The Story of Stree-Samya

Abstract: What has primarily interested me in the thirty-five-odd years I have spent in publishing is participation in knowledge creation, and what ‘qualifies’ to be knowledge’. Scholarly, academic publishing does just that. I have also been concerned about trying to make a dent in the monopoly of the western world and its hegemony over knowledge creation. An independent publisher that would publish what was researched in India was something to be excited about. The women’s movement in India and the West, had turned the methodology of all disciplines on their heads and come up with new tools, new concepts that proclaimed that the ‘truths’ presented to the world that had subsumed women with men had been ‘less than half the picture’.1 When started out on my own, I had considerable experience in editorial and production, which were important aspects of publishing. What I did not realise was that there was an enormous lack too: no marketing experience, no idea of distribution, no experience of the business side at all. Taking a self-critical look, however compensated for over the years, this has remained a weakness.

Keywords: mother tongue, western publisher, small independent publisher, publisher of women, gender studies, women’s studies

I began my career in the USA where I worked in publishing for about 6 years in the 1970s in Boston, starting right at the bottom in a small social science publisher called Schenkman and Co, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass. I learnt many valuable skills there. Mr Schenkman had excellent scholarly contacts at Harvard University and at MIT, coupled with precarious finances, which meant that senior personnel often left for more secure jobs and the juniors, left holding the fort, willy-nilly learnt many skills that stood them well. After a year working full time, and then part time for another year, I moved on to more established companies like Little, Brown (now part of the Hachette conglomeration), where I was an editorial assistant in their medical books division, and later I became one of the three copyeditors in the trade division of Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, another huge corporation) in Boston. I returned to India in 1978 and got a job with Orient Longman (now Orient Black Swan) as its regional editor in Calcutta, which helped me to relate what I had learned in the West to Indian conditions. This was a useful foundation on which to base my first venture, called Mandira, which started by publishing bilingual children’s books and social science in 1984. It was entirely a one-woman show. The children’s books had the English text on the left hand side and the same copy in an Indian language – Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati – on the right. The series was intended to help non-resident Indian children learn their mother tongues and the production was of international standards. I was able to export the entire printruns, which was an advantage since I lacked access to effective distribution. For the other books, I rushed around the country, carrying stock, finding bookshops, trying to get payments and it was a hard and often unrewarding struggle but an important learning experience.

In 1986, at a conference organised by the International Association of Scholarly Publishers, 1 met Ramdas Bhatkal, who was head of Popular Prakashan of Mumbai, a very well-known publisher. Founded in 1926, they first had a string of bookshops all over Maharashtra, later developing publishing, and becoming a distinguished name in Marathi literature, medical and social science publishing; they published D. D. Kosambi, G. S. Ghurye and A. R. Desai. They were aware that there were major changes in the social sciences and that there was no point in continuing to publish old-fashioned social science. We believed there was an opportunity to publish original titles from India and try to make a dent in the dominance of the western publishers over the world’s knowledge system. At first I became Popular Prakashan’s distributor in the eastern region. This worked wholly inadequately as there was hardly any infrastructure. I thought it would all come to an end but instead we set up a partnership to publish called Bhatkal and Sen, founding an imprint called Stree that would publish gender studies in 1990, and later Samya, in 1996. We chose the name ‘Stree’ because it means ‘woman’ in many Indian languages. Like most ventures, the early years were both exciting and solitary, there was a part time sales person and we worked out of a small room in my flat. We moved to our present office on 31 October 1990.

Stree focused on gender studies. Because research is dominated and developed in the West, often with the labour of scholars from elsewhere, often known as ‘the South’, who find the North a more conducive environment and whose work is consequently made available to western publishers, South Asian publishers would often buy these rights for local editions or import the original books. How were we to make our way? We publish gender studies in. English and in Bangla, by women and men who may have written their books in India or abroad. We sell rights to foreign publishers and these books enter the foreign distribution circuit in the same way that imported books enter the distribution system in India. Along with other small independent publishers like Women Unlimited, Tulika Publishers (children’s books) and Tulika Books, Tara, Leftword, Seagull Books, Permanent Black, Social Science Press, we have contributed to higher standards in editing and production, on par with western publishers. Indeed the small independent publisher, as opposed to the larger multinational companies, has much higher editorial and production standards.

