A new publishing imprint, aimed at young readers, launched a few months ago. Called, rather charmingly, Duckbill, it is headed by two very well-regarded names in children’s lit, Anushka Ravishankar (formerly of Scholastic, and a prolific writer) and Sayoni Basu (also ex-Scholastic, and more recently, Amar Chitha Katha).
We emailed them some questions, and here’s what they had to say. (They answered jointly.)
Why Duckbill? (Why the name, yes, but also why another publishing company aimed at young readers?)
The name was decided in about three minutes during the course of a drive. We both like platypuses, and since a lot of children’s publishing houses have bird names, we thought the suggestion of a bird would be kind of fun. It also sounds silly and playful, which is pretty much how we would like to be.
Another publishing company largely because we were unemployable. And we like making books, and think we make good ones. Also, we have fairly strong opinions about the kind of books we like, and it is sometimes difficult to fit that in with a large company’s publishing mandate and commercial requirements.
Young readers because we both believe that there are not enough good books for children and young adults in India. And since the bulk of our collective experience was in children’s publishing, more pragmatically, that was the one space where people would give us money to do this!
Why is Duckbill an imprint under Westland?
It is not an imprint under Westland. It is an independent company, which is partly owned by Westland.
We are very happy to be working with Westland because they are also young and hungry, and we had been noticing that their books are present in many book-stores and seem to be selling rather impressive numbers.
Was Duckbill a gleam in your eyes first or did Westland come to you?
Duckbill was a steely glint of resolution in our eyes, but we were very aware of the fact that we needed to work with someone who had a strong sales and marketing network in place because we did not have the financial or other resources to set up a large sales team.
Serendipitously, Westland, at about the same time, was thinking of setting up a children’s list. And they got in touch with us to ask if we wanted to join them. No, we said, but, if you like you can be our partner. So it all worked out quite happily.
What are your plans, now that you’ve launched the imprint?
Find really good books, develop new authors, publish well, sell fantastically!
Who have you signed up? Have you commissioned any books?
We have signed up one seasoned children’s writer, Ranjit Lal. We have another one in the family, Anushka. We had a list of ten authors we wanted to sign up, and all of them have happily agreed to write for us, though this could take anywhere up to five years. So we wait patiently and optimistically.
We have also signed up a couple of new authors, and a couple of adult authors. Some of the authors we hope to publish in the near future include Mainak Dhar, Kanika Dhillon, Adil Jussawalla, amongst others.
We have commissioned several books.
You’ve both spent a fair amount of time in publishing. What would you say that you have to do differently with Duckbill?
In publishing, as in many other professions, if you are good at what you do, you get promoted and do admin and solve people problems.
So for us, the first and most different thing with Duckbill is that we are working on books, and that is the first and most important thing! It’s a great feeling.
In the large publishing houses where we have worked, the individual publishing decisions are subsumed by the company requirements in terms of number of titles to be published, genres. There is an over-riding publishing schedule which cannot be tampered with as one has certain revenue targets to meet. What this means is that many editors work under enormous pressure, and perhaps sometimes the individual book does not get the time it requires to be the best book it could be.
We want to give each book the time that it needs to be as good as it can get.
This not only means more copy-editing time, it means more time spent with the author in the writing of the book.
The second thing that we want to do is work on developing new talent. There are a bunch of excellent children’s authors in India who are now published by almost all the publishing houses. We need new talent, new voices. We are running a series of Duckbill Workshops to work with aspiring authors and hopefully find a few new ones. We had the first one in Delhi, and another in Mumbai, and we were really pleased and amazed at the very talented people who attended.
In terms of our books, Indian children’s books are yet to reach that kind of critical mass that adult publishing has reached, where you have a plethora of splendid book ranging from literary novels to thrillers, romances to detective novels. We want to create books which are exciting, different, and have stories and voices which people want to listen to, and to widen the kinds of stories being told. Too much of Indian children’s writing aims to educate the child, often through mythology, folk tale and improving stories with explicit morals. We want to shun all of that and focus on books that should just bring joy and laughter.
What is it with the animal kingdom names? Penguin, Ladybird, Puffin, more recntly, Aardvark, and now Duckbill.
Publishers as a race are modest retiring types these days. We realize that we are living off other people’s talent. So we no longer have the desire to name our companies BasuRavishankar for example.
Also, we are aware, from working extensively on books with pretentious titles which bombed, that it is not wise to have a grandiose name like The World’s Best Publishing House.
Since we destroy major amounts of trees, we feel the need to sound vaguely concerned about animals and birds.
Most importantly, very few readers even notice the names of the publishers, with the possible exception of Penguin, through sheer longevity and a good orange. So the name is a private joke for the people naming it
When will we see your first titles?
30th October [That's tomorrow] is when our first three titles are launched, all three in print and two also as e-books. After that, we will be publishing roughly every other month.