“Have you stopped publishing books?” This is a question I am often asked these days. The declining output of the printed word is apparent in these pandemic times. However, the reasons why are not as apparent.
For almost 14 years, Goa,1556 has focused on publishing Goan writing. Ours is a small, niche venture, named after the accidental arrival of the first printing press in Asia, in Goa, some 464 years ago. It was a product of years of frustration and yearning, considering how difficult it was to get a truly “Goan book” published.
This year, we have had to tackle new, unexpected challenges. Blame it on the pandemic alone? No, I wouldn’t. These challenges faced by the small independents in India have been coming for some time now. The year 2020 might have been a watershed one for tiny players in publishing – but not necessarily in a bad way.
The challenges in Goa
Unlike Kerala, Goa doesn’t have sustained reading and publishing movements. Nor have readership campaigns and author cooperatives been established over the decades. Ahandful of home-grown publishers has cropped up here thanks to the prior-mentioned publishing courses held by the National Book Trust in 2005 and 2012.
Unlike Maharashtra, Goa doesn’t have a string of libraries and well-oiled networks for librarians. A librarians’ movement was active in the 1990s, but only briefly. Goa currently has a couple of big, impressive showpiece libraries – one in Panjim and another outside Margao – but they lie mostly dormant.
Of course, Goa’s story is only part of a wider economic reality. The optimism that imbued the field of publishing across India a decade ago has been evaporating quickly. At the national level too, publishers in India have even had to struggle to get ISBN numbers, although the situation seems to have improved somewhat now.
The optimism regarding the role that made-in-India books could play on a global scale, which was palpable till a few years ago, now seems to have all but vanished. On the other hand, the feeling is strong that much of the country (except the metros) is a desert when it comes to the creation of locally-relevant books. This is especially true in the case of books written and published in English; regional book publishing has gained strength in larger states and markets.
In Goa, there are other challenges too. Printing facilities have not been improved sufficiently in the region. One still gets a better deal (in terms of both price and quality) outside the state, but to take advantage of this, one has to go in for print-runs of at least a thousand copies. Goa’s small market cannot sustain those numbers. Publishers concede that a thousand copies of fiction could take between seven and 10 years to sell.
The role of the state in promoting the reading habit can be questioned too. Crores of rupees have been collected by way of a library cess levied on liquor sales, but politicians and decision-makers prefer to spend it on concrete rather than paper. Creating and consuming books is neglected.
In addition, a fairly helpful pre-publication scheme offered by the Goan Government’s Directorate of Arts and Culture has changed for the worse. Earlier, it helped authors with grants of up to Rs 25,000. Today, the DoAC requires authors to first publish their books and then apply for a Rs 50,000 grant. Instead of a safety net, we have ended up with a lottery.
Goa’s library network buys up to 90-100 copies of every locally published book, which is helpful. But this applies only if the book is priced at Rs 200 or less. If the book is more expensive, much fewer copies are purchased. This cut-off pricing point was fixed at least a decade and a half ago. Inflation has made such support meaningless.
Attitude makes a difference too. Book published outside Goa are often seen as superior to locally published ones. Literary events are guilty of meting out stepmotherly treatment to the locals. In recent times, Goa has become the favoured destination for prominent Indian writers to rent a holiday house or even settle for good. This makes for a good media story, but doesn’t help to promote the local writing culture. On the contrary, it leads to a stronger temptation to discuss “bigger” writers and their work at literary fests or online events.
The need for hyper-local publishing is very real.
Having been a journalist since 1983, often contributing to outstation media, I have long found it tough to convince editors about the “relevance” of my stories. Editors separated by distance are reluctant to “give space” to small regions like Goa. News or books, the challenges are the same. After all, these are hard economic decisions, linked to the size of the potential market.
In the past, authors who didn’t like the options available had no choice but to self-publish. Savia Viegas has narrated how she innovated to sell copies of her novel on beaches of the Salcete coast to visiting tourists.
Expressing creativity has been an uphill struggle. But necessity led to innovation.
Many others have joined in a multipronged drive to rebuild publishing in Goa, which was once the home of Gutenberg-style printing in Asia centuries ago. A few came in as book reviewers. Even if serious discussions on new books were lacking, page-3-style coverage of authors could draw attention. Some ventured into the trade as book-sellers – this includes Leonard Fernandes of DogEars Bookshop, who trained as an engineer and studied management in the US.
Some established book clubs, both online and offline, and some started literary print journals (including the initiatives of the efficient children’s library, Bookworm). During the pandemic, some book clubs – like the ones at Margao and Calangute – focused on online initiatives. The Goa Book Club has been active since 2010. It focusses solely on books written in Goa and about Goa, and in any language, since this a multilingual state.
The role of Goa, 1556
In the early 1980s, then a fresher in college, I started collecting the few books on Goa that were available. Every title was carefully collated, even if vaguely related to the place. That collection spans over 2000 titles today, and helps one understand this small but complex region.
Then, a few years later, I started reviewing books written on Goa. Subsequently, meetings organised online by the Goan diaspora proved to be helpful venues for authors to release their books. Around 2005, the National Book Trust held the first of two short-term book publishing courses in Goa, and this gave the much needed push for some of us to get into small-time indie publishing.
As we like to argue, Goa,1556 is “publishing Goa... not by accident”. We’ve managed to publish over 140 reasonably successful titles. A few have been noticed too. Our books include a history of Goan food, village histories, an anthology on Goan literature, well-crafted works by foreign scholars on Goa’s globally-influenced history, and titles on Goa’s musical traditions.
Our work has been appreciated by readers across the state, but not limited to the Goan diaspora; scholars from as far away as Brazil and Canada and many discerning Indian readers who wished to understand Goa beyond the stereotypical hype have responded.
