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Can independent publishing survive the virus?

Feminist publisher and writer Ritu Menon’s pandemic memoir looks back on an era of idealism, solidarity and internationalism in independent publishing

Indie publishers may be forced to merge with the big corporates in order to ride out the pandemic.
Indie publishers may be forced to merge with the big corporates in order to ride out the pandemic.

A little over a year ago, acclaimed author and feminist publisher Ritu Menon started keeping a journal as she retreated into her home in Delhi during the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of covid-19. Recently published as Address Book: A Publishing Memoir in the time of COVID by Women Unlimited, the imprint Menon founded, the arc of her narrative spans far beyond the pandemic.

It opens with a haunting photograph of deserted Park Avenue in New York City on a March morning that Menon sees in an edition of the New Yorker. And, like Proust’s tea and madeleine, it unlocks the floodgates of her memory, taking her back to 1969-70, when she worked as a market researcher with the publishing firm Doubleday (now part of the Penguin Random House group), whose offices were located on the same street.

The familiar sight of the avenue, emptied out by the looming threat of the virus, appears almost as an omen, throwing a challenge at Menon to reckon with what the future holds: the impact of the pandemic on small, indie presses like hers, as also the devastations wreaked upon the world in general and India in particular (“Things are falling apart, and the Centre has self-isolated,” as she notes against the backdrop of the exodus of the migrant workers). Above all, it provokes sharp introspection: “…was I mourning my own past, my youth with all its promise?” she wonders.

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The abiding strain in the memoir is Menon’s apprehension about the fate of small presses as the virus lays siege on every industry. She bemoans, early on, Bloomsbury’s acquisition of the South African indie Zed under the shadow of covid. While merging with big corporates is an obvious, often necessary, strategy of survival, what cost does such a move exact on the identity of an independent publisher?

Menon’s way of grappling with such unsettling questions is to return to her Address Book, which is not only a repository of her numerous friendships and professional relationships but also a veritable map of her wanderings across the globe, a testimony to a life richly lived, beliefs firmly guarded. “In my Address Book of those decades, from the mid-Eighties to around the early 2000s lies the story of feminist publishing and of publishing for social change, whether by feminist or other progressive presses, North and South,” she writes. As we trace this cartography of publishing with her, we realize with a pang that the Address Book is also a memorial—a testament to times that are never likely to return.

Address Book: A Publishing Memoir In the time of COVID by Ritu Menon, published by Women Unlimited, 144 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>300
Address Book: A Publishing Memoir In the time of COVID by Ritu Menon, published by Women Unlimited, 144 pages, 300

From co-founding India’s first feminist imprint, Kali for Women, in 1984 with Urvashi Butalia (now the founder of Zubaan Books) to forging professional and personal ties with publishers from across Europe, West Asia, and the US, Menon captures the spirit of an era that has all but vanished. It was due to the vibrant collaborations among various stakeholders—imprints like The Feminist Press, founded by Florence Howe in New York; the Editions des Femmes, founded by Antoinette Foque and Florence Prudhomme, in Paris; and others—that indie publishing in the 1970s-90s witnessed what the International Alliance of Independent Publishers in Paris termed as “bibliodiversity”. It fostered a somewhat level playing field, where literatures from across cultures, originally written in English or translated, could coexist with equal confidence and be read with the same degree of seriousness by a cross-section of readers.

Instead of wallowing in nostalgia, Menon admits that even those halcyon days were not perfect—global hegemonies lingered, as they still do, in spite of the woke culture of the 21st century. But the earlier decades did enable writers as different as Ismat Chughtai, Suad Amiry, Taslima Nasreen, Fatima Mernissi, Quratulain Haider, and others to find readers beyond their chosen languages of expression. It also created a strong network of feminist presses that would be instrumental in playing key roles in the women’s rights movements across the world. “Patriarchy is the first of all globalisations,” as Menon astutely observes, summarizing the exiled Yugoslavian writer Rada Iveković.

As she flips through her Address Book, Menon regales us with many priceless anecdotes, shining a light on the humanity and humour of the feisty feminists she got to know well—American writer Grace Paley putting “the fat Manhattan telephone directory” on the driver’s seat to look through the windshield of her car; Taslima Nasreen inviting Menon to a surprise birthday lunch cooked by her; Quratulain Haider’s obsessive control over the translations of her books; Ismat Chughtai’s surprise at smoking a menthol cigarette for the first time—the list goes on….

Then there are stories that every publisher lives for. After months of agonizing uncertainty, Menon manages to lay her hands on a memoir, presumed long lost, by the legendary Lakshmi Sahgal (aka Captain Lakshmi), who was part of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Yet another euphoric moment comes with writer Attia Hosain’s family allowing Menon to include some of Hosain's unpublished writings in Distant Traveller, an anthology released in 2013 to mark the reclusive writer’s centenary.

Ritu Menon
Ritu Menon (Courtesy: Women Unlimited)

While Menon is restrained with her prose, her frustration at the prevailing publishing and political climate is palpable. She makes a fittingly caustic reference to the millions that are lavished on organizing literature festivals, when these funds could be more gainfully used to support writers who need it. There is also a barb at the free-for-all that writing has become in contemporary India—with an endless stream of “high-profile” books by sports personalities, journalists, politicians, celebrities and former bureaucrats, “all of whom think they have something of earth-shattering consequence to say”. “Why… does everyone want to be a writer?” Menon asks. “Why can’t they just be readers?”

The answer to this question lurks on every page of Address Book; Menon does not need to spell it out explicitly. The ambience she conjures up—of robust internationalism, shared political values and a common interest in bringing about social change—has long receded to the margins of corporate publishing cultures. Authorship, for the most part now, is about branding the self—much less about the intrinsic value of the work one puts out in the world.

While these sentiments may be damned as old-fashioned in the world we have inherited, it would be still misleading to dismiss indies as lost causes (as many tend to do) or as antiquated businesses with little interest in running solvent operations. On the contrary, as Menon reminds us drawing on the successes from her career, good writing will—almost always—find its place in the world. It's another matter that the returns it brings may never be enough to satiate the mercenary maw of corporate publishers.

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