Thursday, July 07, 2005

Interview with Publisher of Penguin Canada

Interview with Mr. David Davidar, Publisher, Penguin Canada

Interview by Sharif Khan

Mr. David Davidar began his career in journalism and is founder of Penguin Books India. Currently, he is Publisher of Penguin Canada and also is author of the novel, The House of Blue Mangoes.

1. How did you first get started in the publishing business?

Twenty years ago I was working in Bombay and there was a colleague I knew who had done a publishing course at Harvard. And she said, “Why don’t you go there and check it out?” So I came to the States, and I did the course, and at the course was Peter Mayer, Chairman of Penguin world-wide. He said, “Look you’re from India?” (I said “yeah”). He said he was thinking of starting a company in India and asked me, “Would you like to run it?”

I was then twenty-six years old, I’d never done a publishing company in my life, I had little or no idea, but when you’re twenty-six years old sometimes you’re foolishly confident about your abilities, so I said “yes.” I went to Delhi where the office was going to be and I had never been there before, starting from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Delhi – and there was nothing there. There were exactly 3 employees in the first year of operations and they invested ten thousand US dollars in the company in 1986. And that was it…Now Penguin India is Asia’s largest English publishing company and has done over 10 million dollars in sales. It was quite an interesting experience and I had a ball! It kept growing and growing. It’s so fascinating…Now every multinational is in India. Penguin was the first.

2. What project are you particularly proud of as a publisher?

The fact of having created this company (Penguin India). We publish 200 books a year in India in the English language now. We’ve started publishing in 4 or 5 languages other than English (the first time Penguin has published in any other languages) and will be 25 years old in five years. Its just been a win-win situation because when we started, it coincided with the boom in Indians becoming global superstars like Vikram Seth, Arundathi Roy, and Upamanyu Chaterji, etc., etc., etc…The whole lot…so it is the #1 company by a long stretch and so that is my greatest pride because I started out as an editor but am now trying to develop companies and just the fact of helping create Penguin India has been enormously satisfying.

3. Can you tell us about the BUSINESS of publishing? (I think for most people it’s a mystery veiled in secrecy and delusions of grandeur).

There is the myth that if you write a novel you’ll become rich, famous, attractive to women, or whatever the case may be, but I think that’s largely a myth. Very few books break out in a way such as God of Small Things and A Suitable Boy did because its only 1% who get to superstardom because they won a big prize or it’s an amazing book and enough readers caught on to the fact. But think of the odds…There are about 100,000 books published every year. How on earth are you going to get each of those books to a reader’s attention! Let’s say you walk into a bookstore, you face the first novel that appears and you have no idea what it’s about. There is so much competing for your attention. Most novels sell only about 400 or 500 copies. If it’s a good seller it will sell 5000 copies if it won an award and got great reviews. It is only superstars that sell more and superstars are very few and every one knows who they are. The question we need to ask is why are there so few superstars? Why isn’t every writer published famous? There isn’t enough attention available for these writers. So that TV time, radio time, bookstore sales, all mitigate against every writer getting in.

Two or three industries suffer from the same thing, movie and TV, and music being closest to the book industry. Think of the tens of thousands of artists who’ve produced CDs and nobody’s heard of them, and nobody will hear of them because that is the way the system works. So what happens say if you’ve written a book and you approach a publisher? Well normally you approach the publishing house through a literary agent because they are the top filter, and a top agent comes to me and says this is a wonderful book…I’ll say I’ll read it. But if you approach me directly you probably won’t get through many of the sieves…there are assistants, there are people in the mailroom, and there are book manuscripts at the back because of overflow…everyone thinks they can write a book!

Finding a good agent is becoming increasingly tough because they too are inundated with manuscripts as well. The agent comes to us generating interest in a book and we have special editors, one specializes in Canadian writers; she says okay or no, I like it or don’t like it. The book is brought to a meeting where she says she wants to pay this kind of money. You have a price on this book say $35 dollars, so the author will get a percentage royalty on every book sold. For a 10% royalty you will get $3.5 dollars on every copy sold. So what we will do, is advance the author, through his or her agent x amount of money, say $35,000 dollars because we expect to sell 5,000 or 6,000 hardback and 10,000 copies in paperback, so we figure its worth about $35,000. So it’s not an outright gift…it’s an advance against royalties. Then hopefully the book is published and lives up to expectations and earns out and the response is we’re happy, the author is happy, and the agent is happy…but in 90% of the cases it doesn’t earn out the advance and so you’re in trouble. Of the 100 books published in Canada, I expect 20 books to support the rest.

4. Where do you see the Canadian publishing industry heading? How does it compare with what’s happening in the Indian publishing industry?

Canada has certain problems and certain advantages like many markets in the world. I’ll deal with the problem first. It’s a small market. It’s 35 million of which 5 million are French speakers, so you can’t do much with that size of market. Whereas America is 200 million plus, UK is over 60 million, Australia is really small, about 20 million. So tens of thousands of books are jostling for attention in this country. Plus you have the major superstore Indigo Chapters which controls over 50% of market, so if they don’t support a book it’s dead in the water. And there is immense pressure on them as well because there are so many books pouring in. So these are the problems people have to deal with including the fact that there are lots of writers, agents, lots of publishing houses, everyone competing for that elusive customer. Fortunately, Canadians read quite a lot, but they don’t read enough to make everyone prosperous. It is probably very difficult for a writer to break out in a major way unless you are someone like Yan Martel, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Margaret Attwood, etc., these are people already established and are stars because they’ve built up over period of time. Beyond that, it’s very tough to break through.

