We generally ask our interviewees to introduce themselves, but a publishing house like Zubaan needs no introduction. Your website gives the hoi polloi a great insight into the history and the kind of work Zubaan undertakes.
Can you tell us something about Zubaan that most people might not know?
Ishani Butalia: We have a monthly book club that meets and discusses feminist fiction in Delhi, with an offshoot in Bangalore.
Meghna Singh: We also watch and discuss a lot of TV (hee hee!). But, more seriously—we run a fairly interesting (we hope) summer internship program for anyone interested in learning about feminist publishing work.
Urvashi Butalia: Many things. Most of the time we are broke even though we pretend not to be. We cook lunch (or rather we have a cook who cooks lunch) in the office. We’ll be fifteen next year (but actually we’ll be fifteen going on thirty four next year if we take the Kali years into account).
Our dining table is where we have our best conversations.
IB: And our weirdest ones.
Please tell us a little about Young Zubaan.
IB: It was started by our original Zubaani, Anita Roy, who saw the need (which persists) for feminist books for kids. That’s our goal, and YZ has published a variety of books—nonfiction and fiction alike—for kids of all ages, that try to present a multiplicity of stories and experiences, and sometimes invert the expected. We still have a long way to go, especially in finding and publishing diverse authors… which means there’s a lot of exciting work ahead.
Something that caught our eye is the organizational structure of Zubaan: part trust/NGO and part company. How successful has this model been for Zubaan, and have you found this split business model to have made a difference to external individuals/companies?
UB: Zubaan started out as an NGO, a not-for-profit organization that mainly published, but did other things as well. The idea behind this was not that we wouldn’t make a profit if we could, but that all monies earned would be put back into the enterprise, and not go into our pockets. This structure also allowed us to take on the occasional project (of which ‘Poster Women’ and the ‘SVI project’ are two), but we were very clear that all projects should be related to books, or should result in books.
Being a not-for-profit also helped us keep control on our prices, but over the years, we began to feel the pressure to change this. The law made it more and more difficult to be an NGO and to trade, i.e., to sell books. Also we were getting pressure from our distributors to raise our prices, as they found low-priced books did not give them enough of a margin for them to bother selling the books. In fact one distributor said to us, “What is this nonsense, books for Rs. 400–500?” (which we thought was high!). “I can sell a foreign book of a hundred pounds and earn more from one book than I do from selling ten of yours, so why should I bother?” Plus we also needed to be able to pay salaries, to take account of the rising cost of living. We did not want to be dependent on grants, which is a very precarious thing, and we have never done that.
So, after much thought, we decided to separate the publishing and the projects, and to have two structures, and turn the publishing into a for-profit company owned by Zubaan’s senior staff. Of course we still do the same kinds of books; our structure may have changed but our politics remain the same, and not all of the books make money, but we manage. Ever since CSR came in, all corporates have sent up foundations within their own organization to keep their money in-house, and we thought we would do the feminist thing and upturn this so the not-for-profit set up a for-profit! We’ve only been going a few years; let’s see how it works. The other thing about being a privately owned company is that if you wish, you can sell it, or bring in investors (although no one really wants to invest in our kind of publishing) and so on. So the issue of succession or continuity, which is always a problem for NGOs, becomes less fraught.
In the past, Zubaan has conducted and published research on sexual violence and impunity in India (SVI project), and the Poster Women project mapping women’s movement in India. How easy or difficult is it to get funding for research projects that are women-centric?
UB: It’s not easy but not that difficult either. We actually don’t function on funding, but try to survive on our sales. The funding goes towards projects such as the ones you have named, and because we do just one large or largish project at a time generally, we don’t have to hunt too much for funding or compete in that market. But for most women’s groups it is getting more and more difficult, even though people want to include gender in everything.
Both the Poster Women and the SVI project came out of discussions with sympathetic programme officers in the funding organization. For Poster Women we were talking with Sumathy Ramaswamy (who was then with Ford) about building an archive of women’s stories, and trying to create a book on the history of the feminist poster worldwide. It was out of that conversation that the idea of collecting posters from India grew… and grew and grew, she agreed to fund it, and it happened. With SVI similarly, we were talking in a small group of South Asian women about the growing incidence of sexual violence and the lack of accountability at so many levels. We began to think together of a research and publication project, and then it happened. Both projects are really important to us, as publishers and as activists in the women’s movement. Both create an important resource and archive, and both allow us to remain connected with the women’s movement.
Along with Khublei and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Zubaan organizes a festival of the North-East called Cultures of Peace. We understand that it aims to showcase the culture of the North-East through music, film, writing, and other media, and to create a general sense of awareness and conversation. Has this had a positive impact on the participants and attendees? What can we expect of the upcoming festival this year?
MS: It would be difficult to phrase the effects of cultural engagement as either positive or not, but we’ve seen increasing numbers and growing interest in Cultures every year—which, yes, is a generally positive trend! In recent years, we’ve added a critical component to how we curate and programme Cultures, one which presents it as a cultural festival that, nonetheless, manages to address seriously a range of issues (migration, labour, women’s rights), and so our audience has begun to be more heterogeneous in terms of interest as well: students and academics, artists, filmmakers, journalists, and a generally curious audience, in addition to Zubaan readers and supporters.
