We were in the initial days of our Lockdown 1.0 when I received a call from an author friend. She wanted to know if I was keen on working on a picture book around the Corona crisis. Even as I hemmed and hawed about it and ended the conversation with a promise to give it a good think, my social media feed threw up three instances of e-picturebooks that were already out by then in India on the topic. By the time I started putting my thoughts on it together, the numbers had gone up considerably.

Alongside these, the numerous well-thought-out online read-alouds by creators, the engaging live sessions curated by publishers, and some funky, some thought-provoking storytelling by the storytellers. Everything for free; everything open and accessible to anyone with basic net connectivity. Never before has the children’s book world sprung with such enthusiasm, care and proactive rallying.

That, in a nutshell, encapsulates the sentiment of the picture book eco-system in India through this period of nervous wait-out. Despite the brutality of what it is going to leave in its wake, the Covid-19-induced mood is propped up to be one of hope and action, and of ensuring that there’s never a dull moment for young readers or their parents; reading a picture book is a journey that both the parent and the child undertake together, after all.

Continuing a tradition

But the fears among the publishers run deep. Deeper than what this external posturing of joyful online books’ celebration can assuage. We will shortly get to these.

To understand how picture books work, we need to go back a bit to our tradition of oral bedtime storytelling that most households are familiar with. We grew up on a steady dose of tales our grandparents doled out for us, every afternoon or night for some, during the long summer vacations for the others. There was no need for a picture book in an Indian home then because stories abounded in different forms.

But with the family unit size shrinking and our lives getting busier, richly illustrated forms of homegrown books for the very young found their way in into our homes around the early 1990s to supplement this comforting aspect of parenting.

As an aside, it will be misleading for a piece like this to disregard Shankar’s unparalleled contribution to the India’s illustrated-book legacy for children. The original believer in the power of stories and imagination for the young, his Children’s Book Trust laid the foundations on which, several decades later and counting, this contemporary wave continues to take shape. So too, the National Book Trust.

Between them, they have been creating some exceptional books since the late ’50s and early ’60s, and priced at a fraction of other books. But their distribution channels have always been disjunct from that of the regular trade books, and I am thus keeping them outside the purview of this piece. We begin our story less than 30 years ago.

Picture books, therefore, are still the babies themselves in India’s trade book world. And baby-like, they have begun to grow, substantiating and maturing into a distinct category in their own right.

Interestingly, picture books have mostly remained the proud bastion of independent publishers big or small, stem as they do from the passion, dogged belief in the format and singular-minded focus of the founding publishers. The Indian picture book landscape today owes its seedings to the inimitable Radhika Menon of Tulika, Gita Wolf of Tara, Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha and a little later, Shobha Vishwanath of Karadi Tales, who believed in the magic of picture books enough to stick their necks out for the deep plunge.

Three decades on, the bulk of the picture books coming out every year in India continues to get published by small presses. A fresh boom of sorts happened later too around the early 2010s with the larger MNCs beginning to import (or locally print) their international bestsellers and Amazon making the delivery of books from all over possible.

A challenging segment

The past couple of years have shown the promise of a glorious run for picture books. The number of titles released has been steadily rising, the base of discerning readers has been growing, several picture book specific awards have been instituted, and the publishers, including the very small ones like Pickle Yolk Books that I run, are willing to both experiment with the format and take on risks. But publishing these comes with its own set of unique challenges.

For one, picture book is an expensive format to produce. The pricing, therefore, gets pegged higher than other children’s books. As a result, the nature of the reach for most of these books, especially in English, remains a privileged one. This is offset by some extraordinary, affordable work being done by a few not-for-profit independents like Pratham Books, Eklavya and Ektara, making the access to quality picture books a reality for many more. The Hindi originals by Ektara and Eklavya are inclusive, sensitive, contemporary and outstandingly beautifully illustrated. And they are not afraid to question the status quo.

At the best of times, picture books is a difficult segment to sell in big numbers. Except for the more developed markets in South India, where the penetration goes beyond the main metros, for the rest of the country, the reach is limited mostly to the tier 1 cities. Awareness about the value of leisure reading for the very young is growing but limited, still. And even among the informed parents, the tendency is to go for the hundreds of international titles that are now easily available in the market at competitive prices.

Barring the very few independent bookstores like Kahani Tree, Lightroom, Funky Rainbow, One Up and Kool Skool, that are doing a phenomenal job at nurturing homegrown talent by consciously recommending and literally hand-selling books by Indian creators, the bulk of retailers is indifferent to pushing them. The average print run for titles in English across the entire publishing spectrum is only 2000. At Pickle Yolk Books, we do only a thousand.

In the past few years, there has been an additional challenge to the entire publishing industry from a government that doesn’t appear pro-books beyond the optics, and one that is unabashedly antagonistic towards voices that come anywhere close to questioning – and books have been one of the most powerful tools for it. It’s easy to see why the funding towards the nation’s literary pursuits has been drying up in the past few years.

