The recent lockdown caused by the pandemic has forced Indian publishing to rethink its ways. For language publishers, who don’t have a particularly active digital presence, this was doubly challenging. But as the pandemic raged on and all economic activities were brought to a standstill, even those initially hesitant decided to make a digital shift.

Almost all publishing stakeholders in the Hindi sphere – authors, publishers, editors, booksellers and reviewers – moved to social media to keep the ideas and conversations flowing. Though the response has been mixed, everyone has acted in their own way.

Perhaps the last time that Hindi publishing responded so unanimously was more than ten years ago, when Flipkart started selling non-English language books online. The Hindi literary sphere went into a frenzy, from creating data sheets to making books available on the platform with the correct information. There was barely any training programme or user manual to follow, and everyone depended on one another to learn these new ways of doing business.

Then Amazon arrived in 2012 and transformed the scene further. The concepts of easy discoverability, market equality, and direct selling reduced dependence on traditional distribution systems. This was a watershed moment in the history of Hindi publishing. It remains to be seen if the present logjam creates a similar chain reaction and whether the industry can rise to the occasion.

Chalti ka naam gaadi

All literature-related activities have been pushed online: readings, discussions, poetry recitations, theatre festivals, documentary festivals, launches, and e-learning programmes. “There was absolutely no other way to keep in touch with our readers,” said Alind Maheshwari, director, marketing and copyrights of Rajkamal Prakashan, one of the biggest Hindi publishers. Maheshwari believes that e-commerce is the way forward for the publishing industry in this new reality as many booksellers have still not been able to resume services.

“We thought that this forced lockdown was necessary, but could become far too depressing if dragged for too long. By the evening of 23 March, we had announced the first Vani Online Hindi Mahotsav and reached out to our authors and colleagues in the media.

“Our author Uday Prakash suggested that the word ‘mahotsav’ may not be suitable for such grim times,” said Arun Maheshwari, chairman and managing director, Vani Prakashan Group. “So my team changed the name to Vani Online Goshthi. Since then, it has grown into an independent programme division of Vani Digital which curates the online events now.”

Rajpal and Sons launched an online series titled Karona Charcha to engage their readers on social media. Steadily programming digital session for their books since the month of April, this engagement has had a positive impact on the online discoverability and sales of Hindi books.

“The content we produce as a book has to be shared and not preserved in isolation,” said Pranav Johri, Partner at Rajpal and Sons. “The lockdown was unfortunate, but it opened new avenues of community engagement for us.”

The Asmita Theatre Group headed by Arvind Gaur ran an online nukkad natak series during the lockdown called the Quarantine Theatre Festival, which has recently completed its 120th day. Other online programmes were launched too, such as the e-Sahitya Aaj Tak by India Today Group; Jagran’s online discussion forum; the Prabha Khaitan Foundation’s Author’s Afternoon; and Ek Mulaqat, She The People’s Hindi Festival, which have kept the momentum going. Over 60 new platforms have emerged in the last four months on Facebook alone.

Even international organisations ran online programmes to promote the Hindi language, such as the Vatayan Pravasi Lockdown Sangoshthi, organised and run by Padmesh Gupta and Divya Mathur from London, Kavitayi from Singapore, and many such others. The viewership of these international programmes has steadily increased and gathered a regular audience.

Seekhne ki koi umar ya wajah nahi

Many authors, who are used to offline publishing events and book readings have discovered social media as a new avenue to engage with their readers. One of the most senior writers on the contemporary Hindi landscape, Mamta Kalia, was forced to come to grips with social media during the lockdown.

She compared connecting with readers and fans over social media to drinking instant coffee. “The process is fast, we exchange opinions and reactions in real time, and it keeps my spirit alive.” It proved to be like oxygen for the soul in these suffocating times. “Of course, filter kaapi will be more exclusive, like human touch.”

Usha Kiran Khan, exponent of Maithili and Hindi literature with 19 Hindi books and over 10 Maithili books to her credit, learnt the new ways of being in touch through her friend and colleague Ritu Singh. “It is a completely new world. The emails, messages and even video messages I have received from readers after my digital interactions were overwhelming,” said the 75-year-old author from Bihar. She has done over three dozen live discussions and interactions since April 2020.

