“This is the best time to be in publishing in Nepal.”

I said this to whoever asked me about the scope of publishing in Nepal till a few years ago.

What explained my optimism? Many factors that boil down to one consolidated reason – a steep rise in book sales, with books selling in thousands. This, in a country where the publishing industry was not worth mentioning until recently.

The history of publishing in Nepal is 200 years old if we consider the two oldest books known to have existed about or in the Nepali language – Grammar of the Nepali Language by JN Aton (1820), and the Nepali translation of the Holy Bible (1821). But very few books, if at all, were published in the years following the printing of these two books.

The record of books published between 1820 and 1950, collected by the Madan Puraskar Guthi – a library that has been instrumental in the promotion of the Nepali language and archiving those books – has shown that in the 130 years since the publication of Grammar of the Nepali Language, only about 1500 books were published in Nepal, out of which 1100 books were printed outside of Nepal, mainly in India. That means that on average, 11 books were published every year, of which three were published in Nepal.

The throttling

The paucity of books published in such a long period of time is startling, and begs the question: why? There are three reasons.

First, the absence of printing presses; Nepal did not have a printing press until 1851, when prime minister Janga Bahadur Rana brought one on his return from a visit to England and France. But this press, called Giddhe Press, was used for printing government materials. During the next 40 years, Nepal saw the arrival of four privately owned printing presses, but they too were used for printing mostly government notices and religious texts.

Second, from 1846 to 1951, Nepal was ruled by the Rana dynasty of hereditary prime ministers, which viewed the literate population as a threat to their rule. They restricted Nepalis from getting an education as long as they could. This decision had consequences; the literacy rate was abysmally low at 5% in 1950, which meant that there simply weren’t enough people to sustain publishing activities.

The people who were well off knew the importance of having an education and sent their children to Benaras or Calcutta to study. Soon, Benaras had a high concentration of neo-literate Nepalis. Naturally, Nepali publishing grew out of Benaras and continued to spread its wings there, though hesitantly.

Third, censorship. A regime that saw literacy as a threat to its existence wouldn’t have let more subversive knowledge and information from books to flow freely. There were different censorship measures in place, one of which was the Gorkha Bhasa Prakashani Samiti (Nepali Language Publication Committee). Though established to promote the Nepali language by evaluating and publishing books and translations, this was a facade to censor ideas and thoughts inimical to the regime. In an interview with Uttam Kunwar, the editor of the literary magazine Ruprekha, Subba Hriddhi Bahadur Malla, editor of literary magazine Sharada said:

“Every article we received for Sharada had to be presented to the Nepali Language Publication Committee and publication was allowed only after approval. Once, apart from the Nepali Language Publication Committee, a separate group of forty individuals was put together. This group was responsible for examining every article received by Sharada for publication. On one hand, there was strict censorship from the Rana regime and on the other hand, I had to face the wrath of writers when their work got revised and edited. To be honest, it felt as if I was living on the edge those days...”

— Translated by Niranjan Kunwar

Despite the odds, things began to change slightly towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Poet Motiram Bhatta published the first Nepali newsmagazine Gorkha Bharat Jiwan in 1886, and got the first Nepali translation of the Ramayana by Adikabi Bhanubhakta Acharya printed in 1887 in Benaras. Moving back to Nepal, he set up Pashupat Press in 1894 and started publishing books. The first Nepali newspaper came into existence as a weekly in 1901. The Ranas opened up the Durbar High School to commoners in 1902, 58 years after it was first established.

New seeds

Literary magazines that first came into existence at the turn of the twentieth century started to proliferate, not just in Benaras, but also in Kathmandu, giving platforms to young emerging writers. The founder of modern Nepali poetry, Lekhnath Paudyal, known as Kabi Shiromani, published his first book, Varsha Vichar (Reflections on the Rain) in 1909.

Still later, writers like Bal Krishna Sama, referred to as the Shakespeare of Nepal, and Laxmi Prasad Devkota, referred to as Maha Kabi (the poet of poets), burst onto the writing scene. The literary magazine Sharada came up in 1934 and had the profoundest impact on Nepali literature. People were becoming politically conscious and the movement for the ouster of the Rana dynasty gained steam with the establishment of the Nepal Praja Parishad and then the Nepali National Congress (later renamed Nepali Congress).

These political developments would have laid the ground for knowledge production had there been a smooth transition from Rana oligarchy to democracy. But the Delhi-engineered agreement between King Tribhuwan Bikram Shah, the Nepali Congress, and the Ranas that effectively ended Rana Rule led to a prolonged period of instability, as the king dithered on his promise of holding elections to a constituent assembly.

Finally, after issuing a new constitution in early 1959, king Mahendra Bikram Shah, who had ascended the throne after the death of his father, called for elections to form a national assembly. The Nepal Congress party won more than two-thirds of the seats and formed the government with Bisheshwor Prasad Koirala as prime minister. However, in December 1960 King Mahendra used emergency powers to dismiss Koirala, put influential politicians behind bars, and instituted a partyless panchayat system.

