Like in many other places, most of us in southern Tamil Nadu have begun to restart our lives alongside Covid-19. The increased sense of normalcy could have come from a control over the pandemic, or on a false premise based on zero random testing. But it is unlikely that our bonhomie with Covid will last, since any vaccines appear to be a mirage right now.Therefore, all plans we make for the future will have an uncertain tentativeness to them.

In March, when a lockdown was anticipated, the Kalachuvadu team decided not to print our monthly journal Kalachuvadu, which had appeared without a break for over 25 years. The journal was launched in 1987 as a quarterly for “arts and ideas” by my father, the writer Sundara Ramaswamy. But he wound it up after eight issues in 1988.

In 1994, I was keen to start a magazine with friends for culture and politics. So a new team of twenty something youngsters decided to revive the magazine. The first issue was published in Oct 1994 as a quarterly. It became a bi-monthly in 2000, and a monthly in 2004. As we had not missed a single issue in 25 years, the forced decision to not print it was a momentous one.

We decided to go ahead with an online-only edition at this time. But we did not announce it till 29 March, the day we had planned to upload the journal, because we were not even sure if the skeletal staff we needed for this purpose could come to our office. We managed to upload it on time somehow for three months despite many difficulties.

However, we managed to resume printing in July. We managed to post it to our subscribers, again after a fair amount of uncertainty, because the Nagercoil town post office had been locked down since a staff member caught the infection. Thankfully, the post office reopened in time for us to post it.

There are newer challenges, however, such as making the magazine reach news-stands; educational institutions may not be able continue their subscriptions; advertisement support is likely to dry out; and it will certainly be a struggle to entice state government public libraries to renew their subscriptions, given their own severely curtailed budgets. But an exclusively online magazine of politics and culture does not have the same impact as print-plus-online editions. We will therefore have to publish hard copies in the coming months, and it remains our best hope to continue publishing unhampered in the future.

The rights business

In turn, Kalachuvadu Publications branched out of the magazine and launched in 1995 as a publishing house for literary fiction and nonfiction. We initially focused on reissuing editions of modern classical writers. By the dawn of this millennium, we began to publish contemporary writers. Our modern classic editions remain the mainstay of the publishing house, although the magazine is still the flagship.

Since March this year, however, we have temporarily suspended our book-publishing activities and instead are focusing on adapting our publishing strategies to the new normal. We have expanded our ebook channels, audio book partnerships, and aggressively pursued international physical book sales through print-on-demand companies.

Kalachuvadu has also been the first Tamil publishing company to focus on the rights trade seriously for the last 15 years. We participate in international books fairs, and the sale of rights today contributes 15 to 20 percent to our revenue. In these difficult times, we are trying with moderate success to bring in revenue from such sales as parts of Europe and Asia return to some normalcy.

Tamil publishing and Covid-19

When I interact with my fellow Tamil publishers, I sense that everyone is trying to fend off the unbearable reality of the present with their own over-optimistic prognostications about the future – like, the pandemic will go away soon; the scheduled book fairs will somehow take place (as I write this we have received confirmation that two major book fairs in Erode and Coimbatore scheduled for July and August have been cancelled); this is only a temporary slump in the business…All of us are much like deer frozen in headlights, frightened and unsure about what the future holds.

Tamil publishing remains a developing field. It has not turned completely professional yet. No Tamil writer can live off the royalties from their book. Publishers do not always sign contracts with writers and pay royalties as a norm. This has remained a sore point between writers and publishers for long, often leading to heated public spats.

There are publishers who argue in the media that they cannot pay writers since they are not out to make money but are instead in the business to promote language and literature.When I hear such a spin, I recall my discussion with the family of an iconic 20th century writer in the late ’90s. When their publisher visited them, he constantly whined about lack of sales, before paying a token amount as royalty. After coffee and snacks were served, the discussion turned to other matters, and the family enquired about the new house the publisher was building. His face lit up and he said he had completed building two storeys, and was now building the third.

Unambitious scale

The first print run in Tamil today is typically 500 copies, except for a few best sellers. After POD (print-on-demand) became widely available, many books started getting published but very few reached the market. One section of the industry is focused not on the reader or the writer, but on supplying clumsily put together books to state libraries and educational institutions. Many of these books are printed as PODs and never go into the market. Not just palms but often entire limbs have to be greased to secure orders. This mafia is a cancer on publishing.

Further, only a few Tamil publishers employ more than a dozen fulltime staff. Most outsource tasks like typesetting, page layout, proof reading and printing to others. Books are rarely edited, and there are only a few in-house editors.

There have also been calamities in the past, such as the Chennai Book Fair fire in 1993 and the floods in December 2015. The book fair, which at the time was held in the Quaid-E-Millath college, was partially destroyed by a fire that consumed more than half of the nearly 175 stands. Publishers had no insurance, and the government stepped in to pay some compensation. But the fire is also remembered for some dubious booksellers who used the incident to square up all their outstanding debts by writing teary letters and poetry to publishers.

However, while we could assess the impact of both incidents immediately after the events, it is not the case this time. Kalachuvadu launched after the fire, and after the 2015 floods, we had anticipated Chennai would recover in a few months, but the city bounced back earlier. The floods did not have any impact on our rights business with other states and countries. But we cannot make any such projections right now.

