#InsideEdge is a series of interviews with publishing professionals in India.
Here, we speak to Samantak Bhadra, Marketing Head at Amaryllis, the English imprint of Manjul Publishing House. Excerpts:
You have quite an impressive resume. What has your journey been, from writer and poet to head of marketing and promotions at Amaryllis? How did you come to publishing?
Samantak Bhadra: Thank you so much! My journey has been pretty erratic but it has been a colourful roller coaster ride.
I was introduced to the wonderful feeling of seeing my name in print when I joined a periodical (part of the ABP Group) in Kolkata in 2001 as a student journalist. That feeling stayed and grew into a forest over the course of seven memorable years with the periodical.
Soon after, I started two companies in the legal and medical sectors and, after they failed, I moved to Bangalore to work in the IT sector in 2011.
Over the next two and a half years, I used to come back home hurriedly in the late hours of the evening and write, write and write some more. It was a highly productive phase as far as writing and publishing poetry and book reviews were concerned. Slowly and surely I came to realize how much of a Shangri-La the heady world of literature and the act of writing had been and how it was not going to evaporate any time soon (or later).
I got my MBA in 2016 and after spending a couple of years as a sales and marketing manager in the lifestyle retail and the social sectors, I decided it was time to take a plunge into the publishing.
I do not know any peers who moved from the usual FMCG, banking and other lucrative sectors to a space not known for being a money churner. However, I could not help but throw caution to the winds. You may call it an itch that had persisted for a long time. I reached out to a gem of a person in the industry who is an acclaimed writer and editor herself and someone I look up to. She connected me with Manjul Publishing House and here I am.
How have your own experiences as a writer/poet helped you at Amaryllis? What does your job profile include?
Samantak Bhadra: The job at Amaryllis is a perfect harmony of two loves of mine – literature and marketing. I love the creativity and freshness that good marketing is able to deliver and this job requires me to ponder on and create innovative, creative and better ways of reaching out to our audiences and book lovers through various kinds of online and offline channels.
Each channel has its own personality, be it Instagram or be it print media or a book reading event. We have to create tailor-made marketing and sales strategies for each of the channels and ensure their execution, coordination with colleagues in Bhopal and Delhi.
There are generic marketing campaigns and then there are title-specific marketing plans which focus on the nature, genre and topic of the book. As a team, we work on both kinds in parallel.
We also work closely with Harper Collins who are our partner distributors in the Indian subcontinent.
Being a writer first has helped me to understand our target audiences, our authors and the books themselves a lot better as I feel I can associate with a reader and a writer as humans and not simply as a statistic in a presentation.
Is it true that there is no money in publishing and professionals don’t have a monetarily successful future?
Samantak Bhadra: Like all myths, I do not think this has a clear and definite answer. It is a fact that publishing as an industry is not as lucrative as other sectors and the pay may not match up to what one would get for a similar role in, say, FMCG or the automobile sector.
However, the sky is the limit when it comes to defining a ‘monetarily successful future’. Most folks in publishing love what they do. Money is absolutely important but it is not the only reason why we stick around.
Publishing as a space has the capacity of providing you a decent to good income if you give it the time, effort and respect it deserves – an income that would help you live happily and heartily although you may not be able to afford the penthouse in a swanky part of town.
Do you have to sometimes make decisions that are against your creative sensibilities?
Samantak Bhadra: Haha that’s a good one! You’re putting me in a spot by saying that. Seriously speaking though, there are debates that I have with myself once in a while that stems from a direct clash between what’s required from me as a marketing guy in the publishing world and the writer in me.
At the end of the day, the job and the responsibility vested upon me takes precedence. The marketing plan needs to ensure that its fresh, engages the relevant target audience in a genuine and meaningful manner and results in sales.
At the end of the day, because I love reading and writing, everything I do as a marketer of books and authors results in an immense sense of fulfillment. As far as the artist in me is concerned, I take time out at night to read and write. I feel focused and peaceful at ungodly hours when the world is asleep and when I know phone calls or messages are not going to knock on my door.
How would you describe the current state of Indian publishing? (Both before and during lockdown) Several publishing houses are seeing profits rise on the back of digital sales too, have you seen that?
Samantak Bhadra: Indian publishing is booming for sure. There have been ups and downs particular to the industry and it’s been like that forever. However, there are more indie and experimental publishers out there today than was the case a decade or two back.
There are mainstream publishers, publishers specializing in translation and publishers focused on specific genres like poetry, politics and self-help among others. More and more voices from the margins are being supported, represented, publicized and translated. There are more options out there for audio and ebooks too.
Publishing, as a sector, has also become quite nimble by expertly staying up with the times and tapping into new-age channels like Instagram and podcasting.
We have seen an uptick in digital sales, however, the rise has not been markedly steep for us and for the sector as a whole.
What are some of the upcoming strategies, events for Amaryllis?
Samantak Bhadra: The world has gone digital in these uncertain times. We have adapted accordingly. We recently concluded two first-of-its-kind events – a full-blown online literature festival with the likes of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Devdutt Pattanaik, Rajiv Malhotra, Allan and Barbara Pease among others along with a festival bookstore too. That was quickly followed up by a week long shayari festival where the guests included the likes of Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi.
We are currently planning to conduct more innovative and engaging online offerings for Amaryllis followers and for book lovers across the country. At the same time, we have initiated sales activations of our ebooks where they are now available on customized Amazon brand stores at highly attractive prices.
Are there good books on the business or publishing which you have read and may want to recommend our readers?
I cannot recall a specific book as such. However, I would surely recommend Word By Word by Kory Stamper, which although not strictly about the publishing industry, is a brilliant book that delves into the world of lexicography and shows us, often in hilarious ways, how a dictionary gets made in the annals of the Merriam Webster office (and, in extension, in the word of dictionary makers). A highly recommended read!
What are the kind of books and the kind of poetry you like to read? Which is your favourite Amaryllis publication?
Samantak Bhadra: My favourite Amaryllis publication is Insider Outsider which is a brilliant collection of essays, stories and poetry by writers who have lived or currently live in the North East. First person incisive, passionate and intimate accounts that help you learn about and truly connect with a much-neglected region.
I love reading literary fiction, political non-fiction and all kinds of poetry. Within poetry, I love delving into Indian English poetry as there is such a wealth of writing in this subgenre over the course of the twentieth century.
Paradoxically, most book lovers (and even poetry lovers) are blissfully unaware about this treasure chest that’s hidden in plain sight. Also, Indian English poetry has always been the rebellious child in the family, never being accepted by the Western canon and shunned away as sellouts by regional poets. I, as a person, associate with that feeling, I guess.
What are the challenges in promoting Indian English titles you face, both in the country and abroad?
Samantak Bhadra: I guess the biggest challenge is that the target audiences automatically assume that the book is not well written and that a book by a foreign author is a safer bet for their buck.
However, thankfully, that perception is getting eroded fast. In the country, the literary ecosystem needs to market good literary fiction and incisive non-fiction by first-time and not-so-well-known authors as voraciously as we market more commercial genres by lesser known authors. The former needs to be as visible and celebrated as the latter.
Famous Indian English authors do well abroad. The problem is with well-written books by the lesser known authors. In this space, I believe more conversations are required between independent publishers in this country and abroad. We need to reach out to more and more publishers in countries like the USA, England and Australia, for example.
Who are your favourite Indian authors?
Samantak Bhadra: Vikram Seth, Pico Iyer, Jeet Thayil, AG Noorani, Akhil Katyal, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Keki Daruwalla, Gopal Honnalgere among others.