March 30, 2020
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Vanity As Necessity

Galloping print runs keep R.K. Narayan's self-publishing firm healthy

Vanity As Necessity
Vanity As Necessity
Unlike most writers who turn to self-publishing, R.K. Narayan didn't publish his own books for vanity's sake. All of 65 years after he set up India's first self-publishing house, Narayan's uncharacteristically pompous-sounding Indian Thought Publications has proved such a golden goose that his grandaughter Bhuvaneswari, who has inherited the imprint with her brother, hopes they can pass on the booming business to their children as well. "It's a legacy he passed on to us and we naturally want to keep it alive for as long as there is interest in his writing," she says, admitting that turnover has more than doubled since Narayan's death in 2001.

While profits can't compare with royalties from abroad, each of Narayan's self-published books sell a whopping 5,000 to 20,000 copies a year. Sales of The Guide have crossed 20,000 this year, thanks to it being prescribed as a textbook by several universities. And Swami and Friends has a print run of 10-15,000 a year. "So far the imprint has been going on under its own momentum, but now we want to do more in order to attract another segment of readership," says Bhuvaneswari. Last year, for example, the self-imprint published a sumptuous coffee-tabler of Narayan's autobiography, My Days, with illustrations by his brother R.K. Laxman and an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, priced at an unusually high Rs 500. And this year Bhuvaneswari is working on a new edition of Malgudi Days with an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri. The USP of the self-imprint is the rock-bottom pricing—rarely crossing Rs 100—and she doesn't want to meddle too much with that, though she is willing to invest more in publicity and design. "We want to modernise the get-up, but it has to be in keeping with his subject matter."

If it wasn't for the War, Narayan may never have discovered the shrewd businessman lurking inside the struggling, impractical writer. Narayan was convinced from the start that he could make his living as a writer, but had only the fuzziest notion of how to go about it. "When my novel is finished, it will bring in income all my life and fifty years after," he told his future father-in-law while asking for his daughter's hand. His father-in-law was less than optimistic. After listening with apparent interest and without contradicting Narayan, he responded: "I'm sure if your father used his influence, he could fix you in a government job."

But that's exactly what Narayan didn't want, preferring instead to take a job as a stringer for a Madras newspaper, which he quit the day his first novel was accepted by Hamish Hamilton in the UK. But Swami and Friends, despite the good reviews, sold so poorly that his publisher rejected his option on Narayan's next novel, Bachelor of Arts. By then, Narayan's father died, depriving the large household—Narayan, his mother, wife, daughter, three younger brothers, a cook, a helper and a Great Dane—of the government pension that had kept all of them afloat. It was only Narayan's naive and unswerving assumption that something would turn up—"the gambler's inexhaustible hope", as he described it—which kept them going. In 1938, his third novel in three years, The Dark Room, was published, but did little for his finances. He got nothing for it except a 40-pound advance (minus taxes). When Narayan wrote to his publisher suggesting they should make the book better known and that their depots in India had no copies, he got the usual publisher's evasions. In desperation, he resorted to hack work, taking on a travelogue sponsored by the Mysore government. But when it came to payment, the government was worse than his UK publishers.

Narayan's fortunes took a further dip when the Second World War started, cutting him off from the British publishing world. Paper shortages in India meant that his only means of sustenance, The Hindu, which periodically published his short stories, dried up. Three years into the war, Narayan finally decided to take matters into his own hands. Using the experience and contacts he gained through editing a short-lived literary magazine called Indian Thought (one of the founding fathers suggested it be called Indian Thoughtless; another suggested Indian Thought "because it's the same thing"), Narayan decided to become his own publisher. He was reasonably confident about an Indian readership ("There was a certain amount of recognition and a little demand for my writing," as he later told his biographer, N. Ram) but the headaches of printing, distribution and accounts were another matter altogether.

But Narayan, as Bhuvaneswari points out, "was never one to give up easily". Within three years of publishing his first book under his own imprint—Malgudi Days, a collection of 19 short stories that no publisher in the UK wanted to touch—he was already on his way to a financial security that few writers in India could have dreamt of then or even now. His books began to be prescribed as university textbooks, a financial asset for any writer, but for a self-published writer like him, a veritable bonanza.

Narayan's single-author publishing house became something of a family cottage industry. The accounts, always a major headache for the numbers-challenged writer, were managed by his elder brother, R.K. Pattabhi, till his death in 1987. The books were first printed by Narayan's close friend, M.S. Cheluviengar—the colourful 'Mr Sampath' immortalised in Narayan's novels—on his small treadle press. Later, he shifted to the Church of South India's Wesley Press, which also stocked his books in their warehouse and despatched orders. When paper fell short or a bookseller didn't pay up, Narayan picked up the phone or paid a personal visit to iron out the glitches.

In fact, it was on one of those interminable visits to the office of bookseller HigginBothams in Madras to chase payments that Narayan first met I.L. Hira of India Book House. The distributor and writer got talking and Hira persuaded Narayan that he should stick to writing and leave the distribution to IBH. Like all Narayan's business relationships, Hira soon turned into a close friend and IBH still continues to be the sole distributor of Narayan's imprint.

When Narayan was at the peak of his writing career, Bhuvaneswari was, as he put it, "at the stage of squeezing herself beside me in my chair while I'm writing and carrying on an undertone conversation with her doll all the time". But by the time she graduated from high school, she was already being roped into the family's writing shop. She began by typing out his letters and stories, but in the last decade of his life was virtually in charge of Indian Thought, managing the printing, warehousing and accounts. If she was thrust into the publishing business like her grandfather, she is like him in discovering her Midas touch.
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