Publishing Lives 4. V. K. Karthika, HarperCollins

Posted on Apr 21, 2012

During a recent talk at the Seagull School of Publishing, V. K. Karthika from HarperCollins explained how we can afford to be optimistic about the future of publishing in the digital age. But this does not forfeit the need for an informed strategy.

This was a welcome view after what had been a much bleaker interpretation of the future of publishing from Chiki Sarkar, publisher at Penguin India which is, interestingly enough, the publishing house that Karthika worked in before making the move to HarperCollins. It is, however, a topic that I am still ambivalent over: to e-book or not to e-book? There is no question as to the convenience of having a large amount of books in one handy device, but I still find that my experience of reading an e-book has never satisfied me in the way a printed book has. Therefore, as I confessed to V. K. Karthika during her session at the Seagull School this week, I have never paid for any of my e-books. However, I still like to hold and feel books, use them, abuse them even, and I do still happily pay for that pleasure. The concern for multinational publishers (as we heard last week from Chiki Sarkar) is that I am part of a minority: those whose love affair with the Amazon Kindle has not led to them effectively cheating on books. In fact, to my own surprise, I have discovered that the digital device effectively re-kindled, so to speak, my relationship with books. Suppose I am a minority. Even so, Karthika is undeterred and beyond resilient, she is, in fact, enthusiastic about the future of publishing in India in the digital reading revolution.

Her optimism, she explained, was not based on her own technological knowledge but on an acute observation of her younger employees and her own children, whose lives are conducted confidently through their increasing technological proficiency. Whereas Karthika confessed that she did not foresee her own reading habits changing from printed books, she considers herself part of the ‘old school’ and believes it is important to recognize and to embrace this growing trend in the publishing industry.

In terms of marketing, the digital revolution is already in effect in India. As an example of this we were shown a series of specially designed animated e-cards publicizing the latest releases from HarperCollins. The e-cards are distributed to everyone on the publisher’s mailing list and are also featured on social media sites. However, the biggest impact that technology could potentially have on this industry in India at least, says Karthika, is not on advertising but on access to the books themselves. What excites her is that in a country where a large part of the population remains illiterate, particularly, but not exclusively, in rural communities, new communication technology could, if allowed, have a major impact on the diffusion of knowledge and education. Books could be transmitted and received without the physical burden of distribution, transforming the social and political lives of many across the country.

This was one of her enthusiastic messages about the future of publishing but there was more. Today, worldwide, there are more books being published than ever, with an ever-increasing number of platforms for publishing that allows authors to bypass publishers entirely. Rather than sensing the end of the publishing industry however, Karthika told us how she believes that such a surge of new information will set a new precedent for quality editing and publishing. A good publisher in this climate is subsequently one who is able to recognize that her trade is not in books per se but in the assembly and dissemination of knowledge, which is not limited in terms of its form. The commodity in publishing is not only the book but also the knowledge within. The latter has a different relationship to notions of value. The quality and range of communication production remains as important for publishers as access to that communication, if not more.

Aside from the increase of digital technology, reading habits are in a state of change, observes Karthika. These sophisticated ‘neo-readers’ embrace plurality, no longer associate stigma with pop fiction. They read J. K. Rowling and Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai and Jane Austen. Rather than maintaining an opposition to a certain type of literature, such a reader of literature discerns quality across a variety of genres. Publishing houses have a responsibility to nurture such diversity. Pop fiction has its place, but can we please lose the typecasting labels? The imposition of certain confined types on readers for books such as the formidable ‘chick lit’ (Let’s not forget Zubaan publisher Urvashi Butalia’s retort last week: ‘Why, then, not cock lit?’) is nothing but a roadblock against diversity—‘This is for you/ not for you.’ So while Karthika may, in her editorial decisions, celebrate an ideal reader who accepts all kinds of literature, at HarperCollins she follows a marketing strategy that puts up barriers (this was also evident at the Penguin India session last week).

An expansion of how to read should be parallel to a diversification of what there is to read and by whom. This involves, as Karthika explained, not always and only publishing writers whose politics you agree with. From within a knowledge-based polis at least, good publishers should have the job of a judge and jury whilst also trusting the capacity for free thought in their readership by producing books that are based upon refined arguments rather than inflammatory opinions, whatever the political persuasion. Easier said than done? Almost certainly. This is clear just from this week when a university professor here in Calcutta has been arrested for allegedly circulating a piece of cartoon satire about the chief minister of West Bengal. No matter how democratic a publisher may aspire to be, the realities of modern politics will always exist to threaten these ideals. Neither publishers nor writers exist in isolation, for better and for worse. Furthermore, relying on technology alone to revolutionize democracy is not only old hat but, quite frankly, naive. Most of us know now that Walter Benjamin was somewhat mistaken in his ideals for the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. On a basic and fundamental level, if my Kindle gets damaged not only do I have no idea how to fix it (unlike sticking pages back together), I can lose an entire virtual library in a millisecond. It all means I feel disconcertingly at the mercy of Amazon.

In the latest Seagull catalogue, Rick Simonson from the Elliott Book Company in Seattle writes of books as ‘a place for imagination, that which it takes to speculatively contemplate books, their subjects, authors, styles—all with the nuts-and-bolts of price, size, page count, ISBN’ (p. 85).

The situation is of course complicated. Rather than opposing e-books to printed books, or vice versa, what I think is needed is a level of discernment over context and content. Why and how do people read in a specific situation? Which books might best suit a digital platform and which a print format? While e-publications have yet to take root for readers in India, much of this debate remains speculative, though Karthika believes that the figures from America signal that it is only a matter of time before it’s a reality. If her own optimistic take is anything to go by then the publishing industry in India has little to lose and a lot, perhaps, to gain from this. It does not mean, however, that the fate of printed books, and therefore publishing, is sealed. I think Kathika sells herself short when she speaks of her own preference for the physicality of a book as something ‘old school’, soon to be lost to the winds of progress. We have surely not yet evolved so grotesquely that what was once revered by a few generations cannot still hold equal importance to new and future ones to come. I love to listen to a lot of music that was not originally made in my own lifetime simply because some art forms have the ability to defy time and the modern notion of progress. True, technology does change lives and for those of us who subsequently are living at a faster pace today than ever before, the ability to acquire a book at the click of a few buttons is an efficient service that has its appeal. Where time itself is money, sales dictate production and books are pulped by multinationals like HarperCollins and Penguin simply for not selling within a few months, it might seem that they are doomed. But speed is not everything and even if we forget this, I think books, physical, printed books, are patient in order that we might remember to be. That’s why even as they become more expensive to produce, I don’t think we can afford to give them up. Add that to the responsibility of publishers.

Rebecca Ayre
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