Interview, Karthika VK, Editor, Westland Books – “There are limits I would never cross”

Tell us about Westland’s journey from the Amazon to Pratilipi. Why did the collaboration with Amazon end and how did Pratilipi come into the picture?

Amazon’s decision to exit its publishing interests in India brought Pratilipi into the picture. They were quick to express their interest and we were thrilled to be a part of them. They are India’s largest digital publishers with a huge, growing readership and they invest in matching authors with readers in multiple Indian languages, which is also very important to us. So it felt like a collaboration with immense possibilities. Meeting Ranjit Pratap Singh and the team decided the matter for us.

What does this transition mean for writers, translators and illustrators who have worked with Amazon-owned Westland? Did the rights revert to them after Amazon exited? Do you have the possibility to move to Pratilipi now? Do some switch to other publishers?

We have revoked the rights to all titles we have published. We’ve also made sure that writers/translators/designers/illustrators have all the information they need to collaborate again should they choose to do so. But once we knew for sure that we would be ready to set ourselves up again quickly, we began reaching out to our writers and asking if they would like to continue publishing with us. In that case we would send them new contracts and have the books out in the next few months. It’s been a difficult process and filled with heartbreak of all kinds, but so many of the writers and literary agents we’ve worked with have stood by us that ultimately I can only be grateful that things worked out as well as they did have done.

How did you process the overwhelming support from readers, authors, booksellers, librarians and other publishers following Amazon’s announcement that it was closing Westland? Did you know that so many people love your work and are willing to publicly support you?

I have to admit it was a surprise, almost a shock, of the most wonderful kind. We were so busy dealing with the immediate implications of the announcement – that first day was spent entirely on the phone, talking to writers, telling them what they wanted to expect and assured them that we would help find a home for their work – that it was late at night when I noticed the outpouring of support on social media. It wasn’t just writers that we had worked with, it was also agents, booksellers, journalists, friends and colleagues in the publishing industry, and so many people we had no idea even knew of our work, let alone that they took care of it.

And it wasn’t just talk, you know. Over the next few days and weeks, people went out and bought Westland books in bulk, exchanging photos and information on in-store availability and persuading libraries to buy copies of our books, while booksellers across India set up dedicated sales counters. It was overwhelming.

Westland’s new innings got off to a promising start. They were shortlisted for the 2022 IPA-Prix Voltaire, awarded to “publishers who have distinguished themselves by upholding the values ​​of freedom of publication and freedom of expression”. What does this recognition mean to you and your team, especially as it comes from the International Publishers Association?

It’s something extraordinary that happened. While my name is on the shortlist for the award, I see it as recognition of the work we have done at Westland over the past few years. What makes it really special is that it comes from our peers in the international community. That’s enough to inspire us to work harder and think more deeply about what we’re doing and why.

They have published Aakar Patel and Smriti Irani, Josy Joseph and Amish Tripathi. Why is it important to you to publish different points of view?

Diversity has always been at the heart of trade book publishing. We know that we reach readers with very different interests and sensibilities. Also remember that there are editors and others within a publishing house who may have different ideas and strategies; As a result, there is a tendency to look at any potential acquisition from multiple perspectives. There are limits that I would never cross, I’m very aware of that, as are my colleagues. Hate speech, manipulative retelling of events that fails legal or factual scrutiny, are anathema, as are ill-conceived plots and uninspiring prose or poetry. It’s the gray areas we spend most of our time with—where commercial and ideological interests intersect and sometimes collide, or where a text offers an interesting perspective, even if unpopular. The ethic of separating the dance from the dancer – that’s something we think about a lot.

Given the digital reach of Pratilipi and its multilingual platform, what are your plans for Westland’s new avatar? Can we expect new books on the market this year?

Yes, we are preparing our catalog for the July-December season and it is full of exciting books. I won’t talk about it yet because we’re in the process of signing contracts, but I hope you’ll review them soon. The plan is that we will start releasing new editions of existing books, particularly ones that are running out of stores, and I’m excited that we can do that under the various imprints we’ve built including Context, Eka, Red Panda and the very first, Tranquebar, under the Westland Books umbrella. That we can have this continuity is a great relief. Another gratifying aspect of continuity is that 41 of the old westers remain colleagues and most notably Gautam Padmanabhan, the founder and the driving force behind the company, also leads the new business.

One of Westland’s many books

They have published many LGBTQ titles, collaborating with authors such as Amruta Patil, Payal Dhar, Nawaaz Ahmed, Parmesh Shahani, Farhad J Dadyburjor and Akhil Katyal. What efforts were made to get these books out? Are readers more receptive to this after the Supreme Court read Section 377 of India’s Penal Code?

Since the ruling, it has become easier to popularize LGBTQ writing, but there has always been interest and readership in work in the genre. I just wish we could do more and find a lot more voices to release beyond the so-called mainstream. Because there’s no doubt that every time something breaks through, there’s a noticeable ripple effect that eventually sets the stage for more books and bigger, more lasting changes.

What are you most excited about creating and catalyzing at this stage in your career?

I’m really excited about the new worlds that Pratilipi has opened up for us. We are all concerned about the changes in readership, the difficulties of distribution, our inability to persuade more young people to become readers. Everywhere we look we find competing audiovisual media. Well here we are in a place trying to bridge these different worlds and find ways for writers to move from one to the other as seamlessly as possible. And the people who control this process and the various departments are so full of energy and ideas that we started designing new projects in the first week of work here.

We will continue to publish books as we have in the past and focus on new writing and new ideas that challenge the status quo, but we will also constantly be looking at what we can do with other platforms as we do on best ways to find new readers and how best to increase sales for our authors.

More than anything, I’m excited to be able to build on existing relationships with authors that we re-engage for publication. Their choosing to stay with us despite everything makes us all feel like we have to go that extra mile and more to live up to their trust in us. And we will!

Chintan Girish Modi is an independent author, journalist and book critic.

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