`We need libraries in villages'

Print edition : February 24, 2006

Interview with Manas Saikia.

EVER since the First World Book Fair was held in Delhi in 1972, it has turned into an all India event. Booksellers from all over India and most major booksellers and publishers from the member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation attend it. As a "trade fair" it is a most sought after space. Uniquely, it is open to the public and books are sold across the counter. This does not happen at international events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, the London Book Fair or the American Book Expo.

In the light of the just concluded World Book Fair in Delhi, Professor Atlury Murali, Department of History, University of Hyderabad, met Manas Saikia, owner of Foundation Books, for an interview. Saikia started his carrier in the early 1970s in the Indian book publishing industry as sales manager of Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom, for South Asia. In the early 1990s, he started a new South Asia publishing venture, Foundation Books, which now reissues all the Cambridge University Press titles for South Asia. Excerpts from the conversation:

What kind of impact did the World Book Fair have on English language publishing in India? There is a criticism that it has always been an elite affair meant to promote the English language publishing industry.

I think the charge of elitism is unfair. It is bound to be focussed on English because that is what sells. If people prefer to buy English language books when they pursue higher education in English, when most work and business is in English, it is only natural. Indian language publishers are given stalls at half the rate for the English language ones. If you take publishing in Hindi, this has not developed because Hindi publishing is bottle-fed by the government. Language publishing will develop if the government gives up its monopoly over textbook publishing. State Councils of Educational Research and Training must have control only on the fixing of syllabus and then leave the textbook writing to scholars. That way, a variety of good academic textbooks would come into the market.

What quantum of business are we actually talking about in the publishing industry in India? The share of fiction to non-fiction, in particular academic and textbook publishing?

People mention figures like Rs.7,000 crores and so on, but there are no dependable statistics. Even basic Census data get suppressed. We do not know how many people can speak, read and write English, for instance. I was told by one of India's foremost economists that the government would not release detailed language statistics because it would reveal uncomfortable data such as there being more people claiming to speak Telugu than there are Hindi-speakers.

It appears there are special delegations coming to meet the Government of India for certain concessions and policy clarifications. Is it true? If it is, could you tell us something about the possible issues that may be addressed both by the government and global publishing firms?

India has one of the largest publishing industries in the English language: yet one does not seem to see any serious effort on the part of the Indian publishing industry to reach out to the European and the United States markets. What is the problem?

Books are sold across the counter at Delhi's World Book Fair, which is also a `trade fair' where publishers and booksellers meet to discuss business.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

There is only one true Indian multinational, Roli Books. They have a true international approach and market. Believe it or not their biggest market is the French one. Most Indian publishers who have made good, such as S. Chand, Navneet or MBD, invest their profits in property or hotels such as Hotel Tourist in Delhi, Atlantic in Chennai, MBD Radisson in Noida and MBD Airport Hotel in Kolkata. Hence these people, who have the money to go global, do not do so. That is a pity. However, please note that India has become a global leader in digital origination. There are companies such as Tech Books in Delhi, DBS in Pune, e-Macmillan in Bangalore, Intergra in Chennai and so on who employ thousands of people for typesetting and uploading. Homegrown Indian publishers complain about the import of books and loss of foreign exchange. The truth is that international publishers are buying much more out of India than the books that are being imported. At the London Book Fair, there is a "Production" section. If you go there you will find most exhibitors are Indian printers for digital service providers.

Most academic journals in the world are now available in "e" versions through the Internet. They are mostly copy-edited and typeset in multi-vehicle languages such as XML in India. Hence, India is making a big contribution to the globalisation of academic information.

It is also the case that quality publishers who should be supported in becoming global receive very little support. Take a publisher like Zubaan, headed by Urvashi Butalia. If the organisation received support in establishing themselves globally, I am confident Urvashi would turn Zubaan into one of the foremost feminist publishers in the world. At the moment, she is limited to India. Several other such publishers can be found. What is needed is an organisation that would help these publishers grow globally.

Given the emphasis on English in South Asia, South-East Asia and China as a necessary language tool for marketing intellectual skills at a global level, do you see any special role for the English language publishing industry in India?

One of the reasons why India has become an IT [Information Technology] and BPO [business process outsourcing] superpower is that loads of books in the English language have been made available here at a fraction of what they would otherwise cost. This has made education and training in all such technical fields cheaper than elsewhere. This is a gigantic contribution towards the nation's development from English language publishers, both international and Indian. Walk into any university bookshop in the West. Check out the prices and compare them to prices in India. The difference is astonishing.

