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As Sahitya Akademi embraces e-books, sales on Amazon, is it ready to adapt to the digital era?

The Sahitya Akademi was founded 65 years ago with the vision that it would autonomously play the rearguard of India’s linguistic heritage. It is a matter of open debate, a vocal debate mind you, about whether the Akademi has been able to deliver on that promised vision it started with under the guardianship of Nehru. Though India’s first PM served as the president until the day he died, Nehru held the opinion that his Prime Ministerial role was in no way a key to interfering or out-ranking his role as president of the academy. The Sahitya Akademi has had its fair share of problems, but it continues to churn out and archive significant work in multiple Indian languages. For the first time in its history, the academy seeks to shed its cloak of librarian and has therefore taken the plunge into the market of actively selling books online on Amazon.

The Akademi has for years been restricted to over-the-counter sales through its modestly numbered and placed kiosks over the country. There are a few inside Delhi’s metro stations for example. A stall in all of the country’s book fairs is regular fare, but the estimated turnover from these sales has remained meagre, not to mention the reach is limited. “For about four decades Sahitya Akademi had a model of direct sales through participation and organising book fairs and exhibitions. Of course, we have distributors also. This worked out very well for the Akademi. With the changing world, one needs to change too. Akademi does not want to lose out in the digital front too,” says the secretary K Srinivasarao. About whether this is an opportunity or an added burden Srinivasarao says, “There are not many [added] requirements in terms of funding and execution since it is the sale of printed books online.”

 As Sahitya Akademi embraces e-books, sales on Amazon, is it ready to adapt to the digital era?

The Akademi’s library, its archive, is considered the largest repository of Indian literature across languages. It is also touted as the most mismanaged. There has been no way to look at what the Akademi is publishing, what it plans to publish and so on for years. Only scholars, or loyal readers, are apprised of the Akademi’s publishing initiatives. “Availability of Akademi publications is not restricted as such. Just now we have started and soon one can see many of our titles coming online and in many languages. Majority of Akademi publications are translations of award-winning titles. If one observes closely, not all the award-winning titles in all the languages are popular in terms of number of copies sold etc but are weighty contributions to Indian literature. And we believe translations of those titles are continuation of such contribution,” Srinivasarao says.

Every year the Akademi publishes close to 500 titles in more than 20 languages. Not just diverse, the institution is, like the National Book Trust (NBT), publishes economically viable books that pretty much anyone can wishfully afford. Unlike private publishers that price novels and poetry collections at unaffordable rates, the Akademi is yet to push the envelope on cost. “Akademi’s motive from the beginning has been literary service and we cannot afford to look at literary productions from the market angle alone. Others can do so. Our organisation was created and sustained to render literary service. The only thing we ensure is that we are not on a loss when we price our books,” Srinivasarao says. The service Srinivasarao mentions, though limited, manifests in different ways, chief among them the Sahitya Akademi awards, perhaps the only aspect of the Akademi that has mainstream authors take a keen interest in its functioning.

All of which bodes the question, that if this has been a step to expand, to evolve, will it eventually influence the Akademi’s publishing list, the very nature of its work? “There will be a slow shift but not an urgent one. We are planning to launch electronic books to cater to that section of literary lovers’ community who love electronic books more than printed books. It is a planned and slow move but we will definitely be there for a long time in the e-market too,” Srinivasarao says. This shift, especially tie-up with Amazon could be significant both ways, considering how translations have over the last couple of years begun to get their due. But with greater visibility comes greater responsibility, in that the quieter, rather reticent presence of the Akademi could now be both lauded and challenged.

By entering the market somewhat, there are prospective challenges that the secretary and his colleagues must contemplate. The Akademi has significant advantages, but will it try and compete, maybe even take a leaf out of the private publisher’s diary? “Every year Akademi publishes around 200 original titles and about 300 reprints. Logistically it will be impossible to organise 200 launches every year when one takes into consideration Akademi also organises about 600 literary programmes annually, confers Awards in four different categories, publishes and organises programmes in tribal literature etc,” Srinivasarao says before admitting that the institution will, in phases, reach out to the media with a larger, more active footprint of India’s Academy of Letters in mind.

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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2019 10:46:45 IST

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