Monday, June 20, 2011

YourStory interview: DD (as entrepreneur and YCEA finalist)

[Though I usually avoid giving in to my Narcissistic tendencies on this blog, I was told young publishing aspirants would be keen on it; so here goes. :)]  
We at recently caught up with Divya Dubey, Delhi based Publishing Entrepreneur and Founder of Gyaana Books, a trade-book publishing firm that focuses on fiction for adults.
Divya Dubey was also one of the finalists at the British Council’s Young Publishing Entrepreneur Awards in 2010. To know more about the Young Publishing Entrepreneur Awards, click here. To follow the Young Creative Entrepreneur Awards on Facebook, check out
Divya, tell us about your Publishing Firm Gyaana Books.
GyaanaWe started our little publishing firm in July 2009. We publish fiction for adults – yes, perhaps the only ones in India who do just that – literary or popular. Our first list was launched on January 22, 2010, at India International Centre, New Delhi. The three titles were released by Keki N Daruwalla, the eminent poet and writer. We’ve released six titles so far(one romance, two murder mysteries, one literary fiction, two short-story collections), and two more(literary fiction) are due for release soon. We work both with new faces and known writers.
Gyaana has featured in some articles in the media including ‘Writing a Success Story’ (The Week), ‘Summer of Pulp’(The Financial Express), ‘Article on Self-publishing and Print on Demand’(Indian Printer and Publisher online journal), ‘India Thirsts for More Publishers’(Indo-Asian News Service), and ‘A Good News Story?’(The Times of India).
We had launches at India International Centre, India Habitat Centre, Yodakin, Akshara Theatre, and St Stephen’s College in Delhi; and Axis Books and Oxford Book Store in Bangalore, with participation from Chippy Gangjee(the well known actor-director), Sunit Tandon(former CEO of Lok Sabha TV, director of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, and well known theatre person), Jalabala Vaidya(veteran theatre person and co-founder of Akshara Theatre), Ashok Row Kavi(well-known journalist and LGBT activist) , and Dr Shekhar Seshadri(professor of psychiatry at NIMHANS, and president of the board, Sangama, Bangalore). And, we have more events coming soon.
A part of No Flying from Fate was adapted for stage by Akshara Theatre, Delhi, during their summer festival, ‘Diksha’ 2010.  Akshara theatre also adapted Anuradha Kumar’s novel The Dollmakers’ Island for the stage. It was performed to a packed hall on June 26, 2010, led by Jalabala Vaidya and Sunit Tandon.
Recently, we’ve also started a new wing, Gyaana Writers’ Coracle (GWC), which aims to help aspiring authors – for a fee.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
DivyaI come from a family of doctors. Fortunately, I discovered my real calling before Medicine could claim me! I’m a former student of MA English at St Stephen’s College, Delhi; and MA Publishing at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford. I started my career as an editor with Sage Publications, and then went on to do textbooks, trade, and graphic novels, before returning to trade – where I really belonged.

