Kannan Sundaram from Kalachuvadu discusses how he sparked the interest of Western publishing houses in Tamil literary works and what Tamil publishers should do to enter the global market
“Tamil has a rich and ancient literary tradition that spans over two thousand years. The earliest literature in Tamil dates back to Sangam poetry, around the 2nd century BCE, which includes anthologies of short lyrics compiled as Ettuthokai (eight anthologies) and longer poems collected as Pathuppaattu (ten idylls), both of which deal in depth and detail with many aspects of life such as love, war and social values…’
This concise introduction to Tamil literary history is part of a short five-paragraph note on Tamil, featured prominently in the catalog of translation rights of the popular and respected Kanyakumari-based Tamil publishing house, Kalachuvadu Publications .
Kannan Sundaram, Publisher and Managing Director of Kalachuvadu, explained that this introduction to Tamil language is intended for international publications, to draw their attention to the works published in Tamil and interest them enough to translate the books into their language.
A familiar face in Tamil publishing circles, Kannan was recently awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite by the French government for his contribution to editorial collaboration between India and France.
“Only we continue to brag about Tamil as if it were the first language in the world or a language spoken by many. But when I visit international book fairs, many Western publications don’t even recognize our language. They ignore the existence of such a language. So, to introduce the language to the global audience, we have prepared A Note on Tamilwhich provides fair facts without any exaggeration,” Kannan said.
Kannan, who is popularly known as “Kalachuvadu” Kannan in Tamil literary circles and in the publishing industry, also runs a monthly literary and cultural magazine, Kalachuvadu. Started by renowned writer Sundara Ramasamy (affectionately known as SuRa) in 1988 as a quarterly magazine, it was discontinued after nine issues in 1992. In 1994 the magazine was revived by his son Kannan. It became bimonthly in 2000 and monthly in 2003. In 2020, the magazine celebrated its silver jubilee.
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In an exclusive, free-wheeling conversation with The Federal, Kannan, who also won the 2018 “Publishing Next” Publisher of the Year award, spoke about how Kalachuvadu has been a game-changer in the Tamil publishing industry. Edited excerpts:
How did Kalachuvadu go from a literary magazine to a book publishing house?
The magazine was started by my father SuRa. He always respected and gave space to different ideas and ideologies. In turn, he also wanted his ideas to be widely disseminated to the masses. Unfortunately, by the 1990s most of his books were out of print or in short supply. So I created a book publishing house under the same name as the magazine in 1995.
Previously, you were in the clothing business, so how did you gain the confidence to start and run a publishing house in the deep south?
The decade we launched the publishing house was also when new economic policies began to shape our country. It also opened up new opportunities in the publishing industry. First, DTP (computer-aided publishing) had arrived at Nagercoil (located in Kanyakumari district) and we were able to design and print the books in the city itself. We didn’t have to travel to Chennai for this.
Second, the telecommunications revolution has started. After STD kiosks came cell phones and the internet, which made it easier to communicate with people. This encouraged us to organize “Tamil Ini 2000”, a Tamil conference to bring together speakers from all over the world.
These developments have made our physical presence redundant in the city. However, we had an office in Chennai just to sell our books, but that also closed during the pandemic. We could have gotten more traction if we had moved to the state capitol, but I personally felt it would have disrupted our focus. One would have expected us to conduct many meetings, media discussions, etc. We were able to escape all of this by working from Nagercoil.
What was the business model you had in mind when you entered the industry?
We have decided not to depend on government orders from libraries. We selected, published and sold the books to our readers — the public. At that time, many publishers claimed to consider publishing as a kind of service to society and literature. Publishing an author’s work was in itself considered a great service. Paying royalties to the author was rare in those days.
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We wanted to be professional. So we contracted with writers to acquire publishing and translation rights and paid a fair sum as a royalty. This earned us goodwill in the literary community. We also vigorously marketed our books, despite adverse reviews from various quarters as being very “business oriented”.
What is the rule of thumb you follow when selecting a book?
In one of his letters, SuRa expressed concern about the lack of craving for “rich content” in the Tamil publishing industry. Although Kalachuvadu was originally launched as a sirupathirikai (“mini-magazine”), we wanted to go beyond this term. So when we relaunched it in 1994, we provided space not only for literature but also for books on politics, social issues, the environment, and more.
We follow the concept of ‘biblio diversity’. Thus, we have a wide range of titles in various fields like economics, science, etc., and we do not reject any new subjects. The only thing we look for is that the content is readable. We are surrounded by intellectuals from different fields and we send content to peers before publishing a book. In this way, we have gained the trust of readers.
Before us, there were only a handful of publications that cared about book content and execution. For example, we will not publish any kind of doctoral thesis. Instead, we sit down with the author and work together to convert the thesis into readable text.
One of our first publications was the book Kirithavamum Saadhiyum, which was basically a story of caste conflict in a church. But we have spoken with the author, A Sivasubramanian, a renowned historian, and he has repackaged the thesis as a history of caste among Christians in Tamil Nadu. We put in the same kind of effort for every book we publish.
Diversity aside, Kalachuvadu is also on the receiving side at times…
I think you are referring to the Perumal Murugan incident. But it’s more recent. We faced such threats in 1995 even for publishing a short story in our magazine. Even then, we were at the writer’s side. Similarly, we have received brick hits when we have published books on the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils, Periyar, Marx, etc.
Kalachuvadu believes in freedom of expression. We see criticism against us as a springboard for growth. “Literature is nothing but life”, such was the philosophy of the time of Manikodi (one of the first literary magazines in Tamil). If the people who criticize have this understanding, there will be no attack on the writers.
Apart from publishing, you also organize writers’ workshops, send writers for cultural exchange programs abroad and lead writers in residency programs, participate in world-class book fairs, etc. How do these activities help you as a publisher?
I believe that pushing ourselves beyond just publishing books in this way is very necessary. There is a need to develop a vibrant book culture in the Tamil language. Unfortunately, we do not receive any type of support to develop the book culture in the state, either from the state or from the central government or from any large private institution. The reason for this is that people don’t perceive the publishing industry as an intellectual activity and just think of it as a business. This is why no government awards have been established at the national or state level to recognize the work of publishers.
But now in Tamil Nadu, the current arrangement is holding book fairs in every district and asking political officials to present books instead of shawls etc. Having a government that supports reading is welcome. I hope it will play a greater role in developing a distinct book culture in Tamil.
What lesson should Tamil publishers learn from overseas publishers?
First, they should stop repeating the rhetoric that books don’t sell. If a book hasn’t been sold, it’s partly the failure of the publisher, and the blame shouldn’t lie entirely with the writer.
Also, I don’t believe the oft-quoted claim that book readership is declining. Even we publish our books both as printed books and Kindle editions. But, a large portion of our readers still prefer printed books. Today, spending ₹100 or ₹200 for a book is not a big deal. The literacy rate is increasing. So who buys these printed books? Dying people or retirees? No, it’s young people.
Second, we have a very small number of publishers that publish titles exclusively in specialist areas like science, environment, movies, etc. The Tamil publishing industry should have more niche publishers.
Since you were made a Knight, how do you view French translations of Indian books?
The translation market is constantly growing in France and today reaches around 20 percent. In addition, the state supports publishers with subsidies to publish French translations. French publishers are now looking to diversify their list beyond French, Francophone and Western books and have opened a window of opportunity for Indian books to be translated into French. Unfortunately, few Indian publishers pursue this opportunity and the Indian state does not provide any translation grants to publishers to encourage the spread of Indian literature.