The Tulika Story
Standing firm by our principles in the face of crises and challenges is not new to us. As we celebrate the 25 years of Tulika Books in all its essence, we move forward, our faith reaffirmed and principles re-consolidated. Look back at Tulika Books with us through these interviews on different occasions with Indira Chandrasekhar, Managing Editor, Tulika Books.
INDEPENDENT PUBLISHING: THE TULIKA BOOKS STORY – Indira (Indu) Chandrasekhar
Publishers on Publishing: Inside India’s Book Business, ed. Nitasha Devasar, Delhi: All About Book Publishing, 2018
Trace the history of Tulika: how, why and when did you start, the initial days, and the growing pains and struggles of indie publishing.
Indu: Tulika started in the late 1980s as a DTP unit, a company that exists till date, as Tulika Print Communication Services. This venture was started by Radhika Menon and me – but always with the intention of moving into book publishing ourselves. Radhika later moved to Chennai and set up Tulika Publishers in 1996, publishing children’s books, while I started Tulika Books, publishing academic books, in 1995.
So, Tulika Books has been in the academic books segment of Indian publishing for more than twenty-five years now. My own training was in academic publishing as I started my career in the higher education division of Macmillan India in 1980. I have been associated with academia from the very beginning of my working days as several close friends including my husband teach at universities, and I have had teaching stints at colleges in Bangalore and Delhi myself. So you could say that my training in publishing, as well as natural surroundings and personal interests led me towards academic publishing, as it were, and to set up Tulika Books, which is one of the early small and independent publishing houses in India. The path of independent publishing, of course, was laid by the first independent publishing house in India – Kali for Women, founded in the mid/late 1980s, which published feminist books, and which is now represented by two publishing houses, Women Unlimited and Zubaan, set up by the co-founders of Kali. Independent publishing started proliferating and flourished in the 1990s. And today, the publishing scene in India is marked by several independent publishing houses.
Why do you call yourselves independents?
Indu: We call ourselves independents because most of us are professionals who came out of the world of book publishing to set up our own publishing houses, giving direction to lists with focused political content as well as niche publishing.
How does independent publishing continue to thrive and grow in spite of the challenges?
Indu: I believe that we actually have an advantage as independents in today’s publishing environment. We have remained small and concentrated on bringing out books in our particular areas, which cater to a defined readership – we are not generalist publishers like most of the large publishing houses, is what I mean. Because of the kind of content we develop and since our lists have a defined focus, we are able to gain visibility for the kind of work we do. Many of us have remained small by design, and this helps us to add value to the books we publish. Independents have fairly rigorous editorial processes in place; out-of-the-box thinking where formats and production values are concerned; we seek out and nurture new authors; we take risks by publishing in areas where large publishing houses, especially multinationals and corporates, shy away due to higher visibility and the play-safe attitude that often comes with that.
Another advantage with Tulika and most independents is that we have a strong backlist that we do not allow to die. One practical reason for this has been that smaller publishers are able to keep stocks of books for longer periods of time since the problem of warehousing is relatively small as compared to that of bigger publishers. Further, speaking for Tulika, the strong content we offer in many of the academic disciplinary areas ensures that successive generations of students come back to our books – and so we ensure that they are always in print. For example, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception, a collection of essays by the historian Irfan Habib of Aligarh Muslim University, which was Tulika’s first book, published in 1995 – we reprint this every alternate year if not every year, on average, and it has now entered its 13th edition.
What have been the challenges of costs, staff, quality, and of distribution and collections?
Indu: The flip side is that having spent a lot of time and energy in developing and nurturing new authors, once they become established names, they often abandon indie publishers and opt for the ‘brand’ of bigger publishers. I must, however, say that this is not a problem that has affected Tulika. In fact, most of our authors come back to us with their new books.
The major problem independents face is sales and distribution, which affects liquidity and our ability to publish an optimum number of books every year. Our business model is such that we rely exclusively on returns from sales of our books in order to invest in publishing new books. At Tulika, we bring out 10–15 new titles every year plus reprints, which totals to approximately 20–25 titles in any given year. If the sales revenue comes in as it used to, even in the not very distant past, then it would be a viable project. But that is not happening now, with credit periods in the market having extended to twelve months in many instances despite agreements that specify four to six months.