So, what is the story behind starting Gyaana Books?
The story of an ordinary mortal waking up one morning and realising she had just one life to do all she wanted to do! I wanted to work for myself – be my own boss, and do the kind of books I really wanted to do. I started Gyaana Books the day I found the guts; after that it has simply been perseverance
Where are you based? What is the size of your team?
We are based in Delhi. We’re probably the tiniest publishing firm on earth right now – with three people in all including me, a marketing person, and an office boy – and one laptop that’s our ‘office’ for all practical purposes. I guess that’s also our USP.
Going forward, what would be your market differentiators?
I started the firm with no existing brand name, contacts, connections, or big capital. I was an unknown name, and I worked with unknown names. You can compare all of that with what we’ve achieved in two years, and arrive at your own conclusions.
Apart from that, we’re trying something new under Gyaana Writers’ Coracle. Many times scripts that do have potential are turned down by publishers because they still require work. Nobody has the time to offer feedback on a rejected script, or tell the author what he/she could do to improve it. GWC aims to help such aspiring writers to improve their script and writing skills.
What are the challenges you faced while starting up Gyaana Books? How did you overcome the challenges?
DivyaSeveral challenges at every front, the greatest being apathy and skepticism – from distributors, retailers, the general public, the media, the literary circles, though things are falling into place very slowly. It is very tough to find acceptance and make a niche for yourself, especially when there are so many big players in the market already. Also, India doesn’t have a great reading culture, or let’s say book-buying culture(at least not for books in English). Most people run after big brand names and bestsellers – or low-priced books.
We’re still fighting all or most of that. Publishing – whether for a small firm or for a multinational giant – is a new battle every day – perhaps the only industry that’s like that.
What are the Publishing sector specific challenges?
Marketing, distribution, media attention, apathy from retailers/distributors, fewer trade book shops, fighting for shelf space and visibility, astoundingly long gestation period, delayed payments, lack of transparency, disorganised process flow, etc.
How does Gyaana Books work?
We now have two distinct categories: book publishing and GWC.
For publishing:  it’s the traditional model. We receive manuscripts from authors as all publishers do, evaluate them, decide what we want to publish, and sign a contract with the author. Then we schedule the book’s publication. It usually takes us about three months once the process begins and, fortunately, we have had some absolutely lovely authors! We do keep the author in the loop throughout, even after the book has been published, so that he/she knows exactly what’s happening. Everything is transparent. The authors also help in marketing and promotions. We send the books out of reviews, and they’re also listed for sale on online shops such as Flipkart etc.
For GWC: the scripts are specifically addressed to GWC. It’s not just an editorial services agency; it is more than that. Our aim is to help aspiring authors write better. We evaluate the script, gauge its potential, and discuss the project with the author. Since I deal with this wing personally, I only take up the project, if the author and I are comfortable with each other. The author must have cent per cent faith in GWC, and must be willing to put in the hard work the project will require. Once we begin, there is no turning back. We go at a pace the author is comfortable with. At the end of the day, the author must feel he/she’s gained something from the whole exercise. On principle we do not publish the GWC scripts, but we can(and do) guide them to other publishers/agents.
Please share with us a few success stories of Gyaana Books.
Going by success in terms of numbers, we still have to go a long way. But yes, we have some recognisable names on our list now – including Anuradha Kumar, Dipika Mukherjee, and Anjana Basu. Our forthcoming title, Thunder Demons, was long-listed for the Man Asian Prize 2009. Pink Sheep, our gay fiction title, was one of the few books published in this genre last year, and received great reviews in the mainstream media. I took a great risk self-publishing Turtle Dove, my own short story collection, but that too received pretty decent reviews in the mainstream media. Our recent release, The Body in the Back Seat by Salil Desai is already on Landmark's bestseller list.
We’ve done quality books, and whatever we’ve achieved we’ve achieved on merit. We move slowly, but steadily and honestly. In spite of the challenges, our authors believe in us – and so do our readers. For us, that’s another kind of success. Strangely enough, there are authors out there who would rather wait to be published by Gyaana than go to other, bigger publishers. Now, that came as a complete surprise – even to me.
What next at Gyaana Books? Share with us your expansion plans.
Right now, we’re looking to make our mark in adult fiction. At some point we would like to explore other genres as well. And, of course, expand the GWC programme too.
How do you make money?
Let me simply say we sell an excellent product (books) and excellent services. Ours is a traditional, straightforward publisher sells to distributor, and distributor sells to retailer model, though these days we’re also focusing more on online/direct sales. I’m aware that some publishers here have started following ‘advertisement-powered’ models with sponsors’ ads and merchandise, but not us.
What is the size of the market you are trying to tap?
It’s the same market the trade-publishing MNCs and the Indian bigwigs rule. The number of players is increasing every day, but the size of the market hasn’t increased significantly. We have to be on our toes all the time.
Any advice you want to share with budding entrepreneurs in publishing?
Yes! You need the nerve of a warrior and the patience of a sage.
Lastly, share with us your experience at YCE.
A learning experience for any young, new entrepreneur.
Please check out for more details. Do let us know your thoughts on this story by writing to us at
Varsha Adusumilli |

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why are we still banning books?

(Published as 'In Defence of Books' in The Hindu Literary Review -- June 5, 2011: )

So Great Soul, the mahatma’s new biography by Joseph Lelyveld, happens to be the latest entrant in the Indian hall of ‘shame’ following a whole series of other books, the recent ones including Jaishree Mishra’s Rani, and Rohinston Mistry’s Such a Long Journey. A little earlier, OUP had to face the music for Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (2003); and Penguin’s publication of Mitrokhin archive II saw huge demands for bans from outraged political parties as well as anonymous phoned-in threats (2005)
Yes, this list doesn’t feature several other ‘confusibles’, objectionables, and unmentionables that suffered the same fate in the land of free speech. The most controversial was, of course, Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (hammered for sacrilege); and Nabokov’s Lolita is still on the barred-books list.

