Roli Books playing with colours and concepts

By 10 Apr 2019

As Roli Books completes 40 years, founder-publisher Pramod Kapoor shares the journey with Dibyajyoti Sarma and Rahul Kumar, and explains what makes Roli’s books stand out

image

As the popular adage goes, life begins after 40. In the case of Roli Books, we can vouch for it. The New Delhi-based publisher of eye-catching and innovative coffee-table and photography books completed 40 years in November 2018, and when PrintWeek India met the founder-publisher Pramod Kapoor in his Greater Kailash II office, above the CMYK Book Store, also run by Roli Books, he was rearing to go, with several innovative offerings in the offing. 

The most ambitious of them is a new imprint called Roots, through which Roli Books has started offering services to research and create books on family histories.  

Documenting histories
“It’s a world-wide reality, and more so in India, that we do not record our personal or family histories in any serious way. Information on our previous generations remains with families as oral histories. In the UK, for example, you can go to the National Archive and look for the data on your ancestry. In India, we have started the process now, but we have very little available data on common people,” Kapoor explains. 

At the same time, today, with families scattered all over the globe, there is a renewed interest among people to understand their past, where they came from. And they have the means to afford the services. 

Enter Roli. The company will have a set of independent researchers who will take over the research once a family commissions a project and will deliver the data in a format the family wants. “It can be of any format — the data saved in a DVD to short-run coffee-table books to be distributed among the family members, even audio books,” Kapoor says. “Sometimes, a client may want to make the book available in the market. We can do that as well.”

Roli started the project a year ago, and it took off in no time, so much so that Kapoor says the company is going slowly in accepting new commissions until the first sets of projects are completed. There are 20 such projects on which the work is at different stages. “You need dedicated teams for projects like this. We collect data, both content and photographs, and present them in a way which is accessible to everyone,” he adds.

Beside Roots, Roli Books has two major imprints — Lustre for illustrated books and Lotus for non-pictorial books. Plus, the company offers custom book services under the imprint Showcase. 


Pramod Kapoor, founder-publisher, Roli Books



The 40-year-journey 
Roli Books was established on 14 November 1978 under a strategic alliance with MacGraw-Hill FEP Singapore.

For Kapoor, however, his love affair with books started early in childhood, which is quite understandable, when Rupa Publications happens to be your maternal home. “During summer, we would visit our maternal home and I would play with the letterpress types, in my brother’s printing press,” he says. Also, his father was a paper merchant and his brother was in printing. So his career path was already set; it had to be something related to paper and ink though he did not know exactly what. 

This happened serendipitously. After completing his studies, he spent three years at McMillan, where he mastered publishing. 

Then MacGraw-Hill FEP Singapore got in touch and Roli Books started officially, with a desk and an assistant. Kapoor was 25. “For a long time, Roli Books was run by one-and-a-half men,” Kapoor says. The work he did, however, proved to be revolutionary — the introduction of all-colour primary school textbooks in India.

“When we started, there were hardly any colours in books printed in India, because there were no facilities. At best, we had two-colour printing,” Kapoor says. “Of course, there were a few multicolour offset presses, but the production cost was much higher.”

In partnership with MacGraw-Hill FEP Singapore, Roli Books then started offering textbooks developed by MacGraw-Hill to Indian publishers. Roli’s job was to modify the content and images to suit the Indian readership. The all-colour books were printed in Singapore. At the time, major textbook publishers like Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press or McMillan published textbooks in a single colour. So, when Kapoor introduced all-colour textbooks, that too at the same price range, the idea took off immediately, with even publishers like OUP coming on-board and co-publishing with Roli. 

“They were so impressed with our books that the moment we showed them the samples, they ordered five to ten thousand copies. Later, each of our titles went for more than one-lakh prints,” Kapoor reminiscences.

What do you do next when you succeed so easily? Of course, you move on the find new adventures. For Kapoor, it was publishing art books. 

Books written/curated by Pramod Kapoor

  • Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography 
  • Margaret Bourke White in India 
  • Then & Now, a series on Indian cities curated by Kapoor. So far, five volumes have been published —India, Delhi, Bombay/Mumbai, Madras/Chennai, Calcutta/ Kolkata. 
  • The Unforgettable Maharajas 
  • New Delhi: Making of a Capital


The business of art books
And Kapoor insists you need real passion to get into art/ coffee table books. He gives the example of Mumbai-based publishers DB Taraporevala Sons (which has been publishing art books since the 1930s, reaching its peak during 1970s). “I don’t think they made any profits from the books,” Kapoor says. “They did it because they were interested in art and cultural.”
For its time, those books, printed by Mumbai-based Vakils, were great, but they were all mono, produced in letterpress. 

At the time, no one in India was doing all-colour art books. They were all imported. “Then I realised we could produce fantastic works if we combine the print production facilities abroad with works of Indian photographers and designers because Indian photographers and designers were fantastic. The only thing lacking was the ability to produce quality print production,” Kapoor says.

So he went to Singapore and got the books printed there, and it changed the entire landscape. Kapoor had found a way to print all-colour art books in offset, even before offset was popular in India. “We started with colour travel books on art paper,” Kapoor says. “In the early 1980s, these books had novelty value for customers and this helped us create a specialised market for us. We succeed quickly because we were ahead of the time in innovation and in production. This remains a hallmark of Roli Books until now.” 

