In September, Goa hosted Publishing Next, India’s first conference on the future of the publishing industry. Barely reported on by the media, the conference was attended by authors, multi-national publishing houses, and regional and independent publishers. The conference addressed a variety of issues faced by the publishing industry, including digital publishing, copyright laws (and the need to revise them to accommodate the welfare of authors and independent publishers), and book marketing.
One of the sessions at the conference was the one on the future of independent publishing in India. Mandira Sen of Bhatkal & Sons —publishers of two independent imprints: Stree (writings on gender) and Samya (writings on caste and dissent) — spoke on the panel about how “globalisation has had a difficult effect on small and medium-sized publishers, pushing them to the margins”.
Quantitatively, India is one of the top five publishers of English-language books in the world. As in July this year, there were 15,000 publishing houses in India, represented by various collectives and cooperatives, producing about 90,000 trade and academic titles. “These numbers are indicative, at best”, says Akshay Pathak, Director of the German Book Office, “many of the smaller publishers aren’t even registered with the ISBN (International Standard Book Number).” According to Pathak, the future of the industry lies with the independent, and regional language publishing houses. “Most of what the big houses churn out are popular reads, mostly in English. It is the smaller houses that reach the masses, with regional language content. Then there are the academic houses, which definitely have better intellectual infrastructure than physical support”, adds Pathak.
The German Book Office has been proactively pushing the publishing industry in India towards a more fruitful future by organising events like Jumpstart, Global Local (to be held in the month of November) as well as regularly taking a contingent of Indian indie publishers to the Frankfurt Book Fair. “What we need in India is better infrastructure, innovative strategies like the Zubaan and Penguin distribution tie-up, and a stronger digital presence ,” adds Pathak.
Indu Chandrashekhar of Tulika, an indie publishing house set up in 1996, concurs and feels that the Independent Publisher’s Distribution Alternative, IPDA, (of which she is a member) is attempting to do just that. Set up by eight Indian publishers, IPDA is a cooperative marketing and distribution initiative. “We seek to achieve the widest distribution range for our members and ensure that the books published by these houses are not misplaced in the readership circuit”, adds Chandrashekhar who has been publishing quality content for children under the Tulika imprint. The book house has changed the face of children’s publishing with their multi-lingual books laying emphasis on folk tales and bhasha literature for kids.
IPDA’s job, one assumes is made rather difficult by the fact that they have only one office in Delhi and are hardly visible anywhere else in the country. “Indie publishers in a market like India are extremely important, and are very often stuck in a faulty correlation of demand and supply”, says Arpita Das of Yoda Press. The eight year old publishing house with a decidedly academic focus has consistently released some of India’s most progressive and insightful titles on gender and sexuality, including the seminal Because I Have A Voice and the more recent Law Like Love.
When Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan books, who set up Kali for Women along with Ritu Menon in 1984, they were sailing in the unchartered waters of feminist publishing in India. Kali for Women was a crucial point in the coming of age of socio-politically aware academic and trade publishing houses in India. “Kali for Women paved the way for houses like Stree and Samya, which in turn made the existence of younger houses like Yoda Press and Navayana possible,” says Das. Another important milestone was the establishment of Chennai-based Blaft Publications, as Rakesh Kumar Khanna started his tryst with Tamil Pulp Fiction in 1998. Blaft, with its anthology of Tamil pulp fiction, the Ibn-e-Safi translations (released along with Westland/ Tranquebar), Surendra Mohan Pathak’s 65 Lakh Heist, folktales from Tamil Nadu (Where Are You Going, You Monkeys?) and short stories by iconic Tamil Dalit writer Bama, has been instrumental in bringing translations of folk and bhasha literature to the forefront of the publishing spectrum.
“The evolution of the indie publishing sector in India has been a long and arduous journey, mostly uphill. However, when one looks at all the number of houses that exist today and the kind of work they’re doing, you’re bound to feel encouraged”, says Butalia.