In a freewheeling conversation with Nitasha Devasar, Managing Director of Taylor & Francis India and South Asia, we ask her about her new book Publishers on Publishing: Inside India’s Book Business that is a trailblazer in the genre. She discusses the how and why of a book on Indian publishing; and generously shares tips on writing and reading for aspiring writers as well as those already reading and writing.
TBE: First Let me congratulate you on winning the first prize at the ‘Excellence in Book Publishing Awards’, presented by the Federation of Indian publishers at the ongoing Delhi Book Fair 2018. Please tell us how the idea of this book came up?
Nitasha Devasar: Next year I will complete 25 years in publishing; and I think this book has unknowingly been bubbling inside me for some years. A few years ago, I got directly involved in copyright awareness and advocacy. I worked with the community to develop materials, outreach to readers, librarians, academic institutions, government bodies and fellow publishers both directly and via associations across traditional barriers in Indian publishing. The work continues, and we publishers recognize that this is a long journey but one that is worth making.
One of the lessons I learnt from this experience was that there was very little awareness of what publishers do and the value we add. In fact, and I refer to this in my introduction to the book, there is a feeling that publishers make money, at the expense of readers and authors. With access to the social media for sharing your writings and growing self-publishing options, why does one need a publisher at all, is a common refrain.
One of the reasons this view persists is because we publishers have not put any substantive data, facts and opinions on the Indian publishing industry. We do write and debate and hardly ever agree but only among our own, often segmented, communities and hubs. To rectify this situation, the API and FIP commissioned Nielsen to do a study and provide some data on the industry in 2015. The results were startling: today the Indian publishing industry is pegged at $6.7 million, is the 6th largest in the world and the second largest for English language publishing. For an industry of this size and diversity (90000 publishers in 16 key publishing languages), with 94% being educational, so directly impacting people’s lives and futures, there is little literature on the industry.
TBE: Why did you choose to write on this subject? (as it’s very hard to sell if compared with fiction)
Nitasha Devasar: I loved your question about why I chose to do a book on a topic which had limited sales appeal. Many fellow publishers asked me the same thing, even as they contributed to it. I am going to answer this here.
As a publishing director for over a decade developing what was then the most substantive range of books on India and the subcontinent at OUP India, and a commissioning editor before that, no one realizes better than I how important the commercials are in book publishing. I have said this to my authors and editors countless times; and worked hard and long to make the numbers work for the books we published.
However, as a publisher, I also know, that there are some books that you just have to publish and somehow you make it work. I guess as a writer, I felt that this book, just had to be written/compiled and put out there.
TBE: What was your writing process for this book? How did you approach the publishers you interviewed in the book?
Nitasha Devasar: The trigger was a request from FIP to oversee a compilation on Indian publishing for the IPA congress. It got me thinking about what my ideal book on Indian publishing would look like. I drew up a content wish-list and the book was conceived. Meanwhile, the FIP decided they wanted a different sort of book; and I worked with them to compile that as well.
I decided to go it alone. With a couple of supporters started putting names against the topics I had listed. I was clear that I wanted it out for the IPA congress, a mere 6 months away. Also I knew I wanted short pieces that came from direct experience and learning of fellow publishers; and put insider views out there. I wanted to span the 70 plus years of Indian publishing in its myriad hues, sizes and forms; as well as the surrounding ecosystem.
It was a tall order, but I was driven and people around me did not once say it couldn’t be done. Realizing how busy the people on list (about 65-70) were I decided to give them an option to be interviewed. I knew no conventional publisher could do what I needed in the timelines that I had; so I roped in All About Book Publishing to help with the interviews and eventually publish the book. Understandably they were reluctant and told me several times they didn’t have experience with book publishing. In the end, my enthusiasm and conviction that they could do it, carried the day; and they did a great job of interviewing many contributors based on questions I drafted. And that went a long way in achieving the tight publishing deadline.
TBE: During your journey from the idea of this book to the publication, what was the most difficult thing you faced? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Nitasha Devasar: You asked me what was the most difficult part of doing the book? Drafting questions on topics I sometimes knew very little about, was one such tough experience. Another, came close to the end, when I was sitting in castle in the English countryside in the middle of the night (during an oversea business meeting), grappling with contributors who wanted to rewrite, change arguments, or just drop out! Alongside, there was the self-imposed pressure, that as so many peers had trusted me and generously contributed. I had to live up to that trust and get the quality and content right! That gave me sleepless nights. I was however able to use this wakefulness to complete the project.
In the end, the networks and relationships I have developed over the last 24 years came to my aid. For every drop out (yes, there were a couple who dropped out at the last moment!), someone else stepped in, agreed to answer the questions I set them overnight. My designer, editors and the backend team were all trusted partners I had worked with over the years. Together, all of them made it possible for us to have advance copies available at the IPA Congress, New Delhi. This was just 6 months after the book idea was conceived.
TBE: Do you believe in writer’s block? Have you ever experienced it? How long does it usually last? Any tips you would like to share to overcome it?
Nitasha Devasar: We all experience it and have different ways of dealing with it. If one isn’t on a deadline the best is to allow it to pass and not stress about it. I don’t see it as a ‘block’ but rather as a phase in which I am internalizing and sorting out my thoughts, both consciously and sub-consciously. When the time is right, the flow of my writing returns. The key is to not ignore the urge to write when it hits and to not get tense if there is a dry period.
TBE: What are the important resources budding writers can use?
Nitasha Devasar: Resources for budding writers are available a plenty and most are free. You will find author and researcher (for academic writings) resources in all publishers’ websites. If you want to write for a newspaper or a magazine, there will be guidelines and sample writings available for you to browse. If you want to post online, again there are tips to get visible and discoverable available. What key words to use for example, or writing summaries and posting short videos, are just some of the ways to be found by your readers online.
TBE: Any advice for budding writers?
Nitasha Devasar: Just write! And read good writings as well. So you can recognize the difference, in styles, quality and how they make you feel.
Practice can improve your writing. I never wrote for many years; but, as a publishing editor, I spent my time honing and nurturing the writings of my authors. Not just authors, even colleagues who were writing a book blurb or a press release, a report or even a long email. I have spent years rewriting anything that is brought to me. In the last few years, I request colleagues to show me only the really vital stuff and that too if they must. However, in hindsight, all those years of polishing prose has made it a habit that I use for my own writings now. In other words, you can develop a writing skill and practice can work wonders. Not all of us are born with poetry in our pens.
The other thing a writer needs, is critical readers. I am lucky to have such people in my life, both personally and professionally. People who will read what you have written with attention, suggest elaborations or deletions, point out vagueness and complexity, check your grammar, etc. It is one of the most enabling and practical support a writer can have.
I have found that reading aloud what you have written, either to your critic or just for yourself, can also give you a sense of flow, language and clarity.
About Nitasha Devasar:
Nitasha Devasar, is Managing Director, Taylor & Francis, India and South Asia. She has considerable experience in academic publishing and a keen understanding of the dynamic South Asian academic publishing marketplace.
Prior to joining Taylor & Francis, she was Academic Publishing Director at Oxford University Press India for 12 years. During this period, she built a sustainable academic program, published over 2000 academic books and contributed substantively to scholarship on South Asia.
Nitasha Devasar has several industry affiliations and is currently Vice President of the Association of Publishers in India; Member of the FICCI Publishing Committee and Adviser with the Women Leadership Forum of Asia. She is part of the Taylor & Francis Group Women Leadership Program and was also lauded as Channel News Asia’s Women of Substance in Asia in 2017.
Her edited book on Indian publishing Publishers on Publishing: Inside India’s Book Business., has just been published. The Book has won the first prize at the ‘Excellence in Book Publishing Awards’, presented by the Federation of Indian publishers at the ongoing Delhi Book Fair 2018. She writes occasionally for The Hindu and blogs on Linkedin. She also developed one of the first full-time courses in publishing.
Nitasha Devasar has an M Phil in Applied Economics from the Center for Development Studies (CDS); and Masters in Economics, from JNU, New Delhi