Where does the publishing industry go from here? What will be the 'new normal'? How does Roli Books, a 42-year-old establishment stay relevant? Will paper survive? To get an inside perspective, we caught up with one of the Directors of Roli Books, Priya Kapoor, who gave us some insight into her world of publishing and their newest venture, Roli Pulse.
Roli Books has been publishing for over 40 years. For most part of it, you were an observer, however in the last 10-15 years you have been involved actively. What would you say have been the key milestones of the establishment?
I have been actively involved with Roli Books for 16 years. Some key milestones would be commissioning critically acclaimed, award-winning books such as Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The History of Jazz in India by Naresh Fernandes, as well as mass market successes such as Dongri to Dubai by Hussain Zaidi. We like to keep our list diverse and accommodate good, strong stories regardless of the genre. I’d like to believe that in the past two decades, we have carved a distinct identity for our publishing house of which the hallmarks are quality, relevance and substance.
Ten years ago we started India’s only dedicated art and illustrated bookshop, CMYK. We began with one shop in Delhi and today have eight across the country. CMYK is the official bookshop partner for the India Art Fair and for two years now, we have brought Taschen Limited Editions to India for the first time.
What kind of books do you gravitate towards as a reader and what kind of books would you like to engage with as a publisher?
I like to read a variety of books and read at least two books at a time -- one fiction and one non fiction. For a short period of time, I had gone off fiction, but last January I picked up A Suitable Boy again after 20 years and read it within a month. With it, my love for fiction returned. I have read some incredible women writers this past year including Sally Rooney, Julia Phillips, Leila Slimani, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Tara Westover amongst others. The only genre I am really not into is science fiction.
As a publisher I like well-told stories. Different sets of rules apply for fiction and non-fiction. In fiction the voice has to be compelling, the story well told with meaty characters. Non-fiction has to be well researched and on subjects where there is little out there or if an author has a different take on a subject. I evaluate books as a reader first – does it hold my attention beyond the first few pages? If yes, we can work the manuscript.
What has been the most exciting trend you have encountered in the publishing industry within the last decade?
I am speaking about the Indian context specifically. There has been a proliferation in the variety of readers and writers. We have a long way to go but the market today is more accepting of books on a variety of subjects. There is a thirst for homegrown authors and books, and this expands to cookbooks, wellness etc. as well. Another exciting trend is publishers being able to reach readers directly via social media and creating a community. This allows us to market books, ideas and authors directly to readers, and to keep them engaged. It provides us with an opportunity to explore other platforms for story telling as well.
In the current scenario we are in, the world is rethinking everything – be it life or work – to stay active and to stay relevant you have launched Roli Pulse. Can you tell us a little about your new venture?
For the past few months we were exploring the right approach for our digital initiative. We met many experts, consultants, identified key hires and then… the lockdown happened. All our 'what ifs' went out the window and we had no choice but to dive right in. This is how Roli Pulse was born. Overnight the industry came to a grinding halt – with no avenues left to sell physical books we immediately decided to jump into action. Even before the official lockdown was announced, we began putting out relevant, engaging content that would appeal to our readers – from virtual book clubs, readings, discussions, Instagram lives -- we have a session a day. Some of our biggest successes have been a weekly History Hour with our authors Moin Mir and William Dalrymple, in conversation via Instagram live where they discuss a variety of topics related to their books – from Indo-European love stories, Sufism, to the East India Company. Earlier this week our author Shubha Mudgal went live with Ankur Tewari and the two sang, discussed their process and poetry. We had Kiran Nadar on her 10 favourite pieces in her collection and how and why she acquired them. Early next week, Shashi Tharoor (who wrote a book called Cricketing Diplomacy for us) and Bishan Singh Bedi will talk about 10 Incredible Moments in India’s Cricketing History. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw will be in conversation with Maya Mirchandani about the ground realities of working on a vaccine for Corona. We will continue with these post the lockdown as well. The plan is to also diversify into other mediums such as podcast (we are working on a six part series one as we speak). Perhaps become more ambitious and even work as producers for documentaries and web series. The platforms are available and as publishers we sit at a very interesting cross section where we have access to some of the best minds and stories, and in a way we act as producers already when we bring a team together to publish books. This and much more is Roli Pulse.
What will be the curatorial process for Roli Pulse?
Roli Pulse will reflect the mission statement of Roli Books – Custodians of Culture. This gives us a wide gamut to explore themes as well as formats. We will apply the same guiding principles – quality, relevance and substance.
Lastly do you think we are heading towards a paperless world? And what is the future of publishing?
No, I do not think we will see a paperless world as far as books are concerned. Even in countries where eBook sales had overtaken physical book sales – the figures flattened and in many cases reversed. For me, what is exciting as a publisher is to be able to think beyond formats. Why can’t I put out a podcast first, follow it up with a book and then a web series? Or put out an eBook first, then the physical book and then the web series and then a podcast? Yet, neither will replace each other.
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra