There’s Toto – that wonderful auto who is a super hit with his 3-feet something audience. There’s the Discover India’s Cities series – 366 words in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. There’s Brown Like Dosas, Samosas, and Sticky Chikki. There’s the Your Turn Now twin-pack. There’s I Have Eczema, So What? The variety is endless. The innovative and energetic children’s book publisher Preeti Vyas of FunOKPlease tells Harshikaa Udasi she wants to put a contemporary Indian voice for Indian children out there as a full-line publisher. With an array of books from fiction to non-fiction, DIY to social changers, this lady is unstoppable!

You were at the Fully Booked LitFest for children last weekend and we hear you read out a new Toto The Auto story to an eager audience. We are waiting to hear more!

Oh yes! We are ready to release 2 new Toto books in August. It was a great experience to be there as we had about 45-50 kids. I read Toto And The Leopards which is always a super hit with the kids. And then I decided to read them our new one. It’s always nice to be in touch with kids and see the response to your story. I didn’t even have the illustrations yet. For a story teller, having visuals helps especially with younger kids. For a book like Toto it’s more so since the visuals are so colourful. They make the story come alive. But I decided to test it in its pure form! And my storytelling skills too. Can I still hold their attention still? And I was delighted with the response I got!

Toto is a big draw always. Any plans to extend its format to a television series or a comic series?

We do have an iPad app which we released 2 years ago. We have the Toto song and the Toto dance. We also have ideas for board games, puzzles and an animated series. But the truth is we are still not done with the story books!

FunOKPlease – how did you start your venture? What’s the story behind that unique name?

I have spent a lot of my career in books, retail and publishing having worked with Sony Music, Crossword and the Future Group. I had a children’s bookstore called Kids Town in Bandra about 10-15 years back.

After 10 years of marriage and working non-stop when I was pregnant, I decided to take a break and think about how I would want to shape my work life. Around that time, my brother-in-law (Amish’s twin), who stays in Australia, had moved to India with his wife and children for a brief period. My sister-in-law is Australian and one day she came back in a fluster because she couldn’t find a single book on Mumbai for her kids. And it struck me that you can find a book about London or Paris for kids in our Mumbai bookstores but none at all about our Indian cities. It was a huge gap that was waiting to be filled. Also, I was caretaker to my nephew while my sister-in-law was setting up house and he would ask me to read him Thomas The Engine stories and I was so fed up because I couldn’t relate to any of the context. Again a bright bulb flashed and I realized that I should do something with an Indian vehicle. All kids love vehicles, after all. That was Toto’s birth. We went ahead and launched FunOKPlease with 5 books – I book on Indian Fun Foods, 2 Toto the Auto books and 2 Discover Indian Cities books.

Also, we decided on contemporary Indian content because I saw that there was enough of mythology and Winnie the Pooh around. I mean absolutely no offence to that but I had grown up reading Enid Blyton and the children would take off on picnics and eat tongue sandwiches and toasted marshmallows and I’d never had a tongue sandwich in my life and never toasted a marshmallow on a stick and our children are still reading it. I wanted to make stories for Indian kids for whom I wouldn’t have to call a dosa a lentil pancake!

That thought is very refreshing. How did the truck-art-inspired name come about?

There’s no nice story over the name. Horn OK Please is such a regular part of Indians. Anyone who has been on our streets knows it. It’s totally an Indian expression and I thought what we were doing was fun. Hence FunOKPlease. We went on to design our covers with the yellow and black border which is my partner Abhijeet’s idea. With our limited marketing budget, this helps us stand out.

There is a lot of diversity in your books? How do you decide what you want to publish?

My ambition is to be a full-line publisher with a portfolio that straddles all categories. As a contemporary Indian narrative for children, we want to be present in the space of general knowledge, poetry, fiction, reference, non-fiction and everything else. It’s a lot of hard work. For the City series, I went looking for authors and illustrators from the particular city we were writing about. It’s important. Unless someone from Kolkata is writing about and illustrating the Kolkata fish market, it won’t be described in an authentic way.

As to what to publish, I might either commission books as decided by our team or I might pick up book submissions. Number March by Nalini Sorensen and Brown by Rebecca Manari were just mails that turned into books. Unlike second or third generation publishing houses that have a backlist, we are a fledgling publishing house. So it’s quite a race to build our catalogue. We are 5 years old now.

You have some very unique books in the catalogue – Brown, I Have Eczema, Your Turn Now. How did you decide to publish these books not knowing whether there is a market for it or not?

