Nimish SawantDec 08, 2016 15:24:50 IST
I am a voracious reader. I hoard books, both on my Amazon Kindle as well as physical books, because I never want to be in a situation where I do not have anything to read at hand. I got bit by the reading bug back in the seventh grade. But much before it, the love for reading was inculcated in me as I watched my mother and grandmother read books in their free time. I would admire the book art on Marathi books that were lying around in the house, and would keep wondering when I will grow old enough to finish one of these myself.
While I have gone on to finish hundreds of books in the English language since, there are only a handful of Marathi and Hindi novels I have read. My knowledge of regional literature in Marathi and Hindi is limited to authors I studied at school or classic books that I read growing up. I know, I have never really made an effort to read much regional literature. But I would surely love to.
My grandmother still reads a lot at her age. But a lot of the times, the small font of the Marathi novels, is a deterrent. There have been so many instances when I have wondered, 'I wish I could gift her a Kindle, where she could adjust the font size to suit her eye-comfort level'. But then, there was nothing she could consume on it.
Amazon launching regional titles, surely looks like a ray of hope. On 1 December, Amazon announced the launch of eBooks in five Indian languages: Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam, available on the Kindle Book Store. This is surely a positive step for those who want the convenience of buying and reading a book, anywhere and at any time. Readers can access these books on their Kindle eReaders and free Kindle apps for Android and iOS, something that was only at the disposal of the English ebook reader so far.
As a book lover, I make it a point to explore book stores at any new place I travel to. For the simple reason that you can stumble upon great local authors or books, which may not be easily available in Mumbai. Books which add to your understanding of that place. I have been introduced to a lot of good writers thanks to these book-shop side trips. But I really have to hunt for these books, because unlike in India, bookstores abroad give a lot of prominence to books in local languages.
This year, I had the opportunity to explore some book stores in Munich, Barcelona and Taipei. One thing that immediately stood out was that English language books made up a very small portion of the entire collection. At most a couple of shelves. And I am not talking about just niche hyperlocal book stores, but the story was similar even inside large franchise stores abroad (something on the lines of a Crossword or Oxford Bookstore here).
India has over 200 languages and a thriving regional literature scene, but go to any big book store and the regional language books section is relegated to some corner of the book store. If you are into regional literature, then you need to know the local mom and pop book stores in your area. For instance, if I have to buy Marathi books I don't even bother with the large format book retailers, but instead head to a small shop close to Dadar railway station.
Every book store has its own top 10 Fiction / Non fiction list. But never does one come across a list of top regional books anywhere. Maybe regional newspapers have it. But for an outsider, it may easily seem like there is no regional literature culture in India. Which is far from the truth.
Regional Books in numbers
I was quite happy to see the notification pop up on the Kindle app on my smartphone informing me about Kindle introducing books in five regional languages. While there are over 3.5 million English language ebooks on Amazon, it was finally good to see more Indian languages other than English. I have purchased Munshi Premchand books in Hindi in the past, but I had to really hunt for them on Amazon India. With the ebooks now categorised by languages, the process has become simpler.
At the time of writing, there are 249 Gujarati ebooks, 1093 Hindi ebooks, 93 Malayalam ebooks, 165 Marathi ebooks and 1041 Tamil ebooks. These numbers are a mix of books originally written in these languages, as well as translations of popular English language books. I reached out to Amazon for a ratio of original regional to translated works ratio, but didn't get a response.
But on going through the books filtered by languages I came up with some numbers. Approximately 53 out of the 168 Marathi eBooks listed on Amazon India are translated works. Around 25 out of 80 Hindi ebooks (first 5 pages) are translated works. So it is fair to say that approximately 30 percent of the regional books are translated works, at the time of writing. Till I get an estimated figure from Amazon, that is.
However, at the time of writing, it was was good to see that barring Gujarati language, the top 10 bestsellers in all languages were original works. Which again points to a trend that there is a definite demand for original regional literature.
It is only a matter of time before Amazon starts releasing more regional language content in Kindle editions. When asked for a rough timeframe, Amazon India said, "We recently announced the launch of reading in 5 languages – Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam. We continue to gather feedback from our customers about their preferences and are working tirelessly to deliver a better experience and improve our selection further," which didn't really answer my question. But considering Amazon already sells books in 21 Indian languages if you were to buy a physical book, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine there will be more language additions in the ebook segment as well.
All said and done, Amazon knows that only a minuscule percentage of India reads in English. And will buy English language Kindle ebooks. Majority of reading happens in local languages. Take any poll results on most read dailies, and the delta between a regional newspaper and an English language one is huge. While English is popular and is becoming more mainstream, it is hardly the most spoken/understood language in India.
According to this report in Forbes, around 30 percent of people in India can speak or understand English to varying degrees. But only about a 10 percent have a proper reading or writing aptitude. Going by languages these are the numbers: Hindi (422mn), Bengali (83mn), Telugu (75mn), Marathi (71mn), Tamil (60mn), Urdu (51mn), Gujarati (46mn), and Punjabi (29mn).
Smartphone users in India are increasing at an exponential rate, and a lot of tier II and tier III towns driving this growth. There is a regulation that all smartphones should have at least one regional language by 2017. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft are pushing for local language content. The second most popular OS in India is Indus OS, because it is optimised to use regional languages. Yes, a lot of our apps are still English-heavy, but Why then should non-English readers feel left out when it comes to consuming literature in their mother tongue, on their mobile devices?
Regional content is surely the next big thing. Amazon gets that and has added the catalogue of regional Kindle ebooks. These books can be consumed on multiple devices such as the Kindle, Kindle mobile apps, Kindle desktop apps and so on.
Opportunity lost by Indian etailers
Flipkart used to sell ebooks, but it stopped that business in December 2015. Infibeam, another Indian brand, used to have its own ebook reader - the Infibeam Pi reader - which stopped selling after 2012 onwards. Both these companies could have exploited the regional language literature and made it available on their platforms, at a time when Amazon was focussing on selling English language ebooks in India.
This move by Amazon, will let it get the non-English speaking populace's attention, thereby prodding them on to try out other Amazon services such as Unlimited or Prime. Apart from that, it also presents a very good case for a lot of us to expose ourself to some regional literature. It is now available at the click of a button.
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