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Between covers, a fight brewing

Beyond the glamour of the reading, writing and publishing going on at the Jaipur Literature Festival, there’s an ominous cloud lurking.

books Updated: Jan 23, 2011 01:31 IST
Antara Das

Beyond the glamour of the reading, writing and publishing going on at the Jaipur Literature Festival, there’s an ominous cloud lurking: the proposed amendment to the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, which reads that “a copy of a work published in any country outside India with the permission of the author of the work and imported from that country into India shall not be deemed to be an infringing copy”. Or, India would become an “open market” for books, and anyone who publishes a book anywhere in the world will be free to bring it to India and sell it at any price they deem fit.

It is this likely loss of territorial exclusivity that has put the Indian publishing industry in a tizzy. Some have cried murder in a tone that can only be reminiscent of the protectionist impulses of the licence-permit raj era; others have expressed concern at the development refusing to panic. “If this amendment comes through, it will sound the death knell of the publishing industry, the authors, educational institutions and students,” says PM Sukumar, CEO, HarperCollins India.

The short shelf life of books in markets in the US and Britain is of particular concern — the phenomenon of ‘remaindered’ books — and the fear that an unrestricted flow of heavily discounted books may end up deluging the Indian market.

Remaindered books do not command any royalty for the author either. “During the 70s, the Indian government restricted the import of many of these remaindered titles,” says Urvashi Butalia, head of the publishing house, Zubaan. “If this amendment comes through, much of that rubbish pulp is likely to find its way back,” she adds.

Educational publishing or textbooks are of particular concern, which now sell in India at one-tenth of global prices. “These low-priced editions, available to Indian students, might be re-exported to high-priced markets,” says the London-based John Makinson, CEO, Penguin Group. Some publishers fear that re-exports might lead to a likely loss of printing rights for Indian publishers, so that eventually students would be forced to pay 'global prices' for Indian textbooks. Anuj Bahri, CEO, Bahrisons, rubbishes this. “Right now, what the students get here is the 'eastern edition', which is an earlier version of that available in the west," he says. “If the amendment comes into force, they will be getting the latest at a much lower price,” he adds. Others think that the Indian market is too important for the publishers in the west to deny them publishing rights. “When we publish a book, we think about how this book will work in the country from the way the jacket looks to the way the book is marketed,” says Chiki Sarkar, editor-in-chief, Random House India. “If India becomes an open market, then, in the long run, we may become a country of distributed books and not a place for publishers who nurture creativity,” she adds.

The fear that publishers will not be able to ‘nurture’ an author is "hogwash," says Bahri. Indian publishers pay some of the biggest advances, he points out, citing writer Vikram Seth's several-crore deal for his upcoming book.

That readers might be able to access a greater number of titles at a lower price is nothing but a seductive argument, feels most publishers. The Indian book market already has some of the cheapest books in the world, often acting as a big draw for foreign tourists. Even if prices go down in the short run, given the rising costs, it might not portend well for publishers, says Makinson.

“The amendment is unnecessary in the context of publishing and has only helped muddy matters,” says Ravi Singh, editor-in-chief, Penguin India. It is felt that the drafting of the law was done without keeping the needs of the publishing industry in mind. “It has been proposed with the mistaken notion of democratising knowledge and making it free; what it might end up doing is making available a lot of rubbish,” says Butalia.