For the last seven years Santanu Chowdhury has been trying to preach the gospel of e-books. He’s gone around College Street, Kolkata’s legendary Boi-para or neighbourhood of books, meeting Bengali publishers and trying to persuade them to diversify into e-books. Several major publishers have given him some content but their interest has been more polite than passionate.

The Covid-19 pandemic lockdown changed everything.

“What I could not do trudging up and down College Street for seven years, the pandemic has done in three months,” said Chowdhury. “We have sold 20 times more in the last few months than in the last two years on Google Play.”

Chowdhury, who has had a long career as a technologist at IBM, is co-founder of Swiftboox, which has a proprietary process to digitise content and distribute it. It comes with its own reader and an Android app it just launched this February. An iOS app is in the works.

Amidst all the devastation unleashed by Covid-19 and the economic lockdown, e-books might be a glimmer of a silver lining for the Bengali publishing industry.

Dip Ghosh is one of the moving spirits behind Kalpabiswa, a portal devoted to sci-fi and fantasy in Bengali. They started e-books in 2018 and had almost no sales. Now they are selling 50 times as much. “We did an experiment during the lockdown,” said Ghosh. “For seven days we made seven e-books free. On average we had 1000 downloads a day.” But he said what’s more important than profit is creating a market.

Debjyoti Bhattacharyya is the founder of Joydhak, a children’s magazine which became a webzine in 2007. In 2017 he started a publishing arm – Joydhak Publications. In 2020 he ventured into e-books. “I did Unicode from the beginning,” said Bhattacharyya. “But I needed the proper business window to make it commercially viable. Corona provided that window.”

Technical trouble

The reluctance of Bengali publishers to wholeheartedly embrace e-books isn’t just about lethargy. With 228 million native speakers, Bengali ranks 7th among the most-spoken languages in the world, but Amazon’s Kindle which recently started enabled the sale of Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam editions has not yet done the same for Bengali. Naturally, readers and publishers are not happy – there’s actually a petition asking Amazon to support Bengali.

Ghosh said they’ve even written to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Amazon trots out stock replies about continually working to expand its reach, but there are larger issues at play. Bangladesh is closed to Kindle. There are copyright enforcement issues. Also, frankly, the Bengali e-book ecosystem is weak. “The Kindle is just a point of sale,” explained Chowdhury. “Amazon is not in the business of handholding to help you develop the ecosystem.”

When he embarked on Swiftboox he found many publishers did not use Unicode fonts. They were not archiving their content digitally. Some publishers were not even using standard digital formats for producing their print editions. But there were reasons beyond the technological for their reluctance.

“Publishers worry that if e-books sell, their hardcover sales will fall,” said Ghosh. They think e-books are easier to pirate. At one time conversion was prohibitively expensive, said Esha Chatterjee, publisher at Patra Bharati and Bee Books. “It would cost us Rs 30-35 a page to convert to epub, [the popular e-book file format]. For a 500-page book this was too expensive, because you can’t price e-books so high.”

It was just easier for publishers to create a PDF – which they have to anyway to print the book – call it an e-book, and be done with it. They could – and did – sell it on the Kindle, because Amazon cannot check the fonts on what is just an image corresponding to each page of the book.

Piracy and innovation

In fact, PDFs have given e-books a bad name. They are uncomfortable to read, the fonts don’t re-flow and adapt to different devices, and their pages cannot be bookmark the way readers are used to with e-books. But publishers do not realise that e-books, thanks to Digital Rights Management, are actually far more secure than PDFs which can be easily passed around.

Facebook groups like Molat with over 60,000 members, are all about sharing PDFs of Bengali books. Nilkhet, Dhaka’s famous book market, churns out printed copies of bestsellers from West Bengal that look identical to their Kolkata cousins, thanks to easily available PDFs. Scanned PDFs are uploaded within a year, said Ghosh.

“PDFs will always be there,” he said, “But if we give people an alternative, perhaps many of them will switch to e-books because they are easier to read.” Also, he added, publishers should realise that all over the world, e-books have not wiped out the printed books market the way many had feared.

