The role of the publisher is to keep their antennae tuned to what is original and interesting, to help writers say what they want to say as well as they possibly can, and then to say to readers ‘this is good, come and look at this’. If you do all of those things well, you can, I believe, run a commercially successful business,” says Stuart Graham Proffitt, publishing director, Penguin UK.
At 47, he’s among the youngest and the most celebrated literary editors today, having commissioned and edited such authors as Eric Hobsbawm, Margaret Thatcher, Frank Kermode, Alan Greenspan and Chris Patten.
Readers closer home may identify him better as the man who edited, more than a decade ago, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and more recently, Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. We caught up with him for a tête-à-tête on current trends in the publishing industry and authors to look out for.
“Roy’s book was unlike any other, both in terms of structure and emotional punch,” reminisces Proffitt, who last visited India at the time of its publication 10 years ago. “I remember very well that just when that book was being published, Vanity Fair did a photo shoot of the world’s 20 leading Indian writers, and Roy was featured even though her book was just on the point of being published.”
In the decade since, Indian publishing has grown by leaps and bounds. “Everyone now wants a presence here. The book market is growing at a phenomenal rate and the degree to which Indian writers are becoming global writers is another big change,” he says.
As far as the global publishing industry is concerned, there has been a marked shift in the kind of books readers are consuming. In the 25 years since he started out in the industry, Proffitt has noticed a burgeoning appetite for economic, scientific and historical non-fiction books. “It’s quite true that when I came into the business, the great arbiters of literary life were literary critics like Raymond Williams and FR Leavis…but that role has certainly been taken over by historians and economists particularly, [those] who can tell stories and interpret what’s going on in the world right now in a way the intelligent lay public can interpret and understand,” he says.
Which books should we look out for in the coming months? Proffitt cites Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, Chris Patten’s What’s Next?: Surviving the 21st century, and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, among others. “We’re also in talks with 1-2 other authors, about whom I’ll tell you once we’re done,” he says with a mischievous smile.