This year, we’re planning an event in Shillong in conjunction with a group called Asian Confluence, preceded by a lecture at TISS in Guwahati (October 14–15). As for Delhi, we’ll be holding a seminar series in mid-September in partnership with local universities, with a bigger celebration later in October when we launch a book currently in the works, of graphic stories by Northeastern artists.
From your interactions with people from across the globe, and of varying backgrounds, to what extent do you think feminism in its truest sense is understood and appreciated? If not, how do you think this can change (from within Zubaan and otherwise)?
UB: Actually I don’t think there is a single feminism that can be understood in its truest sense. Feminism varies for women depending on the context you come from or the constraints you function under. So for those who live in totalitarian regimes, or religious ones, feminism may mean something different than it does to those who live in democracies. This is not to say there aren’t overlaps and similarities, but there is no one-size-fits-all, and that is the real beauty of feminism. For us, we see it as our responsibility and moral obligation to produce books that contribute to our understanding of feminism, that expand and stretch the boundaries of knowledge, and that help our many and multiple feminisms to grow. Whether or not this makes a difference in the world is another story.
IB: I’m routinely overwhelmed by people’s willingness to engage in conversations about feminism, and routinely reminded that the word is not crucial to the practice. If there’s one thing that is ‘true’ to feminism, it’s the fact that it is a continual learning process, which so many people across the world are honing and developing despite a daunting and varied set of odds. Unfortunately that is invariable coupled with continual demands (to them) for explanations and defenses of many feminisms, which is tiresome. To say the least.
Artistik License recently organized a Delhi/NCR edition of Artists’ Corner where we delved into problems faced by musicians and venue owners. At the end of the panel discussion, one of the main concerns identified was the lack of music managers and agents. How important is it for a writer to have a literary agent? Does the lack of an agent make a very big difference?
UB: Literary agents have a role to play in a developed book market, but not so much in a place like India where books are struggling anyway. An agent is useful inasmuch as he or she can advise writers and help them understand the processes of publishing. But because agents are also about money, so often that is what they focus on—not a bad thing, but money is not everything. Being part of a good list is also important. Also publishing through agents seems to me to be a lazy way of publishing. You don’t go out and find authors but let someone else do it for you! And while this is okay in a market where authors are at a premium, in a market where we should be going out and hunting for authors, I’m not so sure. But this is my personal thing, most publishers (especially those who have money) are happy with agents. I’m not particularly happy, and in Zubaan by and large we like to seek out our authors and work closely with them.
Having worked in the publishing industry for over three decades, do you find that writers and publishers are more aware of the need to enter into formal agreements with each other? By and large, do people in this industry tend to be ethical in their dealings? Please elaborate.
UB: There is a greater awareness of the need for formal arrangements—for contracts—but having said that, many publishers still have very informal ways of working, and most authors do not read their contracts before they sign, which is a real pity. They would not hire an apartment without reading the lease but they seem to think they can hand over their writing without reading the contract. We need much more professionalism here. As for ethics, I don’t think we can make generalizations about the industry; there are many different practices in it, some good, some bad. There are ethical publishers and there are those who don’t bother with ethics. In that, publishing is like every other industry.
What are your thoughts on contemporary feminist writing as they appear in less traditional forms of media? What role do websites and digital magazines dedicated to espousing feminism play in shaping feminist discourse in this day and age?
MS: I think that current feminist writing, as it appears on social media, websites or digital magazines, fills that really important role of covering—in terms of, both, content and access—what more traditional, primarily print-based publishing cannot, and also of pointing out the gaps in and limitations of what traditional media has been able to achieve. Conventional models of publishing, even within feminist writing, have not been free of their own biases: of caste, class, location (urban vs. rural) etc. Some of these, of course, are replicated within the ambit of online feminist work (especially the dominance of English), but we’re seeing more people (more women!) from the margins writing directly on their own experiences and, in a way, pointing towards work left for us to do, as well.
UB: Not sure what you mean by less traditional forms of media. I think websites etc dedicated to feminist thought are important, both as resources and as places to think, write and share ideas. Many of the pieces they run often go viral, which is great—great to hear of feminist writings going viral. As to what role websites play in shaping feminist discourse, I think that’s difficult to say. I mean, how do we understand feminist discourse? Is it only what self-declared feminists say, and which can be read and seen? Does it include the many many conversations that are going on which often do not get heard or talked about? Yesterday I had a Dalit feminist activist, Rajni Tilak, come and speak to my class at Ashoka University—I have known Rajni for thirty years or more and even I was surprised to hear of the sorts of things she has been involved in, which do not necessarily enter what may be called the feminist mainstream.
How can our readers keep track of your work, or contact you? Do you have any upcoming books or projects you would like to tell our readers about?
MS: We work hard on our outreach, and our social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blog) are reliable points of contact for anyone interested in talking with us. We also run a monthly newsletter that, in addition to some truly terrible puns, includes information about new releases and projects.
IB: We also have a bookshop in our office, with all our titles, as well as generously donated second-hand books for sale. It’s a difficult market and supporting independent publishers by buying direct is a huge and significant step to take as a reader—so visit us, and our independent sisters across the country (and the world)!