Sandipan Deb, Aardvark Words: “We enjoy the fact that we are outsiders”

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The first question that comes to mind when a new, independent, self-funded publishing venture launches is: “Why, in these ‘difficult’ times?” Gurgaon-based Aardvark Words, however, believes that there is no time like the present. In an interview with Foreword.in, Sandipan Deb, managing partner and editor-in-chief, talks shop and beyond. Excerpts:

Q. At a time when e-books seem to be gaining over print (it may be a bit slow in India, but there is a rise), what was the idea behind setting up Aardvark Words?

Deb: "We're not into 'reputation' publishing"

A. Aardvark Words is primarily a media house with a clear focus on e-books. Till the e-book segment becomes the lead one, we are doing physical books too. We believe that in another 12-18 months time, there will be a significant surge on e-sales, powered by devices that are becoming smarter, smaller, more portable and cheaper by the day.

We want to be there when the levee breaks.

Q. What does Aardvark Words, the venture stand for?

A. Aardvark is committed to delivering the reading experience to you in the form that you prefer. We will present our books in a number of formats – print, e-books, audio books, and any other mode of delivery that may be just round the corner.

We love books; we want to give them to you in the way you love. Authors will range from established names that evoke quality and excellence, to new original voices who push the envelope and deserve to be welcomed and heard. We will be eclectic, with high quality as the only inviolable benchmark, in both content and form.

Q. Two of the four members in your team were in print media (newspapers, magazines) mostly. Isn’t this a new ballgame where so much has to be learnt from scratch? Distribution of books is very different from magazines, for instance. Pricing is something that is even trickier. Piracy is a big problem in the books industry. How do you at Aardvark propose tackling such issues?

A. Not really. Our distribution system is minimalistic and focused – we only sell through the web, and already have arrangements in place with flipkart.com, amazon.com, and most of the major e-bookstores. Knowledge of technology is the key factor here and two of our partners are experts in that field.

Q. How many authors have you signed up so far? Are there any new signings you are excited about?

A. We have commissioned more than a dozen authors. We are very excited about all the forthcoming books.

Q. Five books out (according to the website) already by authors such as Chandi Rout Ray, Ashok Gopal, Hena Pillai and Betty Steinhauer. Could you tell us about some of them and how you made your choice? How many copies of Kismet 3.0 and Blackland would Aardvark have sold?

Fast-mover

A. We have two books out – Kismet 3.0 (by Rout Ray) in both physical and e-form, and My Way, which is available on Amazon in its Kindle version, on Kobo.com in its ePub version, and the print edition will appear in the next few weeks. We have already sold out the first printing of Kismet 3.0, and are now on to the first reprint.

About the books themselves, well, they are all quite different from one another, and that is part of our conscious strategy not to get slotted into any particular groove as publishers.

Kismet 3.0 is a cool, fresh, straight-from-the-gut tale of a 25-year-old techie as he negotiates the pitfalls of the 3 Ws of life: Wine, Wealth and Women. And, oh yes, cricket betting. Set in Bangalore and Toronto, Kismet is the raw – and often very funny – voice of a new global-desi generation. We published it because it’s the most honest book we’ve read in a long time. It introduces a new concept called CBL – Capable but Losers – and the CBL Facebook group already has nearly 3500 members!

My Way is the autobiography of an extraordinary Canadian woman Betty Steinhauer, with a very strong Indian connection. Betty was raped when she was 13, had to take charge of her family – and her mentally ill mother – at 15, lost her lover in a car crash at 18, saw her firstborn die in infancy, survived a dead-end marriage, built a successful business while bringing up two headstrong daughters, has traveled to 150 countries, and found the secret code of happiness in Indian spirituality. Hers is an incredible journey of a woman’s head and heart.

You could look at Kill You Tomorrow (by Gopal) as the arrival of pitiless noir fiction in India. It’s a chilling chronicle of being bored to death – someone else’s death. Someone chosen randomly, so that his murder can never be traced back to you. Written laconically in the first person, Kill You Tomorrow is a shocking glimpse of a cold, logical and very disturbed mind. It’ll make readers uncomfortable. It certainly had that effect on me.

Great promise

Finally, Blackland. Long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, Hena Pillai’s book could be the literary debut of 2012. Outstanding research, extraordinary imagination. It’s the story of two young women – Indu, daughter of a priest-king of Mohenjo-Daro, and Sita, searching for meaning in 21st century India. Though 5,000 years apart, their quests intertwine in mysterious ways that involve the deepest questions about identity, culture, gender, language and civilization. It’s literary fiction of the very highest quality.

Q. You say that you will publish classics carefully packaged for the 21st century reader. Does it mean you would do something like a Jane Eyre-kind of tweak (a publisher has done it recently by introducing an erotic angle) with classics, especially Indian ones?

A. Lots of classics are available in free downloadable form on the net. But in most cases, that’s just the  “content”, with neither context nor any extra input that could make reading pleasurable in any way.

We believe that there are dozens of ways in which we could add value to these texts and make it worthwhile for the reader to pay a small price for them. Just to give an example, if we offered Pickwick Papers as an e-book, but in the original Victorian typeface, and with all the lovely original illustrations by Phiz, that would be a value addition.

Or we do Around The World In Eighty Days with maps and current times taken to cover these distances. A whole game could be built into the e-book, with players choosing to be other Phileas Fogg the explorer or Fix, the Scotland Yard detective who is chasing him round the world. The possibilities are quite endless, and I think I’ve already given away more than I should have!

Q. Your website also mentions publishing books in other Indian languages. Which will be the first?

A. We have ambitious plans about Indian languages, but would not like to reveal them just yet.

Q. What will set Aardvark apart from the so many other publishing houses in the country?

A. I think we rather enjoy the fact that we are outsiders, not bound by any assumptions or conventions. We also primarily approach the selection of our titles as readers – ‘is this something we would love to read? Is this something someone we know would love to read?’ So you can say that we are totally subjective about our choice of titles, and we are happy to be that.

We are not into “reputation” publishing. We commission authors on whether their work excites us. And perhaps more than anything else, we bring a sense of ownership to each title that we publish. We know what an author goes through when he writes – the joy, the despair, the insecurity. We treat each author as a friend, and we are his companions on his very personal journey. I have had authors call me up late at night wanting to discuss their career and life dilemmas. I take those calls.

Q. What are the immediate plans for the next six months to one year?

A. We are planning to launch a book a month in the next six months.

 

Deb is a former managing editor of Outlook, editor of Financial Express and the founder-editor of Open. Aardvark’s other partners are Aalok Wadhwa, Pranab Dutta and Rakov Kirpal

 

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