I have an example to give you on the positive role a good English language training book could play in higher education, in both the technical and the non-technical educational systems. Last year, Professor Chenchi Reddy, Chairman of the Council of Higher Education in Andhra Pradesh, in collaboration with Lakshminarayana, Director of Collegiate Education in Andhra Pradesh, experimented with a specially commissioned English language book to impart speaking and writing skills at the undergraduate level. Foundation Books provided this textbook. It turned out to be such a success that we could sell almost 80,000 copies and we are told that from this year this experiment is going to be directly executed by the UGC [University Grants Commission]. So there is a lot of scope for English language publishing. All that we require is innovation and also some form of commitment to excellence on the part of the publishing industry.

For the past two decades, as part of the policy of liberalisation in India, the educational institutions and libraries have been the biggest sufferers; for, the first axe falls on the budgets for libraries. There are hardly any public libraries, universities and colleges in India that can boast a library budget worth mention. In this negative environment, do you see any future for publishing in India? What policy measures do you advocate for addressing this problem?

Among our higher education institutes, there is a hunger for buildings. Walk into JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], you will find some new building coming up. Walk into a library, you will find no new books because of lack of funds. No new journals are being subscribed to. The government had a "knowledge" mission headed by Sam Pitroda. Buildings and computers do not develop knowledge. You need libraries with good librarians organising the various kinds of sources. It is tragic that the first budget to get "cut" in a university, or even our IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology], is the library budget. In a "knowledge" society it should be the last budget to be touched in times of difficulty.

As far as public libraries are concerned, I lament the fact that there are no "village libraries". People get literate and fall back into illiteracy because there is nothing to read. Worse is the lack of access to information. Simple information made available through books, newspapers and magazines at the village level would be a giant step in rural development. It would have the effect of a "force multiplier" in a village's development, be it agriculture, health, education or finance. If you study why Kerala has high literacy, you will find that the strong private library campaign is one of the most important factors, unheralded and unsung. Why can't we have a "Prime Minister's Gram Library Yojana"? That would contribute much more towards the country's development than the crores being frittered away in the name of rural development.

Publishing in India has developed despite the government. As I explained earlier, it is the government's monopolistic hold on prescribed textbooks that has stunted the growth of publishing. Yes, it would help if there were many well-funded libraries. If there were a library in every village, the amount of creative writing in Indian languages would explode.

Has the growth of the electronic media had any negative impact on people's reading habit and thus hit the publishing industry?

When radio first arrived, the doom of the publishing industry was predicted. It grew instead. When television arrived, the same thing happened. It has happened again with the Internet. And what is the most successful e-commerce venture? Amazon, selling books. One important fact to bear in mind is that publishing is not a matter of just paper books. Pages bound together in the form of a book is one very efficient vehicle for the dissemination of content. The publisher's job is to develop, manage, sell and distribute "content". There will be new vehicles for content delivery like e-journals that have become popular, but the publisher's main job will remain, "content" management.

There is talk of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Indian publishing industry. What do you think are the basic issues involved in allowing FDI?

The question about FDI in book publishing has been raised by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Virtually all major international publishers are already in India in various forms. So the question itself is irrelevant. Virtually all international book publishers have had a beneficial effect on the country. In English language creative writing, the arrival of Penguin India changed the scene radically. HarperCollins followed. The latest to enter is Random House, the world's biggest publisher of creative writing. The presence of international publishers hurts nobody expect a few stagnant Indian family firms who do not want competition. They spend more time lobbying the government than on developing their own publishing. It is the interest of the majority that needs to be protected, not a few family firms.

What could be revolutionary for Indian publishing is FDI in retail. Companies such as Borders, WH Smith and so on should be invited to create bookshop chains. Our homegrown chains such as Landmark and Crossword are doing well; however, what is needed is a quantum leap. We should have a bookstore in every mall, every town and every rail station. That is where FDI would contribute the most.

What would be the impact of FDI in the regional language and the English publishing industry in India?

As I said, the global players are already present. I do not quite see that there would be a reversal of rules to throw them out like IBM and Coca Cola in the 1970s. English language publishing will grow. For regional language publishing, the market environment has to change. Unshackle textbooks publishing from the school boards, create rural library development, and then publishing will boom along with the creative energies of people from all corners.

What kind of future do you see for the Indian publishing industry?

In English language publishing, India is probably the second largest in the world in unit terms. This is anecdotal, as there is no data to call upon. In value terms, it is way down the list. In a decade or so I expect it to become the second largest. This will happen whatever the government does. For regional language publishing it will depend on whether the governments open up the textbooks sector and develop rural libraries.

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