The Reading Hour Odyssey: Interview with Vaishali Khandekar

Nine years with Infosys, Vaishali Khandekar then said good bye to software programs in 2004, and co-founded an English language literary print magazine Reading Hour, which now receives submissions from all over the world, from seasoned as well as aspiring writers, including techies. Vaishali talks about her publishing odyssey and how spouse Arun and she share a love for the word.

 

Suneetha : Tell us about your pre-publisher life please

Vaishali: I was born in Pune and brought up in a different place every two years as my father – who was in the army – got transferred. High school onwards I was back in Pune though, and then did my BSc (Statistics) from Fergusson College (where my grandfather had taught English!) followed by M.C.A. from Pune University.

I developed a great love for books (and reading), growing up. That was bound to happen – everybody around me had their noses in books. In Delhi there were all those books of translated Russian stories; then I had Children’s World delivered every month; my cousins had every single ACK in print then, which we read and reread… and we always had access to libraries in whichever army colony we ended up, plus my maternal grandfather had a wonderful library, an entire wall of book shelves from floor to ceiling. So summer holidays at my gran’s were devoted to Shaw, Cronin, Daphne du Maurier… passing out of school, I told my principal I wanted to be a journalist (I wanted to remain connected to literature in some way – and journalist sounded practical!) – she advised me to choose a different career and get back to literature later.

Coincidentally, my husband Arun’s father was in a transferable job too, and he had an exciting childhood, his father being usually posted at power projects – so Arun has schooled everywhere from Dandeli to Manipur, Kashmir to Idukki. And yes, he too habitually had his nose in a book – so much so that his relatives hid away every scrap of reading matter when Arun was visiting or else he wouldn’t give them the time of day!

After quitting my software job, I thought it would be nice to do something in publishing. Reading Hour began really as an adventure… it still is, I guess!

Suneetha :You worked with Infosys before you launched Reading Hour, how long were you with them? When did you leave and why?

Vaishali: I was with Infosys from 1994-2003. I joined the company quite by chance – I actually went to Mumbai to interview for another company… after I got there they decided they didn’t want to interview me after all. I was disappointed, and somebody (also there for an interview) told me that Infosys was interviewing in the same hotel. I remember asking him, “Never heard of it, is it a good company?” Well! I met some truly wonderful, inspiring people there.

Why did I leave? I wanted to try something different from software. But when I left, I had not yet decided what to do.

Suneetha : Why did you choose publishing as a second career? And that too a literary magazine, and again in print?

Vaishali: We saw an opportunity in that India didn’t really have a quality literary print magazine that was brought out regularly and widely promoted and distributed. And of course, while it is easy nowadays to start things online, for us the print medium still held unique attraction. But yes, it’s only been two years and while we’re still excited about the whole creative process of bringing out Reading Hour, it’s difficult getting it to work as a business without greater advertising support. And yet, I wish one didn’t need to mix advertising with literary content for the magazine to survive! In the future we are keen to explore other areas in publishing as well.

Suneetha : Were not the financial points in such an unstable era worrying you?

Vaishali: A niche magazine – especially if it isn’t news, cinema or lifestyle is difficult at any time. And maybe the noise levels are a bit lower during such unstable times, since a number of players are lying low. That said, yes achieving financial break even for RH is an ongoing challenge that’s constantly on our minds.

Suneetha : Tell us more about Reading Hour,

Vaishali: Reading Hour is leisure reading that suits today’s time starved lifestyles but is also intellectually stimulating. We feature short stories, poetry, interviews, reviews, a few essays. It also, in a small way, provides an opportunity for new Indian writers in English to get published in print. There are no permanent writers at Reading Hour – there are new voices in every issue, and usually a mix of established writers and first timers too. In fact we have published more than 150 writers so far.

Suneetha : How has the response been to the magazine?

Vaishali: I would guess – similar to most small niche magazines out there. It is growing slowly but the sad thing is that distribution is getting more and more difficult and it is quite impossible for a small publisher to retail. The fees and commissions charged by large retailers or distributors are prohibitive – outside Bangalore we supply to whatever independent bookstores we can, ourselves. So we have to try our best to grow our subscription base.

Those who have seen Reading Hour have really enjoyed the magazine. Recently, we sent a renewal reminder to a subscriber asking him to renew – he sent us a cheque for five years! Writers, critics and journalists have been appreciative and encouraging too.

Suneetha: Do you feel people read more now?

Vaishali: I think generally speaking people have less time to read once they begin working and raising a family and this state of affairs continues perhaps until they start approaching retirement! If you’re asking whether children today read less than what we did – I don’t think so.

Suneetha: How do you find the writers and readers? Do detail your subscription model here

Vaishali: Through advertisement on the web, by word of mouth, solicitation. An annual subscription (six issues) is just Rs.300 and readers can subscribe online at our website readinghour.in. The site also lists the stores where we retail in over ten cities in India. For the international audience a digital version is available on Magzter as well for devices.

Suneetha: What three things have changed in your life after you started RH?

Vaishali: Firstly, I think we are meeting and interacting with a completely different set of people – authors, readers, critics, journalists, and even some passionate retailers. Secondly, while running such a business, you don’t switch off, really, though we keep trying to fix some hours of work, and not discuss Reading Hour outside that time! And lastly, the daily commute is no more, which is a relief!We operate out of a home office.

Suneetha: Where do you see RH in five years from now?

Vaishali: We would like to see RH being recognized as a quality curator of writing talent. We would like to sustain and build the quality that we are getting known for, so that a reader is confident that RH will bring her the best in short stories and poetry in India.

Suneetha: Anything else you want to tell us?

Vaishali: This is a challenging journey, and RH needs the support of well-wishers to continue – a large and loyal subscriber base, new exciting writers, advertisers! We hope readers and writers will spread awareness about the magazine among potential readers, reaching out to literature students and Professors, helping us identify stores that would stock us, or helping us get potential advertisers. Every little bit helps!

Check out Reading Hour online here

This interview was published here.

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