Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Publisher's Response in Trying Times


With several controversies surrounding the world of Indian publishing, Karthika VK makes a case for why the industry shouldn't stifle free expression.


There is a certain caution built into the publishing system. Call it prudence, call it cowardice or just plain pragmatism. When a publisher signs a contract with an author, the possibility of plagiarism, libel, defamation, obscenity, are all flagged as potential causes of breach of contract. Long discussions can follow on the indemnity clause, which fixes responsibility on the author and ensures that if the book ends up in litigation of any sort, the author will have to fight the case all the way through, alongside the publisher. But events don’t always unfold this way, as we saw in the Wendy Doniger case, where a book was withdrawn even before the matter reached the courts.

When the system seems to connive with the mob to prevent free expression and dissemination of content, what is a publisher to do? The easy thing would be to follow the letter of the law and not test the ideals—if one could call them that—or patience of any part of society.

The other way to respond would be to take the route further north: instead of throwing water on the wood even before the flame is lit, to sit down and plan the fire. Publishing houses, especially small, independent presses with a clear political agenda have been doing this for years; it’s the bigger houses that have for the most part cultivated fairly neutral profiles. But neutrality can fade into inaction, even compromise, and in the ever-shrinking democratic space in India, that isn’t an option any more—it isn’t even good business. A large publishing house has infrastructure, the assurance of legal help, the ability to underwrite reasonable legal expenses, and access to the media. What it lacks, perhaps, is a clear understanding of publishing as a political space where choices must be made not merely on the basis of literary aesthetics or commerce, but as part of a continuing and intellectually vibrant engagement with society. Rather than trap a trend and stay with it for as long as it generates sales, publishers must actually intervene in debates and actively commission books on subjects that could shape the way people think about governance, conflict, human rights, environment, history. In these times of self-publishing and the infinite resources of the internet, not doing so would be to fade into irrelevance.

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