For readers, it was a sheer delight to watch sessions with some of Hindi’s biggest and most respected writers, such as Alok Dhanwa, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Chitra Mudgal, Ashok Vajpayee, and Asghar Wajahat, during the lockdown. Since they can’t travel due to COVID-related precautions for senior citizens, their digital avatar came as a welcome surprise to everyone.

Jaane kahan gaye woh din

But while authors and publishers have chosen this time to increase their social media engagement, the changes haven’t been as hopeful for booksellers. Closed for months on end, many of them are struggling to survive. It is uncertain when schools and colleges will reopen and, thus, textbook sales too have dropped drastically.

Manav Vishan Prakash, one of the owners of Universal Booksellers in Lucknow, a landmark for many in Uttar Pradesh, said, “Our Gomtinagar bookstore reopened on 2 May, and the one in Hazratganj on 22 May. We had established standard procedures for customer’s health – one-foot blocks allowing customers enough space to scroll through books; entry strictly with masks and sanitisers etc.”

While they have been accepting orders for textbooks, stationeries, and study material for competitive exams on calls, trade books have fared much worse. But he remains hopeful, saying that they have lately begun receiving calls for shayari and self-help books in Hindi.

What does the increasing availability of authors and online sessions portend for Hindi readership? Oddly, according to Prakash, the spate of live sessions on social media platforms caused a dip in demand for books due to over-exposure – something that has been unheard of in the Hindi literary world. With more and more authors available for engagement on social media, fewer people wanted the books.

The literary community in Hindi is very close-knit, and most regular readers are also writers and promoters. Prakash added: “What the community needs is a new and younger customer base that is not part of this closed circuit. It is through the burst of such new readership that the industry will grow organically…It is only the established names whose books still sell. The idea of discoverability is yet to be seized on by Hindi publishing.”

So, the question is, has the digital move helped brick-and-mortar stores at all? No, going by the experience of Paridrishya Prakashan, an extremely well-known bookstore in Mumbai. Established in 1992, the bookstore is the city’s home for all new releases in Hindi, old classics, and everything in between. “The lockdown has taken a toll on our economy and we may take more than a year to recover”, said the manager, Ram Kumar.

A series of literary webinars organised by colleges and independent organisations in the city met with a mixed response from the audience. Ram Kumar said: “These were very informal meet-and-greet events that would perhaps yield nothing. Internet connections were so poor and the presentation so rough that there wasn’t any seriousness in the entire exercise. There also aren’t any means to procure the books themselves. So how will these webinars help anyone?”

On the other hand, many writers have welcomed the break from the hustle to focus on finishing their writing projects. Satya Vyas, a young and popular Hindi author who is constantly on the bestseller charts, found the lockdown an ideal time to read, think, and write. But he agreed with Ram Kumar that there is a lack of imagination and storytelling in live-streaming programmes.

“Why should authors be caught doing small talk online? The public persona of an author requires a certain insight and realisation into the fact that readers are sensitive consumers and they are reading us not only for our books but also because of our literary personas. There is no emphasis on the latter.”

Vyas recently grabbed the limelight for filing a legal case against piracy of his books, a battle he won not just for himself but for many. “There is a difference between smart marketing and over-the-top marketing. What happened in the Hindi public sphere was the latter, where we forgot to draw the line. Readers might just feel exhausted by the way authors went on talking about their books and about themselves.”

While some have found the isolation a welcome time to think and write, many authors have complained of being unable to put their ideas into writing. Anushakti Singh, a first-time author whose book sold out before its launch at the New Delhi World Book Fair, 2020, found the lockdown particularly stressful as an author. “I am a single mother, and a professional. Suddenly, all the support system that helped me run my show like the house help, my son’s tutor, etc vanished. There was no time to read or write anything new.

The national award-winning author and art and music critic Yatindra Mishra invoked Nirmal Verma to sum up his lockdown experience. “Digital interaction made it an interesting phase for all of us. Self-discipline and focus were the key words. Now, as the world slowly moves back to a new normal, solitude and deep meditation are the need of the hour. As authors, editors and publishers, we need to read, write and edit more seriously because this new world will not be the same. Each one of us has to share greater responsibility.”

