In 2020, as India began to unlock after four phases of nationwide lockdown, I sent a copy of my Gujarati translation of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems to a bibliophile friend and waited for three days, after the courier service confirmed the delivery, to hear from him. That long silence of someone whom I had known to be a voracious reader, one who would stay up all night to finish a book, clearly intrigued me, so much so that I could not help enquiring with him on phone.
He said he had put the envelope in a three-day mandatory quarantine and not touched it so far. This physical distancing of a book from its reader metaphorically summed up for me the crisis the publishing industry was undergoing on account of the most mercurial and macabre pandemic.
This friend of mine, like many of the old-school readers, related to a book in terms of its tactile and olfactory features, something he would be scared to indulge in now even after the quarantine period. His behaviour finds official confirmation in the findings of Nielsen Book India’s survey, according to which COVID-19 brought about gradational shift in the reader’s preferred modes of purchasing books. For a locked-down book consumer, the most preferred way was to buy online, next came physical stores and home delivery of books was the last resort.
Add to this the “social” distancing of readers from institutions (schools, colleges and public/private libraries) that, in addition to the trove of books, offer silence, space, and a reading experience, and what you get is a dystopian scenario in the publishing world, made more real by the terrifying second wave of the pandemic.
On the brighter side, the Nielsen study discovered a palpable increase in the consumption of books and weekly reading diet of readers during and around the lockdown. While many respondents in the all-India study could be keen book lovers, whether the lockdown had triggered a similar response in Gujarat, a state well-known for its mercantile ethos, should be a subject of careful enquiry.
Historically, Gujarati has not commanded a strong reading public or a robust reading culture, the way Bangla did, for instance, which is reflected not only in the inadequacy of required infrastructure but also in public attitudes towards the idea of investing in books. Once, a well-educated and upper middle-class employee of a Chartered Accountants’ firm asked me quizzically what I would do with all those books in my personal library. Read them, I said. Not satisfied with the reply, he persisted, and after that?
Apoorva Ashar, the originator of e-Shabda, a digital publication initiative to bridge the gulf between Gujarati books and online readership, confirmed a significant increase in footfall during the period. Since its inception in 2014, e-Shabda has digitised about a thousand books by established Gujarati authors, published by five associated publishers, and put them online for sale.
“During the lockdown, e-Shabda provided anyone who registered through its app free access to four hundred books on the portal,” he said. “We hoped this would kindle the interest of readers, redouble our popularity and encourage readers to purchase more and more books. But while readership increased substantially, it didn’t translate into a comparable surge in sales.”
How the big players survived
The situation with printed books has not been too heartening either. After the lockdown there was a thirty percent spike in production costs, mostly on account of an increase in the cost of paper. Krunal Malik, the owner of Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Sahitya Mandir, said, “A fear psychosis drove people to opt out of different kinds of subscriptions, including newspaper, weeklies and magazine, something which led to a great scarcity of the recyclable raw material which, along with fresh wood, goes into the manufacturing of paper used for books.”
Demand for printed books has remained sluggish throughout the year as educational institutions remained closed, grants-in-aid were slashed, and purchasing power hit a pit owing to a general slump in the economy. Vivek Desai, the managing trustee of Navjivan Trust, said sales have nosedived by 20-25 percent in the pandemic year, and the decline will have been steeper for small publishers.
The direness of the situation becomes clear on examining the drop in the annual turnovers of printers, which ranged from 60% to 90%. Rakesh Desai, the proprietor of Ahmedabad-based Chandrika Printers, rued the fact that, unable to cope with the crisis, as many as twelve magazines have folded since the lockdown began, including well-known ones like Naya Marg, Paritran and Vishwakarma Jagat. “The magazines still in operation have axed their print run, while not a single order from private publishers has been received in the past one year,” he added.
However, the bigger publishing houses, with their ears to the ground, sound distribution networks, and loyal readerships, seem to have weathered the storm better. Chintan Sheth, the third-generation owner of publishers RR Sheth & Co, said it took him almost a month and half to understand what the pandemic had in store for the industry and accordingly map out a coherent and comprehensive plan of action.