Even the technology has got easier. Joydhak uses freeware like calibre to create e-books. And there’s a jugaad solution now to get around the Amazon roadblock. Take Bangladeshi-American entrepreneur Riton Khan, who has had his own imprint since 2012: Boier Hut has some 40 titles out and another 70 in the pipeline, including well-known writers like Sahitya Akademi award winner Amar Mitra.

Khan works with both publishers and authors, offering them generous royalties though book prices are as low as a dollar or two. And he sells them on Amazon’s Kindle store. But there’s a catch. If you look at the product information it says the language is English, as Amazon still does not support Bengali.

Until it does, said Chatterjee, you have to pretend your book is in English, and hope Amazon will not take you down. The alternative is to jump through cumbersome hoops to sell Bengali e-books. “You make an epub and put the book up for sale. The customer sends you the money through a bank transfer. Then you send the book to their Kindle email (but that also means Amazon will not guarantee the security it does when you buy directly from them). It is too difficult to scale up.”

But every little bit counts, say e-book evangelists. Joydhak started out as a children’s magazine but the books that Bhattacharyya publishes run the gamut from science fiction to the life story of a Dalit activist doctor. Bhattacharyya said e-books have supplemented his print market rather than eaten into it. “Now we have a footprint in 68 countries. That was beyond my imagination.”

Bhattacharya has everything from Sri Ramakrishna’s Kathamrit Kathamrita, through the entire collection of novelist and sports writer Moti Nandi sportswriter Moti Nandi’s works, to sci-fi fantasy. He found a history written by the revolutionary leader Abinash Chandra Bhattacharya from his time in Germany trying to foment revolution against the British Raj around 1914-1917. “The British had destroyed all copies, his descendant said no-one descendants said no one would be interested in the story but I published it because it deserved deserves to be out there there, whether or not it sells in huge numbers,” he said.

Oddly, e-books have even nudged up his Bhattacharya’s print sales. He’s heard from people who read the e-book samples and bought a hard copy. E-books allow publishers to try out experiments and take risks. Swiftboox has launched self-publishing e-book-only portal. There’s a thriller based on Hindustani classical music and short stories about enterprising thieves. Writers get 75% royalty. They are bringing out books that support the EPUB3 format which allows streaming of audio and video. In a children’s book, Chhaata, the young reader can “turn” pages and read and listen to the stories.

Here to stay?

The big question is whether this newfound interest in Bengali e-books will outlive the pandemic. “I think e-books will remain because someone sitting in Lucknow has now gotten used to reading his book on his mobile during the lockdown,” says Joydhak’s Bhattacharyya. Dip Ghosh says even publishers who were pessimistic about e-books 5 months ago are putting at least some of their backlists out in digital format.

Kalpabiswa has invested the money they made in e-books into print books for the future. A Facebook group called Bangla Ebook has daily posts about e-book news including e-versions of what used to be a much-awaited favourite – the Durga Puja literary annuals. But although she says e-book sales shot up over 100 percent during the lockdown, Chatterjee still does not see Patra Bharati releasing a book on the Kindle first, the way some English publishers have done during the lockdown.

Chowdhury is also bracing for a future where Amazon Kindle with its tough pricing strategies might enter the market. His own e-book reader, while adequate, will struggle against the sheer mindspace Kindle occupies. But on the plus side, he could become a content provider – his books are already Kindle-ready. Still, he’s cautious. He has learned the hard way that the buzz about e-books does not necessarily translate into actual investment. But he hopes that publishers have finally understood the need to have a Plan B at least for unforeseen events like a pandemic.

“Bengalis are very sentimental about the touch and feel of books,” said Chowdhury. “I too have 5,000 books at home. But the fact remains that you are not selling paper, you are selling content.” The Bengali e-books market is still minuscule. But size isn’t everything. As Chowdhury says “Most importantly the mindset of ‘e-book korbo na’ (we won’t do e-books) has changed.” And the pandemic has provided just the nudge that was needed.

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