Off the Shelf: The Inspiration Behind BooksFirst

Before I set up BooksFirst in December last year, I worked in automotive journalism for about 20 years (taking a brief detour for a couple of years in between, to work in automotive PR), and before that, I used to write about computers and technology. Which is perhaps why most people who’ve known me for a couple of years are surprised when I tell them about this website. Most reactions are on the lines of, ‘What?! Writing about books? How? Why?!’ Varying degrees of shock and horror, followed by an embarrassed silence, is the standard response from most of my peers and former colleagues.

The ‘why’ is reasonably simple to answer. I love books, love reading (non-fiction only) and quite enjoy talking to book authors, publishers, designers, illustrators, retailers, marketers and others whose work has anything to do with books. The ‘how’ isn’t that complicated either. Think of a name for the website, buy the domain name, sign up for a WordPress account, choose a design that you like and modify it for your requirements, rope in some friends who are willing to help, and you’re ready to roll. More or less.

What might be more interesting is, what was it that inspired me to set up BooksFirst? It was… what else, a book! A rather slim, 246-page book at that. Off the Shelf: On Books, Book People and Places, by Sridhar Balan. Published by Speaking Tiger Books in 2019, available for Rs 279.89, brand-new, on Amazon. Don’t let the modest page count and unassuming price fool you though – this book is a heavy hitter, one that punches way above its weight, both literally and figuratively.

So, who is Sridhar Balan? ‘Author of Off The Shelf, with 40 years of experience in the publishing industry and  a prominent columnist for leading newspapers in India,’ says his bio, on Twitter. Before he got into publishing, Balan started with teaching, serving stints at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and at the North Eastern Hill University, in Shillong. He then came to work for Macmillan India, later moving to the Oxford University Press in 1985. He is currently a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar, in addition to his other work, which includes teaching an introductory course on publishing that’s offered by the National Book Trust (NBT) India.

‘The route to choosing a career in publishing may vary, and for many, it may not have been a conscious career choice at all. Indeed, till recently many people joined the Indian publishing industry having only a very rudimentary idea of what they were getting into, with the sole exception of those who joined the family profession of publishing or bookselling,’ says Balan in one of the opening chapters in Off the Shelf. In that same chapter, he talks about the one primary qualification that makes one suitable for a job in publishing, which is ‘a love for books and a passion for reading.’ He admits that having studied in an Anglo-Indian school in Calcutta gave him a strong foundation in the English language and provided sufficient exposure to books and literature. ‘I also belonged to a generation which received books as gifts at birthday parties,’ he adds.

Subsequent chapters in the book are a rich collection of Balan’s memories, anecdotes, personal introspection and insights into the world of books and publishing. Some of the most engaging of these are his descriptions of ‘book people.’ Alberto Manguel, for example. Argentine-Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and ardent collector of books, who moved from Canada to France so he could have enough space to store his books. All 30,000 of them. Or Roy Hawkins, a Brit who came to India and joined the Oxford University Press in the 1930s, and became a legend in his own lifetime as he led OUP’s business in India to great heights in subsequent decades, finally retiring in 1970. And the late Ravi Dayal, who joined OUP in the early-1960s, worked under Hawkins and later went on to head OUP. And the late Ram Advani, the legendary bookseller of Lucknow, whose bookshop in Hazratganj used to be an absolute must-visit for all those loved books, whether it was local residents of the city, visiting authors, academicians or any other prominent literary figures. And a few other giants of publishing, who left an indelible mark on the world of books in India.

Elsewhere in the book, Balan speaks of book fairs, great libraries, legendary book shops and the inner workings of the printing and publishing business, of legendary printers and their craft (which really mattered in the pre-computer days), of stocking books, selling books… and since he’s been an insider for decades, he is able to write with authority, painting a fascinating picture of the publishing business. Yes, well, at least I found it utterly fascinating. The book – and each of its chapters – made me think, and those thoughts when put together formed the basis for setting up BooksFirst.

The website is just getting started and I’m sure the road ahead will be long and tough. But Off the Shelf gave me a sense of renewed purpose. Maybe, just maybe, I might be able to make something of this. Thank you for writing such an inspiring book, Mr Balan.

Sameer Kumar

My Life With Books: Srinivas Krishnan

A legend in his own lifetime, Mumbai-based Srinivas has been an automotive person in the communications business or a communications person in the automotive business…

Reading By Design: Professor G.V. Sreekumar

G.V. Sreekumar is Professor and former Head of IDC School of Design at IIT Bombay and his specialisations include Typography, Calligraphy, Publication Design, Information Graphics,…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: