The problem with Indian publishing: State apathy, sales-driven editorial strategy, lack of accurate data
Indian publishing, dominated by education and struggling to function through a lack of data, suffers the consequences of a state hostile to publishing and apathetic to the dissemination of knowledge.
Easily, the biggest barrier faced by the Indian publishing industry is that there is a startling lack of data about it.
According to industry insiders, women seem to be leading the way in Indian publishing, with non-fiction in India being dominated by them.
A study of consumption of textbooks across the public sector suggests that the government is not invested in the idea of encouraging public education.
In the mid-70s, Padma Shri recipient Urvashi Butalia, founder of the independent feminist publishing house Zubaan Books and author of The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India started out in the publishing industry with textbooks, working as a paster-upper at Oxford University Press. At the end of the colonial rule, as part of the industry’s move to Indianise textbooks, her job included cutting out the type-set names Ram and Sita, and pasting them onto the generic English names of John and Mary that were used in textbooks. An artist would also alter the illustrations, turning blue eyes and blond hair black, sometimes darkening faces, and cutting off the tops of double-decker buses – because seemingly nowhere in India, besides Bombay, were those plying at the time. And the textbook would be ready for Indian students. “Kind of laughable, but also in today’s context, kind of sinister,” she remarks about this Indianisation.
Today, textbooks face more serious changes, since rising nationalism alters the meaning of Indianisation, inching it closer to saffronisation. This pressure brings with it uncertainty about the changing nature of the content, and confusion around orders passed by the government. “They’re trying to change the course of the textbook,” says Naresh Khanna, editor of the trade journal Indian Printer and Publisher. But the process is largely incoherent. “I talk to people who tell me that the orders have not come, the payments have not come,” Khanna informs.
The sanctity of the historical narrative is further threatened by the fact that “India was always a short-run country.” Indian printers have traditionally been flexible, printing as few as 100 or 200 copies of a book. This means personalised textbooks for a small group of students — a practice common in Indian education publishing, furnished with information that the teacher thinks best. For instance, “In a small town in Bihar, you’ll have a study circle of 20 people, where a special book is produced, maybe 20, 50 or 100 copies. It’s a made-to-order book,” says Khanna.
Besides political pressure affecting content, a study of the consumption of textbooks across the public sector suggests that the government is not invested in the idea of encouraging public education. A recent report about education publishing, a comparison of development trends between India and Bangladesh by IPP Star, reveals a startling fact. “Our survey looks at the entire textbook industry of India and Bangladesh, and the surprising thing that we discovered is that in 2019, Bangladesh consumed 1.6 times the number of textbooks that India consumed,” Khanna says. Given the greater Indian population and higher growth rate of population, this plainly points to the money Bangladesh has been spending on public education. “The data that we uncovered shows that the textbook consumption in India among government schools is flat,” Khanna says, adding that spikes in the graph only appear when there’s a change in curriculum.
This neglect stands in strong contrast to the flourishing private education sector, and reflects the growing economic divide in the country. With subsidised government textbooks, students in the public sector use books whose quality is fast deteriorating. “They’re using cheaper, more and more inferior paper,” says Khanna. “While private education in India is booming.” The production of private school textbooks is high, and valuable "because they are sold. You bribe the principal, you bribe the teacher, that’s how the book is sold."
While several states are considering modernising their textbook infrastructure through accommodating technological changes, it’s “not for a good reason". "Not to produce books, which are better and cheaper, but because with new technology, they have a chance to make some money,” says Khanna.
At least since Urvashi Butalia entered English language publishing, it has been dominated by education. Trade publishing in India, historically, has taken up a relatively smaller proportion. With few bookshops, the primary source for books were the pavement stalls where junked remainders from abroad were smuggled into India and sold. These establishments still exist today, representing the menace of piracy the industry faces. A small publisher in the 70s attested to the value of the books imported from the West; books that were a novelty there remained relevant for anywhere between one and two decades in India. So, when the early-90s saw the devaluation of the rupee against the dollar, importing books became relatively expensive, and the number of units coming in reduced.
