Speakeasy: Harry Potter,finacial wizard

The Casual Vacancy is out,formally signalling the end of the magical Harry Potter era.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Published:October 7, 2012 9:44 pm

The Casual Vacancy is out,formally signalling the end of the magical Harry Potter era.

The Casual Vacancy is out,formally signalling the end of the magical Harry Potter era. Behind the scenes,Potter also worked a lot of magic for Bloomsbury Publishing,bankrolling the search for quality writers like Michael Ondaatje and David Guterson which is the company’s core interest. And now,before he moves on,maybe he’s turned one last trick,helping to finance the expansion of Bloomsbury into India.

On an unseasonably muggy afternoon in Delhi,I,in the role of subtropical Muggle,met some of the company’s leading wizards to learn what game was afoot. They were sitting out owing to the popular British mania for warmth. I sweated it out grimly,in support of the storied but probably fake tradition of Indian hospitality. But a couple of things I learned made up for being stewed alive.

Apparently,the bush telegraph has been transmitting Chinese whispers. The authorised version of Harry Potter’s back story,vouched for by Wikipedia,is that Rowling was discovered by Bloomsbury founder Nigel Newton’s daughter Alice,then aged eight. A contrary version credits former Bloomsbury pillar Liz Calder’s editorial assistant with the discovery,presumably in the slush pile.

But Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was not a found object. Rowling was formally represented to Bloomsbury’s children’s fiction editor Barry Cunningham. “I took a copy of the printout home and flung it at Alice,and it entranced her,” said Newton. “So when we voted on the book,I mentioned that my daughter liked it. She influenced only one vote out of many.”

But that voting session would shape the future of Bloomsbury. Conceived in 1985 at a hot dog stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair,the company was positioned as a publisher of quality literature,a frighteningly risky business in which one profit-turner out of 10 titles published counts as good odds. (Tenuously related fact: Ladbrokes has been offering 1/10 on Jeet Thayil for the Booker.) Newton recalled that his company shouldered debts of £8 million on a turnover of £11 million.

Harry Potter ended the years of precarious living. With some surfboard marketing,including innovative ideas like editions in adult covers,Bloomsbury sold the series on the scale of iPhones to earn £70 million. “The essence of publishing is portfolio management,” said Newton,“and we made strategic investments with that money.” Harry Potter’s magic enabled the expansion of Bloomsbury’s academic and specialist lines and databases. The company acquired and developed valuable assets in drama (including the definitive Arden Shakespeare),fashion theory and ornithology. And incidentally,Bloomsbury developed the dictionary which powers Microsoft’s spellchecker.

The Potter windfall also helped to subsidise what Newton called “the volatile side of the business” — literary publishing. And though Bloomsbury is launching in India with the publication of Wisden,the heart of the enterprise is a literary list,to be developed by former Penguin India editor Diya Kar Hazra. “Literature will be the torchbearer,” confirmed Rajiv Beri,the Indian company’s MD and old Macmillan hand.

Interestingly,Bloomsbury’s entry can be a potential game-changer for literary writers in India. Transnational publishing houses have focused on the Indian market,offering no guarantees overseas. Indian literary writers have traditionally engaged agents overseas,been published first in the UK or US and then in India. Writers who relocate enjoy an unfair edge over those who stay home.

Bloomsbury can end the round-tripping. It was restructured last year to create global departments — cross-border horizontals instead of the conventional country verticals. Its editors teleconference globally. Offices overseas know of new talent and acquisitions in India almost in real time. “This will give writers in India greater reach,” said Alexandra Pringle,editor-in-chief. However,authors will remain identified with India. Bloomsbury’s first literary releases,Manil Suri’s City of Devi and William Dalrymple’s Return of a King,will be launched in India at least a month before they reach UK and US readers.

Publishing has become so commercial that it’s pleasantly startling to see a company retaining the old ethic,which followed the ear rather than the spreadsheet. “Everything is led by editors’ tastes,” said Pringle. “You can’t buy a book because you think it will sell. That never works. You buy a book because you love it. And then you sell it to everyone,including your own colleagues.” She recalled trying to push Bloomsbury to publish Eat,Pray,Love when her only ally was Chiki Sarkar,who now heads Penguin India. “Everyone thought we were mad,” she said. Indeed,you have to be a little mad to be a literary publisher. But if your risks are cushioned by a wizard,you can try and work some magic of your own.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

For all the latest News Archive News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results