Saturday, October 26, 2013

Interview with Radhika Menon

Taking the possibility of 'bridging the gap between knowledge and imagination' to the next level, Radhika Menon, along with a dear friend Sandhya Rao set up Tulika in the year 1996. Since then there's been no looking back. Tulika has grown from strength to strength in terms of its commitment to provide quality content both textually and visually to young readers. With wide range of multilingual books coming out with Tulika's trademark insignia, Tulika has indeed become a trendsetter in children's publishing space. Radhika Menon  is a hands-on publisher, deeply involved in the editing, visualising, designing and marketing of the books.
We are pleased to be sharing her views on various aspects related to children's literature and publishing.

What is the objective of Tulika Books? How do you see yourself working towards that objective?

To create books that convey an ‘Indianness’ that is contemporary and inclusive, reflecting a diverse and plural culture in every respect. This may sound highfalutin when you are talking about a picture book with a few words and pictures. But children’s books have always mirrored a culture and children reading them grow up with a sense of self, embedded in that culture. These early images that come to us through books we read as children stay with us well into our adult lives. To make such books enjoyable and engaging in nine languages is the challenge we have taken on.

What is the criteria of Tulika books in terms of selecting the subjects/authors/illustrators for their books?

The criteria are really tied to the objective I have stated above – we select book ideas and manuscripts that open up possibilities to create the kind of books we believe in. There is no agenda that we look for of being overtly cultural, historical and so on. It is often a location, name or names of characters, relationships, sometimes a storyline that sparks off a book. When it comes to picture books, very often it is also the possibilities illustrations can offer – setting the story strongly in a visual context or sometimes even giving the context to a story, subverting stereotypes or just reflecting a reality which we tend to we keep away from children’s books.

We do fewer books of fiction for older children as there are a lot of publishing houses who are doing short novels for younger and older children. When we do we look for manuscripts for this category, it is for those that have strong literary appeal, or for translated work, or for a strong theme which doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of typical young peoples’ fiction. Imaginative non-fiction is something we look for but we hardly ever get such manuscripts.

What are the major roadblocks that you confront in publishing children's books in India?

As all publishers will tell you - marketing and distribution. We don’t supply the large, chain bookstores because they don’t pay up; but not doing so does affect the visibility of our books. Even now, after 16 years, there are people who haven’t heard of Tulika and when they have heard of us, they don’t know where to buy our books. The online space is making books accessible only to a certain section of the people. With books in nine languages getting the books to the target group becomes a big challenge.

What has been a significant leg up to publishers like us is government organisations like the CBSE and NCERT making an effort to select books by appointing expert groups, putting the list online and circulating it to schools. Suddenly, not just schools, but the booksellers who specialise in school supplies, are ordering books and paying for them. Anyone in this business will tell you what a giant leap that is for publishers!

And then there are the problems within the publishing industry itself – of not having enough professionalism and training. The talent is there, whether it is in writing, illustrating, editing, designing or translating, but there is a woeful lack of professionalism. In part, this comes from the notion that children’s books are simple and do not require much effort.

Because children’s publishing is growing so fast, there is a big demand for talent in all these areas and the publishing process itself is fast-tracked. This makes the learning or nurturing of skills difficult. Suddenly beginners consider themselves experts, and the online space contributes to this feeling of instant success. I sense an impatience with publishing houses like ours, which are seen as demanding. But I am optimistic and I think this is a transitional period and more and more talent will emerge, which will give Indian children’s publishing a distinctive edge. It is still a young industry.

 What are the steps that you plan to take to extend the reach of Tulika to all parts of the country and then worldwide?

The online space is the most accessible space for all publishers. But the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when it comes to books, so it is not just a question of uploading on our website and blogging, tweeting, and putting the books on Facebook etc. There has to be a focused strategy for each book so that it doesn’t get lost in the online clutter – which is why you hear of the success stories of authors selling their own books online. Online selling needs much more work and is resource intensive, though it has many advantages. In a country like ours, online and traditional distribution have to go side by side for books to reach the vast readership. Online selling can work very well for niche marketing.

How can budding authors/illustrators submit their creative work to Tulika for consideration? How open is Tulika for new talent?

We have submission guidelines on our website. We are always open to new talent. In fact of the 200 authors and almost 150 illustrators we have worked with more than 50% are first time writers and illustrators.

What are the ingredients that make the perfect recipe for great children's literature?

Good writing, imaginative illustrations, good editing, good design and good production. When they come together you have a good book. When books focus on just one aspect they do fall short. Great visuals but uninspired writing, great writing but unimaginative illustrations, great text and visuals but bad design, or just well-produced and packaged books with weak content – all this takes away from a good children’s book.

What do you think are the aspects on which more attention needs to be given in kidlit space?

Training and nurturing talent in all aspects of children’s publishing is what is most needed.

How do you see Tulika evolving in the next 5-10 years?

We want to continue to publish a diverse range of books, explore new genres and new ideas, and discover new talent. We want to continue finding sustainable ways of getting the books in the different languages to their target audience. And we want to explore ways of using the digital medium creatively in the different languages we publish in and make the content accessible to a wide cross-section of children.

Which are the other publishers that are doing commendable job in children's literature?

There are the older publishing houses like Eklavya, Katha and Tara who continue to bring out good picture books. Books by Karadi Tales, Puffin and Pratham have made a big impactNova (YA imprint of Scholastic),  Hachette and Young Zubaan publish some very good books for older children. New entrants like Duckbill and Red Turtle (the children’s imprint of Rupa) are already making their mark with experienced editors at their helm.

What are the exciting things that are happening in Indian children's literature?

The fact that the national school boards are creating a transparent process for selecting good books gives us the hope that it will eventually root out the corruption in the system. The significance of this is not just confined to selling more books. It also creates an awareness among all the stakeholders – teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers and bookstores – of the good children’s books available. And it is a reality check for publishers about the kinds of books they are publishing. 


Choxbox said...

Nodding head as I read this!

sandhya said...

Enjoyed reading this interview, Vibha - very informative. Thank you.

Praba Ram said...

Thank you Radhika and Vibha for this lovely exchange.

It is indeed a great thing that the government boards in education are now involved in selecting and circulating children's books to schools. I was quite excited to mention the same thing at the conference last month in Goa- as to how meaningful it is for writers too to be able to reach out to schools through this initiative.

And then there's also the absence of interactive sessions like "meet-n-greet" type workshops with authors in school settings. Wish more schools would open their minds (& wallets!:)) to tap into external reading/writing resources through publishers like Tulika.

Good luck to you guys and keep up the great work you are doing -salute your team for doing books that "subvert stereotypes, reflect realities..." I'm sure our readers appreciate the fact that there's someone in the publishing field who truly cares for our children. And that's a precious thing! :)


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