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Literary Review

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New equations


David Davidar, who made books fashionable for the urban middle class, returns to the Indian publishing scene with Aleph, a high-end company forged in partnership with Rupa and Co.

Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Perfect fit:David Davidar (left) with Kapish Mehra.

Summers in this part of the world can be unforgiving. And Delhi's traffic is seldom less than a test of patience. What was I doing on the road, that polite euphemism for miles and miles of molten lava at 2.30 in the afternoon? Calmness is not my companion in a car where only Deborah Baker's The Convert keeps me cool company. Like Baker, I have my misgivings, my prejudices. I am going to meet Kapish Mehra, the cherubic young man who has successfully whipped up the magic at Rupa's. He is a man with unquestioned business acumen. But does he not peddle literature, I ask myself. And David Davidar? What a wonderful editor; and an author of note, who writes as he pleases! Years ago he made literature fashionable for the urban middle class, stripping the books of cobwebs of dust and a dreary air that almost always accompanied them. But more than a couple of decades later, does he know the difference in the market pulse of Kolhapur and Kanpur, I wonder.

Intriguing name

However, as I was to soon discover, the best place for prejudices and apprehensions is the dustbin. As Kapish starts to talk of Aleph, the new company for which he has forged a bond with David, the latter is dwarfed. There are few men who can sneak in a word when Kapish begins to talk of the sales of his books, his impressive distributorship, his ability to recognise a winner when he sees one! It is the same set of skills he is expected to bring to the table for Aleph, that intriguingly named company. Being the first alphabet in more than one language, it also marks the beginning of Surah Baqarah in the holy Quran. ‘Alif, Laam, Meem' go the letters. In the case of Kapish and David, it marks the first step in what is expected to be a literary flowering.

Finally, David manages to sneak in a word or two. “The title is drawn from the alphabet. It has great significance in the world of letters. Aleph is the first letter in many alphabets. It is a point in space that contains within it everything in the universe.”

As David is through with his take on the interesting title, Kapish chips in with his words of wisdom. “When I get a book, there are three things I look for. First is the originality of the idea. Then comes the continuity of thought followed by the target readership.” But isn't it true that some of the Rupa books have been more like fast food, hence notched up the numbers accordingly?

Synergy of skills

“A good book will sell. For it to do so it has to be accessible, affordable. That is where we bring in our skills.” And isn't that the reason he is aboard for Aleph? For some it might appear a marriage of convenience between a marketing czar and a literary giant. But talk to them a little bit more about the partnership, and it is more like a mutual admiration club. “David shares a wonderful relationship with me and our family. We at Rupa have consolidated our existing market and wanted to branch out. We were strong in commercial areas. Now, we are into literary publishing with this tie-up. It is a wonderful equation to have. The new company is independent, high quality affair.” All this while, David sits silent, only occasionally nodding his head in agreement, his crossed arms clasped against his chest. Then he decides his words will be better than silence. “It is a perfect fit. We will use Rupa's selling strengths. And combine that with our literary flourish. It is a win-win situation. We want to build a future here. I believe there will be no conflict of interest with Kapish. There is a clear-cut demarcation of what will come to Aleph, what will stay with Rupa. Often the best solutions are the simple ones.” What he does not say in so many words is, he would rather go for an Amitav Ghosh for Aleph, leaving a Chetan Bhagat for Rupa! “We have a different acquisition team for Aleph,” says Kapish.

David is clear what kind of titles he would opt for. He even admits he is not looking for mass production and very many authors. He would rather want Aleph to be like Faber or Hamilton. “It has to be a high-end publishing company and we are looking for novelists. We will be selective. We will take a book if it is distinctive, will make a mark. A good book should achieve 90 per cent of what it set out to do in its genre. As beginners we have the luxury of being able to choose. It is like we don't have certain figures of the previous year to live up to.” Kapish adds, ‘The reader cannot be persuaded to buy a bad book.”

Immediate plans

Prod the duo a little about the authors signed, and you draw a blank. Sweet smiles are not followed by any words, until David claims, “Really, we have not signed anybody yet.” Surely the moon has to know where it gets it glow from! David, though, won't succumb to any temptation, coolly deflecting any exploratory questions by stating, “We want to have four-five titles ready in about a year.” This when he has not signed an author!

But David has to be believed. He has this knack for making the impossible seem not just plausible and possible but likely. After all, he is the guy who made Penguin a household name across the country. “The market challenges are very different today. Today we have a bunch of publishers. The publishing world is in complete churning. Now we have a much bigger platform to work from.” Kapish helpfully adds the requisite numbers to buttress the argument. “The publishing industry is growing at 15 per cent every year. Sales figures of 20,000-30,000 even a lakh are not unheard of. I am sure we can carve out our own niche.”

The two intend to use modern ways of pushing their books besides using the traditional retail market. “Our books will be creatively packaged and innovatively marketed. We will use all the social networking tools on the Net, use email blasts, all possible innovation to make the book reach the consumer,” says David. Ah! David is talking of consumers too. He is beginning to learn Kapish's lingo. The two are reaching a point of confluence.

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