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One of the Coolest Publishers in the World

I first met Urvashi Butalia at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair back some years ago, and was immediately wowed. There are few people in the world as intelligent, out-spoken, sharp, and charming as Urvashi. And her publishing house, Zubaan Books, is incredible.

Since that time, I’ve hung out with Urvashi in London, Salzberg, and Sharjah, where she called me out on a panel for being too “Euro-centric” and not talking about countries outside of the U.S. and UK where books are written, published, and sold in English. (She was right; I was shamed.)

Anyway, I was really pleased to come across this interview with Urvashi about “how her publishing project and feminist ideology have evolved” over the past ten years. Here are a few excerpts:

How have your concerns as a publisher changed over these years?

Zubaan has broadened its base, focused more keenly on translation, and on finding a younger profile of writers. As a publisher, I have been especially concerned with the issue of copyright. Although I believe copyright is important, I also see the point of people wanting free access to knowledge. I feel that publishers, especially those who are not in the business for the commerce but for political reasons, are obliged to think about how we can take this forward.

In my own role as a publisher, I am thinking of a mix of copyrighted books and creative commons, of bookstores and books for differently-abled people. We must start making audio books, for instance. As I grow older, I realize the need for books with large print. At some stage, we were keen to do books for new literates. We still haven’t given up on that.

To what extent has feminist publishing been able to address the lived realities of women at a pan-Indian level?

I am aware that by publishing in English, from Delhi, we are constrained by class, language, location, and so on. But we have made a conscious effort to bring in the voices of marginalized women. We also work with publishers of other languages. In 1989, we did a book called Shareer ki Jankari (About the Body), about women’s bodies, written by 75 women from the villages of Rajasthan who did not have the wherewithal to print it—the kind of project that feminist publishers dream of.

When these women came to us with the book, they imposed only one condition: that we would not sell it for profit. We started with a print run of 2,000, but before the copies had arrived from the printers, the women had canvassed in villages and presold 1,800 copies. Over the years, we have sold some 70,000 odd copies.

And, the most poignant quote in the whole piece:

There is also a real fear as to whether small publishing is going to be eaten up by the biggies. It’s always been my dream to prove that feminist publishing can survive, its politics intact, in the commercial marketplace. I used to be completely convinced of this, but now I am not so sure.

Again, here’s a link to Zubaan’s fiction list for those of you interested in reading some great works from Indian women writers.



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