Kannada book-publishers, sellers and distributors are choking and gasping for breath. Like Abhimanyu in the Chakravyuha, they are trapped, with no escape in sight.

The story so far

The English-language and Kannada publishing businesses are different on several counts, with the latter not having the scale of readership that English has. Although the population of Karnataka state is over 60 million, a maximum of only about a thousand copies of any Kannada book is actually sold, and then with great difficulty. Only a few well-known writers manage to sell between five thousand and ten thousand copies.

There are no agents and no system in place to help publishers acquire good manuscripts. And writers are not paid well either, owing to the glaring absence of competition among publishing houses. As a result, authors often need to plead with publishers to get their work published. Many a times, deserving manuscripts go unnoticed.

One of the unique features of the Kannada literary world is the familial atmosphere. Many writers mention their contact details in their books, and it is not uncommon to find readers chatting with their favourite writers, visiting their homes or having them over at their own, and hosting lunches and organising literary events for these writers.

The average age of the Kannada reader continues to increase every passing day. Our excessive fixation with the English language has resulted in the continuous closure of Kannada-medium schools; few parents are willing to send their children to schools with Kannada as the medium of instruction.

On the other hand, English medium schools are not only reluctant to teach Kannada as a language, but some of them also impose penalties on students who converse in Kannada. As a result, the youth have largely remained distant from Kannada literature, and it is mostly the older generation that is passionate about reading Kannada books. This is a tribe that is gradually dwindling.

Enter coronavirus

The Corona virus lockdown has sent the industry out of the frying pan into the fire. All major Kannada bookstores are closed, including prominent ones like Sapna Book Store, NavaKarnataka Publications and Ankita Publications. Elderly Kannada readers, who constitute the majority of readers, like browsing at the bookstore, reading and touching the books before making a purchase.

Online shopping for Kannada books has had limited popularity in the past, but it has gained pace in the recent times. The traffic woes of Bengaluru city and the conspicuous absence of bookstores across the state has contributed to the growing popularity of this system. Likewise, the system of hand delivery, allowing readers to place an order through WhatsApp and pay online, after which the book would reach their home, has been adopted too.

Sadly, all of this has come to a screeching halt with the lockdown in place and only essential products being allowed to be transported. The books that were dispatched a just before the lockdown have piled up in the warehouses of courier companies, and no one is sure how long it will take for them to reach their respective destinations.

Dead events

Kannada readers attach significant value to book release events and gather in huge numbers at these. Five or six books are released every week, and these events also serve as important platform for writers, publishers and readers to mingle and interact. Large volumes are sold during such releases, which also constitute a very important marketing channel for new books.

This has obviously come to a standstill for now, so much so that publishers are even reluctant to initiate the publication of new books. Bundles of published books ready for release are now piled up in warehouses. While some writers did manage to release their works through social networking websites, how on earth will those books reach the readers?

And handful of Kannadigas have opened themselves to the concept of e-books. A new firm named MyLangBooks has developed a mobile app for readers to download and read e-books in Kannada, while Google Play Books has also facilitated selling and reading of Kannada e-Books, though Amazon’s Kindle has not yet warmed up to the language.

ChandaPustaka, a prominent publishing house, has even offered a 50% discount on all their e-books during the lockdown period. However, this mode of reading is largely alien to most Kannada readers, who are reluctant to read on a mobile or a tablet. Still, the lack of access to physical books might lead to some reluctant conversion.

Online, offline

There is a flurry of literary activity on social networking websites, with a number of young poets and writers reading out their work online through the day. While such initiatives have garnered praise and encouragement, it is not sure how long this can be sustained.

Of course, in theory readers should have a lot of reading time at their disposal during the lockdown, with their To Be Read collections begging for attention. However, they are facing a challenge in focusing on books, stressing as they are over pandemic-related news updates instead.

February and March are important months for Kannada book publishers, as this is the time when the government purchases books for its libraries and makes payments upfront. This period also marks the end of the financial year. But the pandemic has put a hold on all the purchase activities of the government, which also happens to be the biggest customer for Kannada publishers.

By the time the pandemic abates and situation is normal again, a new financial year will have begun, but the publishers fear that the Karnataka government, which is already grappling with revenue shortfalls, might just use this as an excuse to cancel the annual book purchase activity.

Kannada readers and publishers, who only feared the silverfish that ate up books stored in warehouses, are now terrified by a microscopic parasite which threatens to cause a loss of greater magnitude. There is great uncertainty over how long this situation will persist, but one thing is for certain – after the world limps back to normalcy, the Kannada book industry will find itself in an entirely different situation, with new challenges to address.

Translated by Karthik.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.