Eczema is the true story of a child and I was truly moved by it. The mom said that the biggest achievement is that my chikd does not show any sign that she has a condition that could hamper her in any way. It’s not just for people with eczema but also for children who do not have any special conditions to develop a warmth and compassion for those do. Kids can be brutal and rude, they say things on the face of a child and may leave a scar for life unknowingly. The story is about inclusion.

The book has done surprisingly well. Honestly, I did a very small print run because I didn’t know that it would run. After the book released, we got emails like one which said she had eczema and her boyfriend had called off their relationship because he couldn’t take her as a wife. One of my acquaintances called me last week and told me that her son, now 10, had eczema as a baby and she wept on the phone. Eczema is so common. We are surprised to see the orders on Amazon from all corners of India. We put it on kindle too last week. The same is the case with Brown. I was reading Brown in a very prestigious South Mumbai girls’ school and one of the pre-primary teachers confessed that no one wanted to sit next to a dark-skinned girl. We put such things in our kids’ heads. We need to get those out of their system.

I have nothing against fun, frivolous books as well. My son reads a lot and I encourage him to read all sorts of things. But as a publisher when I have the chance and I am taking the effort and putting in the money, I want to do something that makes a difference. In fact, Your Turn Now by Rushabh Turakhia is now a 2-books set. And we’ll have many more likewise.

What’s next from FunOKPlease?

We have 2 books from Toto The Auto – so that’s four stories! We also have an awesome activity book, our first ever, The Ultimate Indian Colouring Book For Kids. It has 10 categories and 10 pictures in each category with a single line of trivia or art tip accompanying every picture. Besides the regular fruits and flowers, there will be vehicles like a truck with truck art, there is a section called jugaad which you can look out for, the festival Bihu is covered, there is Pangong Lake in places to visit in India, and the famous Indian artwork right form Madhubani to Gond to Tanjore.

You always associate with an NGO for your book launches. How did that journey begin?

Yes, for most of our books, we tie up with an NGO. We are known for our really cool launch events. And since there is always a large turnout, we thought we should put that energy to good use. A percentage of our book sales goes to NGOs of course but we contribute in other ways too. For example, for Your Turn Now 2, we did the Kindness Bazaar and raised Rs 1 lakh from the sale of products that kids created and handled completely on their own. With Brown, we raised Rs 5 lakhs through the book. The Brown challenge kept going on and on and it was great to see children participate so enthusiastically. So it’s not about the money. If you ask your parents they will write out a cheque and give you. We want to trigger that compassion in our children. So we ask children to work for it. By the way, nowadays people walk into our launch events with a cheque book. I mean who goes for a book launch armed with a cheque book! But we realized that people want to help really. And they come forth because they know we would have done our research and the money they are giving reaches the right people. It gives a nice anchor to the event.

Five years is a good time to talk about the challenges of publishing?

Selling! (Laughs) See, online is really growing while distribution has been in bad shape. Bookstores are shutting down. Firstly there are very few good stores, then the ones that are there select few good books and give them a display. Selling books and creating awareness is a big challenge. A lot of parents would find Rs 300 expensive for a book but a pizza for Rs 500 on a night out would be fine even if it’s junk and has nothing for your mind and body. Not being judgemental here but it’s important to create that awareness. The only way to change it is by making books affordable and telling more people about the availability. Mass popularity has to happen and book clubs like yours are doing a lot to help the cause. So while creating content is the fun part, marketing and selling is where it gets tricky. Besides published books, we also have commissioned books. We have created specialized books for schools such as Nahar, JBCN, Kangaroo kids, among others. And that also adds to our business. I have written some too and it’s challenging because we are writing to a certain parameter.

What would you advise people who want to step into publishing for children? Is India the space for it? Is now the time?

It’s all about passion and how much you care for it. For instance, fans and light fittings is a great market and it shows no sign of a slowdown. But would I want to be in it? No! I want to be a publisher hence I am a publisher.

It’s a great time to be a publisher in India; there is a category of young and aware parents who want their children to read. But it is a difficult industry nonetheless. So no one should step in with their eyes shut. It’s hard to sell and trade is slow. Your money takes a long time to come back and you are not playing with huge volumes either. We are struggling with 5000-6000 print runs. That said, I am very confident about the future. Amazon reaches every pin code of India. And I feel the online medium is very encouraging and will take us further.

Copyright: Book Trotters Club

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