We have had our weaknesses too. Royalty payments have been a problem, as has completing books within intended deadlines. The subject line of an email sent to over two dozen recipients by one of our authors was “The Crook”. The author in question was aggrieved about his royalty payment and some other aspects of book production.
There were other challenges too. We had to fund the books. We had to sell them in a state so small that one can drive from one end to the other within a couple of hours. Moreover, book-distribution channels are largely non-existent in Goa. The lack of a market of sufficient size, limited libraries in operation, and poor awareness about books on Goa only further complicated matters.
Even if book publishing offers very slow, and small, returns – most don’t realise this – it does have the potential to change the way we see things. Undeniably, it redefines society and our understanding of it. Books build knowledge that is relevant to our communities.
Because we chose to be editorially agnostic, the Goa story was told from diverse angles through our publications. Freedom fighter Prabhakar Sinari’s perspective on the Liberation of Goa is diametrically different from the take of advocate Jorge Colaco, whereas the blunt narration of the same events of 1961 by Dr Suresh Kanekar earned praise even from those on the other side of the Liberation fence.
Our limitation has been language though. While we have the occasional book in Portuguese, Konkani and even in Marathi or Spanish (written by an expatriate author who is part-Goan), most are in English. Sadly.
Finding new solutions
Even in the pandemic, we’ve still had authors who prefer to go the unusual, Goa,1556 way. More help materialised during the lockdown. A few authors were willing to experiment with ebook versions and the Creative Commons licence. This held out the promise that digital copies of their work would reach a wider set of online readers, and for free. Rather than shrinking the market for a book, the Creative Commons approach – which allows free republication with credit – can help reach more readers and draw enhanced attention. Some of this, we felt, could surely convert into sales.
One interesting case during the lockdown was that of an old, 1970s book, which the Creative Commons licence helped go viral. The Wise Fools of Moira and Other Goan Folk Tales by Professor Lucio Rodrigues is getting wider recognition now after being published as an ebook.
Ebooks also helped address and alleviate the challenge of distributing books in the lockdown. During the period, we came out with a handful of ebooks, some also released under the Creative Commons licence, making them free to read online. This might not seem logical when viewed against the current publishing paradigm, but it did help promote useful (apart from touristy) books on a mostly-overlooked region. Currently, we are also looking at alternatives to Digital Rights Management to promoting ebooks.
Crowdfunding is another useful initiative, wherein instead of the reader paying for the book, supporters of the work take on the burden. One successful case was that of Ahmed Bunglowala, the author who created the unique Indian detective character called Shorty Gomes (set in the fast-changing Bandra of the 1970s).
Bunglowala wrote to about forty of his friends, seeking sponsorship for a new edition of his book. Three dozen responded positively and contributed the suggested Rs 2000 each. They were acknowledged in the edition and given author-signed copies and a token present. The book paid for itself even before a single copy was printed. Currently, a similar initiative is being used for a book of popular traditional and party songs in Goa’s Konkani language. Two more books – on Goan music and food – are using this model, and the first has already met with some success.
Other initiatives were attempted during the lockdown. Some weeks ago, young volunteers took part in a “Goa book cover challenge”. They posted images of local book covers online, along with fifty-word descriptions. This idea, adapted from others on Facebook, sparked awareness about a number of books on Goa.
Even in the pre-lockdown period, Goa, 1556 tried every trick in the book to ensure the publications paid for themselves. Sometimes we co-published with bookshops (which worked fairly well for some time, with reduced risks). At other times, we co-published with institutions. Small grants given by the Goa Government to prospective authors helped.
The year of change
The pandemic year has forced us to reinvent ourselves. The otherwise reliable postal system ground to a halt. With transport systems shutting down too, we could not depend on books getting printed 600 kms away. Lockdown schedules, random and politicised in Goa especially, also underlined that alternatives needed to be determined, and quickly.
The schedule of the lockdown was erratic and came without warning. At one stage, despite having zero cases of Covid-19 at the time, Goa seemed to be trying to outdo the stringency of the nationwide lockdown, going from a “janta curfew”, through a state lockdown, to a national lockdown. This only added to the monthly pressures of planning and organising book releases, getting the printed books back to Goa on time, and fighting the end-of-the-year Christmas seasonal rush.
Since then we have changed gears quite a bit. Our numbers have dropped sharply from the 10-14 books published every year. But these numbers – like the number of Covid 19 cases – do not tell the whole story. The overall goal of Goa,1556 is to facilitate and encourage more local texts to emerge – it does not matter if this is achieved through direct means or indirect.
There is still a pressing need for books to be created in a small place like Goa. This is not a cry for nativism; it is an assertion that all societies – however small – have a right to find their voice. My guess is that such concerns would be relevant in many other parts of India too, even if not voiced as such.
Goa might feel this more strongly. From being at the heart of printing in Asia in the sixteenth century, the state has unfortunately been been relegated to a distant periphery.
Pandemic 2020 helped us understand the need to move on to using more sustainable models, to avoid getting trapped in the growing demand of author expectations and instead build a scalable system of production. A pandemic-based view of book publishing gives a more realistic hint of the situation in Goa. Hype apart – don’t believe all those over-optimistic views about the growth of Goa as a literary hub – the region is still fighting to promote the books it really needs.
This is not a time to lose hope. It’s a time to think hard and find alternatives. After all, more so now than before, small societies need their books.
Will initiatives like Goa,1556 survive the pandemic? Will the dream carry on? It should, and it must. Some of the changes are welcome and long overdue. Even those that have been forced upon small independent publishers might work for the better.
The past few months have offered time to think about the strengths and limitations of the old model. We must rejig the options of book publishing, and reconsider what we do, and how much of it. But we need to ensure ideas and information emerge through the written text.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.