Where have books gone?
Bestsellers like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code may be a familiar sight in bookshops worldwide, but people in small towns and villages in India still find it difficult to obtain books of their choice in local stores.
Textbooks and religious books dominate sales in a majority of India's moffusil towns and cities where it is often difficult to find a single well-stocked bookshop.
The situation is no better even in bigger cities and metros where booksellers are few-and-far-between and locating regional language books can be similar to that of a detective on a mystery trial.
"It takes immense courage to set up a bookshop in today's world where selling sarees will generate more sales," says well-known Urdu poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar.
Despite a growth in publishing, the trade in books within India is witnessing a decline, which several experts attribute to a lack of sufficient channels of distribution.
India had published approximately around 70,000 to 80,000 books in the year 2004, up from 2001 that had recorded 69,000 published books according to UNESCO, which pegs the country sixth in the global publishing field, says Prof Dina Nath, resident Emeritus, Federation of Indian Publishers.
This dispels the general perception that the public reading habit has declined with the invasion of electronic media such as television sets and the Internet.
"There is no dearth of readers but shops with well-stocked books covering diverse fields and languages are hard to find," says Nath.
"Whenever there is a rise in taxes on general commodities, books are at the receiving end," he says. He suggests reducing taxes and postal rates to encourage people in small towns and cities to order books through post.
"Ordering through the Internet through search engines like Amazon or Google is a concept that is yet to gain currency in the country. "A book that is available for say Rs 30 is often priced double at such online book sites," says Gopichand Narang, Chairman Sahitya Akademi. Such stepped-up costs often deter readers from buying online.
"Opening bookshops that allows customers to browse and read in comfort and offering them beverages like tea or coffee would certainly increase bookmindedness and book sales," Narang suggests.
To tide over the usual complaints of non-availibility of books, Gujral suggests opening more book cooperatives similar to those found in Kerala. " Kerala can boast of being the only state with the maximum number of readers. Due to a large number of book co-operatives the number of book lovers in the state is more," says Gujral.
The poet Akhtar meanwhile suggests a novel idea of a tie-up between publishers and newspaper vendors.
Conducting seminars and book fairs in metros instead of small towns and cities where there is a greater demand would boost readership as well as give retailers incentives to set shop in such small places, says the former Prime Minister.
Materialism and the digital age might have according to Akhtar acted as a dampener to the overarching love for literature and books felt by Indians in the 1930-1950 time period.
An average Indian shopkeeper would affirm that it is much more profitable to sell clothes than books on the bustling bylanes in one of the oldest markets in India's capital city of Delhi, says a book lover.
"In today's world where soaps and fairness creams are widely advertised, it seems to be a well-kept secret to be able to find where books are availible," Akthar quips adding that booksellers of today can be equated to martyrs.
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