About a month ago, Alind Maheshwari of Rajkamal Prakashan Group called me to conduct a Facebook Live session on Indian language publishing. I reckoned that while the entire publishing world seemed to be looking towards New York or London or Frankfurt to show the way forward, why didn’t we instead look to get into a huddle with publishers from New Delhi, Kolkata, Nagercoil, Sangli and Dharwad – among other places – to understand their problems? Why not bring language publishers together on one platform, to grasp and tackle our particular problems in a post-COVID world, so that no one gets left behind?

To take this idea forward, some of us independent Indian language publishers came together for a video discussion in early April, with the intention of discussing how our colleagues across different geographies were handling the situation in the face of the lockdown.

Getting to know the participants

Our first discussion included diverse publishers and literary professionals from around the country, such as Kannan Sundaram from Kalachuvadu in Nagercoil; Ravi Deecee from DC Books in Kerala; Meera Johri from Rajpal and Sons; Tridib Chatterjee and Esha Chatterjee representing the Kolkata Publishers and Booksellers’ Guild (headed by Tridib Chatterjee) and Patra Bharati (their Bangla publishing house, where Esha Chatterjee is a fourth-generation publisher); Aditi Maheshwari Goyal from Vani Prakashan; Sharad Ashtekar from Madhushree Publications; Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah from Lawyer’s Book Stall in Guwahati; Manish Dhariwal from markmybook.com; and Urmila Gupta, an independent translator and editor.

After the success of the first session, we decided to meet for an hour at 11 am every Wednesday, at least until we all continued to be in lockdown. We realised that this was a critical platform for bringing our issues to the fore, and it was beneficial to discuss them with each other and collaboratively seek solutions. Every week, we select a guest speaker by common consensus and invite them to either make a presentation or be in conversation with one of us.

This presentation or conversation is usually followed by a round of Q&A, which gives every participant a chance to ask questions and clear their doubts. In case there are too many questions we post them in the chat box for convenience. The format is very basic, very hands-on, very informal.

Our publishers’ group has been steadily growing since. Activist and Publisher, Gita Ramaswamy from Hyderabad joined us for the second meeting.Her publishing house, Hyderabad Book Trust, is a 40-year-old not-for-profit initiative that translates the best of world literature and non-fiction into Telugu and commissions original Telugu writings too. They have published some 400 titles so far.

Last week, Sunil Mehta from Mehta Publications in Pune joined the conversation, as did Kannada publisher Sameer Joshi who runs the Manohara Grantha Mala based in Dharwad. Manohara Grantha Mala is an offshoot of an idea that took root nearly a hundred years ago, when the late Jnanipath award winning Kannada Poet DR Bendre decided to bring like-minded persons to form “The Friends’ Circle” (“Geleyara Gumpu”) in 1922.

The Friends’ Circle provided a platform to nurture Kannada literary activity. Even today, its associates rank among the foremost Kannada writers including the likes of Anandakanda, Shamba Joshi, Siddavanahalli Krishna Sharma, GB Joshi, Krishnakumar Kallur, VK Gokak (winner of the 1990 Jnanpith Award), RS Mugali and Pandhareenathachar Galagali.

A glimpse into the weekly sessions

So here we are in the age of Zoom, virtually walking into one another’s homes and comfort spaces. Since the speakers represent diverse languages and cultures, the conversations are in English, mainly. But we encourage everyone to speak in whichever language they’re comfortable in, and someone or the other quickly translates this for the others. Needless to say, there are no hierarchies.

This format has afforded its own joys. Kannan has been inviting us to Nagercoil every year since we first met in Frankfurt, and a few weeks ago he actually managed to walk us through his father’s memorial library thanks to technology. Kannan’s father, Sundara Ramaswamy, was one of the best-known modern Tamil novelists of the twentieth century – Penguin India has recently launched a new translation of his seminal work Oru Puliyamarathin Kadai, titled Tamarind History.

His personal collection of over ten thousand titles has been generously converted into a reference library for the exclusive use of research scholars. In the last few years, families of other writers, who didn’t have the space to maintain their books, have entrusted their parents’ libraries to Kannan, which in turn are maintained in the individual writers’ names at this impressive memorial for books.

Our main purpose is to use this unique lockdown to understand the particular issues that Indian language publishers face, corona or no corona. The idea is to learn from one another and keep ourselves updated on global best practices, and to use this time to become globally compliant.

It is true that our problems are very different from those of Indian English publishing. Our readership is region-specific and markets are defined by language. Indian language publishers usually handle their own distribution. And yet it is very difficult for a Tamil publisher, for instance, to ensure that their entire catalogue is available to cosmopolitan Tamil readers in New Delhi.

Even though all the titles are uploaded on online retail sites, the discoverability of Indian language books remains a problem. Gita Ramaswamy still relies on word-of-mouth publicity which ensures that her loyal customers come back and place orders via email or post. In contrast, Manish Dhariwal was pleasantly surprised to find that readers in Kerala and Tamil Nadu were accessing Hindi books through his online marketplace for books,markmybook.com.

Referring to the lockdown period, some of the issues that were brought up included the effect of the absence of book fairs on the language publishing ecology. Patra Bharati participates in over 300 book fairs in their region and the lockdown has affected these outreach programmes severely. Another issue that came up was that of inventory management in the approaching new normal when transportation may be hit, both nationally and internationally. The benefit of our discussion was that we could share our understanding of how our respective states were handling the crisis faced by booksellers and publishers, and seek out the best survival strategy for each during this period.

