Kshanika Argent interviews Sam Perera of Ph Books

SAMRunning a publishing house is no easy task; a flood of manuscripts and eager would-be authors, desperate to get their books on the shelf can be overwhelming to say the least. But for Sam Perera and Ameena Hussien it’s all in a day’s work. The duo run PH Publishers and they eat, sleep, live and breathe literature. They set up what they call a ‘small press’ in 2003, and have to date been involved in and collaborated on over 50 books, having published 40 and distributed many other self-published and small press works.
With 3 imprints, Ph (general fiction), Popsicle (for children) and Bay Owl (genre free) and over 30 active authors, this ‘small press’ has achieved much in such a short period. Not only have they nurtured young talent, they’ve given Sri Lankan (English) literature a look and feel it can be proud of thanks to quality writing and printing. They average nearly a book a month, and have flourished in a reach that’s strictly local and that gives local authors a platform on which they can shine.
They also plant a tree in the dry-zone for each book title published, reducing that title’s carbon imprint on the planet.
The Sunday Leader speaks to Sam Perera to find out more about what goes on in the world of words.

By Kshanika Argent

Q: What was the first spark that set PH Publishers alight?
A: When I met Ameena, she said she only wanted two things out of life. One was to have a world-class publishing house and the other to grow trees in a deforested area. We’re doing both. Seriously: We wanted to publish books that are written by Sri Lankan authors that looked and read as well as books that one gets in the West. This means that the story has to be told in an interesting way, as well as written well. We also wanted the packaging to be of an international standard. We wanted Sri Lankans to read their own countrymen and to find their own fiction and literature as interesting as what you would find in the West. We dream of a day when you will be able to buy books written by Sri Lankan authors in other parts of the world.

Q: How does it work at PH? Are you a vanity-publishing house?
A: We’ve certainly been called vain. We’re neither the biggest nor the best, but we’re the coolest. And yes, given that we could make a better living doing almost anything else, this is indeed a self-indulgent exercise.

Q: What’s the worst part of your job as a publisher?
A: Saying NO to an author whose work is good but we think won’t appeal to the market or whom we cannot afford to publish. To put things in perspective, the cost of publishing a book in Sri Lanka is often greater than the prize money doled out for the Gratiaen Award. We aren’t funded. We’re small and independent. We have limited monetary resources. If a book sells well, we can use those profits to finance another book or author, but the reality is that we just can’t afford to do everything we like.

Q: Is vanity publishing a good thing for Sri Lanka?
A: Writing is a creative venture. Publishing is a commercial one. When an author is paid for his manuscript, he tends to lose interest in promoting his work, leaving the onus on the publisher. However, if the author has a vested financial interest in the work, his level of participation as well as his monetary reward is proportional to his investment. So yes, from both a publisher’s and author’s point of view, it is a good thing. However, if you think you are a good author, but are in your view impoverished and misunderstood by publishing companies, the Government (Book Development Council or even the Ministry of Culture) will help you financially to publish your work.

Q: Out of your portfolio of authors, who has the most potential to become a star?
A: More than 90% of the writers in our stable are stars. If they were unheard of before they were published, they are certainly basking in the limelight now. A word of caution though: we can’t turn ‘Nobodies’ into ‘Somebodies’. (Kumari Jayawardene, thank you for that wonderful title!) Your writing has to speak for itself.

Q: Any new stories or authors you’re excited about?
A: Yes, we do have some exciting work coming up but we would rather be hush-hush about it for now.

Q: What kind of manuscripts would you be more interested in seeing come through your door?
A: Finished, polished, edited and error-free stories that are coherent, exciting and push the boundaries of story telling. We’d like to see the type of stories that you would like to read (or would pay money and buy). If someone who wrote like Gautam Malkani or Aravind Adiga came my way, I would be deliriously happy.

Q: What do you think are the main setbacks the Sri Lankan publishing industry faces?
A: We’ve participated in the Colombo book fair, where schoolteachers come looking for Jane Eyre, but are unwilling to read a Sri Lankan author. Without detracting from its merits, people would rather read what colonial administrators like Woolf wrote about Sri Lanka rather than contemporary authors like Yasmine Gooneratne (for example) whose book The Sweet & Simple Kind was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers Prize as well as the Dublin IMPAC award. Very few contemporary international authors can claim as much.

Q: If there was one change you could see in the SL publishing industry what would it be?
A: Access to international markets is still very difficult. Although the Government helps the traditional manufacturing sector to send their products overseas, promoting intellectual property and its by-products is still not in their field of vision. It would be really helpful to the whole publishing sector if the state facilitated movement in this direction.

Q: What does the future of SL. publishing look like?
A: As long as we’re in it, I’d say the future looks bright (there goes the vanity thing again).

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