Trickling revenues

All revenue sources have dried up for the past three months, and only a trickle is now visible. The trickle might turn into a streamlet as we try to adapt ourselves to the times, but it will be a long haul before we can reach pre-pandemic levels of sales and revenue.

Part of this is also because the book itself is not a highly valued cultural commodity in Tamil Nadu, despite all the lip service from those in power. The only valued cultural product here is the cinema, and reading books other than textbooks is generally frowned upon at school and home. Being a “writer” here can mean two things: either a “writer” at the police station, who keeps the records, or a document writer who sits near the registrar’s office!

Different publishers’ associations have submitted appeals to the state government to clear pending payments from public libraries, to activate the publishers’ welfare board formed earlier and distribute its funds to workers in the sector. But the government has not responded to any of these.

When the state government released the list of businesses that could be opened after the lockdown, there was no mention of bookshops and publishing houses, not even libraries. The book industry generally merits no attention from the authorities.

The Chennai Book Fair, organised every year by the Book Sellers and Publishers Association of South India (Bapasi) is one of the top three fairs in the country. It was first organised in a hall inside the Quaid-E-Millath campus with around 22 stands, most of them for English books and a few for Tamil, in 1976. This number crossed 800 in 2019. But the city has no convenient and large trade fair grounds like Pragati Maidan to hold the fair today. A ground large enough to put up temporary stands with sufficient parking space has not been made available to Bapasi by the government.

The book fair has the capacity and the demand to grow bigger, but it is constrained because of a strange belief shared by many Bapasi office bearers, who argue that a bigger fair means a smaller slice of the pie for every publisher.

The Chennai fair remains a predominantly Tamil one for now. It has become an international meeting point for the Tamil literati, which was achieved through the sheer hard work of Bapasi publishers and because of circumstances. The liberalisation of the economy has seen a minor explosion of new publishers in the last 15 years, and has forced the fair to grow beyond Bapasi’s often-narrow vision. The fair, which today has a footfall and turnover at par with the Kolkata Book Fair, has received little support from the state government, unlike the latter.

Inherent limitations

Tamil publishing also has its own limitations. Like most bhasha publishing, there are no distributors. Every publisher sells books directly to bookshops and exporters,collects payments, and exhibits at book fairs. With not many bookstores within reach, book fairs have turned into Tamil readers’ primary source of books.

A book fair culture has been evolving in the last few years, with almost every city and town, big or small, organising a fair. Some of the more prominent fairs are organised in Madurai, Erode and Coimbatore. Often, the district administration supported book fairs, usually at the initiative of an enlightened collector.

Online sales also expanded the market. No Tamil bookshop closed when Amazon and Flipkart entered the market. Tamil publishers have generally welcomed the online distribution channels without encouraging them unduly with very high discounts. New brick-and-mortar Tamil bookshops continued to open till last year.

Ebooks created a flutter, but did not gain a significant market share until the pandemic. They were expected to expand the market since one did not expect a battle between print and ebooks. Lack of space in urban homes, lack of access to hard copies for global Tamil readers, a new generation of digital natives who, to the surprise of many, continue to read in Tamil, and reading during travel were expected to create a market for ebooks and audio books.

But the pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works of an emerging ecosystem which all these technological advancements and the print book were expected to cohabit. Now, at least for the duration of the pandemic, ebooks and audio books have a clear advantage.

A new post-pandemic paradigm

The Covid-19 pandemic is the first global disaster for the publishing industry since the birth of modern publishing after the Gutenberg revolution. Even the world wars did not have such a uniform impact on the industry. In fact, the wars turned out to be a period of creative incubation for the paperback revolution and the democratisation of literature.

Can the post-Covid world similarly come up with a new paradigm to strengthen and spread the written word? Can we think of ways to democratise the process of writing, ensure fair representation of all sections of society in published writings, and in the process of publishing itself? Can we better empower the bhashas? Can we restrict the monopoly of the English language while retaining it for its richness, creativity and as our window to the world? Although technology offers a solution to reach readers, it remains a tool and doesn’t embody the full spirit of the reading experience.

It will be important to keep an open mind, lie low when the situation demands it, shed the pre-pandemic baggage, engage, discuss, and exchange ideas. A complete overhaul of the very business of publishing cannot be ruled out. There may not be one universal formula, since every language has its own publishing ecosystem, and every region in India will have to face the pandemic’s economic and psychological challenges differently.

We need to find the light to sustain us now and lead us to better times, and I hope when we eventually reach our destination, it will not be a “muchness of the sameness” (to quote from Henry Miller’s Plexus), but “muchness of newness”.

This phase has also bought publishers time to clear their desks, read pending manuscripts, assess their publishing programmes, evaluate the front and back lists, and do some solid non-business but essential reading. More importantly, the lockdown has allowed us time to reconnect with our authors. A bit of gossip does not hurt!

The lockdown has given readers an opportunity to read the books sitting on their shelves. Writers have suddenly been flooded with fan mail and social media posts about their older books. We can hope that readers will now buy more books without the guilt of a growing TBR pile.

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