The last day I went in to work was surreal – Bengaluru’s roads, normally choc-a-block with traffic, were near empty, the Pratham Books office eerily quiet without the editors muttering over print dummies and the digital team banging away at their keyboards. My colleagues who had come in to take back-ups and sort administration and finance issues looked more subdued than ever. Even our office indie dog, Max, looked puzzled.

The next day we shut both our Bengaluru and Delhi offices as well as our sole warehouse in Delhi, like all other publishing houses, switching to a completely work from home scenario.

That was March 19.

The world has been going through an unprecedented crisis since January of this year – one that is impacting us more severely and swiftly than anything ever has, forcing us to adapt to new systems and routines. According to UNESCO, more than 1.3 billion children and youth across the world are at home as schools and colleges close in an effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a wonderful global initiative, many children’s publishers opened up their books for the lockdown period by organising free online storytelling sessions and workshops nationally and internationally with acclaimed children’s writers and illustrators. They also revitalised their campaigns to promote e-books.

In fact, some publishing houses created e-books for children about the pandemic in record time. Like the publishers, educators, parents, and other organisations are adapting to online access for stories and books, and are looking for ways to engage children during this time.

But what about the child who doesn’t have books at home? Or who no longer has access to their school or community library? Or who has poor or no internet connectivity? Reaching under-served children is already a significant challenge, and this pandemic has made this task even more difficult. How should we ensure that children who already have poor access to books do not get left behind even more?

These are some of the questions plaguing our team. In two months, the way most of us work has completely changed. At Pratham Books, we have realised that it is no longer business as usual. We have doubled down on our efforts to embrace this change.

Democratising stories

Storybooks and storytelling are playing an important part in children’s lives in current times. Educators, parents, government and non-government institutions are encouraging children to engage with stories as a tool for learning. The importance of books cannot be overstated.

As a not for profit children’s book publisher, Pratham Books was set up in 2004 with a mission to see “a book in every child’s hand”, and we created a new paradigm in multilingual publishing -– a low-cost, high-volume model that distributed over 30 million storybooks and story cards (four-page ministorybooks) to children across India at an average price point of Rs 30 per book and Rs 3 per storycard.

Yet, with 200 million children in the primary school age group, we knew that much more needed to be done. So, we did something very unusual for a publisher. We open-sourced our books under one of the most permissive open licences, the Creative Commons Attribution licence, which allows anyone to use, adapt or version the books, all for free, as long as they credit the original creators.

The idea behind this was not only to make our books available to all children but also allow them to be translated into languages that we do not publish in, or be published in newer formats such as Braille books, audio books or audio-visual books. This exponentially expanded our impact and brought us closer to realising our founding mission of getting books into the hands of children.

So we created StoryWeaver, a digital multi-publisher platform, on which we open-sourced all our books, along with books from both Indian and international publishers. We launched it in September 2015 with 800 books in 24 languages, and today it has more than 20,000 books in over 240 languages. The platform allows the community of educators, parents, librarians, translators, and, most importantly, children to read and download the books free, translate them into other languages, and also create new e-books with easy-to-use tools and a bank of over 20,000 images on the platform.

What is most heartening for us is to see the books on StoryWeaver being translated into lesser used languages, including indigenous ones like Gondi, Kora, Pawari, Korku, Santali, Surjapuri and many more, from India and around the world. In most of these languages, books are either scarce or non-existent.

Stories of hope

While we have not shipped a single copy of a printed book from our warehouse in almost two months, our digital books have been travelling far and wide, allowing children in India and across the world access to reading material. To be honest, it is this very democratisation that has kept us going in this lockdown. In the months of March and April, StoryWeaver saw a 166% increase in traffic, and the proportion of users from countries other than India has almost doubled from 19% to 37%.

With StoryWeaver’s wide and diverse range of free to use, multilingual storybooks that help children read and learn, organisations such as UNESCO, Education Above All and dozens of schools and non-profits globally have listed StoryWeaver as a resource for the home-bound child during the pandemic. There has been a huge surge in the usage of StoryWeaver’s Reading Programme, a curated collection of books and activities for children from Grades 1 to 8, and our Reading Lists, which are recommended collections of storybooks for different ages of children.