This created space for Indian publishers to experiment and develop the vibrant landscape of independent publishing, by encouraging diverse books and writers — a culture that still thrives today.
Important moments that serve as historic benchmarks can be identified, — ones responsible for English language publishing bursting into a more widespread, public consciousness. Among these are the publishing and popularity of RK Narayan, Penguin beginning to publish locally, publication of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy (1993), Arundhati Roy’s Man Booker Prize for The God of Small Things (1997), the entry of major international players like Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Bloomsbury, as they recognised the potential of the Indian market. These were followed by the phenomenon of witnessing commercial bestsellers by authors like Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi, and later, a decline in brick-and-mortar chain stores after the advent of online booksellers like Flipkart, and later Amazon.
Bestsellers today sell the highest numbers the industry has ever seen, and several mainstream publishers try to find the next big bestseller. A formula exists for the writing and marketing of these books, and in these instances sales teams, instead of editorial departments, dictate the content that will be published. Additionally, the Indian publishing industry has no definition for a bestseller. A publisher who sells 10,000 copies of a book can claim the book to be a bestseller, much like one that sells 100,000 copies of another book. “The bestseller category is something that has come in [India] really from outside,” says Butalia, adding that with no centralised parameter to quantify the success of a book in the country, “these categories are just made up out of nothing really.”
While on the other hand independent publishers’ decisions are not always guided by what sells the most, and are instead ideologically dictated, their books are impacted by a type of moral censorship rampant in the country today. These are the “moral bodies, that are sort of self-appointed guards of morality, who jump up and down,” says Butalia. A recent example of this is the injunction on Juggernaut’s Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev by Priyanka Pathak-Narain, the case that is now moving to the Supreme Court. Although all publishers face this challenge, in instances when smaller publishers do not have the resources to fight legal battles, they must concede to this unofficial moral censorship.
Added to these is another strong challenge for publishers today: price point and accessibility. When the GST (Goods and Services Tax) was introduced, publishers mobilised and fought against GST being applied to books, not wanting an 18 per cent increase in book prices, eventually winning. However, every service a publisher avails to produce a book came with the additional 18 per cent charge, shrinking their margins. Further, the introduction of the reverse tax mechanism means that publishers are responsible to pay a 12 per cent tax on authors’ royalties. Together, this spells a 30 per cent increase in costs, but since buyers are enormously resistant to price increases, such hikes in taxation result in a much smaller margin for the publisher, putting them under a considerable amount of pressure.
“The state doesn’t take the book publishing industry that seriously, except in as much as they are concerned about textbooks, because it’s a big market,” says Butalia.
Easily the biggest barrier faced by the Indian publishing industry is that there is a startling lack of data about it.
In a 2013 interview, Butalia had pointed to a few reasons buttressing this lack of data. There are several hindrances to measuring the industry’s output, even through something as straightforward as compiling a list of titles published annually in the country. For one, publishers do not send copies of their books to India’s copyright libraries, required to do so under The Delivery of Books ‘And Newspapers’ (Public Libraries) Act, 1954. There’s also a lack of infrastructure for a publication like Books in Print (a primarily US-based publication), which keeps track of the titles published.
Another issue is the lack of initiative about keeping a count of ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers), which, although would require some rounding out to accommodate books published without an ISBN, would at least offer a rough estimate. Unfortunately, these issues still prevail. “You need to make publishers aware of the importance of data collection,” says Butalia.
While Indian languages like Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, and Malayalam have vibrant publishing scenes, a lack of data continues to handicap the system by reducing clarity on its functioning, and English continues to be the dominant language within mainstream Indian publishing. “If you take the Chennai book fair, for example, you will see that there are masses of Tamil publishers and they are selling and selling. [At] the Calcutta book fair, people are queuing up to buy books. So you can tell from those that the size and the output [of books in Indian languages] is pretty big. But you can only guess at the numbers. It’s not formally documented. That’s why the knowledge is not accurate,” explains Butalia. There is also “a huge shortage of scientific literature, of journals in Indian languages. That’s another systemic problem, by the IITs,” says Khanna.