Stree focuses on the status of women in India, publishing on the workplace, whether organised or unorganised, paid or unpaid, class relations and political subjection, marriage and the family, and the impact of religion, culture and ideology. It also translates women’s contributions to literature and scholarship in the Indian languages into English and is particularly interested in memoirs written by women. It was perhaps the first publisher of women’s studies to consider a social science list that addressed caste seriously; indeed caste has been central to the choice of feminist texts, and it also led to the inauguration of the second imprint, Samya (‘equality’).

Among our titles are the translation from Marathi of the memoirs of Urmila Pawar, one of the foremost literary figures in Marathi, The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs who links her mother’s act of weaving baskets, aaydans, to her own ‘act of writing’; Women in Concert: An Anthology of Bengali Muslim Women’s Writings, 1904-38, edited by Shaheen Akhtar and Moushumi Bhowmik (a translation of the original Bengali anthology, Zenana Mehfil, also published by Stree in 1998); Her Story, Our Story and On the Swing: Short Stories and a Novella by Vibhavari Shirurkar, translated from the Marathi by Yashodhara Deshpande Maitra; and Gender, Food Security and Rural Livelihoods, edited by Maithreyi Krishnaraj; and Means of Awakening: Gender, Politics and Practice in Rural India by Sirpa Tenhunen. These titles give an idea of the range of our publishing. We have also tried to raise the complexities of Partition in eastern India; hitherto the focus in the popular imagination had been the Partition of the Punjab, and by publishing in English we have tried to give readers a glimpse into the very different experiences in the eastern region. The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, vols 1 and 2, lift the ‘veil of silence’ in English. These present through literature, interviews, surveys and documents an experience that was no less traumatic if less horrifically instantaneous than the fast-moving horror of the Punjab. It was more like an oozing wound that seemed not to heal than a one-time severance of a limb.

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Sometimes we are asked why we publish gender studies in Bangla, which is indeed ironical. Some fifty years ago, anyone who was educated was bilingual in her/his mother tongue and in English, the language of the British Empire in which proficiency was necessary for material advancement. Today, the picture has changed, with the elites of the metropolitan cities focusing on discourse in English, which cuts across regional and ethnic barriers and links them to the centres of power and wealth in the West. The elites of the smaller towns remain anchored in their mother tongues. Bangla is spoken by about 200 million people in West Bengal and Tripura and in the neighbouring state of Bangladesh. Thema, another publisher in Kolkata, publishes mainly in Bangla and has an enviably high quality list. Naya Udyog, a Kolkata publisher, and the women’s studies departments of Calcutta University and Jadavpur University also publish in Bangla, and two particularly distinguished publishers of women’s studies in Bangladesh are Sahitya Prakash and Nari Granthana Prabarthana. However, we seem to be the only publisher who does so systematically.

