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Books to delight in
Interview with Radhika Menon, Publisher, Tulika Publishers, Mindfields, Fall 2008 issue
The prevalent mindset in India has been that children's books aren't value for money. If one can buy a management book for Rs 50, the rationale goes, why would one buy a 20-page picture book for the same amount of money? Radhika Menon's Tulika Books, has been a pioneer in the field of original children's publishing in India. Mindfields talks to her about the journey.
ENTERING THE WORLD OF CHILDREN'S PUBLISHING
After college, I taught at the J. Krishnamurti School (The School KFI) in Chennai from 1978 to 1979. I did my B.Ed while teaching there, so in effect, I went to teach with no background - just my curiosity, and an interest in J. Krishnamurti 's philosophy. It was at the school that I got the opportunity to see some really good children's books - mainly American, British, and Russian books.
The lack of Indian children's books of that kind of quality was glaring. It hit me even more when doing a class project on an India-based topic - even something as basic as rivers or mountains of India. Facts were easy to find as our whole approach to teaching is so fact-oriented but where were the stories, songs, poems?
There is a culture, a history, a people's lifestyle that is linked to the geography of a place and that is the kind of understanding that you want children to get from project-based learning. A cross-curricular approach was possible when the topic was, say, the Amazon forests - there were enough books and children could find information themselves. But not if the topic was the river Ganga! (Incidentally Tulika has published four books on the Ganga, Narmada, Brahmaputra and Kaveri rivers in the Read and Colour River Stories series with precisely this kind of approach.)
This realisation that how much, good children's books could enhance the creative teaching/learning process is what sparked off my interest in children's books. I certainly wasn't thinking of publishing then but became aware of the wealth of material there was and the creative possibilities of children's books.
Then came the whole experience of discovering wonderful children's books with my children - reading to them, looking at pictures. Around that time we moved to Delhi and I taught briefly at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. There the medium of instruction was Hindi till class 5. I found myself teaching English bilingually and realised how naturally that worked. As my children were in the school too, I was delighted that they were as comfortable in Hindi as they were in English.But there was great resistance when it came to reading books in Hindi which to them seemed so drab visually and very often text-heavy compared to the foreign books in English they read.
While teaching there I was given the responsibility of setting up the primary school library which I did. So my engagement with children's books became deeper. Now I was not thinking of Indian children's books as just in English but that they had to be in the different languages and even be bilingual.
Looking back, the exposure to teaching children in an Indian language and listening to the songs, stories, plays, riddles and rhymes changed the way I thought of children's books in a subtle way. Intrinsic to Indian children's books was an Indian style of telling, visualizing and illustrating. Indian children's books, even in English, had to have an Indian sensibility in the use of language, contexts, visuals, and even in the look and feel, if it had to be rooted in the culture like the best of children's books are. The idea of children's books combining the best of storytelling and art from both from here and the west was very exciting.
FOLK TALES AND BEYOND
Folk stories sell. The reason why parents pick up folk stories is their familiarity level with this kind of book - something tells them they won’t go wrong. That is changing. Our earliest, best selling books were retellings of old folk stories – the writers interpreted stories their own way, but the stories were always contemporized.
Many of our titles, like Pranav's Picture and I'm so Sleepy (illustrated by NID students) are idea-based. I am Different is a multilingual book illustrated by noted author and illustrator Manjula Padmanabhan. What Shall I Make? is about a child imagining things to do with the dough while his mother is making chapattis - it's written by a mom whose child actually did this.
While working on My Mother's Sari, we could have followed a certain formula to guarantee success - made the illustrations exotic, pretty. We chose to go against that, and follow our own vision. The child in the book is an average looking child, the saris are of ordinary fabrics that you'd find in a household.
Our books go to villages, government schools, tribal schools (not just urban bookstores) and we believe that nothing in our content should alienate the (non-urban) child. It would be undermining the very purpose of doing books in so many languages. It is an editorial policy. That My Mother's Sari went on to garner perceptive reviews and awards was a big high for us.
THE EARLY DAYS OF TULIKA
Around 1990 I left teaching to join hands with my sister-in-law Indira Chandrashekhar and set up a pre-press unit with two Apple Macintoshes which had just come into the market. We started by doing pre-press work for many publishing houses like Penguin, Sahitya Akademi, Rupa, etc and also turnkey printing work. That was how I discovered the joys of producing printed material from start to finish! And I suppose that was the beginning of my journey into publishing.
We called our unit Tulika Print Communications Services. The name means 'quill' in Malayalam and Sanskrit, 'brush' in some languages. The name stuck. As we gained experience both Indu and I started thinking 'publishing'.
The goal now was to make enough money to start our own publishing - which never happens we realized soon enough! So we just took the plunge. Without giving it too much thought we both retained the name Tulika for our respective publishing houses - Tulika Publishers in Chennai publishes children's books and Tulika Books in Delhi publishes academic books.
