Profile: Co-Founder and MD, Aleph Book Company
Career: Over 25 years as a publishing professional. Founder-publisher of Penguin India at age 26; was then variously CEO & Publisher, Penguin India; MD, Dorling Kindersley India; CEO, Pearson India; Publisher, Penguin Canada; President & Publisher, Penguin Canada; CEO, Penguin International
Education: BSc, Madras University; Diploma in Publishing, Harvard University
Interests: Tennis, swimming, music, movies, books.
Q. Worldwide, publishing—as we knew it—is shrinking. What chances do you have with a new brand?
By all accounts, English language publishing elsewhere in the world is not really growing. However, in India, the aggregate growth appears to be 10-12 percent a year which is fantastic. This is why, after reviewing the various options open to me, I decided to launch Aleph Book Company here. Besides the fact that the overall market is growing, I believe that there are tremendous opportunities to be had in terms of the kind of trade or general books that can be published profitably.
Q. You're trying balance the heft of a large mass-market publishing house with the high standards of a literary boutique. How do you propose to keep the somewhat conflicting pulls from destabilising the whole thing?
The idea of having an independent, premium literary publishing company, supported by a large and powerful publishing and distribution company, was arrived at after careful thought. To summarise my thinking, what I was looking to do was marry the strengths of a company with a comprehensive, established sales and distribution network with that of a company that would produce extremely high end books. The problem with very large companies is that they have to spread their editing, design, production, marketing and sales resources over hundreds of books as a result of which only a certain percentage get enough support to be able to succeed in the marketplace.
Small boutique firms simply do not have the resources to pay competitive advances and market and sell their books in any meaningful way. What we are trying to do at Aleph is keep the number of books we publish small so we are able to lavish design and editorial attention on them, ensure each book is special in other words, but we also want to make sure that we are not hobbled by a lack of resources, which would have been the case if we had not partnered with a company like Rupa Publications. We want our books to be exquisite and benchmarked against the best in the world in terms of literary quality, design and production but we also want to sell them in large quantities which we are hoping to do through Rupa’s unrivalled sales and distribution infrastructure.
Q. A lot of Indian publishing’s growth is coming in at the lower end of the market. You’re aiming at a more sophisticated reader. How will you make sure that Aleph’s books reach them and appeal to them?
Again, Aleph’s ambitions have been very carefully thought through. In our view there are many areas in the Indian writing and trade publishing scene that have not been exploited in any significant way. For example, while we have world class novelists we have too few great books of history, science, politics, sociology, travel, narrative non-fiction and biography to name just some of the areas that we are looking to target. In these categories you might have books that are first rate in terms of scholarship, but as these are generally aimed at academics they are largely unreadable where the lay reader is concerned. Books that are available to general readers are sometimes readable, but are singularly lacking in depth or nuance. So, we see a great deal of opportunity in terms of books that we can publish. What we intend to do is actively commission writers to produce great books in some of these subject areas.
Q. From your years in the West, what tricks will you be bringing to the still-young Indian market?
We have very little to learn from the West in terms of editing, design and production quality, all of which were problem areas in the past. However, in the last couple of decades or so, India has made giant strides in all these areas, and today we have at least a few publishing companies which are world class when it comes to these aspects of publishing. Aleph is certainly going to try to benchmark itself against the best in the world where these things are concerned—otherwise I wouldn’t have seen any point in launching the company. Where marketing is concerned, there are certain things that we intend to try that hopefully will be innovative enough to bring our books to the attention of readers. As for sales, the characteristics of each market are different so it isn’t always the smartest thing to try and duplicate things that work in one market in another.
Q. How have you chosen your initial list? Could you share some names and a bit about the books?
We have tried to balance our initial list equally between fiction and non-fiction, debut writers, and established names. (Please go to alephbookcompany.com to download our catalogue.)
Q. Will you be going the low volume/high price route?
We are pricing Aleph’s books to what the market will take. I think it is misleading to assume that price is the only determinant of high volume sales. We intend to try and make every Aleph book a bestseller in its category so our books will be competitively priced.
Q. What is Aleph going to be doing on the digital space?
Every Aleph book will be an e-book within six months of print publication. At the moment e-book sales in the Indian market are negligible (they are thought to be less than 1 percent of sales), but I’m convinced that within a couple of years they could constitute as much as15-20 percent of the market. As the digital space grows in importance we will be experimenting with standalone e-books, enhanced e-books and anything else that makes sense to us.
Q. We hear you’ve been talking to Private Equity players. Why are you looking for funding despite the deep pockets of Rupa behind you? What are you plans for that money?
That is incorrect. Rupa’s backing of Aleph is more than sufficient.