Off the Shelf: An Ode to the Publishing Industry


Book Review by Namrata

Off the Shelf

Off the Shelf by Sridhar Balan

November 2019

Speaking Tiger Publishing

Every book has a lot of people involved in it. Of course, a writer is at the core of it all but once the writer is done writing it, we have the beta-readers and editors who polish it further to make it publishing ready. Furthermore, we have the cover designer, typesetter, marketing team and many others who work on giving it the final shape before we the readers get to hold it in our hands. Off the Shelf  by Sridhar Balan is an ode to all those people (invisible hands) who work on a book to make sure it reaches the readers in a beautiful package, inside out.

Sridhar Balan is a senior professional in the publishing industry with decades of experience in the Indian publishing industry. Having worked with Oxford University Press and Ratna Sagar P Ltd, he has also been a literary columnist with several Indian newspapers. Currently, he is a consultant with Ratna Books, an imprint for translations.

Off the Shelf  has a beautiful beige cover with a bookshelf and a cosy reading nook as the backdrop. For any book lover, the cover depicts a piece of heaven they always crave for. Endless rows of books filled with titles of all types, stories, poems and essays all calling you hither to listen to them is exactly how a book lover sees heaven as.

Bringing together his decades of experience with books, book people and book places, Balan takes us through the life span of publishing, as he has witnessed. The journey is twofold, one that speaks about his personal growth – the learning, the expansion and the achievements he managed during this phase. The second journey is about the English writing in India and the changes it has been through so far keep in mind the various factors that impact it.

Off the Shelf  is a testament of Balan’s love for books. Calling books ‘memories on a shelf’, he takes us through the process of publishing a book. He shares with us their journey of how they reach our bookshelves from the bookshelves in a bookshop and are slowly reduced to a dusty corner, long forgotten and often ignored. For someone who is an ardent book lover, this description could evoke mixed feelings. As however much you love books, there is only little that you can do to store them in a happy place. They need space, time and of course loads of energy. He encourages book donations at regular intervals or even giving away copies to like-minded readers who would love them. In this way we ensure the books are never ignored and are always in warm hands, loved and held preciously, just as they deserve.

Written in an extremely lucid language, Balan has spread his observations across chapters which can easily be read independently also without diluting the core essence of it all. You can run your fingers through the index and decide which topic speaks to you the most and jump to it directly without bothering about breaking rules. That is the beauty of this book.

Beginning with Shakespeare and his eccentric ways of never keeping a copy of his work, for the fear of being stolen to Jim Corbett and the publisher’s experiences of marketing his now-famous Maneaters of Kumaon – this book is a riveting read. There are so many little-known revelations that keep happening in these chapters that make a reader chuckle and smile at it all in fascination. The struggles of writers and publishers are so overwhelming to read.

Balan makes us travel to different countries and book fairs as we explore libraries and book fairs which celebrate the written word across the globe. He weaves a heartfelt narrative through the various letters and words exchanged. The stories and anecdotes, liberally sprinkled with interesting musings make it an enthralling read till the end.

Off the Shelf seems to come from a space where one has experienced all aspects of a book ranging from a publisher, writer, reader and critic. For someone who has lived and breathed books for decades now, this book seems like a perfect homage to the written word. This ‘behind the book’ experience is on that needs to be experienced and felt by every reader. It is nostalgic, witty and utterly charming to witness a fellow book-lover’s eternal affair with books.

Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. She can be reached at privytrifles@gmail.com.

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