22 Sep 2017
6 min read
A common passion for creating change brought together two friends from different backgrounds--leading to the birth of Fine Print (FP). Founded in 2005 by Ajit Baral and Niraj Bhari, FP is today regarded as one of Nepal's finest publishing houses. The duo are constantly seeking new voices and have consistently published established, critically acclaimed authors. From Amar Neupane's Seto Dharti (which bagged the Madan Puraskar), Buddhisagar's Karnali Blues and Phirphire, and Subin Bhattarai's Summer Love to Madan Krishna Shrestha's memoir, Mahako Ma, FP has scored many firsts. In this interview with VMAG's Alok Thapa, FP's founders share the secrets of their success: their self-confidence, strength and belief in each other.
How much time do you have to read for pleasure?
Ajit: My job entails a lot of manuscript-reading, editing and working with authors. So I always try and carve out time for reading works that aren't related to work. Reading helps me recalibrate myself and keep my perspective healthy. I try to read works that don't have anything to do with what I'm working on. But reading raw manuscripts has its own charm; you get to be a part of the evolution of a story. And when you do stumble across nuanced writing, it's like striking gold.
Niraj: Ajit is passionate about polishing manuscripts and getting them ready for public consumption. I, however, live off the challenge of packaging the final product, designing the book jacket and taking care of the management side of things. I must say, though, that I don't get too much time to indulge in my reading habit.
What was the idea behind starting a publishing house?
Ajit: No matter whom you're catering to, all business persons require passion to keep their businesses alive. We started FP because of our passion for reading; the business aspect of it came later. I was looking to publish my father's work, but because established publishers at the time were quoting unreasonably high prices, we decided to start our own publishing house and take it from there.
Niraj: Since my schooldays, I always liked the process of creating and designing magazine and album covers. I come from a business background, but rather than pursuing the family business, I always wanted to start my own venture--and that idea came to fruition when I met Ajit. Whenever I used to flip through imported books, I used to think, "Why can't we publish books that meet international standards?" We wanted to challenge ourselves to meet such standards; we took into account the weight of various papers and the cover design: we've been such sticklers for quality that we've once had to dump 10,000 copies. The other main reason behind FP's establishment was to encourage more Nepalis to read and establish a reading culture here.
What kinds of challenges did you face along the way?
Ajit: Now that I look back, I realise that it was a very rash decision to invest our savings into this venture and start out without a prior plan or marketing strategy. We started with just Rs 250,000, which wasn't enough to publish a book, let alone start a publishing house. I'll never forget the risk Niraj took by putting his own property on the line to acquire a loan for FP. I don't think I would've been able to put my own security and comfort at risk like he did, that too without telling your partner about it. I think the challenges we've overcome over the years have only brought us closer.
What do you like best about working with authors?
Ajit: I relish everything about it. I really do. Even though I've been writing and editing for quite some time now, I think every project teaches me a lot about my own skills as a writer. While working on a manuscript, I sometimes run into problems to do with a story's character, or there is a lull in the action, and it's amazing how such hurdles can be crossed when I collaborate with an author. I might think that I have the perfect resolution to a problem, only to find that the author has come up with a better plot. It's never dull in this profession, and I'm sure Niraj will agree with me on this.
Niraj: Every project is a challenge for me. I take care of the design aspect of book publishing, but I do work in tandem with writers and copyeditors so that they are able to better understand the bigger picture, and accordingly enhance their contribution to the end product. I sometimes wish that authors would loosen up a bit during the writing process and worry less about the readers.
How hard is it to cater to the new generation of readers who are well-read and tech savvy?
Ajit: It's a fact that we cannot ignore anymore. As a writer and publisher, I take heart in the fact that there's been a definite increase in readership, but the readers have also become very picky about what they choose from the bookshelves. The internet has radically changed the game; today's youth have at their fingertips every imaginable work of literature from across the globe. We do need to think about doing well commercially, but having said that, we cannot compromise on the writing. Good content should always be the primary focus.
Niraj: This is where book-marketing comes into play. We are competing with so many digital platforms that events like book launches and promotions have become mandatory. While social-networking sites have given us a platform to promote our books, they have also produced an intensely vocal readership. In an era when books are being scrutinised more than ever, we cannot compromise on quality.
What kinds of books make it onto the company's publishing list?
Ajit: We like to think ourselves as an intimate publishing house with huge reach; and we regard ourselves as number one in our field. We publish more than a dozen titles a year, so each book gets a lot of attention. There isn't any bias as such towards a genre or an author; we are hungry for good work. Our team is open to various voices, and we are not afraid to take chances. From Buddhisagar's Phirphire and Subin Bhattarai's Summer Love to our recent release, Madan Krishna Shrestha's memoir, Mahako Ma, each season brings a new first.
How did the Nepal Literature Festival start?
Ajit: After we jumped into publishing, we started the Fine Print Book Club. The club hosted closed-room sessions where we would invite an author and some 25 people to discuss a book and share their views. It ran pretty successfully for a year. We later thought of scaling up the session and making it one of those cultural events that would contribute to a better understanding of literature. Moreover, as publishers, we always want our readership to promote the reading culture. So, in 2011, we started a small-scale author-interaction session in one of the halls at Moksh. The audience turnout was surprisingly high, and that encouraged us to further scale up the event. We later organised these events at the premises of the Nepal Academy--a bigger, more centrally located venue--which allowed us to organise multiple sessions in parallel.
Niraj: At the Nepal Literature Festival, we celebrate the written and spoken language in all its wonderful forms. Every year, numerous authors, poets, musicians and artists visit our venue and share their expertise and passion with the audience. Over the years, the festival has evolved into a bigger and bigger affair, and we too have matured along with it. Be it through FP or the literature festival, our agenda remains the same: to glamorise reading so that more people pick up books.
Do you perceive the rise of ebooks as a threat to the publishing industry?
Ajit: Do we have to embrace advancements in technology? Of course. But are ebooks an immediate threat to the industry? I don't think so. I still see the Nepali publishing industry flourishing in the years to come.
Niraj: Because people here aren't yet comfortable with purchasing books online, we don't see ebooks as that big of a threat. That said, all publishers must be ready for the tides of change and be prepared for a day when people prefer ebooks to paper books. It's not really about if it happens, but about when it'll happen.
What's the most satisfying element of your job?
Ajit: It's all about the events that lead up to the publication of a book--from the moment I get my hands on a manuscript, to the editorial back and forth, and to eventually working with publicity and marketing before launching the book. For me, the most satisfying part of my job has to do with the minute details and the intricacies of book publishing. Moreover, nothing can beat the feeling of being the first one to read a manuscript.
Niraj: We want our authors' books in the hands of as many readers as possible. We also want to challenge our readers with the works we publish. And of course, it's extra satisfying when a piece of literature goes on to meet, or exceed, our expectations. When readers, and even fellow publishers, tell us that we've helped revive the publishing scene and the book culture in Nepal, it feels like a big pat on the back.