Tell us about Amazon’s Westland trip to Pratilipi. Why did the association with Amazon end and how did Pratilipi come into the picture?
Amazon’s decision to shut down its publishing interests in India is what brought Pratilipi into the picture. They quickly expressed interest and we were thrilled to be a part of them. They are India’s largest digital publishers with a huge and growing readership and they are investing in connecting writers to readers in multiple Indian languages, which is something we are also keen to do. So it was like a collaboration with immense possibilities. The meeting of Ranjit Pratap Singh and the team allowed us to conclude.
What does this transition mean for authors, translators and illustrators who have worked with Westland under Amazon ownership? Are the rights returned to them after Amazon’s release? Do they have the possibility of moving now to Pratilipi? Some go to other publishers?
We took back the rights to all the titles we had published. We also made sure that the authors/translators/designers/illustrators received all the information they needed to work together again, if they wanted to. But once we knew for sure that we would be ready to relocate, and quickly, we contacted our authors, asking them if they wanted to continue publishing with us, in which case we would send them new contracts and make them the books will be released over the next few months. It has been a difficult and heartbreaking process of all kinds, but so many of the writers and literary agents we have worked with have supported us that in the final analysis I can only be grateful that things have turned out gone as well.
How did you handle the influx of support from readers, authors, booksellers, librarians and fellow publishers after Amazon announced it was closing Westland? Did you know that so many people love your work and are willing to support you publicly?
I must confess that it was a most marvelous surprise, almost a shock. We were so busy dealing with the immediate fallout from the announcement – that first day was all spent on the phone, talking to authors, telling them what to expect and assuring them that we would help them find homes for their work – that it was late at night when I noticed the outpouring of support on social media. It wasn’t just writers we had worked with, it was also agents, booksellers, journalists, friends and colleagues in the publishing community, and so many people that we had no idea knew about our work, let alone cared about it.
And it wasn’t just lyrics, you know. In the days and weeks that followed, people went out and bought Westland books in droves, shared photos and information about store availability, and persuaded libraries to get copies of our books, while booksellers across India have set up special sales counters. It was overwhelming.
Westland’s new innings started on an auspicious note. You have been shortlisted for the Prix Voltaire de l’IPA 2022, awarded to “publishers who have demonstrated an outstanding reputation in defending the values of freedom to publish 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 an extraordinary thing that happened. The shortlist of awards may bear my name, but 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 about what we’re doing and why.
You published Aakar Patel and Smriti Irani, Josy Joseph and Amish Tripathi. Why is it important for you to post diverse viewpoints?
Diversity has always been at the heart of business publishing. We know we reach readers with very different interests and sensibilities. Also remember that there are editors and other people within a publishing company who may have different ideas and policies; there is therefore a tendency to follow the practice of considering each potential acquisition from several angles. There are limits that I would never cross, on that I am very clear, just like my colleagues. Hate speech, manipulative accounts of events that do not stand up to legal or factual scrutiny are as much anathema as ill-conceived plots and meaningless prose or poetry. These are the gray areas we spend the most time debating – where commercial and ideological interests intersect and sometimes clash, or where a text offers an interesting perspective, even if it is unpopular. The ethic of separating the dance from the dancer is something we think about a lot.
What are your plans for Westland’s new avatar, given Pratilipi’s digital reach and multilingual platform. Can we expect new books on the market before the end of 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 them yet because we are in the process of signing contracts, but I hope you will review them soon. We plan to start publishing new editions of existing books, especially those that stores are missing, and I’m excited that we can do that under the various brands we’ve created, including Context, Eka, Red Panda, and the very first , Tranquebar, under the aegis of Westland Books. That we can have this continuity is a great relief. Another happy aspect of the continuity is that 41 of the former Westlanders remain colleagues and, more importantly, Gautam Padmanabhan, who is the founder and driving force behind the business, also leads the new venture.
You have published many LGBTQ titles, in collaboration with authors like Amruta Patil, Payal Dhar, Nawaaz Ahmed, Parmesh Shahani, Farhad J Dadyburjor and Akhil Katyal. What kind of effort was made to get these books out? Are readers more open to these after the Supreme Court reads Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code?
It has become easier to publicize LGBTQ writing since the ruling, but there has always been an interest and readership for work in this genre. I just wish we could do more and find a lot more voices to post beyond the so-called mainstream. Because there’s no doubt that every time something breaks through, there’s a palpable ripple effect that eventually sets the stage for more pounds and bigger, more lasting change.
What are you most excited about creating and catalyzing in this phase of your career?
I’m really excited about the new worlds Pratilipi has opened up for us. We’ve all worried about the growth in readership, the difficulties in distribution, our inability to persuade more young people to become readers. Everywhere we look, we come up against competing audiovisual media. Well, we’re in a place here trying to connect those different worlds and finding ways for writers to move between them as seamlessly as possible. And the people leading this process and the different divisions are so full of energy and ideas that already, from the first week of work here, we started to conceptualize new projects.
We will continue to publish books as we have in the past, focusing on new writing and new ideas that challenge the status quo, but we will also be constantly on the lookout for what we can do. with other platforms, the best way to find new readers. and the best way to increase the income of our writers.
More than anything else, I’m really happy to be able to build on the existing relationships with the writers we renew for publication. The fact that they chose to stay with us despite everything makes us all feel like we have to go the extra mile and more to live up to their trust in us. And we go!
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.