Looking back

Based in New Delhi, Rajpal& Sons is one of India’s leading publishing houses and has been publishing books for the last 108 years. Founded by journalist-turned-publisher Rajpal, they made their first foray into the world of publishing in 1912 at Lahore. At the time, Urdu was the official language in Punjab and most books were published in Urdu. (It is ironic that Panjab University has recently declared Urdu a foreign language!)

A man with a progressive outlook, Rajpal chose to publish in Hindi as well as Urdu. Harivanshrai Bacchan’s Madhushala, Vishnu Prabhakar’s Awara Masiha, Amritlal Nagar’s Manaska Hans, Kamleshwar’s Kitne Pakistan, Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadkaek Din, and other books published by Rajpal are considered masterpieces of Indian literature. The only time their press ever shut down, Meera Johri narrated, was during the partition, when they shifted operations from Lahore to Delhi. This virus has only caused the second disruption in their long and chequered history.

Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah spoke of how the book trade came to a standstill at the time of the Assam agitation in the 80s. Dutta-Baruah’s grandfather and his brothers were the first to start a world-class printing press in Assam in the 1920s. At the time, publishing in Assam consisted mainly of religious texts. They introduced more secular writing by publishing academic books, journals and newspapers.

He recalls as a young man that it was only during the agitation that his father had to deal with a complete shutdown of their printing press and bookstore. But as soon as the Assam Accord was signed in 1985, they went back to doing brisk business, better in fact than the business he does today. This is the first time this generation is facing a pandemic of this scale and it is bound to bring with it unprecedented obstacles that they are trying to navigate. At a time like this, coming together and helping one another seems like the only way to remain afloat.

Us vs technology

The strong refrain during these times is that technology is ready for us. If we cannot read or access physical books, we are expected to be open to purchasing e-books or listening to audio books. We explored the question of how ready the Indian language publishing industry is for technology, and how ready we are to embrace this technology.

While most English language publishers and international publishers face no issue adopting technology, Indian language publishing is yet to resolve the issue of fonts. Many Kindle devices do not support the Assamese and Bangla fonts on their e-readers, and this has held back publishers like Esha Chatterjee and Dutta-Baruah from growing e-book segments in their languages.

It is interesting to observe that Malayalam and other Indian languages like Marathi, Hindi and Tamil have seen e-book sales peak in this period, driven also by the fact that a number of publishers are offering free downloads or very highly discounted prices as an invitation to convert readers to e-book formats.

Given that India has a strong oral tradition, coupled with the fact that there are over 300 million smartphone users in India, we looked to Yogesh Dashrath of the audiobook platform Storytel India to give us his perspective. Dashrath spoke about the change in people’s perception towards audio books that he has noticed in just the last two years.

While there was not even a single title on their entire list of over 700-800 titles that sold more than a hundred copies each last year, this year has seen a major jump. As many as 80 titles have already sold more than a hundred copies each, and there are some stand-out titles which have sold more than a thousand each. Since January 2020, their books have been downloaded more than 80,000 times.

Storytel India has a unique strategy for India in that out of the 800 locally published titles, Indian language titles constitute 80%-85%. The idea is to bring something unique to the Indian audio book listener that other international audio book companies may not offer. According to Dashrath, audio books tend to complement physical books – consumers who sampled audio books went on to purchase the physical book as well.

Global local

“Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature!”

Jose Saramago

One of the major concerns for Indian language publishers is how to take Indian language writing to global markets. How can they reach out to international publishers with an eye on selling translation rights? And how can they maximise the discoverability of Indian language books?

​Kannan Sundaram founded Kalachuvadu Pathippagam in 1995. (This is the silver jubilee year for Kalachuvadu, but given the chaos and restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, he has postponed the celebrations by a year) They have always championed the marginalised voices, taken the risk to introduce new writers, and pushed hard to make sure that their authors like Salma and Perumal Murugan are published internationally.

During one of our weekly session, we took the opportunity to bulldoze Kannan into giving us a master class on how to sell rights internationally. He was very generous in the information he shared and each one of us, to the last woman, took serious notes, which literally included going back to the basics of how to prepare a catalogue for Frankfurt. It is this exchange of ideas that the platform has been able to facilitate.

Moving forward

The only heartening news at our first meeting was that bookstores were being allowed to open twice a week in Kerala. Ravi DC had been working closely with the CII and the Kerala government to ensure that booksellers and publishers were also invited to the table for trade discussions in the context of the pandemic. Books were eventually included in the list of essential items in Kerala last month. This brought a huge round of applause for Ravi as he had worked round the clock to ensure this.

It was useful for others like Tridib Chatterjee from the Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Guild in Kolkata and publishers from Daryaganj in Delhi to know the representations Ravi had made, and whether similar appeals would work in their respective regions. Ravi generously offered to share the circular, so that others could adopt the same points. As I wrote this piece, news came in of bookstores being opened in some neighbourhoods in South Delhi and Gurugram. College Street in Kolkata opened shops starting Monday, May 4. Vani Prakashan now has permissions in place to open their book store in Allahabad.

Bookstores in other cities as well are taking online orders for pick up and delivery in green zones, and aggregating orders of books where deliveries are just not possible, so that they can make provisions for readers to receive their copies as soon as conditions improve. Walking Bookstores in Bhubhaneswar and Bengaluru has been sharing their unique ideas on how to deliver books while maintaining social distancing for more than a week. Publisher pages are abuzz on Facebook too.

In the words of Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, “This is probably the first time publishers from across India are actually having a frank and intimate conversation with each other. It is important to keep the dialogue going, beyond the lockdown.” We hear you, Aditi.

Neeta Gupta is the publisher at Yatra Books and a literary consultant with a special emphasis on translations.

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