So, you have young children from Adivasi communities in Dahanu, Maharashtra, logging onto StoryWeaver from their parents’ mobile phones and reading books, even as a mother in France uses the French books on StoryWeaver to keep her six-year-old daughter happy and entertained. She loves Deepanjana Pal’s and Rajiv Eipe’s A Book for Puchku, which is available in 29 languages.

Likewise, US-based Lea uses StoryWeaver to provide her daughters with a steady stream of e-books while the American schools and public libraries are closed because of the lockdown. She also uses the nonfiction storybooks with STEM themes as tools to teach her children science and math concepts during home-schooling sessions. This is also the case with different schools across India, UK and USA that are using our books for online classes.

A young mother from Chennai wrote to us to say that her little one insists on reading the digital book, The Novel Coronavirus: We Can Stay Safe, created by 13 of India’s foremost writers and illustrators in under a fortnight, on a loop. The book has been read thousands of times and is available in 15 languages.

Tanu Shree Singh, who co-founded Reading Raccoons, a popular online reading group, crowdsourced celebrity readings of Kamla Bhasin’s and Priya Kuriyan’s open source book, Satrangi Ladkiyan, Satrangi Ladke, to spread the book’s message of hope with children at home under the lockdown. Apart from the writers, readings were done by cricketers VVS Laxman, Sanjay Manjrekar, Irfan Pathan and Aakash Chopra, commentator Harsha Bhogle, actors Ratna Pathak Shah, Lovleen Misra, Sumeet Sachdev, Prerna Chawla, Sarika Singh and Trishla Patel, writers Shals Mahajan and Jerry Pinto, as well as two children – Geeta and Raja.

In Delhi, The Community Library Project has transformed itself into an online community library during the lockdown called Duniya Sabki. They have shared read-aloud videos of many of our books with the community’s 4,000 members via WhatsApp. Similarly, our team is using WhatsApp and Telegram to send links of our storybooks and videos to over thirty organisations working in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to provide uninterrupted, open access to multilingual reading to almost 8,000 children.

A week into the lockdown in India, I sat at home monitoring the traffic on StoryWeaver and noticed that we had unprecedented traffic from Italy and France – mainly comprising users reading digital storybooks, translating them into Italian and French to share with young readers, and also creating new books about the virus. In January, StoryWeaver recorded 900 sessions from Italy and 1,500 from France. In March, the figure had gone up to 10,000 and 50,000, respectively.

Our lockdown stories are different. But they have brought us hope in these trying times.

Unequal access

Of course, there is a joy to reading a physical picture book – being able to admire the details in the illustrations, being surprised at the turn of a page, and being able to hold and read it. Further, research shows that while 99% of India’s Internet population accesses the Internet via a mobile phone, connectivity issues and data restrictions make reading books online a real challenge.

Which is why we have developed a mechanism where books can be stored on StoryWeaver’s Offline Library, allowing users to save books and then read them offline. And they can also print and bind them.

In our quest to reach even more children during the lockdown and bridge the digital divide, we launched a second edition of our campaign, Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno, where all a child needs to do is give a free missed call to 08033094243 and she gets a call back to listen to an audio story in the language of her choice. Over the last three weeks, every day, children across the country have spent 10,000 minutes collectively, listening to audio stories in English, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada. Many of these calls are being made from basic feature phones that don’t have Internet, but have nonetheless turned into an unexpected medium of storytelling for these children.

Social publishing in a post-COVID world

As the lockdown restrictions slowly ease and we start to ship our printed books to buyers, much has already changed. Organisations are cutting back on their book budgets for their programmes; schools do not know when they will reopen, which is going to adversely alter their book buying cycles; independent bookstores are going to face constrained demand. The pandemic has proved to us more than ever before that new paradigms are needed for the post-COVID world.

We have long been champions of technology and open licensing as a means to address inequality and the issue of easy access to books for all children. But much more needs to be done. Can state education systems and publishers come together to equip all schools with vibrant print and digital libraries? Can more publishers share and open-license their content? Can all publishing houses, governments and civil society come together to create a national reading campaign to encourage children to read more? Can donors support some of these efforts that will help children become independent readers and learners?

We have never experienced disruption at such a large scale, and this is an opportunity for us to work together and support children with a focus on inclusion and equity. After all, we all have a responsibility towards building the next generation of readers and learners.

That is to us, the future of publishing. One that leaves no child behind.

Suzanne Singh is the Chairperson of Pratham Books.

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