Another major problem we have been facing at Tulika in recent years is that funds to college/university libraries and research institutions seem to have dried up – which is part of the general crisis in which institutions of higher education find themselves in our country. Similarly, bulk purchases by public agencies like the Raja Rammohun Roy Foundation, which supplies books in turn to public libraries across India, have taken a hit. For academic publishers like us, such institutional sales have been traditionally very important, with sales to individuals from retail outlets being mostly add-ons.
Moreover, older distribution houses of academic books have either become publishers themselves or changed their focus of distribution to trade books – fiction and non-fiction. Also, the multinationals that have entered the Indian market, besides a couple of them, are mostly trade-book publishers.
Visibility is also a big challenge in terms of the distribution options open to independents, as the bigger publishing houses, like Taylor & Francis or Oxford University Press or Sage, bring out 100–50 titles a year, which means their visibility is obviously higher in the market in terms of sheer numbers.
Tell us about the collaboration you formed with all indie publishers and the Delhi University bookshop experiment and why/ how it failed?
Indu: That was the time, around ten years back, when most independent publishers started to face major distribution problems with several distribution houses either winding up or shifting the focus of the kind of books they carried to the market. So some of us decided to take the plunge and create our own distribution system – which, again, can be termed an innovation introduced by independent publishers in India, to form a distribution collective as it were. It began with as many as ten Delhi-based independent publishers coming together and setting up a partnership, the Independent Publishers Group (IPG), which started a bookshop in Delhi University’s north campus. The bookshop, called ‘U Special’, was given space in the Students Activity Centre building, and it stocked books published by all the independents as well as select books from other publishers. It ran fairly successfully for around six years, although it had to finally close down for various reasons – which I’d rather not go into here.
How was Independent Publishers’ Distribution Alternatives (IPDA) formed, how does it work, and what is its future?
Indu: A year or so later, in 2006, eight independent publishers – five out of the original ten that formed IPG, together with three other publishers (two based in Chennai and one in Kolkata) – came together to establish the Independent Publishers’ Distribution Alternatives (IPDA), which is primarily a distribution house for independents. The eight partner-publishers of IPDA are: LeftWord Books, Navayana Publishing, Samskriti, Stree-Samya, Three Essays Collective, Tulika Books, Tulika Publishers and Women Unlimited. The bulk of the distribution of the lists of several of these eight publishers is done by IPDA, while it also distributes books of other small and independent publishers of a certain quality.
IPDA has a resourceful and dedicated sales and marketing team, but it must be admitted that while it has managed to survive against odds for more than ten years now, it has been a struggle for it to grow, especially in the last three to four years – in the face of increasingly difficult conditions in the book market, such as lengthening credit periods, unfair discount structures, inadequate resources and a small team.
Why are independents still going strong?
Indu: Independents seem to be going forward with none of us having had to fold up yet – despite adverse conditions at least for some of us. I think this is because every independent publisher, one way or the other, is motivated to continue for reasons other than just making money. The returns may not be great but most of us are willing to ‘carry on regardless’ if we break even and have enough money to put into future books.
Also, since many of us have our own means and tactics of survival and of subsidizing our individual publishing programmes – some of us are writers/authors besides being publishers and editors, some provide consultancy services, etc., to take care of financial needs – we manage to keep the flag flying. Many of my publishing colleagues and I myself belong to the first generation of independents, and we are confident that younger independents will chart newer paths and carry this forward.
Personally speaking, I am motivated by actions or strategies that are based on the collective spirit. I believe that the ‘wisdom’ of collectives can achieve what individual initiatives often cannot. The downside of a collective, of course, is that not everyone thinks on the same plane and there are often differences within, sometimes irreconcilable – but if we can decide on a minimum platform or set of issues to which we all agree and keep moving forward setting aside individual concerns, I am convinced it will lead to benefits for all. I think working collectively or in the collective interest is natural to the way of thinking of independent publishers.
What are the prospects?
Indu: One of the lessons we have learnt as small, independent publishers is that sharing experiences and evolving alternative strategies, which includes coming together in collective solidarity, is one way of achieving visibility and recognition, and carving out a place for ourselves, amid the larger scenario of publishing in India. This way of working may not always take the form we desire and there may be pitfalls along the way, but it is enabling in the long run. Especially in an environment of competitiveness and rivalry where trade secrets and poaching rather than sharing and pooling of talents is the order of the day, generally speaking.
