About Writers Workshop

Glory be to Mahakala. It is now 2010. I am four score and two. Time for some home truths. Because writers workshop  has close to 3500 separate titles in its checklist (published over 50 years 1958-2008), there is a misconception that it is an Indian publishing leviathan. (No other publisher in India has that many titles on its list.) The truth is much less awesome. writers workshop has no office; it operates from my residence, from the living-room and a multi-purpose bedroom. It has no secretary; my “secretary” is a three-tiered Godrej filing cabinet. It has no editor, no “readers” to inspect, evaluate and OK typescripts; I do all three tasks.  It has no proofreader; I perform the nitty-gritty of deleting, accreting and correcting. It has no “assistant” to acknowledge or follow up letters; I do all that too. It has no typewriter; I reply in longhand. (From 2004, kowtowing to the hi-tech convenience, I sometimes seek help from my computer-savvy grand-daughter Shuktara to e-mail replies to insistent and urgent enquiries for WW information.) It has no retail or wholesale distribution “outlet”; there is only a cubby-hole of a kiosk at my residence (8 feet x 4 feet roughly), where a dedicated assistant attends to intermittent sales of WW books. This Lake Gardens kiosk opened in 1998, 40 years after WW’s inception. Footing found, it stays put.

How then has WW survived? Without plush foundations to back it, without advertisement, without large-hearted patrons? Initially, by the skin of our teeth (1958-1964). Then (1965-1990) by my visits to hard-currency El Dorados, specially the USA, UK and Australia on lecture assignments and visiting professorships on two dozen or so occasions, and pumping the shekels thus earned to keep alive a gasping ideal.

Alternative publishing is desperately needed wherever commercial publication rules. WW is not a professional publishing house. It does not print well-known names; it makes names known and well known, and then leaves them in the loving clutches of the so-called “free” market (which can be and is very cut-throat and very expensive). It is not sad, it is obnoxious, to plead, as publishers do, “I will not publish poetry because it does not sell.” Most English book-publishing today in boom-time India and outside is book-dumping. There is a nexus between high-profile PR-conscious book publishers, semi-literate booksellers, moribund public and state libraries, poorly informed and nepotistic underlings in charge of book-review pages and supplements of most national newspapers and magazines, and biased bulk purchases of near-worthless books by bureaucratic institutions set up — believe it or not! — to inform, educate and elevate the reading public. Wonders never cease.

I strongly believe that, instead of catering and pandering to existing lowest-common-denominator popular taste, a self-respecting writer should create a literary taste by which he or she may be enjoyed by discriminating readers.

Because WW goes in for serious creative writing, and because there is no satisfactory distribution network for such writing, the whole process is a cottage industry-style low-key entrepreneurship in the belief that small is not only beautiful but viable as well. Vanity and sponsored publishing? Yes, I am humanly vain about it and I do sponsor what I think is good writing. If any lover of literature will offer to subsidise, with no strings attached, striking new work by talented Indian poets, fiction-writers and belles-lettrists, please get in touch with me. The gesture will be acknowledged, appreciated, accepted, and implemented. Such Good Samaritan generosities, not market forces, are at the root of civilised and significant publishing the world over.  The Pharisees are neatly bypassed.

[P. Lal passed away on 3 November 2010]