The second month of 2022 started with confusion for loyal readers, as upon receiving the news of Amazon deciding to shut down Westland Books on 01 February. The decision rattled many, as it is rare for significant publishers to shut shop. With no forewarning given to the countless authors affiliated with the organization, the suddenness of the decision led many to speculate the real motivation behind the action.
The Legacy of Westland
Not only did Westland boast of an unparalleled popular list of fiction by Indian authors, but it also published books in literary fiction and narrative non-fiction, works in Indian languages and translations, as well as literature for children, under its various branches.
Chetan Bhagat, India’s most successful commercial fiction writer, was lured away from Rupa Publications to Westland in 2017. Another well-known author, Anuja Chauhan, came from HarperCollins. Amish Tripathi, the pioneer of mythology-based fiction in India, had always been a part of the publication house. Among others, Ashwin Sanghi, Devdutt Pattanaik, and Rujuta Diwekar are some well-known authors published by Westland.
While this news on social media channels emanated love and gratitude for the team of editors, designers, and publicists at Westland, much anger was directed at Amazon for their hasty decision.
What went wrong at Westland?
The most straightforward reason for this decision is perhaps business. Reader preferences are notoriously fickle, and publishing trends come and go. It is the nature of the industry. The vampire craze that swept through popular culture in the early 2010s, for example, eventually faded from international publishing.
Part of the mystique and glamour of trade publishing stems from the fact that it is a business based on taste. Obscure bets eventuate to become bestsellers, while well-known authors lose steam for no apparent reason. These ebbing and waning trends take a complicated toll on the publishing house itself. The question, however, is why a business as big as Amazon fell short of shouldering these losses, which may have found recovery, had the company persevered.
Another interesting fact worth noting is that several recent Westland bestsellers such as ‘The Silent Coup’ by Josy Joseph and ‘Modi’s India’ by Christophe Jafferolot chose to question the dominant political agenda in our country, instead of speaking highly of the government.
While global corporations uphold high standards of free expression and democratic values in their home markets, they end up perpetuating local censorships imposed by political powers and governments of the day. Westland did not fit into any company that wants to operate in the commercial space in an imperfect democracy like ours, where political patronage is essential for success, nor was it motivated by monetary gains alone.
Why is this a big reason to worry?
Each year, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Westland cumulatively publish over 200 domestic titles. They cover a wide range of genres in fiction and non-fiction, boast enviable backlists, and host celebrated authors—all of which add up to a sizable combination of sales volume and cultural cache. The demise of one of them has sent shockwaves through the industry, as many books and authors will now have to find new homes. Moreover, fewer surviving major publishers could mean a shift in the balance of power in negotiations in favor of authors.
Largely affected by this decision, are the recently published poets, as they had little time to find readers. Poetry publishing is not considered profitable in India, so only a few Indian publishers invest in it. As a result, recent poetry books published by Westland have been abandoned in their infancy. Finding an alternate publisher will be a mountainous task for these new poets.
However, for most authors affiliated with Westland, the loss is primarily emotional. The closure of the publication house is a blow to the literary world, especially to budding writers who have just started or are dreaming of starting their literary journey. With its sixty-year history as one of India’s oldest publishers, credited for launching books that have put our country back on the map of global readership, the loss of Westland is a loss for the cultural foundations of our country.
I, as a reader, lament this loss.
K.R. Swathi is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Maryam Hassan