What Westland’s closure could mean for journalistic nonfiction writing

In 2016, when Amazon announced that it was acquiring the publishing business of Westland, CEO Gautam Padmanabhan had said that it was a great day for authors and readers across the globe – Amazon’s roots, after all, are in books.

More than five years later, on February 1, 2022, Padmanabhan broke the news of the company closing down its operations to its employees and authors, saying that this was a difficult decision, and Westland had been honored to publish the work it did.

The roots of Westland – to have a turnover of around Rs 30 crore and with imprints such as Context, Tranquebar, Eka and Red Panda – can be traced back to over 70 years. Previously known as EastWest Books, it made the shift from distribution to publishing in 2007 when it became a subsidiary of Tata’s Trent Limited. Amazon acquired it in 2017 and said it will help authors grow their physical and digital book business in India.

But its abrupt decision to shut operations, instead of trying to find a seller, has now left Westland employees and authors with questions that the tech giant does not seem to have clear answers to.

Almost immediately after the news spread, writers started receiving calls from other publishing houses to have them aboard. “The calls have started coming but a bunch of us want to wait and see what will happen at Westland, even if this means that our books won’t be published for a few months,” said an author who did not want to be named .

The author said the abruptness of the decision to close suggested that “they don’t understand how to exit a publishing house”.

The ostensible lack of a clear explanation behind the decision has led some to believe that it could be because of government pressure – the catalog of books published by Westland in recent years has stood out for writings that have been critical of the government.

However, an Amazon spokesperson, responding to newslaundry’s queries, said that it had made the “difficult decision” after “considering multiple options”. The spokesperson said that the decision was made after a “thorough” review of business, and that they were working closely with the employees, authors, agents, and distribution partners on this transition.

A Westland employee told newslaundry that internally, there was not much information about what was happening, and it’s “only Amazon who knows”. They said that it came as a surprise for everyone when they were informed on Tuesday and internally they were figuring out what could happen.

“Publishing is built on relationships and books happen because of them. There is damage to the ecosystem when you shut down a publication; it shrinks, ”said Nisha Susan, who published her book by her, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook and Other Storieswith Westland while also translating KR Meera’s Qabar for the same publishing house. “Even if you have a proposal, editor and publisher, if you change the publisher, the same book will be a very different book.”

While some authors got a call from editors in the company who broke the news to them and promised that their book would reach safe hands, they were all officially informed via an email on February 1 that Westland will be closing its operations on March 31. All rights to their work, currently contractually owned by Westland, would revert to them on April 1, except in the event that Westland is acquired by a third party. Sales for some books would end by February 28 while for the newer books, it would end on March 31.

Westland’s titles over the last few years have included The Silent Coupe by Josy Joseph, lady doctors by Kavita Rao, Despite The State by M Rajshekhar, Midnight’s Borders by Suchitra Vijayan, Whole Numbers And Half Truths by Rukmini S, Bombay Balchao by Jane Borges, Sebastian And Sons by TM Krishna, and The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin by Manu Pillai, among others.

“Westland seems to have published writers who are writing material that the government doesn’t want to put out – whether or not they did this consciously as a strategy, I don’t know,” said Aakar Patel, whose book Price Of The Modi Years was published last year.

Patel said he was surprised in the last few months to see how wide their roster for non-fiction books was, and how well they had done. “The market in India is very small; even a bestseller doesn’t mean much and reprints are usually quite limited.”

growing losses

It should be noted that Westland has, in the recent past, published titles by authors with BJP affiliations, such as Ram Madhav and Smriti Irani.

Importantly, the publishing house reported losses over the past five years, : a loss of Rs 2.3 crore in 2017, Rs 14.7 crore in 2018, Rs 46.3 crore in 2019, Rs 33.8 crore in 2020, and Rs 19.2 crore in 2021. Its revenues, meanwhile, amounted to Rs. 31 crore in 2020 and Rs 25 crore in 2021.

Literary agent Kanishka Gupta, who shares more than 60 clients with Westland, corroborated that the publishing house’s losses had been growing.