This happens in multiple ways: either by reducing direct grants, or by throttling agencies that are in a position to further fund independent publishers and NGOs, or by limiting the direct purchase of books in bulk either through the main library network or for direct dissemination. With every axing of a possible source, the smaller publishers lose access to flexibility and unfettered freedom to voice distinct counter-views, the authors lose their honesty and rawness, and the books lose their access to multiple channels to reaching wider readership. It takes extreme callous myopia to do that, actually, but it all boils down to priorities.

The pandemic strikes

Enter Covid-19 against this backdrop and it’s not hard to fathom the aching uphill task taunting the independent publishers. Any and all activities related to sales and distribution have come to a haunting halt. But work continues in the mind, on scraps of sheets and through laptops; be it writing, illustrating, editing, translating, designing and online promotions, the preparations for future books remain afoot. Where the industry is badly stumped is in the revenue streams at each step having snapped.

For smaller publishers, the regular and tiny bits of this cash inflow that trickle in is what keeps the wheels turning, so the question boils down to the basics of survival. Payments have to be made and overheads have to be maintained. Each link in the chain is getting adversely impacted.

Many of the small independent publishers are driven to despair, and for obvious reasons. To the most vulnerable entities in the publishing topography, for whom the “sell-out or perish” fear is real, crises like these throw up distinct possibilities of being taken over by the larger players. The advice being sounded out to them is to lie low for the next few months and somehow tide over these times by keeping all offline activities to a minimum in the immediate post-lockdown phase.

When the markets start stirring again, wake up, Sleeping Beauty like – as the kingdom wakes up with you – and resume where you left off. In theory, it may sound simple enough. In practice, the recovery terrain will be thornier for everyone concerned.

There has never been any transparency within the industry for sales data; this opaqueness will grow further. The indies are also bracing themselves for the deluge of stock returns that could start mounting the moment nationwide transportation restrictions ease up. March-end typically is when the returns pile up normally; this year, a larger chunk is foreseen because of the significant dip in the post-lockdown sale activity that is predicted. Of the two distributors I spoke with, one said it is unlikely to happen, while the other said there was no other option. The bottomline: no one has a clue.

Printing and production costs may rise; not immediately but a few months down the line. Skeletal printing jobs are being done through the lockdown phase, with no degree of certainty. Most paper vendors claim to be sitting on stocks for now, but the supply chain disruption of paper manufacturing and imports could hit with a lag. This may lead to a change in production costs, especially for picture books with their need for finer quality paper.

On the creative side, there is bound to be a significant dip in the royalty or fee component for authors, illustrators, translators and freelance designers, further reducing the already flimsy bargaining power that they have traditionally had within the industry. Offline promotion avenues will not be opening up in a hurry, including the vibrant author-student interactions at schools and at the plethora of children’s literature festivals that were beginning to become a mainstay for the children’s book industry.

In the past few years, these physical spaces where the creators meet face to face with their readers have developed as the most thriving platform for both book-talk and sales. With the fear of the virus likely to hover around for some time, and the likelihood of air travel becoming more expensive in the near future and of sponsorships dwindling in these fraught times, litfests could end up becoming a dispensable indulgence.

Is the future digital?

Turning the focus from print to digital is an option that the smaller publishers are exploring, but picture books do not lend themselves well to an e-format without compromising on the experiential essence. For the longest time, my well-wishers from outside this industry have asked me the same question: What’s keeping me with print when the world seems to be moving in another direction?

I have always found convincing replies to them on the inappropriateness of picture books in a digital format – that picture books lose their magic if not in print, that nothing compares to the intimate bonding between parent child with the way the pages ruffle and smell, that significant cognitive development happens between the page turns, and that not drawing young children to the screen is important. Will I now be forced to eat my words? I do not know.

The need of the hour for the independent publishers is to reach out collectively for cushioning and support, both from the government and from within the publishing industry. The governments in a few countries have come forward with plans and aids to help their respective book industries tide over these difficult times, either in the form of extra grants (Finland, Taiwan), or buying a substantial value of books to protect booksellers and the publishers (the Barcelona Council’s pledge of buying 1 million Euros’ worth of books through local booksellers, and the National Municipal Library in the Czech Republic buying 3.7 million Euros’ worth of books from small publishers) or large chunks of ebooks being purchased (UK, Canada).

In India, even thinking about something like this seems a frivolous, superfluous expectation when we are seeing millions of out-of-work and homeless daily wage earners struggling to get their hands on basic food and means of sustenance because of the government’s ill-preparedness and apathy.

It takes an insane degree of optimism to be talking about a happy turn of events in the world of picture books in India right now. No one can tell at this point in time whether we are moving towards a lonelier planet in the months and years to come or a happier one. But I am hoping that after the essentials of survival are met for families around the country and the process of normalisation begins on all sides, families for whom affordability is not an issue turn their attention in the post Covid-19 world to picture books, more than ever before.

Because nothing works better than losing yourself to an engrossing picture book together – the baby’s fingers and yours – as you talk through the pages and open up conversations about things happy and wondrous, and things not so happy but important.

That is an integral part of healing too.

Richa Jha is a picture book author and the founder and publisher of Pickle Yolk Books.

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