Most of the women’s studies’ titles are in the women’s writing area. We seem to be the only one tackling academic books in anthropology, history, and so on. We started with Sambuddha Chakrabarti’s Andare Antare: Unish Shatake Bangali Bhadramahila (The Bengali Bhadramahila in the Nineteenth Century), which discussed the emergence of the elite woman from the Brahmo and upper caste Hindu backgrounds. A landmark book, it has been the genesis of many theses and gets plagiarised (and also sparked our interest in the Bengali Muslim women’s writings). Among our well-known titles are Pinjare Bashiya (Inside the Cage) by Kalyani Dutta (1996, reprinted frequently), whose work on the women’s world of the inner quarters, the kitchen, the darker world of widows, provides an indictment of social abuses with deceptively gentle prose. A collection on folksongs and folklore of the region of Goalpara, Assam, published by its then 95-year-old author, Nihar Barua, Prantabashir jhuli: Goalparar Lokjeebon o Gan (Songs from the Margins) is a pioneering study of folk and oral culture. Shabda Naishader Chitra (Pictures in Words and Silence) is an anthology of the writings of the literary critic Priyambada Devi (1996) who wrote in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and was closely associated with Rabindranath Tagore and the art historian Okakura Kakuzo. A handbook on what to do about sexual harassment in the workplace, the translation of Indira Jaising’s book, Karmashetra Jouno Henasthar Mokabilaye Ain Byabaharer Nirdeshika, edited by Jasodhara Bagchi with Anindita Bhaduri, has been very useful for women. Pather Ingit: Nirbachito Samvad-Samayik Patre Banlai Meyer Samajbhavana 1927­67 by Sarmistha Dutta Gupta (The Way Ahead: The Political Writings of Bengali Women in Periodicals and a Newspaper 1927-87) points to women’s contribution to political discourse in journals they founded and ran and in the communist newspaper Swadhinata.

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Yet publishing in Bangla has been difficult to do because of the economics. In a trade that pitches itself around cheaply produced books, not much concerned with editorial or production quality, our books are too expensive. The market is primarily focused on textbooks and on creative writing. It has made distribution of our books difficult, our modest printrims and relative high prices work against us.

Samya took off by introducing Kancha Ilaiah’s work. Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Political Economy and Culture (1996), which became a political manifesto to the dalitbahujans, the alliance of OBCs and dalits, that the author suggested could transform India. It put the author on the literary map, he became a columnist for major English dailies like the Hindu, the Deccan Chronicle, the Hindustan Times, amongst others, wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly, Mainstream and so on. It has been translated, often without reference to copyright. In 2005, after the ninth reprint, the author did a revised edition and in an Afterword discussed the impact of the book on himself and on others. Since then he has gone on to publish God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism. (2000), and Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism (2004), which is a selection from his columns and which takes it title from the brahminical evaluation of the lesser productive cow in place of the black buffalo that symbolises hard work and productivity, the dignity of labour, and could be identified with the dalitbahujan. Established as a significant political commentator, the mainstream publishers have now signed him up and his two later books are being published by Sage and Pearson Education. Samya shall be publishing his novel. An important autobiography has been Joothan: A Dalit’s bfe by Omprakash Valmiki, translated by Arun Prabha Mukherjee which reveals how a dalit struggled to get an education and a profession in Musaffarnagar, UP. Readers are drawn into a world where cruelty and deprivation seem to be the only reality and they become aware of the complexities of caste oppression well before the defiant term was coined. It won the New India Foundation’s Best Book award in 2004. Samya is also publishing scholarly analysis by dalits and other so-called lower caste authors. Achuthan M. K. Kandyil’s Writing Indian History: A View from Below (2009) discusses the histories written by other scholars which have not been able to get away from their positioning as upper caste people. Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics by Ravikumar (2009), translated from the Tamil by Azhagarasan, is an irreverent collection of essays that provokes the reader to reconsider caste and Indian culture. A revised edition with an Afterward by established distinguished scholars, V. Geetha and S. V. Rajadurai, of their Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: From fyothee Thass to Periyar, remains the key text to understand the enormous social and political changes in Tamil Nadu wrought by the Self-Respect movement and the greater non-Brahmin movement from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the 1940s. Samya has also published the translated memoirs of Ashok Mitra, A Prattler’s Tale: Bengal, Marxism, Governance, that in the words of Prabhakara Motnahalli in the Economic and Political Weekly, offers ‘insights into the complex reality that is India, its pages animated by passion and a generous anger, wit and humour . . . also a bit of a tease’. Another novel is Hindu by Sharankumar Limbale, translated from the Marathi by Arun Prabha Mukherjee that focuses on a village where there is a dalit candidate for the sarpanch’s post, a political murder takes place and the polarisation between the OBCs and the dalits becomes more evident.

