Of the many books that document India’s post-Independence journey, Asa Ghatala Bharat stands out as the go-to book amongst Marathi IAS aspirants and journalists. Documenting the country’s progress between 1947 and 2013, it’s a voluminous work spanning 950 pages.

In today’s post-truth world, the book is still a bestseller. It’s one of the 570-and-odd books published by my family. We are a Marathi publishing house called Rohan Prakashan. Based in Pune and Mumbai, the firm goes back to the early 1980s.

Shortly after I was born in 1981, my grandfather Manohar Champanerkar, a well-known teacher and author in Maharashtra, founded and named the business after me. My father, Pradeep Champanekar, a print technologist from JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, worked with him right from the inception. Together, the Champanerkars lovingly crafted book after book. Today, our catalogue sells regularly across the state. As a child, I took part in publishing discussions with elders at home. My opinion was sought while thinking of book titles or new cover art.

Our home was a hive of activity, with a considerable impact on my upbringing. Among the friends of the family who would visit us at home were Marathi luminaries of film, drama, music, art and journalism. The famous author Bal Samant was close to my grandfather.

My education took me to engineering school and a job that lasted five years. By 27, I had started working evenings and weekends in the family business. In 2009, I took the plunge to go full time into the publishing world.

The good days

The first decade of the 2000s was the golden era for the Marathi publishing industry. Publishers put out print runs of 2000-3000 copies per title without a second thought, publishing both fiction and non-fiction with elan. Some publishers specialised in translations of mainstream titles.

There were, and still are, about 300 such publishers across the state. Estimates say there are some 200 independent bookshops primarily, if not exclusively, selling Marathi books. Then there are the book exhibitors who travel to small towns to set up pop-up book fairs. Yet another category – possibly an offshoot of book exhibitors – comprise a handful of individuals who sell books on social media platforms from their homes, sourcing titles directly from publishers or through independent shops.

The past decade, however, has not been kind to the Marathi publishing industry. A bevy of problems, including demonetisation and the Goods and Service Tax slowed down the progress of the previous ten years. And then the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the brutal second wave, changed everything drastically.

Consider the sale of books in the districts without a significant presence of bookshops. There are some government-sanctioned libraries or reading spaces as part of educational institutes. For many years, exhibitors would travel to Ahmednagar, Satara, Aurangabad, Nashik, and other districts to set up travelling book fairs, covering both well-populated and remote areas.

They would normally rent a hall and display titles for up to a month at a time. Almost all purchases by local readers were made in cash. Demonetisation was the first factor that damaged their sales. Over time, hall rents increased when GST was added. As months went by, droughts and famines resulted in a higher rate of farmer suicides. When we called our retailers, they told us no one wanted books anymore, they just wanted clean drinking water.

And so the plight of the book exhibitor became one of the biggest setbacks for the industry. One could say that the bleeding had begun in pre-pandemic days, and the first and second waves only accelerated the decline. For instance, in the aftermath of the second wave, two sellers who could give a publisher about Rs 1 lakh worth of business a month shut shop and went back to farming in their hometowns.

Bookshops, too, have faced the brunt of the pandemic, forcing owners to innovate. Recently, for example, a Dombivli-based bookshop in Mumbai shut down, with the owner rebranding his outlet as a grocery store

A difficult shift

Of course, not all the bookshops sat back and waited for the inevitable. Some have found a way to continue with sales even during the second wave. An Aurangabad-based bookshop started selling online, and in the process, the owners have managed to save their retail brick and mortar business. This tells us is that in the teeth of a global pandemic there is still a market for books, but one has to both understand how to tap into it and have the capacity and ability for it.

Much has been made of the digital divide, especially in the light of the slow nationwide vaccination process. In the Marathi publishing industry, it is only the bookstores which can afford to go online that have managed to survive. This is because setting up a website to sell regional books online requires technical know-how beyond simply using a smartphone. The offerings have to attract the book buyer.

Considerable time, effort and energy go into cataloging books correctly. This is not the case with every publisher, bookshop or exhibitor in the state. Not everyone has access to the Internet on a computer and a good camera, both of which are integral to the cataloging process. Moreover, certain skills are required to use Excel sheets for bulk uploads and to fix bugs. The situation is unfortunate, since many excellent and important books end up falling through the cracks, simply because they do not appear online.

The e-book boom from the first wave has not come back in 2021. During the second wave, people prefer streaming movies or shows online to reading on a mobile device. The sale of physical books is primarily online now. Publishers and bookstore owners alike are still required to pay rent. Backlist titles are now being sold more than before, along with repeats of even older titles.

Social distancing and the second wave of the pandemic has also seen the end of the book exhibitor. They were crucial to sales as they physically went to readers with their stock of books. For customers who needed to see the book in front of them before choosing to buy, they were a boon, now lost forever.

Social distancing also means that the yearly Akhil Bharitya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan held every January has now been postponed indefinitely. The event is an opportunity to showcase new releases to readers. There are also opportunities for conversations with publishers about genres, new authors and experiments in book publishing. All of them are now missing.

Held in a different city every year, the Marathi literary festival has travelled to Pune, Thane, Satara, Yavatmal, and Nashik, to name a few. There were discussions led by authors and poets, and bookstalls aplenty, similar to the ones at Pragati Maidan in Delhi or the Boi Mela in Kolkata. The city authorities subsidised costs for 350 participants to put up books over three days.

The local media covered these in a big way. Approximately 25,000 people from across the state attend the festival. January 2020 was the last time the Akhil Bharitya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan was held, in Osmanabad.

Hoping against hope

Some Marathi publishers have a messaging group for discussing matters pertinent to the industry. Through our publishers’ association, we have written to Uddhav Thackeray, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, requesting the state to add books to the list of essential items. We have also written to the authorities about the ever-increasing problem of book piracy. Individuals are selling bootlegged PDFs on messaging apps to unsuspecting customers. All of these have added to the challenges we are currently facing.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been like an ongoing tsunami for the Marathi publishing industry. There is a stark contrast between the two lockdowns and the ramifications of each. During the first lockdown, there was hope that the crisis would end soon. The idea was to revive the business and invest extra money in different ways, involving everyone concerned.

Publishers on the above-mentioned group decided unanimously that their establishments would serve as different points of contact. At thirty-five different locations across the state, they put up exhibitions late last year with a variety of titles at attractive discounts. The response was encouraging, and they had planned to host another such event in March 2021. Unfortunately, this was halted with the return of the virus in full force, but we are optimistic about trying this once again when the situation improves.

With the first wave came hope, but the second has brought a lot of introspection. We now wonder how long we – the Marathi publishing industry – can go on like this. We don’t wish to lose our employees, or the teams of editors and artists that we have built over a long period of time. These questions, of course, do not take into account the personal tragedy that people from all walks of life in the Marathi publishing industry have suffered in the wake of the second wave. Despite everything, we are still optimistic that things will return to normal one day. Until then the goal is simply to weather the storm, both in the air and on the ground.

As told to Aman Misra.

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