On the positive side, because of the way Canada has been encouraging immigration for the last 30 years, you have the whole world sitting here, and so Canada’s stories are quite fresh; whereas writing about one’s experiences living in Mississauga that’s where a lot of these books get bogged down because if your domestic experience is not interesting, how will you make your book interesting? Your life is interesting to friends, family, and about a 100 people who know you. That is were most first novels fail because they are so autobiographical, instead of trying to sell a story. Why would people want to read a book unless they’re interested in your life?

The interesting thing here is you have people from Somalia, Kosovo, Taiwan, India, and they’re all writing books about their own experiences and that’s what makes it interesting. So I think Canada has a great future about the stories its writers are starting to tell. And it is a very good domestic market for its size because per capita people read a lot more here than other countries.
I was once asked at the Canada Book Expo, where I was giving a presentation, what advice can I give aspiring writers. My reply is they should always take risks. There’s no point in writing a small, safe, book…it just disappears. Take risk! What do you have to lose? Stretch yourself, write a big, huge, ambitious book! And those are the books that always leave a mark because there’s so few around.

The Indian publishing scene in 20 years will be the second or third largest in the world overtaking Canada and Australia; I’m talking about English language publishing. I’ve heard there are about 300 million Indians using some form of English, so they’ve already taken over the US and UK, but for the publishing industry you need to use English as first language or frequently because otherwise you’re not going to go to the bookstore to buy a book. You might go to a street fair, but you’re not my market. That’s going to take a while. I think today there are 7 to 8 million Indians who use English effortlessly, so that’s about the size of New Zealand, but because you have next generation teenagers and young people learning English at the speed of light, they are going to join the market in another 5 to 10 years; this generation will continue to be the market, and there’s going to be bit of the previous generation also in the market, so from about 7 to 8 million India will go to 30 to 40 million in the space of 15 to 20 years which means it’s just going to explode. It’s already the fastest growing market in the world and it’s a huge market. Penguin India is fortunate, we came in the beginning so we got in on the ground floor; all we need is to reap the benefits of our earlier labor because this market is growing, while the Canadian market is pretty much static. However, it is growing through some immigration. That is why Canada needs to look out for itself constantly and build its strengths to the world if it’s going to keep its economy and lifestyle going.

5. Who are your heroes?

I started out with heroes and along the way you lose the need to have heroes. I greatly admire my mentor, Peter Mayer, former Chairman of Penguin, Sunny Mehta, who runs Knopf…I greatly admire writers like Vikram Seth, Arundathi Roy, Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry…but at some point in your life you stop having heroes. You figure everyone does their best, some people have luck on their side, some people have some advantages, but everyone’s a hero.

6. What makes them heroes in your mind?

They are exceptionally talented, and they have arrived…You know, I was reading a poem by Rudyard Kipling which goes, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run,yours is the Earth and everything that's in it…” Which means you do your best every single moment you can, and if you happen to have the talent as well, then you get to a stage where you are slightly set apart from your peers because you have done things that it is not possible for them to do.

So for example, you have great artists, like the South African writer Coetzee; they’ve written novels that’s not possible for average novelists to write because of their level of skill and level of perception. Why do you read a novel today? You have so many sources to choose from. The reason I think you read a novel today is because the greatest novels give you more truth than non-fiction. Non-fiction is information, non-fiction is argument…The Economist will give you insights, but what fiction gives you is insights into the human condition, the great fiction, not the hundred thousand novels that are published every year. There are very few books like Disgrace or A Suitable Boy or 100 Years of Solitude, my personal favorites, which raise the bar. If you can’t do that, why bother? So that’s why they are my heroes.

In terms of publishing, Sunny and Peter have pushed the boundaries of the publishing business and tried to innovate. Anyone who pushes the boundaries needs to be admired. Whether you are a business person, an athlete, or whatever, you need to push the boundaries instead of merely existing. Pearson, the company that owns Penguin, its vision is you need to be “Brave, Imaginative, and Decent.” Which are interesting words that carry a lot of meaning, and is what I look for in people. There’s lots of people that don’t get opportunities, lots of people face much competition, maybe their home situation isn’t so great, maybe their work situation isn’t so great, so their kind of stuck…but I think people make their own destiny don’t they? Yeah, I admire people, but if you ask me whether I have heroes today – probably not.

7. Do you have a dream or vision that guides the course of your life?

The thing about vision is it needs to be renewed every day. Because at the end of the day, what does a person want to do? You have a set path which clarifies itself as you go along. You have a set path – this is what I do, this is what I’m good at, and how can I use this to influence events and people within my ambit? And I think narrowly defined within my job description, my vision for Penguin India was to give India a world-class publishing company. I think that vision has been achieved. My vision of Penguin Canada is to make it the best company of its size anywhere in the world.

You only have one chance, make the best of it!

Sharif Khan is a professional writer, speaker, coach, and author of Psychology of the Hero Soul. He provides inspirational keynotes and leadership seminars and also helps companies develop empowering content through his copywriting services. To contact Sharif, visit or call (416) 417-1259.

Copyright © 2005, Diamond Mind Enterprises. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Post a Comment

<< Home