The main drawback to publishing is that distribution is sort of a medieval system. Although editorial, production, and printing, have all been modernised and take recourse to the latest technology, distribution remains where it was, in a cottage industry system within an industry that is trying hard to modernise. Books are not sold for ready cash, except to individuals. Distributors take it at a discount, and this is a high discount, at least 50 percent, and a lengthy credit period of 6 months, and at the end of this they can return the books to you unsold, maybe soiled, though you can try to enforce the reasonable rule of only taking back unsoiled books. Thus while a book is out with a distributor, you do not really know what the sales are till the 6 months are over. No money is coming in but you are paying bills for its production, royalties, and so forth. Large publishers with large numbers of books are at an advantage here. The distributor or retailer feels impelled to stock their books (regardless of quality) as their profit margins are higher. It is harder to find room in a bookshop if you are publishing less than hundred books a year. There are many well-known bookshops throughout the country that do not stock the high quality books brought out by the small independent publishers. For instance, in Mumbai we do not have a retail bookshop that will keep our books. If it weren’t for our agent, Salem Saboowalla, who loves alternative books and takes them round institutions and stocks them in his home for ordinary buyers, we would not have a presence in that city.

Getting the money for sold books is also a problem. After the 6 months’ credit period, a distributor does often tell you with impunity, ‘well, I don’t have the money now’. The retailers say they have sold the books I gave them but haven’t paid me. So then you are in a kind of helpless, pleading state, begging for money that you are owed, and the response is to pay in batches. If you have an exclusive arrangement with Orient Black Swan or Cambridge University Press, presumably this does not happen. One advantage about exclusive distribution like this is that you yourself do not hold your stock, you do not need sales personnel either, but you are dependent on the distributor.’ To get round the problem of being small with low volume of books, eight small independent publishers – Leftword, Navayana, Samksriti, Stree-Samya, Three Essays, Tulika Books, Tulika Publishers, Women Unlimited – have come together to found Independent Publishers Distribution Alternatives (IPDA), with its office in Delhi, and with personnel who cover all-India. This also distributes other publishers and after a slow gestation is poised for effective expansion.

Running a publishing company comes down to surviving. Permanent Black told me they do 25 books a year in history, politics, ecology, and they sell the foreign rights of most and their distribution is taken care of by Orient Black Swan. Women Unlimited does about 15 books a year, again sells the rights for at least 25 percent, tries to recover the costs of a book in the sales of one year, employs 5 people, with the distribution done primarily by IPDA., and has no sales person. Stree­Samya has 3 full timers including two peons, and two part timers, including an editorial person and the accountant. We publish about 8­10 titles a year and try to sell the rights of 25 percent. All of the publishers mentioned above, do distinguished books. But that has no bearing on survival. In the business world, time cannot make up for money, and to be under-capitalised is to be in trouble. Money is needed to drive the marketing and the sales networks, to provide advances to authors (which we have had to pay in a very limited way) and to expand the workforce. Side by side mainstream companies like Oxford University Press, Sage, Penguin, Pearson Education, Routledge, HarperCollins, have come in to publish in the same area, with greater financial might, greater distribution networks. Globalisation has strengthened these multinationals and many of our authors and others who would have thought of us once now want to publish with them. They do not want to wait for a foreign rights sale which then puts their book on par with a western book and within the same network. They can go to the foreigner in situ, or right here, so to speak. Routledge is the most powerful social science publisher in the world. How does one compete? They also find it easy to hire experienced staff. It will he hard for small presses to survive. In the West today huge conglomerates exist who now face a struggle in the economic downturn, very evident in the 2009 London Bookfair where the absence of many American firms was noticeable. Will a revival of small publishers take place? Or will they find the downturn to be more severe? There was never any security in alternative publishing anyway.


1 Taken from the media NGO of Mumbai. Point of View, that proclaimed in a poster that not listening to the point of view of women gave us ‘less than half the picture’.

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