This is what global giants do: Authors heartbroken over Amazon’s shutdown of Westland

Amazon, which bought the homegrown publishing company five years ago, is shutting it down by the end of March 2022.
A few of the Westland titles stacked up
A few of the Westland titles stacked up
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Passing hurriedly by a customer in his book shop, Chithrasenan calls out, “Get all the Westland books before they are sold out.” The customer had Christophe Jaffrelot’s Modi’s India in his hands, one of the last books that Westland published. Modern Books in Thiruvananthapuram was selling quite a few of the Jaffrelot book that day, as well as The Silent Coup by Josy Joseph. News of Westland closing down has brought book lovers running to the shop. As if he expected it, Chithrasenan has laid out more Westland books in the front rows – Aakar Patel’s Price of the Modi Years, Rukmini S’s Whole Numbers and Half Truths, Nalin Mehta’s The New BJP, among others.

“Some like Khyrunnisa A’s Tongue in Cheek have already sold out,” Chithrasenan says. Khyrunnisa, like many other authors disheartened by the news, posted that she was shocked and very upset that Westland was being shut down by Amazon, which had owned it for five years.

“Yesterday (February 2) I got the official mail confirming this, for two of my books have been published by Westland – the bestselling Tongue in Cheek: The Funny Side of Life that has gone into six prints and the children’s book, The Crocodile Who Ate Butter Chicken for Breakfast and Other Stories. My next book for adults was in the press, due to come out by the end of February, but not any longer. Such a big blow,” Khyrunnisa wrote on Facebook.

Westland, originally set up in 1962 as East West Books, later partnered with Landmark, then was owned by Tata for nearly 10 years before Amazon bought it for Rs 40 crore. Five years and several bestsellers later, Amazon shut the publishing house down, shooting letters of intimation to all the authors. The news was announced on February 1, and the shutters will fall by the end of March. Perhaps because it came without any warning, it broke hearts.

“Going by the kind of titles they used to come up with in recent years, it is a great loss for book lovers in the country. I’m also wondering if some of their books that I’ve been looking forward to will be taken up by any other publishing house. Any publisher shutting shop is sad, but more so when it is a publisher like Context (one of the Westland imprints), which really had a clear vision of what they wanted to bring out,” says the customer at Modern Books who took Jaffrelot and Josy’s books home.

Speculations arose. Several of Westland’s new bestsellers were not exactly appreciative of the government of the day. Josy’s The Silent Coup boldly questioned the decline of democracy and citizen rights, making a case for investigating agencies “creating” terrorists out of nobodies. Jaffrelot used interviews from across the country to show how Modi’s government has equated the idea of the nation with the Hindu majority and relegated minorities to second class citizens. Aakar Patel’s Price of the Modi Years listed statistics and explained the damage brought upon the country by the BJP government.

Josy tells TNM, “Books like mine would not be a good fit for Amazon’s business in India because if they want to build their commercial enterprise here they wouldn’t want to nurture any thinking / writing against the government. To be fair though, I don’t think there has been any pressure from the government on this book until now but Amazon wouldn’t want any future trouble because of books like mine. Removing the thorns in advance so it doesn’t create any trouble in future, that’s how I would read it.”

Perhaps to maintain balance, Westland had pro-government titles too – Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri’s A New Idea of India and Ram Madhav’s The Hindutva Paradigm among them. Union Minister Smriti Irani’s Lal Salaam was also published by Westland last November.

A long piece on The Signal says that the reason for the closure seems to be the most straightforward – business loss. Listing out the revenue losses in each of the last five years (the biggest in 2019 at Rs 46.3 crore), the story tries to find out how it got so bad for Westland. In 2018, the company signed author Chetan Bhagat for a six-year deal, paying him a grand sum of Rs 36 crore. That’s seven times what was paid to Amish Tripathi, another bestselling author, in 2013. In quick succession, the company signed up more sure shot authors – Devdutt Pattanaik, Ashwin Sanghi and others.

The Signal quotes an insider saying that Westland, under Amazon, depended on five of these bestselling authors for 80% of their sales. Ignoring the “midlist” didn’t help. Neither did paying out big money to authors – Chetan Bhagat’s books, the report said, were already on the decline. It looked like Amazon faltered in many different ways. Even its decision to buy Westland was unusual considering it was not doing great at the time.

“It may take some more time to get the real picture on what led to this closure. Anyway it was a bad idea and execution. Hope it won’t be repeated with others,” Chithrasenan laments.

Till the end though, Westland continued to pay its authors handsomely. Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu, whose Malayalam short stories were translated by J Devika and published under Eka, an imprint of Westland, wrote in December 2021 how pleasantly surprised he was to see the advance on his book contract. “This English publisher can be a model for Malayalam publishers. Most importantly, they stand on the side of the writer and the reader,” he wrote.

Eka, launched in 2018, mostly served to bring out English translations of notable regional works. KR Meera’s Qabar is one of the last books to be published.  

“It has just been a few days since I reviewed Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu’s short stories Do Not Go to the Jungle, his first to be translated and published in English. I remember wondering which writer would get their due next. Eka has been monumental, it helped great literature travel. They were identifying a variety of regional voices, helping writers and small towns find their way to readers far and away. As a reader, I feel we’ve been robbed of stories and many a cultural history,” says Akshaya Pillai, a journalist who writes on books and culture.

Several writers commended the work done by Karthika VK, who led the publishing team at Westland for the last five years. “It is quite tragic because Karthika and her team are among the finest in Indian publishing. I still maintain hope that perhaps Westland will get sold in the coming weeks and survive under new management, instead of being closed by Amazon,” says author Manu Pillai to TNM. His book The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin was another from Westland’s enviable collection.

In a series of tweets on Westland’s closure, Nilanjana Roy, author and columnist, paid tribute to the company she had once worked with. She was part of the original team based in Chennai – “a change from the Delhicentric world of English language publishing”. Nilanjana writes how Karthika transformed Westland after the Amazon deal.

“She and her team did a fantastic job of nurturing writers across genres — from mainstream commercial and political publishing to stellar translations (Eka), punchy non-fiction/ fiction (Context) etc. Like most Westland authors, I feel a sense of personal loss. Karthika would have published Black River (Nilanjana’s ‘big fat Delhi novel’) this summer, and her edits were truly glorious,” Nilanjana tweeted.

Shashi Tharoor, MP and author, wrote, “Sad to see #Westland fold for no good reason. I have known @karthikavk for a couple of decades & consider her an outstanding editor & publisher. Hope some entrepreneur w/a taste for literature will buy @amazonIN out. They don’t deserve to have what they can't appreciate (sic).”

“Amazon won’t hesitate to close down Kindle if it suffers a loss,” Chithrasenan says in despair.

He is not far off the mark. Nilanjana tweets, “Amazon is notorious for its history of acquiring book businesses and then shutting them down, from Shelfari to BookSurge etc.”

Josy says that’s what global corporations have been doing everywhere. “While they practise high standards of freedom of expression and democratic values in their home markets, they end up perpetuating the local censorships created by the political powers and the governments of the day. I’m not surprised by Amazon’s move. Because it (Westland) doesn’t fit into the business strategy of a hungry monster. It also doesn’t fit into any company that wants to operate in the commercial space in an imperfect democracy such as ours where political patronage is crucial to your success.

“If you want to preserve your space of dissent and space for free expression and independent writing it will not be done by MNCs; it will have to be done domestically,” he says.

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