Founded in 1978 by Pramod Kapoor, Roli Books is one of the most iconic and successful publishing companies in India. The company is currently owned by the founder’s children, Priya Kapoor and Kapil Kapoor, who’ve added flying colors to the organization, and today we have for you an e-mail interview conducted with Priya, the Editorial Director of Roli Books. Priya has been working joined Roli Books in 2004, and since then, she has been the backbone of the organization. The siblings have taken the company to new heights, and in this interview, we try to get an insight into the rapidly evolving publishing industry in India.
Being an editorial director of a publishing company with a legacy as strong as Roli Books mustn’t be easy. How difficult is it to be in such a responsible position?
Running your own business regardless of its size or how long it’s been around for is not easy. Every challenge, big or small is your problem – the buck stops with you. Yes, leading a 43-year company with an enviable legacy comes with its own set of unique challenges however I am fortunate to have a talented, enthusiastic, and loyal team. In addition, my brother Kapil and I run the business together, which makes the task at hand manageable and fun. We both have complementary skill sets and areas of expertise and at the same time, we share a common vision for Roli Books. On most days, I enjoy everything about the job, including the immense responsibility that comes with it.
Roli Books initially focused on publishing illustrated content, a challenge that very few would’ve taken. How has the company managed to thrive in such a thin niche?
Quality, quality, and quality. There is a work ethos ingrained in the DNA of the company that revolves around quality. No cutting corners, always looking for the best and most creative minds to collaborate with, and pushing the envelope with the production qualities of our books. We have worked very hard to build an international network of booksellers and publishers who buy rights from us or buy our books for their territories – this has expanded our market and allowed us to keep publishing high-quality books at affordable prices for the Indian market.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time. How much do you think that the industry has evolved since you joined the company?
I joined publishing in 2004. I first worked at Routledge, London for two years and then returned to India to join Roli Books. The industry has evolved in certain aspects exponentially and in some, it remains the same, unfortunately. There is certainly more competition as almost all the major international publishers have set up shop in India and alongside, we have seen a rise in homegrown independent publishing houses doing brilliant work. Digital marketing and social media are game-changers as we are now able to reach our readers directly and use data to target our marketing efforts. The readership has changed and becomes more mature – we have incredible home-grown writers publishing books on a wide variety of subjects from financial management to self-help, from cookbooks to spirituality, no longer are we only consuming imports from other countries.
As a reader, what do you prefer reading? Any specific genre or writer you follow?
For a little while, I had gone off fiction and was reading only non-fiction. But fortunately, that was a passing phase and now I read two books simultaneously – one fiction and one non-fiction. A general rule I have is to not read “big” (read over hyped and much reviewed) books as soon as they are published. I like the buzz to die down a bit before reading them.
How do you see the advent of e-books? Is it beneficial for the industry? Does it have enough demand?
People reading books in ANY format is beneficial for the industry – be it on the phone, kindle, computer, or as an audiobook. We live in a world where all of us consume media across multiple formats – our job as publishers is to ensure books are available across these formats. Of course, pictorial books remain primarily print only for obvious reasons.
Do you feel that the era of bookstores is about to end with Amazon and Kindle growing rapidly?
At present, the number of readers on Kindle only are not alarming enough for e-books to be an imminent threat to bookstores. However, Amazon and other online retailers who offer high discounts is another matter. It’s certainly a tough environment for bookshops, especially independent bookshops, to thrive. In certain countries like France, have laws that prohibit discounts of more than 5% on books – this helps protect bookstores from giants such as Amazon. Economic forces such as high rent, low margins in books, a pandemic (!) do not bode well for bookshops, however ‘I hope readers and lovers of books keep up the demand and support their local bookshops.’
You’re one of the few people of position from the publishing industry who raise their voice on issues or at least share such content on your social media timeline. What do you think is the role of publishers in society in such dystopian times?
This is a wrong assumption that I am one of the (few) people in the publishing industry to raise my voice on issues. Across the industry, be in those actively involved with a publishing house or authors, you will find numerous vocal, active, passionate voices that are consistent in their criticism when and where it is needed.
I share concerns and views on issues as a citizen of this country that grew up in a very different India from what it is becoming. Being a publisher is secondary in this regard. It is the role of every concerned citizen to raise their voice in support of causes. Not everyone can be a leader, but they can certainly lend their support to those who need it.
As a publisher, I hope our list reflects the kind of books that need to be read and published given our times. If we believe in the story and our authors can substantiate their books with rigorous research, we are not afraid of legal consequences and is evident in the many “sensitive” books we have published.
As a publishing company, you might to have publish content that you don’t agree with. How do you manage to keep your personal preferences aback while making a publishing decision?
An editor’s job is not to publish what they agree with. Their job is to publish what they feel will appeal to readers. I hope with 20 years of experience this comes easy to me now. In fact, if I come across a manuscript that I may not agree with but is well researched (factually sound!) and written then I would be more inclined to publish it than something I did agree with.
What, in your view, will it take for the Indian authors without an elite academic background or influential repute to make it big? Does a good story get lost in commerce?
There are good examples of those who do not come from such backgrounds to have published successful books. However, such writers are few in number. I feel a lot more needs to be done to find these voices and really applying the entire machinery available to a publisher to publish them well. And by this, I mean allocating the same marketing budget as you would to an established A list publisher, championing them as you would your existing bestselling author. I feel that mid-small publishing houses are more inclined in taking such risks and publishing them well.
As a publisher, do you feel rural/semi-urban India is misrepresented or underrepresented in the publishing world? Do you see demand for stories from places like Bhiwandi or Jabalpur or Gulbarga?
Underrepresented, yes. Diversity within the industry is key if we want more diverse stories. As the entire publishing ecosystem becomes more mature I am sure this will happen.
CMYK and Eureka were reopened recently. How’s the response been? Do you feel that the era of bookstores is about to end with Amazon and Kindle growing rapidly?
Actually, we opened CMYK 11 years ago and today have shops in Jaipur, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, and Pondicherry. CMYK (Delhi) and Eureka opened under a new avatar in 2020. We were to open in March but due to COVID had to open later on in the year once the lockdown had eased. It’s been a difficult year for in-person shopping especially books that can be easily found online. However, Eureka has a dedicated following and Swati and Venky are the best in the business and their loyal customers rely on them for recommendations. Sales have been slow but have been increasing steadily as people become more comfortable stepping out to shop.
Roli Books will complete its golden jubilee in 2028. Any targets the company wants to achieve before that?
We have a 5-year plan through which Roli will build on its unique India focused publishing list, with an emphasis on quality – both production and scholarship. It will have an unparalleled bank of intellectual property that will be exploited across multiple formats to reach a global audience directly, pivoting from a pure book publisher to a broader media company.
Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring author from somewhere deep in the country, reading this interview on her/his smartphone?
Read, read and read some more. Doesn’t matter where you read – phone, kindle computer or a book. Expand your reading list, explore authors from other countries and then sit down to write.
Noman is a literature expert, news analyst, and content creator. When not writing news and other content for clients, he likes to read novels and talk about them. Born and raised in a ghetto of Mumbai, he is vocal about the social issues facing the slums and his community. Noman is the co-founder of Bombay Reads, a platform where he likes to write and discuss books.