Koirala went on to write many wonderful works of literature in prison, but the lack of democracy hindered whatever progress had been made in the field of literary production. Writers like Parijat and Bhupi Sherchan still wrote beautiful books and writers of different ideological persuasions launched all sorts of literary movements, but literary productions were few.

It was only after the democratic movement of the 1990 that freedom of expression for publications of books and newspapers were guaranteed. If this ensured that publishing activities could be carried out freely without fear of retribution, several other factors – namely population growth, rise of literacy, increase in per capita income, the entry of the private sector into the printing industry – laid the foundations for a steady growth in Nepali publishing.

A flowering

The turning point came in 2005, with the publication of Palpasa Cafe by Narayan Wagle. It went on to sell thousands of copies and was translated into English, French, and Korean. The novel won the most prestigious award given to a work of literature in Nepal, the Madan Puraskar. The success of Palpasa Cafe was followed by the successes of the 2007 Antarmanko Yatra (A Journey of the Inner Heart) by Jagadish Ghimire and the 2008 Soch (which was later published by Penguin India as Paradise in our Backyard) by Karna Sakya, whose sales figures one can only marvel at.

These developments coincided with the setting up of new publishing houses that broke the monopoly of the traditionally run houses that were in operation. We started to see innovative and often aggressive marketing strategies being employed by publishers, improved production quality, experimentation in cover design, and variety in the size, thickness, and weight of paper used.

Book clubs and reading groups started to sprout all over the country. They would discuss books with the zeal of the convert, often inviting authors to the discussion. Then came social media, giving everyone a voice, and people started to post photos and comments on books. The unprecedented growth of the media – audio, visual, print, and online – after 1990 meant that there was now more space for books, helping in their promotion. Literary festivals began to mushroom all over the country, giving exposure to writers.

These developments did to Nepali publishing what manure does to a plant: make it robust. Books started to sell in larger numbers, with the initial print run reaching up to 35,000. Little-known writers turned into celebrities, and, lured by this stardom, many people took to writing or hired ghostwriters to write “celebrity memoirs.” Publishers scurried to reprint books that had gone out of print long ago, giving them a new lease of life.

The decline

However, in the past two years or so, we have seen a reversal of this trend, as if to prove the saying that all good things must come to an end. The sale of books has gone down so palpably that booksellers, publishers, and distributors are lamenting the decline in chorus. I am not sure what pegged back the good run that Nepali publishing had enjoyed since 2005.

Some say that social media, Youtube, are to be blamed, while others believe that movie streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are luring people away from books. Some think that good books aren’t being published. Whatever the reason, the Nepali book industry is going through a difficult phase currently.

The global COVID 19 pandemic is threatening to put the final nail in the coffin of an already struggling industry. Like everywhere, the publishing industry in Nepal has come to a standstill. Bookshops and publishing houses like our own have remained shuttered, launches and promotions cancelled. We haven’t been able to send new books to press or receive those which were already printed.

In fact, four of our books, including the Nepali translation of Healed by Manisha Koirala, are either stuck in the Indian presses where we print our books or at the Nepal–India border. Only the work that can be done from home like editing, illustrations, and cover designing is continuing.

The pandemic will pass sooner or later, but it will leave behind a deeply affected publishing industry. Already crippled by months of lockdown, we will be hit harder as the economy goes into a recession. Sales will tank and it will be difficult for publishers to recoup money from the market. Consequently, it will be harder for them to cover the fixed costs and pay printers, editors, illustrators, writers, or interest on loans taken.

They will sign on fewer writers, publish only those books which will certainly sell and print them in smaller numbers. But they won’t go out of business completely, as the scale of operation of most of the publishing houses is so small that they will not have a huge liability to contend with.

Given this, the publishing industry could do with some relief packages – however small that may be – to help it tide over the economic crisis that COVID 19 has unleashed. But I haven’t heard people from this community lobbying to the government or even discussing the need for such lobbying. Even if they did, I don’t think much will come out of it.

The association of publishers and booksellers is not influential enough to make the government pay attention to it. The government won’t come to the rescue of an industry it doesn’t recognise. Books are not high on the agenda of this government; it is yet to retract the customs duty it had imposed on the import of books despite a huge outcry.

However, the dark cloud in the sky of Nepali publishing has a silver lining. Nepali publishing hadn’t woken up to the necessity of moving to electronic and audio books, but the pandemic has brought their importance into sharp relief. Nepalis started inquiring about the availability of electronic or audio books. Some people, though not from within the publishing industry, have already set up digital platforms and are talking with publishers for the rights to publish their books in audio and electronic formats. The publishers will have to follow suit, or risk losing revenue from digital sales. If they do go digital, it will enable exploitation of the untapped market for Nepali books that exists globally.

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