Part 1 of “Publishing in India Today” examined at the strengthening of the retailing, editorial and agenting cultures.
By Akshay Pathak
India has been a guest of honor at the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair in both 1986 and 2006, the only country to have been accorded that privilege twice. The passage of these two decades offers an interesting opportunity to examine how Indian publishing has re-positioned itself globally. Whereas reporting (however little) on the business aspects of publishing underlines the activity of larger multinational (read: British and American) publishers in India, international platforms such as the Frankfurt and London Book Fair provide a glimpse into the rise of the Indian multinational.
The presence of an Indian publisher at an international forum is not just limited to the rights to their books being bought and sold in other languages. There is also a larger assertion of what the Indian publisher has to offer to the international publishing community in terms of new ideas and innovative concepts. A classic example would be Tara Books. Gita Wolf, its founder, says, “When I first went to the Frankfurt Book Fair, 15 years ago, I was both naive and optimistic. Looking back at what I went with –- two ideas for illustrated children’s books and a couple of silk-screened sample pages –- I can’t help thinking of the old cliché about fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. And yet, I managed to sell both ideas to a Canadian publisher and with the advance they offered for the books, my newly created publishing house in India took off.” She continues: “So Tara was, in essence, a global publisher before we became a local press.” Since then, Tara has remained active in the global market, with over 100 rights to the publisher’s 85 titles sold all over the world. In total, Wolf says, 30 percent of Tara’s turnover comes from the sale of rights, and an additional 25 percent from direct sales into other English-speaking markets.
An opposing model has also grown in recent years, of publishers in the Subcontinent purchasing the English-language rights for books written in French, German and other European and African languages. The notable example in this would be Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books from Kolkata. This is a phenomenon almost unheard of in a largely West-centered and West-controlled world of territorial rights in English, where there is a tendency to club together the “post-colonial” world. For example, one commonly sees the rights for all Commonwealth countries being collectively given to a British publisher, often denying the Subcontinent a lot of interesting books, as they never make their way into the market, with Indian publishers unable to acquire rights to them. Whether the path-breaking model of Seagull is sustainable or not remains to be seen but it will certainly lead to shifts in the publishing world.
Along with Indian publishers, there is an increasing presence of publishers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at international fairs. This clearly reflects the greater importance being accorded to the rising potential of these markets, but also of the growing courage of publishers in the region to try out new ways of expanding their lists and engaging in tie-ups. Robin Ahsan of Shrabon Prokashani, from Bangladesh, for example, feels that the development of his publishing house in a tough environment such as Bangladesh (given issues of infrastructure and literacy) was possible due to participation in fairs such as the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Copyright Law Challenged, Parallel Imports Proposed
This internationalization can be something of a double-edged sword, however. Of the many issues that are currently bringing together the publishing community in India, the issue that has generated one of the most significant responses is the proposed amendments to the country’s copyright law. Though there is a clear divide between people for and against it, publishers almost unanimously oppose the amendment. Thomas Abraham of Hachette India has lamented that this might well be the death-knell for the publishing industry in India.
As proposed, the amendment sanctions parallel imports, which allow the import of multiple editions of books into the Indian market, rendering the whole point of territorial rights a bit useless. “If the amendment is passed,” Abraham says, “any book published anywhere in the world could be sold [in India], infringing on an exclusive Indian edition -– published or imported.” He continues: “To understand this, one needs to realize that authors own copyright to their works and then assign publishing rights to different territories, so that the book and readers are best served. Vikram Seth, for example, is published in Britain by Hachette, in the US by HarperCollins, in Canada by McArthur and by Penguin in India. Each territory is protected by law to best publish the work. Without this legal shield, any of the four editions could infringe on each other. “
The amendment remains fervently debated, however. Shamnad Basheer, a lawyer focusing on intellectual property (IP) rights and a faculty member at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, offers an opposing view. “Leading IP scholars and economists argue that intellectual property rules are essentially anti-competitive and ought to be tolerated only when there is concrete evidence that their benefits outweigh the harm caused by monopoly rents,” he says. “But do we have such countervailing evidence to support a clampdown on parallel imports? Such a restriction is not only likely to harm consumer choice, by leaving access to books in the discretionary hands of a small coterie of publishers; it will also hamper competition and curb the growth of newer and more creative forms of distributorship.” Basheer notes that, given the advent of e-publishing, “it is only a matter of time before the firmly etched principle of territoriality begins to yield. If the amendment spurs this business model revolution, it will be so much ” better. The amendment has been put on hold for now, but will surely generate significant discussion when next raised.
Print Piracy Still a Problem, Digital Emerging
Meanwhile, publishers in the Subcontinent continue to face mounting problems with piracy, finding this increasingly difficult to tackle. The Publishers Association in the UK, with the support of multinational publishing houses with offices in India, is currently fighting a legal battle to try to contain piracy, but awareness on the issue is relatively low in India. Further, even if controlled within India territory, knockoff books still tend to make their way into Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, stunting the potential of local publishing development throughout the region. Waiting at a traffic signal in any major city of the Subcontinent, one would be amazed at the range of pirated books being offered. Till a few years ago, this would only include international bestsellers such as those by Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer; but today, they include Ramachandra Guha’s historical writings to Jaishree Mishra’s novels. Major crackdowns have been initiated by firms and lawyers fighting against piracy, but the source of these books remains a mystery.
Another major challenge for the publishing industry -– though a potentially massive opportunity in the long term -– is the advent of relatively easy access to electronic books. Many publishers are already gearing up for this inevitability; last year, for instance, the Bangalore-based digital publisher E C Media International launched its much-awaited Wink e-book reader. Although it has not met with much success to date, it is clearly a path-breaking initiative, with support for 15 Indian languages. In particular, academic publishers have been the frontrunners in adapting to new technologies and offering content on multiple platforms, not only easing access for students and readers but also giving publishers the opportunity to innovate and develop new content.
Such obstacles notwithstanding, one thing is for certain: the publishing industry in India and across the Subcontinent will have to cater to multiple audiences in the coming decades. These will have to include the upwardly mobile middle class, the passionate reader, the new reader and the yet-to-be-converted reader. With the Internet offering hitherto untapped territories and readers, the potential is clearly huge. Publishers in the West are already changing course after learning their first lessons, and publishers here in South Asia can now take advantage of that learning. Moreover, with the world looking at innovations coming from this part of the world, the next step is yet to be taken -– and it is likely that this is being conceived of on some computer in Delhi, Dhaka or Karachi.
Akshay Pathak is the Director of the German Book Office, New Delhi, a joint venture between the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Himal Southasian magazine. It appears here with permission from the author.