A book event

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

The World Book Fair held in Delhi last fortnight drew a record number of participants and visitors.

THE 13th World Book Fair, which concluded at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi on February 14, attracted a record 950 participants from India and abroad. The fair was housed in six halls, and an additional hall was reserved for foreign participants. The impressive turnout belied the common impression that Delhi lacks the reading culture.

The publishers were well prepared for the event. Special signing sessions by authors were an added attraction. Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy's signing session was a runaway success. The signing session by Ruskin Bond, a favourite with children, was a more modest affair. Bond, modest as ever, autographed copies of his books for his fans with unflappable cool and still found time to go around the fair and greet his friends.

The organisers of the fair, besides honouring Jnanpith award winners, organised a number of special events, including reading sessions, a librarians' meet, an authors' and literary agents' meet, a seminar on the export of books and another on Asian literature. At the seminar on the export of books, an Australian bookseller, who was coerced into speaking at the last minute, had this to say: "In the old days, it used to take convicts sentenced to hard labour six months to make the journey from England to Australia. Today, it still takes four months for books ordered in India to reach Australia." Certainly not a very happy state of affairs.

The World Book Fair had a modest beginning in Janpath-Connaught Place around 1972. In a little over 25 years, the biennial fair has grown tremendously and is now a major event in South Asia. However, infrastructural arrangements for the event have remained inadequate through the years and this was quite pronounced this time. The fair lacked spirit and had no overall ambience. The publishers' stalls were small and crowded. Some of the halls were not conducive to the display of books. Foreign publishers were placed in a hall that had no organic link with the main section of the fair. That the public came, and in such large numbers, in spite of the parking lot being a mile away is eloquent testimony to Delhi's literary interests.

The blame for this state of affairs cannot, however, be laid at the doorstep of the organisers, the National Book Trust. The NBT has managed the fair efficiently all these years. What has happened is that the event has grown beyond the dimensions of a village fair and acquired international status, while the mindset and the institutional culture necessary to organise it on an appropriate scale are yet to develop.

The NBT leases space for the fair from the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO). For the 12th World Book Fair held in 1996, the NBT leased 33,000 square metres of space at Pragati Maidan. This year, despite having a record number of participants, it was able to obtain only 22,000 square metres of space, and this led to overcrowding.

The ITPO treats the World Book Fair like any other trade exposition. The space has to be booked in advance and money needs to be paid upfront. Being a government agency, the NBT is unable to meet the requirements. Moreover, the NBT has a social objective - ensuring the participation of small and medium publishers and booksellers and publishers in the Indian languages. It is a well known fact that publishers, whether small, medium or large, are not flush with funds. Their cash flow position would leave financial analysts in despair. In fact, it has been said that no other industry can survive on the lines of the publishing industry. To expect such an industry to cough up participation fees two years in advance is unrealistic.

Since the matter concerns two government agencies, the NBT and the ITPO, they need to work out a reasonable arrangement. Efforts must be made to integrate the World Book Fair with Delhi's culture, much the same way as it is done in the case of the Calcutta Book Fair. Moreover, the World Book Fair has become an index to the growth of the publishing industry in recent years. International publishing has become much more global and integrated; international participation in the World Book Fair reflects this.

What the book fair needs is urgent reform at the national level. Infrastructure problems can be solved with adequate coordination at the higher levels of the government and the industry. In addition, the fair needs to have a focal theme and well-organised, book-related activities, such as seminars.

Schoolchildren take a look at the books on display.

There has been a suggestion that the World Book Fair be shifted to Calcutta, since the residents of that city appreciate books more. This argument is less than persuasive. Although Calcutta has a great literary tradition, and buying books is a part of an average Calcuttan's life, Delhi is the publishing centre, at least for English language books, and it is the place where major international publishers have their country offices.

Delhi's media, both print and electronic, give adequate attention to book-related programmes, including book launches, interviews with authors, book reviews, and information about the industry such as mergers and buy-outs. It is easier for a mediaperson to put together a story on the publishing industry from Delhi rather than from any other city in India. Because of Delhi's central importance, publishers and booksellers are assured of adequate exposure if they participate in a book fair in Delhi.

The World Book Fair in New Delhi is a consumer fair, and has to be treated as such. Booklovers come to the fair to browse through and pick up books of their choice. Since the World Book Fair is a biennial event, visitors would want to look at all that has been published in the intervening two years. For the discerning reader, the fair offers a chance to hunt for and pick up that rare volume. The 13th World Book Fair was no exception. For example, a dealer of out-of-print books, K.K.S. Murthy of Select Book Shop, who came all the way from Bangalore to set up a stall here, drew quite a crowd.

All this sets the World Book Fair apart from that other premier event, the Frankfurt Book Fair. The book fair at Frankfurt is one of trade, an occasion for publishers and booksellers to come together and sell rights and make deals. The fair is not open to the German public, except on the last two days.

At the end of the day, most of the publishers had recorded an increase of between 20 and 25 per cent in sales revenue as compared to the previous fair. Not a very impressive increase for eight days of hard work under not very favourable conditions.

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