Moving back to Chennai gave me the impetus to start Tulika Publishers in 1996. An old friend and colleague Sandhya Rao (she was with us in Tulika, Delhi) joined me and in the first year we brought out three books, two of them bilingual (Line and Circle and Number Birds) in English and Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam. The third one was a Hindi alphabet book, Ka se Kapde Kaise.
When we showed the books to friends in the publishing world they were all most discouraging saying the books were far too expensive because they were so well produced! They were also sceptical about the bilingual concept. But both Sandhya and I were so convinced about what we were doing that there was no stopping us.
We started by doing books in English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam as we could handle these languages between us. In 2000, Pratham launched their Read India programme and wanted ten of our titles in four languages, three of them new. They wanted the ten titles in Hindi, Kannada, Marathi and Gujarati in three months! We jumped at the opportunity to add new languages.
A year later we added Telugu and two years later, Bangla. So now we do books in 9 languages - English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati and Bangla. It was not an easy decision and, from a business point of view then, perhaps foolish. It meant creating nine different markets for our books.
It would have been far easier financially, editorially and for production if we had stuck to just English and may be Hindi which had a good market. It has been a struggle but looking back I think we have, by going against accepted trends, overturned notions of what makes good publishing sense. And we have gone on to become trendsetters in children's publishing in many ways!
We are now at a stage when the business is driven by the books in the different languages and our multilingual books our strongest asset. Though we are still struggling to find the market for a couple of the languages we are keeping them alive by printing as few as 200 to 250 – print runs unheard of in publishing. But we are confident that books in these languages too will find a market soon.
We get a lot of inquiries from young people who have liked our books. Many of them have high pressure jobs in design or animation, or are students - but would like to do a children's book. They are doing this on the side, or have jobs already - it's not all about the money. We are always making these connections. They do not have ego problems that established artists can have, the work is fresh and unjaded.
Going after them is hard work, but our alternative distribution channels have proven to be a blessing - the NGOs, government programs. All children's literacy programs require books, but there is great paucity. We have tied up with several regional publishers like the Kerala Government's Kerala Balasahitya Institute. The print runs are big here, we get royalty on sales - and volumes make all the difference.
We have been trying ways to make work affordable and easily distributable to NGOs. Sometimes we do large prints on newsprint. Some work has been done with grants and sponsorship from corporate companies -like the four-part animals with photographs series supported by HSBC. (Riddle of the Ridley, addresses the threat to the survival of the Olive Ridley turtles that come to nest on the eastern coastline of India).
MULTILINGUAL PUBLISHING AND DISTRIBUTION
Publishing in so many languages has been a huge learning curve for us in every aspect. For children to be comfortable with reading in their own language they have to see it as equal in status to English books. They have to feel the same pride of ownership, find the same enjoyment from reading the books. The look and feel of the book draws children to books as much as the content. It's their right to get the best books in whatever language they read.
Distribution is the biggest challenge primarily because of the price factor. We have resisted doing cheaper language editions and have kept to the same quality of production as English and kept the same prices. We were clear from the beginning that if we privileged the English books with a higher quality of production we would be undermining the very purpose of doing books in so many languages.
It was always thrown at us that by pricing our books high we were making the books inaccessible to the majority of children. But we were not targeting those sections who could not afford to buy books to begin with. Our primary target was the English book-buying segment who visited bookstores and we saw no reason to subsidise costs for them.
Books are not cheap products anywhere in the world and the buyer has to pay the price for a good book just as she/he pays for a good meal. This of course brings up the unfairness of making good books inaccessible to a majority. The solution to that was finding alternative distribution channels, not under pricing books. Over the years we have built a network of alternative channels through NGOs, government agencies and regional co-publishing.
Our books are regularly bought in bulk for reading literacy programmes and the volumes enable us to offer substantial discounts. Today there are probably more Tulika titles in government school libraries than in private school ones.
THE MATTER OF PRICING
The strategy of the same pricing for all languages is paying off as bookstores are increasingly looking for books in other languages - the same bookstores that refused to keep them a few years ago. We are also selling more and more through our website which caters to the more informed and aware buyers who don't hesitate to pay the price for good books whatever the language. And many of them come to our site looking for good books in Indian languages.
ON WHAT COMES NEXT
Twelve years after we started, our books are seen as the best children's books in India and from India. Publishing in nine Indian languages has given us a unique understanding of the plural culture of the country, and this in turn is reflected in our books.
What has been most rewarding is that the same books that find their way to government school libraries in different languages have also won international acclaim and have been published in other countries. In short, the reach of the books is across the local, national and international, and cuts across linguistic, cultural and economic divides. And now they are crossing over into other media too. We will soon see the Aditi series of twelve books in animation - a first for Indian animation and Indian publishing. This year we have brought out audio versions of some of our Hindi books for the US market.
Apart from the core team of ten in Chennai we have a team of committed associates helping in the marketing and distribution of books in different parts of the country and abroad. Then there is our expanding network of authors, illustrators and translators from all over the world - from well-known names to talented young first-timers.
As for our publishing we will continue to explore and discover ways of creating a richly diverse range of books - contemporary, democratic and rooted in a multilingual, plural culture.