Ye public hai, sab janti hai

Understandably, at a time when most people have been constrained inside their homes, the demand for digital editions of Hindi books has visibly gone up. According to the latest Nielsen India report, audio book consumption has gone up by 7 hours per week during this period. The report observes that 20 per cent of respondents were reading more books in the print format, while more than 50 per cent of readers had started consuming books online.

Although the number of readers expected to buy books from brick-and-mortar stores as well as online platforms was higher than before the lockdown in each case, the percentage increase was higher for the latter. These trends were confirmed by audio-book publisher Storytel, who reported that their Hindi audience has increased by 200 per cent in the second quarter over the first quarter of the current year.

These numbers seem to indicate that the much-awaited digital revolution may have arrived, and the audience is now paying its undivided attention to the digital landscape. More importantly, these e-products have been inclusive and empowering for the deaf and the blind, more so as the production of Braille books is embarrassingly low in number. The focus, therefore, has to be on building the digital capital in Hindi publishing now as the brick-and-mortar stores gear up to reboot.

Ye safar bahut hai kathin magar na udaas ho mere humsafar

One of the biggest challenges for publishers during the pandemic has been to get the printing programme back on track. Printing presses are still struggling to bring back their workers to the city. Some small binding houses have already folded as they could not sustain their debts. “I have been paying my workers extra all through the lockdown to stay in Delhi because they wanted to send some money back home,” said Rajeev Kumar, owner of City Press. “But with barely five of them left here, as nearly twenty workers have gone back home, we have no idea how operations will come back on track,”

A ray of hope is that many large presses who did not entertain small print runs earlier – anything lower than 5,000 copies was a no-show – have begun to offer print-on-demand services to publishers. With cash flow at an all-time low, and little movement of stocks in the past few months, warehouses have barely any space for new inventory. In these circumstances, printing books in batches appears most viable.

Rajkamal hopes to release a new book every tenth day and focus on its publicity. Arun Maheshwari, whose Vani Bookstore in Patna opened for just two days in June for maintenance and stock counting, recorded a sale of over Rs 50,000. Although the Patna store was closed again and will reopen only once new guidelines have been issued, the Prayagraj store continues to run smoothly. Publishers and sellers are also receiving orders through WhatsApp and Telegram from remote parts of the country.

But what’s missing are conversations about a clear transformation of the way the industry functions. For example, no one in Hindi publishing has yet achieved what DC Books did in Kerala. In a stroke of brilliance, the leading Malayalam publisher tied up with the food delivery app, Swiggy, to home-deliver books in the midst of a pandemic. Do the Hindi heartland and other language ecosystems lack the imagination and the unity to create such options?

To attempt a revamping of our systems, publisher and co-director of Jaipur Book Mark, Neeta Gupta, started the Publisher’s Exchange online for Indian-language publishers during the lockdown. In one of its weekly e-meets, we hosted Paul Bijili Varghese, vice-president, Swiggy, to open channels of communication between Indian-language publishers and the multi-city food delivery app.

Typically, readers who go to Flipkart or Amazon are likely to see the entire English-language book selection. With Swiggy’s book-delivery service, local content can be highlighted and discovered by readers. This is exactly what publishers in Indian languages need.

Another important question is why the Hindi publishing industry hasn’t yet found a solution for the glaring technological gaps in the production of e-books. The current software like Adobe, InDesign or Corel are still not compatible with traditional Hindi fonts, identifying only Unicode fonts that have been rejected by readers and authors due to their low aesthetic appeal. As only text files produced in Unicode are suitable for e-books, Hindi publishers are still struggling to plug these two-pronged gaps that have considerably slowed down the production of Hindi e-books.

It has been made abundantly clear in the past few months that if Hindi-language publishing, once the home of perennial bestsellers, hopes to ride this tidal wave of changes, it has to adapt to the new world. There is an overall sentiment of hope, but this has to be accompanied by precautions, new investment into research and development, and, of course, unity.

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