“It’s about the money: losses, profitability, and returns,” he said. “They paid huge money to some very big authors and advances are never justifiable. But you also cannot expect a homegrown publishing house without a backlist or export titles and big agencies to turn profitable in four to five years.”

India does have a nonfiction market that’s “growing exponentially”, Gupta added. “It is the only thing selling, besides legacy fiction or best-selling titles. Literary fiction is not selling that much.”

Since the announcement of Westland’s closure, Gupta has received multiple calls from publishers seeking to pick up titles from the publishing house’s backlist. “But it’ll be picking and choosing from them,” he said. “I’m worried about the actual books, poetry books, and smaller books. Mid-listers will be impacted If Westland does shut down; most of the big names or sensational subjects will get picked up.”

As for whether he saw this coming, Gupta said he had noticed that Westland had not been accepting new submissions.

“They said they were focusing on publishing books, edits, and the publishing schedules, and that they were reevaluating the shape of the list as they had too many books in the pipeline,” he said. “But I’m fairly certain most of the editors were in the dark too; they were probably told to go slow in acquisitions, especially because these were Covid times. Amazon did this in a very bad way.”

Josy Joseph, whose book The Silent Coupe was published by Westland last year, said he believed there was enough readership in India for journalistic nonfiction but that “global corporations in pursuit of profit in India would not be the guardians of freedom of expression and spaces of dissent”.

“What I’d speculate is that this is not fitting into Amazon’s model of business which aims for huge scale…Besides, having something like Westland, especially Context, is creating future trouble for the government,” he said. “I’d assume Amazon is getting rid of the potential troubles. I’m not in a hurry to move to a new publisher as in an ideal world, Context survives and continues to be a voice for fiercely independent and critical voices that can analyze and write about the illiberal democracy that India has become.”

An author who published with Westland, and did not wish to be named, said, “There are very few truly professional and nice – an underrated trait in organizations – publishing houses in India…” Bringing up Westland’s publisher, Karthika VK, the author said she “did a very good job of using her position to push what she considered were good books. This is public interest publishing in a very good way.”

Nilanjana Roy, who was part of the team that set up Westland’s publishing venture in 2007, said the company’s identity only came in when Karthika joined five years ago.

“A lot of, not just intellectual life of the country, but the sense of lively arguments and reporting, is not possible to do in shorter forms. This finds a home in publishing houses,” said Roy. “When something like Westland closes down, books will get scattered and may find a home in other publishing houses…but there’s something to be said about them being visible as part of one imprint and publishing house. There’s a kind of history and lineage being built up, and while the publisher might create it, I would suggest it’s something that readers own, collectively. For readers, your books get scattered. And as an author, you feel homeless.”

Authors who have had their books published a few years ago or in the last two months, and those who are set to be published within the next few months will be the most affected. Roy’s upcoming book blackriver was to be published by Westland at the end of summer, and rights will return to her on March 31 if an acquisition does not happen. But since the situation is still evolving, she said she will not rush to find a new publisher right now but wait to see what happens.

“Amazon has never been much of a friend to the book business, but it is still unusual to have a publishing house just shut down or close. Typically, one would expect them to look for a buyer, but if they haven’t, Westland can do so,” she said, echoing the hopes that several authors harbor.

Meanwhile, as many took to social media to lament the loss of a homegrown publishing house, several of them, including independent bookstores, used the medium to encourage readers to make their purchases before the books stop printing.

Ashoka University library, for instance, decided to purchase 119 literature titles from Westland Books. Saikat Majumdar, head of the creative writing department, told newslaundry that the idea was to “help reach succeeding generations of students and get them talked about in classrooms and publications in the years to come”.

“In fiction and poetry, both in English and translation, many of these books in the Westland catalog aren’t necessarily big sellers, but are instances of fine, sensitive writing,” he said. “This news is especially disastrous for new, emerging and ‘midlist’ writers – those who are not necessarily in the big news (who will find other publishers easily), but who have something important and valuable to say nonetheless.”

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