“As a part of the coping strategy, we scaled up all production processes in online mode, from 30% pre-pandemic to 100% now,” said Sheth. “We also modified our website for booklovers to have a seamless purchasing experience, from browsing to free home delivery. The end-result is that we could publish 320 titles in the pandemic year with a negligible dip of about 10-15% in sales figures.”
Though pandemic woes have been very real for the entire industry, publishers with relatively little third-party dependence have been hurt only marginally. Navbharat Sahitya Mandir, another major player, averted doomsday thanks to the its self-reliance for almost 90% of its work.
Navbharat’s Malik feels people are fed up with streaming services and over-the-top content platforms, and want to read books. What is required, then, is to feel the readers’ pulse, find a way to reach out to them, and strategise accordingly. During the lockdown, Navbharat launched a scheme under which readers could place online orders at a 50% discount, which was borne by the publisher and the author equally.
“Despite the fact that delivery of orders would be made only once the lockdown was over, readers came forward to buy books, at times in large numbers, because the proceeds were to go to Prime Minister’s Relief Fund,” said Malik. “That the trust of our readers, won over forty years of innovative, ethical and qualitative publishing, could be translated into a contribution for a national cause is immensely gratifying.”
Even as the heavy second surge in infections threatens to throw publishing out of kilter, many in the domain don’t see e-books as a viable alternative to printed books. First, the cost of production involved in the conversion of the book into a variety of formats – epub, Kindle, plain encrypted PDF, etc – including font conversion, screen adaptability and so on is generally prohibitive.
Then there is the problem of piracy. Ashar said readers often break the lock on e-books, pass them around literary circles and on social networking websites, exulting in the act as part of a knowledge democratising mission. It is on this account that many Gujarati authors are resistant to this non-tangible, mercurial entity, Malik added.
Kamal Vora, editor of the reputed Mumbai-based literary journal Etad, and an active associate of research and publication centre Kshitij, offered a ponderable set of reasons for not going digital. “Most of the six hundred subscribers of Etad are seniors and college libraries; the seniors are more comfortable holding a book, and one journal can be accessible to hundreds of students in an institutional library. In the melee of information on a digiscape, making an impact with genuine literature can be quite a task.”
Though Vora agreed that the two digital issues of the journal published during and after the lockdown achieved greater market penetration, the digital medium, he’s convinced, is in a fluid state compared to the printed word, which leaves behind a clear footprint, with its contours and curves, that is indispensable for writing the history of literature.
With the looming uncertainty about the course the pandemic will take after the second wave (sealed borders, reverse migration, movement restriction, economic erosion), the strategic deployment and promotion of e-books can certainly help cushion the crisis. But it is easier said than done unless state or state-sponsored institutions like Sahitya Akademy and Gujarati Sahitya Parishad commission digitisation in project mode.
The governments at the state and central levels can adopt several measures to keep publishing afloat, such as recognising books as essential products, enacting piracy prevention laws, subsidising costs, offering tax breaks, and facilitating liquidity for small publishers. But not many in the sector are optimistic about the efficacy of state support, even when it is forthcoming.
“Under the bail-out package,” Rakesh Desai complained, “the government had promised quick, collateral-free business loans to those registered under MSME. However, on the floor of a bank, one encounters a different reality.”
A clue to the realisation of the democratising project of equal and easy access to books for all, situated on either side of class, caste, gender and other divides, can be found metaphorically in Arun Kolatkar’s decision to pirate his own book Jejuri by passing around photocopies when the original remained out of print for long.
In the gospel of the publishing world, to pirate is to blaspheme, but let’s not forget that the secret to the survival and transmission of the coronavirus is self-copying. Publishing could be poised for its own transformative pandemic.
Hemang Desai is a bilingual poet, translator, editor and literary critic working in Gujarati and English.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.