I'm an anti-caste junkie: Meet S Anand, the man behind Navayana publishing house
He's not a fan of Katherine Boo, he's a proud 'anti-caste junkie' and he doesn't think books are 'FMCG products' that should make whopping profits. Meet the publisher of Navayana, S Anand.
In Pali, the word “navayana” means “new vehicle”. Dr BR Ambedkar used the word in 1956 to describe the branch of Buddhism that wouldn't be mired in the Hinayana-Mahayana divide, but would help dalits gain equality in India.
It’s a fitting name for the publishing house that S Anand and Ravikumar set up in 2003 because their Navayana, which won the British Council-London Book Fair International Young Publisher of the Year award in 2007, continues the good fight for a more equal and unprejudiced society.
Navayana publishes books that tackle caste and caste-based prejudice and in just a few years, their titles have won praise from all over the world for being produced beautifully and provocative. Go to their website and you’ll see bravos from people like Noam Chomsky and Mohammed Hanif. In the first section of a two-part interview, publisher S Anand talks about running an independent publishing house at a time when big players are fretting about the future of publishing.
When did you start Navayana and why?
Navayana was started in November 2003 by me and Ravikumar, an intellectual and activist in the civil rights movement in Tamil Nadu and a bank employee back then. I was a journalist then and I worked for Outlook.
By 2006, Ravi became a member of a political party, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal (Dalit Panthers’ Tamil version) and became an MLA; and in 2007, I turned to full-time publishing quitting my day job as journalist. Spurred by winning the British Council-London Book Fair International Young Publisher of the Year award in 2007, by when Navayana had done only 12 titles, I moved to Delhi in May 2007. It took me a year to find my bearings in this megapolis.
In some senses, Navayana really took off as a serious venture only in 2008. In 2003, we had started Navayana on a whim – the need for Navayana was felt simply because there were publishers engaging with environmental issues, ‘communalism’ (as the Hindu-Muslim question is called in India); there were independent publishers engaging with Left issues, such as LeftWord; you had specialist children’s publishers, women’s movements and feminist publishers, but you did not have anybody in English language publishing saying that caste is an issue that infects and inflects everything in India. So there was clearly what we identified as a ‘gap’ and we decided to try and address this gap with an exclusive focus.
Publishing seems to be a shrinking business. Were you ever daunted by the task of bringing out the titles that make up Navayana's catalogue?
In fact, one finds that in trade and commercial publishing, risk-taking has drastically come down. Most mainstream publishers want to do ‘safe’ titles that do not incur financial, political or intellectual risks. The sad part, as the pioneering American publisher of Pantheon and founder of The New Press, Andre Schiffrin, says is that publishing was for the longest time not seen as a ‘business’ as such.
People were happy with 4 percent profits—what you got from a savings bank account. Suddenly with conglomerates entering the market, with holdings companies treating books like any other ‘investment’, books came to be treated like FMCG products; expectations of profit went up to an unreasonable 20-25 percent.
A friend who returned from the recent London Book Fair says the most interesting titles in the UK are being done by small and medium-sized independents like Saqi, Serpent’s Tail, Comma Press, etc. The same holds true for India where presses like Yoda, Blaft, and Navayana have shown that you can do cutting edge books.
Older players like Seagull and Zubaan have fortified themselves. Seagull has in fact gone seriously international; they have a Nobel laureate like Mo Yan in their list; they have all of Mahashweta Devi. So all this gives me courage to be bold, innovative and experimental at Navayana.
But do not forget that the guesstimate for per capita spending on books in India is an abysmal Rs 80 – per person per year. Even if only 20 million of the 1.2 billion have the luxury of reading for pleasure in India, that’s a huge market. And they don't seem to be reading as much as they ought to, the mind-numbing sales of the Chetan Bhagats and Amish Tripathis notwithstanding.
How involved are you as far as the commissioning books is concerned? Are you also involved with the design and production of the books?
Well, I have to do all of that. Navayana works with very low overheads. I have one assistant editor working with me and one full-time admin person. So all the commissioning and selecting and handholding of authors and raising finances has to be done by me. I respond to emails, handle orders, organize launches, oversee my website, lobby for reviews etc etc. In most post-DTP small presses, the publisher wears many hats. Since 2008, I have worked with an excellent designer Akila Seshasayee, on all our covers, but yes I do get involved with design. A project like Bhimayana was conceived of and curated by me, and with such excellent artists as Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam it mostly designed itself.
What has been the biggest challenge as far as Navayana is concerned?
Money! And most small publishers would give you the same answer likely. I do not seem to have a good head for the business end of things. Bhimayana has been our only funded project, but otherwise it is quite hand to mouth. Navayana survives primarily on the generosity of friends, though since 2010, after Slavoj Zizek's first annual Navayana lecture, our market presence matches the best. We do make sure all our titles are well reviewed.
In terms of profits, I doubt if even the bigger presses really make any profits with all the heavy overheads they have. The real profit-earners in Indian publishing are textbook publishers. Ratna Sagar’s turnover could well be more than HarperCollins or Penguin’s, but the overall visibility of a Ratna Sagar will be poor.
What has been the most satisfying part of Navayana?
The fact that one has done a range of titles which no one else would have done. And that I get to pursue my passion as an anti-caste junkie.
Could you pick five titles from your catalogue that you would categorise as "must-have"?
This is a tough choice to make since I do not publish books that you ought not have on your shelf. But still, since list-making is one of journalism’s many ways of simplifying things, here we go:
Ajay Navaria's Unclaimed Terrain
Anand Teltumbde’s The Persistence of Caste, pegged to the Khairlanji carnage
Namdeo Dhasal’s A Current of Blood
Srividya Natarajan and Aparajita Ninan’s A Gardener in the Wasteland, a graphic adaptation of Jotiba Phule's 1873 text, Gulamgiri.
I do feel bad leaving out Gogu Shyamla’s Father May be an Elephant…, Namdeo Nimgade’s In the Tiger’s Shadow and Shashank Kela’s A Rogue and Peasant Slave.
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