership qualities- best attitude-prepared to take risk, adventurous and hard work. What helped me in life was the positive thinking. Do not harm anybody if you cannot do any good. Personal relationship works wonder in life. Be God fearing. Thank him that He has given you a human body. Be helpful to others and be happy. Only hope sustains. One should keep on doing efforts. God has always stood behind me like a rock.
Q: You are said to be greatly responsible for establishing the office of FPBAI. You have been general secretary for about 7 years and president for 14 terms. What role do you expect FPBAI to perform to be worthy of representative trade body?
Sethi: We used to function in a rented room in Darya Ganj. With no money at our disposal, members thought that nothing much can be done. When I became secretary, I travelled the entire country to collect money from everywhere I went for FPBAI. People came forward and huge amount of money was collected from various publishers and we bought an office. A newsletter was started to convince various buying agencies why books should be purchased from members of the Federation. Today our FPBAI is at a very strong footing. I was always guided by the idea that this industry has given me a lot; I should also return something to the industry. I have always been guided by this spirit. We are the representative body of the industry and remain vigilant of the interests of the industry.
Q: Book Publishing is a difficult business. If you can earn money in publishing, you can earn more money in any other business. It is easy to become a publisher but difficult to remain one. Mortality at infancy is very high in this trade. What is your Mantra of success in publishing?
Sethi: This is absolutely true. My strong belief about this is look before you leap. Start from grass root and then venture into any project. There are five important things a publisher should consider before venturing into publishing a book: Product knowledge, Market, Competition, Promotion needs and Pricing. Once you have analyzed these factors, only then you should decide to go ahead with a book project. Relationship with booksellers and wholesalers is also very significant. It is a highly risk oriented business.
Q: Indian currency notes are faked, books are not far behind. The problem of piracy is eating out the profits of publishers. What is your take on this problem and its control?
Sethi: Piracy is the biggest problem at the publishers’ as well as at government level. Our copyright Act is a much better legislation than copyright acts of many countries but we have failed miserably in its implantation. Both authors and publishers are affected. If publishing industry suffers because of lax implementation of copyright law to protect the interests of the authors and publishers, then a day will come when publishers would hesitate to invest huge moneys in creating new book ideas.
Q: Multinational publishing giants have made a bee line into Indian publishing arena. Do you see any threat to indigenous publishing industry?
Sethi: Not at all. Infact, Indian publishers should not be threatened but we should improve our standards of editing and production to international level. There has been a lot of improvement in our standards and our books now match with books from foreign publishers. We are now at par with foreign publishers in terms of quality of production, format and content. In order to make our books attractive, we should give more thought to the jacket cover and meaningful titles which should be in harmony with the subject matter of the book.
Q: Authors are like indoor plants and should be treated with care. How do you view the author publisher relations in Indian publishing scenario?
Sethi: To be honest, I am not very happy with the situation. Not all publishers are like that. Authors also do not appreciate the difficulties in which a publisher operates. Most authors do not cooperate after the book is published; forgetting that the work of making the book available to the buyers starts after the book is printed. A lot of cooperation between author and publisher is required at this stage. The only interest of some authors is concentrated on payment of royalty. Both should appreciate the problems of each other.
Q: In consumer market, it is generally said that container is more important than the contents. I am referring to the physical quality of books produced in India. Are we, as publishers, competing with books produced by foreign publishers in quality of production?
Sethi: Things have changed for the better. If you want to remain in the market, you have to take good care to the production of the books. Only then your books will move shoulder to shoulder with foreign books. We sometimes lack in editorial care to the contents of the book. Editorial standards need much improvement. Editorial scrutiny without compromising the scholarship of the author is the need of the day.
Q: We are considered to be the third largest book producing country in the world in English language. Book reviews are said to be the least expensive and most effective tool of book promotion. We do not have sufficient review media to reach out the potential readers. What do you suggest in this direction?
Sethi: I agree that we do not have enough review media available considering the number of new books produced every year. We produce approximately 22000 new titles. We do not find enough space for reviewing our books in newspapers and magazines. There is a scarcity of trade magazines in our country and because of that, information about new books does not reach the potential buyers and this leads to thinner edition sizes. Sadly enough, we are not a reading nation and we haven’t developed book culture. The idea of gifting books instead of toys to the children can go a long way in inculcating reading habit and love for books among children.
Q: Most publishing failures are due to wrong editorial decisions. What criteria would you suggest to budding editors and publishers to adopt while selecting a manuscript for publication?
Sethi: In most cases, marketing people do not have any say in the editorial discussions. I used to organize sales conference where new projects were discussed with sales staff in order to get their opinion on the forthcoming titles. Because what is saleable is the expertise of the marketing people whose responsibility is to sell the book after it is published. Involvement of the marketing people can enhance sales of a title.
Q: Will digital book take over the printed book? Do you see the end of printed book in foreseeable future?
Sethi: This is a phase. The digital book cannot establish a relationship with the holder of book. This is very personal and digital versions don’t seem to connect an emotional relationship with the holder of a book. This piece of the experience doesn’t translate to the electronic format. There is a talk that book will cease to exist but book in printed form will remain for all times to come. How can you imagine a book free world?