This lack of data also means industry professionals are in the dark about prevalent reading habits and publishing trends. Most decisions and conclusions drawn on said aspects are based on observational, anecdotal evidence, rather than definite numbers.
There is, for instance, a strong spike in the number of writers in the country today. And aiding this growing authorship is a thriving publishing scene made up of thousands of independent publishers registered across the country. While based on observations of crowds at book fairs and literature festivals, it seems people are buying and reading quite a lot. However, Butalia has noticed a drop in the number of print book sales. E-books, which entered the market with much spectacle and pageantry, haven’t amounted to much, contributing to only about one-tenths of sales. “What I do know is that the sales of physical books are not rising. So maybe the issue is that people are not any longer reading book-length stuff, and are reading shorter things, and those they’re reading on their devices," Butalia can't be sure.
There are also several unanswered questions about readers. The most basic of these is whether the number of readers is increasing or decreasing. “I can’t say. It’s an impossible thing [to say],” says Butalia. “I don’t think you’ll find anybody who can answer that question with any certainty.” Another question is what these readers are consuming, and how the closing of physical bookstores, resulting from the popularity of online marketplaces, is affecting these choices. While the decline of physical bookstores means a loss of literary adventure, of the chance to stumble upon a book about whose existence one wouldn’t have known otherwise, browsing through online spaces also means one can find a lot more books by independent publishers that a physical store couldn’t house. Additionally, if a reader was aware of a book’s existence, they can now easily acquire it from any corner of the country.
Still, as the popularity of print seems to be falling, Butalia attests to a medium shift seemingly happening every few centuries, with the craft of publishing responding to the social, political, and environmental world around it. Paper itself, for instance, only entered publishing in a big way in the 19th century. Before that, books used to be printed on leaves and vellum. “The discovery that it takes the skin of almost 300 small animals to get enough leather to make one book is what lead to thinking of other materials,” says Butalia about the shift away from vellum. Today, as pressure on the environment increases, looking for another medium seems only natural to her. While e-books have largely fizzled out, a medium that people are quite interested in is audiobooks. “These books are doing well and people are listening to audiobooks. That could be an interesting way to go,” she says.
However, without reader surveys, such trends exploring India's reading habits become largely generic discussions and conclusions based on estimates and conjecture.
In terms of research about the industry largely, the most recent contribution was five years ago, when Nielsen published The India Book Market Report 2015: Understanding the India Book Market, confirming oft-repeated claims about India being the sixth largest book market in the world, and the second largest English language market, after the United States. However, the report was based on a limited sample, and underplays the dominance of education over trade publishing when reaching these results.
The last comprehensive report about the industry commissioned by the government, was the 1976 Survey of Indian Book Industry by the National Council for Applied Economic Research. Through the 45 years that followed, no large-scale study of Indian publishing, covering both trade and education across all major Indian languages, has been undertaken.
All this missing data seems a direct result of the state’s lack of interest in the publishing industry, and following, its lack of interest in developing a reading culture and disseminating knowledge. “I believe quite strongly that for publishing to thrive in a country like ours, there has to be a way in which the state creates a hospitable environment and provides, if not subsidises, some kind of assistance in the form of book fairs or translation grants; our state does none of this. It is completely opposed to and hostile to publishers. So, it’s a miracle that publishing survives in this country, despite all of that,” says Butalia.
Moving forward, Butalia believes that in order for the publishing industry to survive, it needs to make large, foundational changes. “We have to rethink print, we have to rethink books, we have to rethink paper. And we have to create new models – maybe there’s a different way of increasing reading and developing the reading habit.”
Naresh Khanna observes how women are largely responsible for the strength and vibrancy of Indian publishing. “Women seem to be very strong as far as buying books. In publishing, good, serious non-fiction Indian publishing is dominated by very, very clever women,” he says. Discussions about inclusivity across gender, caste, and other minorities, also seem to be led by women.
“I don’t know what the future of publishing will be, but whatever it is, the feminists will survive. And they will do the good work,” asserts Butalia.
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