Some of the bans were lifted later. Great Soul, however, has been banned in Gujarat, labelled as ‘insulting’, since it talks about Gandhi’s possible liaison with a part-German part-Jewish man. The ban has been met with severe criticism by general readers (and non-readers), authors, and academics all over India and abroad.

One passionate and incisive voice recently rose in The Book Beast, saying that The latest controversy over Gandhi's sexuality ignores his true legacy as the ultimate symbol of Indian manhood.’ This was Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger. ‘This grinning old man with the missing teeth had been sent to jail by the British again and again: but he had never been broken. If this wasn’t manliness, what was?

Come on, India. Grow up!’ said Shobha De in her column. ‘If the Great Soul was indeed attracted to another man, is that so hard to accept or understand? Which century are we living in?’

I agree with both Adiga and De here as, I’m sure, most of the new generation of Indians does.

Rani, Jaishree Mishra’s historical fantasy, was similarly banned by the UP government sometime back, because the book depicted the queen’s more human aspect, presenting her as a woman who believed in love rather than war.

The point is – it’s not about Gandhi, or Lakshmi Bai, or others who share the pedestal. And it is not about being ‘insulted’.  To begin with there was no offence intended, and none taken – at least not by the majority of mature, adult Indians when these books were released.

It is bizarre that we, grown-up people in our own democratic sphere, even need to come up with such arguments in the defence of books that perhaps reveal a different (but plausible) dimension of these luminaries. They make them more complex, more intriguing, more real; in a word – more human.

Why do the lawmakers insist upon such an apotheosis of these figures that they lose their humanness altogether? Instead of inspiring awe and deference, they are reduced to 2-D characters most people begin to look upon with contempt.

For instance, Adiga points out in the same article, ‘Stamped on our currency notes, embossed on government notices, framed on the walls of our police stations, Gandhi’s face is now as an instrument of social control. This is why many young men – and I was one of them – regard Gandhi with something like hatred.’

It is easy to understand and empathise with that. We belong to the same generation – the generation that was taught to see and think 3-D. The angst is about a set of conservative and tunnel-visioned lawmakers trying to drill into us what is good or bad, allowing us no say in the matter.

To see the list of books banned in India, you need go no further than Wikipedia. The list and the reasons for most bans are amazing, with the exception of a few (threat to national security being a relevant example).

The reasons cited broadly fall into three categories – (perceived) blasphemy, insult, and obscenity. The question is: who decides what’s blasphemous, insulting, or obscene?

It becomes an even more significant question now since India’s been going through a transition phase for about a decade and a half. Indian culture itself has changed fifteen times over in the last fifteen years.

Divorce is no longer a taboo subject. Women no longer believe in the pati-parmeshwar customs. MTV has not only survived, but continues to thrive. Post section- 377, attitudes to homosexuality have changed. Plus, people can download all the hard porn they want from the Net; children happily watch adult reality shows; You-Tube beats edited news videos; and the virtual world has destroyed all boundaries. One could extend this contrail here, but the point has been made.

When it comes to books, what do the lawmakers fear? Moral corruption? Violence? Sentiments being hurt? Then they should be barking up the right tree!

When they choose to ban these books, aren’t they being rather presumptuous? They believe for instance that a huge majority of the population reads/buys books; that the people who buy these books actually read /analyse them; that those who do analyse them get corrupted/ motivated enough to act against the state. (Most of those who do make the grade are academics and literateurs by the way, denied the opportunity to even discuss/debate the subject.)

A populace that read so much would be any Indian publisher’s dream. Unfortunately, we’re talking about a country where a fraction of the whole population is educated, and a fraction of a fraction reads for pleasure. A fraction of them spends on books. And, forget not, some out of that fraction have books on their shelves simply because their interior designer thought they would go well with the d├ęcor in their drawing room.

What, therefore, does a book ban achieve?  Unwarranted rules have scourged modern-day India enough, clamping the freedom of educated adults. Will it take another Anna, and another revolution, to convince the lawmakers that we, the people, have the right to make our own judgements?