Kalachuvadu Publications, the house of a popular monthly by the same name, enjoys pride of place in the Tamil publishing scene. Kannan Sundaram, its publisher and a well-known figure in Tamil literary circles, recently won the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (the Knight of the Order of the Merit) from the French government for his contribution to the relationship between French and Indian publishing.
Launched in 1995, Kalachuvadu launched its first two books in 1996 and has since then published about 1,200 books in Tamil with a focus on literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and theater. The publication house lays special emphasis on writings from marginalized communities, women, and translations. A believer in high-quality work, it publishes ‘across genres’ to enable readers to get access to any kind of book and deliberately stays away from commercial publishing.
Talking to Indian Printer & Publisher on the sidelines of this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, Sundaram said, “They gave me what’s called the Knight of the Order of the Merit award, the highest civilian honor for non-French citizens. I have not actually been awarded yet because we could not find a common date that will work for the French consulate and myself. But it might happen soon.”
“It was given in recognition of Kalachuvadu’s work to improve the relationship between the French and Indian publishing sectors. I have been working with the French publishing industry for nearly 15 years now. We have brought up a significant number of translations and sold rights for Tamil writing to the French,” he says.
Sundaram has visited both the Paris Book Fair and the Jaipur Literature Festival four times. “I think it’s (Paris) a very interesting fair. Comparing the Paris and the Chennai book fairs, he said, “We get huge crowds at the Chennai Book Fair. It’s very successful. Partially because we do not have a well-developed distribution system here and readers have to visit the fair to find the books. In Paris, they have bookshops on every street. There are so many libraries. Yet the crowds still flock to the fair. There is this passion to get into one place, meet the writers, get signed copies, meet each other as readers – that’s very interesting about the Paris Book Fair,” he said.
Immersive presence in the Tamil book publishing
Kalachuvadu Publications participates in the Chennai Book Fair each year. Sundaram says, “The Chennai Book Fair is always a very energetic place. This time we added the Chennai government’s initiative, the Chennai International Book Fair, which was quite successful. We had publishers from many Indian languages and international languages. Seeing the interest this year, I think the numbers will go up next year.”
The Chennai Book Fair opens up a plethora of avenues for the publishing house. Kalachuvadu has established a strong presence in the translation sphere with books being translated into Tamil from all languages. The publishing house has translated directly from Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, Hindi, and Bangla and indirectly from Manipuri via English. Internationally, it has done about 30 languages – some of them directly, and some through bridge languages.
As reported by Indian Printer & Publisher in 2022, six regional publishers – New Horizon Media, Kannadhasan Pathippagam, The Write Publishing, Sixthsense Publications, Vanavil Puthakalayam, and Kalachuvadu Pathippagam – came together to form the Virtual Book Fair initiative. The first virtual edition on 14 January 2022 brought over 5,000 titles from 25 publishers to readers from Tamil Nadu. The project has been designed to build an all-India initiative where every publisher can showcase their titles without the fear of losing their distinctiveness in a cut-throat and chaotic digital world. The Virtual Book Fair website was formally launched by the state department of information and public relations on the 73rd Republic Day on 26 January 2022.
The digital initiative is intended to bridge the gap between the Tamil publishing market and the national and global book publishing industries. With many regional publishers ready to convert their books digitally to tide over the tough times, there have been detailed discussions between the publishers on moving online
Sundaram said, “We have been working on improving it. This Chennai International Book Fair is an important opportunity for us. The Virtual Book Fair team was at the Chennai Book Fair, looking after trade rights – which helped grow our reputation and credibility. We will step up our activities based on what we have gained in the last few years.”
Tamil book publishing at Covid crossroads
Like most of the print sector, the Tamil book publishing industry was severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first year, Kalachuvadu almost shut down publishing but remained active. Sundaram used that year to step up its online activities, upgrade its website, and streamline its operations.
“We have bounced back well. Since we didn’t publish at all for one year and published very little the next year, a lot of manuscripts piled up. This year, we published nearly double the number of books,” explained Sundaram. Kalachuvadu normally publishes around 60 books in a year but has already done around 100 in the last 12 months.
Growth of Tamil publishing
Sundaram has been a witness to major changes in the Tamil publishing industry since he ventured into it in 2005. “I think readership has increased. The interest of the youth in Tamil books has also gone up. Maybe 20 years ago, the readers would have been in their middle ages or above but now we have youngsters buying good books. The ‘bibliodiversity’ of Tamil industry has gone up – many small players publish in different focus areas. Many interest groups focus on Dalit writing or environment or poetry. There are reading clubs giving away awards to writers,” he observed.
“The number of book fairs has gone up. There are book fairs in almost every district of Tamil Nadu, as mandated by the state government. Every district has to organize a book fair, which means we have to simultaneously manage three events in three different towns. It is challenging yet interesting. The money flows directly from the readers to the publishers,” he said.
The Nagercoil-based Kalachuvadu Publishing runs a monthly magazine called Kalachuvadu – the gateway to the publishing house. It invites writers to send in their contributions. Selected works are published. “The magazine basically connects us to the writers, it’s the flagship product of the company,” Sundaram said.
The publishing major recently published a new novel by Perumal Murugan, an internationally sold author, and another by Salma, for whom it has sold Indian language and international rights. “These two novels have come up simultaneously. We have our work cut out for the future – to sell the rights for these two books,” Sundaram said.
Not following trends
Sundaram says he steers clear of publishing industry trends. “We publish what we think is very important. Just because a book in a particular trend sells this year, I do not try to come up with a title for the next year. That’s not how we work – we do not go by trends, we do not go by star authors, we do not go by hot topics. We go by the content of the book and try to promote it to the reader.” The focus is on establishing a good connection with the reader and winning their trust for the long term, he says.
Sundaram has 10 designers in India and abroad to work on the spectacular cover designs of Kalachuvadu Publications. “We provide them a brief of the book, send them a PDF copy if they can read the language or a brief in English. We ask them to send two-three cover samples and send back our feedback. We also get the opinion of the author,” he said, explaining the process of finalizing the book covers.
On diverse and inclusive content in the publishing industry, he said, “I don’t think there is much demand for such content because of the present intolerant atmosphere. I think a lot of self-censorship happens – publishers are very careful about what they publish. Writers have become very careful about what they write. Unless there is a free flow of thought and action, there will be no diversity in books.”
Kalachuvadu values reader feedback and is always keen to incorporate honest opinions to improve quality. “Every copy of my publication carries a note by the publisher, saying if the readers want to say something to the publisher or spot any mistake, they can write to us and we will respect the feedback. If they don’t like the copy, we will replace it,” concludes Sundaram on a positive note.