Today, the company is associated with several foreign publishers of art and illustrated books, such as Phaidon, Thames & Hudson, etc. The company also exports books to foreign territories, with countries like France and Germany being a big market for Roli (In 2016, Kapoor was conferred with the prestigious French honour, Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour) for his contribution towards producing books that have changed the landscape of Indian publishing).

Some of these books are still printed aboard. Earlier, it was Singapore. Now, Kapoor says as Singapore becomes expensive due to increasing land prices, printers are moving to the countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and others. 

Embracing change
For Kapoor, the last 40 years have been a journey of gradual development. “The changes in printing technology and production aesthetics have been gradual and we changed with it,” he says. “We adopted some changes and some changes took place because we changed. It’s not like there is a change in the market and you react to it. Change happens because you make it happen. At Roli, we have always tried to do things slightly differently and now it has become a culture. We always discuss in the office how we can do things differently.”
However, one constant remain — innovation in production, the key to Roli’s success. Even today, Roli Books is known for its quality production. 

Recently, one of Roli’s striking books, Last of the Tattooed Headhunters, about the Konyak Naga tribe in Nagaland, was awarded the Illustrated Book of the Year at the Publishing Next Awards 2018. The Award was given “…for its timely documentation of a unique culture, that might soon be lost to time, with sensitive photography and engaging texts to accompany them. This book is a perfect example of how to document people and their practices, a book that is superbly conceptualised and executed.”

It’s so difficult to make a selection from over 1,200 titles we have published so far, says Kapoor. But following are some of his favourites.

Non-illustrated 
Men Who Killed Gandhi by Manohar Malgonkar 
I Too Have a Dream by Varghese Kurien 
The Score of My Life by Zubin Mehta
High Adventure: Our Ascent of the Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary 
Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia by S Hussain Zaidi 
The Red Sari: A Dramatised Biography of Sonia Gandhi by Javier Moro
Nehru: The Making of India by MJ Akbar 
Param Vir: Our Heroes in Battle by Maj Gen Ian Cardozo 
An Odyssey in War and Peace: An Autobiography by Lt Gen JFR Jacob 
Beyond the Lines: An autobiography by Kuldip Nayar 


Illustrated books 
The Unforgettable Maharajas by Jaiwant Paul and Pramod Kapoor 
Bombay Then / Mumbai Now by Jim Masselos and Naresh Fernandes 
Delhi Red Fort to Raisina by JP Losty, Salman Khurshid, Ratish Nanda, Malvika Singh 
The Nehrus: Personal Histories by Prof Mushirul Hasan and Priya Kapoor 
The Sikhs by Khushwant Singh and Raghu Rai 
Kites Eye View by Nicolas Chorier 
Made For Maharajas by Dr Amin Jafffer 
Rajasthan: Under the Desert Sky by Rajesh Bedi
Dining with the Nawabs by Meera Ali and Karam Puri 
Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography by Pramod Kapoor 


Embracing change
For Kapoor, the last 40 years have been a journey of gradual development. “The changes in printing technology and production aesthetics have been gradual and we changed with it,” he says. “We adopted some changes and some changes took place because we changed. It’s not like there is a change in the market and you react to it. Change happens because you make it happen. At Roli, we have always tried to do things slightly differently and now it has become a culture. We always discuss in the office how we can do things differently.”
However, one constant remain — innovation in production, the key to Roli’s success. Even today, Roli Books is known for its quality production. 

Recently, one of Roli’s striking books, Last of the Tattooed Headhunters, about the Konyak Naga tribe in Nagaland, was awarded the Illustrated Book of the Year at the Publishing Next Awards 2018. The Award was given “…for its timely documentation of a unique culture, that might soon be lost to time, with sensitive photography and engaging texts to accompany them. This book is a perfect example of how to document people and their practices, a book that is superbly conceptualised and executed.”

Executing concepts
The two keywords in the citation are conceptualisation and execution, and Roli excels in both. 

As Kapoor explains, it’s a process, which begins at the level of conceptualisation and ends in printing. And Kapoor is involved all through the process. 
Talking about the printing side of the business, Kapoor admits that printing abroad is more reliable. “There we don’t have to follow up with them regarding the quality of printing. If there are issues, they get to us with suggestions, how to make the book look better,” he says. In India, however, the reality is different. “Here, we have to keep supervising at every level. If a book has my name on it, I personally go to the printer’s and supervise the process,” he says. Kapoor says this is because there is a high demand for quality aboard. So the pressure is on the press operators and they are qualified and experienced. There is also more competition. 

Quality is one aspect of the publishing business. The other is the market. Photo/coffee-table books are usually expensive. How does Roli work around it?

“Around two decades ago, we used to publish inexpensive and popular kind of books. We used to do large print runs. Then two things happened. The taste of readers changed and viewing/reading habits changed,” Kapoor says.

And Roli changed accordingly. Today, Roli books are premium art objects. So they are sold at a premium price. As a result, print runs are short but profit margins are better. “We create our books as pieces of art. A lot of ideas go into creating a book differently. Our books are objects of art. They are expensive and we have a discerning readership,” he says.

Since they are special books, they also need a special showcase. This is how Kapoor came up with the idea of an in-house bookstore, to display its books.  Thus, CMYK Book Store was born. Today, CMYK has nine outlets, including a shop-within-a-shop in Crosswords in Mumbai and one in the lobby of the Taj.


Events

Jun
14

PrintExpo NEW!

Jun 14 - 16 Jun 2019
Hall 2 & 3, Chennai Trade Cent...

Latest Poll

How are Lok Sabha elections affecting the power of print?