Some of us also share and pool resources like editorial and typesetting services, which makes it more affordable than if we had to hire professionals in these areas as individual publishers. Similarly, there have been attempts at co-publishing within the same market, on an equal sharing of costs and revenues principle. This kind of sharing of resources is in the nature of baby steps as yet, but perhaps this direction is really the way forward for independents. It will go a long way in terms of maintaining the standards we have set for book-making and serve the best interests of our readers.
In terms of publishing networks and collectives, Tulika Books is one of two independent publishers from India, the other being Women Unlimited, who are members of the English-language network of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers (IAIP), based out of Paris. This is an alliance of indie publishers from across the world, organized in language networks such as French, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, etc., besides English. The Alliance supports the efforts of member-publishers of these language networks to both initiate publishing projects and share existing projects with each other in co-publishing arrangements that are based on fair and equal terms for the sharing of content and rights, in their respective markets.
Tell us something about the left-leaning focus at Tulika. Also tell us about your other focus areas.
Indu: At Tulika we publish books and authors from and with a broad left political perspective. Many of our authors, besides being eminent academics, are recognized Marxists belonging squarely to the left of the political spectrum.
Besides books in the social sciences and humanities, a special area of interest for me is the arts – visual and performing arts. We have a small but growing list of books in this area, which are not merely illustrated or coffee table books, but books with serious content, both visual and textual, and including art theory and criticism. It is a list that is close to my heart in terms of personal interest, going back to the days when I was a member of the editorial collective of the Journal of Arts & Ideas.
We do these books mostly with the support of and in collaboration with arts and cultural institutions, such as galleries, museums and foundations – similar to the books we publish in collaboration with research institutions and societies/foundations in the social sciences. In fact these institutional collaborations have proved to be very productive, leading to the development of volumes under at least three particular series: the People’s History of India series in association with the Aligarh Historians Society, with Professor Irfan Habib as General Editor – a series of thirty-six volumes of which fourteen [now fifteen] have been published so far; the Labour History volumes in association with the Association of Indian Labour Historians – in which five volumes have been published so far, based on annual conference proceedings; and the Agrarian Studies series in association with the Foundation of Agrarian Studies, under which six books and three [now four] village survey studies have been published so far.
Tulika Books also serves as the circulation and subscription office for two important journals in the social sciences: Social Scientist (now in its 45th year of publication) and the Review of Agrarian Studies (of more recent origin). The content generated by these two journals is occasionally aggregated under thematic heads to feed into Tulika’s publishing programme.
What do you think about the survival of indie publishing, given the global tendency towards mergers and consolidation amongst publishers?
Indu: Of late, independents in India have started to co-publish or collaborate with other players in the industry, but they have managed to keep their own identity alive in most cases – unlike the global trend of acquisitions and mergers which often result in a compromise of content and identity, and a certain uniformity that sets in with the loss of the spark of independent publishing.
Collaborations that do not compromise their editorial autonomy can be beneficial to independents and be welcomed, but not editorial mergers or takeovers. Publishing under joint imprints has been happening on a small but significant scale in recent years: Zubaan with Penguin, Yoda Press with Sage, Stree-Samya with Sage, and Social Science Press with Routledge. This is an emerging trend and it might grow. To my mind, so far at least, these have been enabling arrangements, in so far as the ‘smaller’ partner gets a financial leg up but manages to retain her strengths, namely, identity and content.
What is the roadmap for the future for Tulika?
Indu: I hope Tulika will continue to grow, strengthen and expand our list in the directions we set for ourselves – and for as long as we can. Talking about the future, there is a sense of mortality that affects us – just as it does most professionally run independent publishers that are not family businesses – especially among the first generation indies. We can’t really say what will happen after our time – five years on, I will be still be around; ten years on, I hope I will still be around; for the rest I do not know. Personally speaking, it would be great if younger colleagues or a like-minded publisher took over and ran Tulika after my time. But of this I’m sure: I would rather see Tulika shut down than see it go the way of a merger-and-acquisition that would retain its name but erase its identity.