Publishing in India: New Horizons

Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan talks about the Indian publishing scene, the changes that have occurred and the challenges that the industry faces.

Via Indian Printer and Publisher

A little over three decades ago I made my first, accidental entry into the world of publishing in India.

At the time, a great deal of publishing activity in Delhi — and many of the larger Western houses had moved to Delhi by then — was concentrated in two roads, a longer one called Asaf Ali Road that lay just outside the wall of the old city, and a shorter strip, Ansari Road, that lay just beyond.

Those were the days when typesetting was still done by hand, using hot or cold metal, and the nearby main road in Daryaganj, or further along Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, you could find handsetting, as well as monotype or linotype machines.

In the post-independence scenario, publishing, like everything else, was required to ‘Indianise’ and expatriate employees of foreign companies had to leave, with the companies themselves reducing their shareholding to a maximum of 49 per cent.

The process of Indianising was not easy: the state had to create a fine balance of openness (based on the belief that knowledge should be free and easily available) and protectionism (based on the understanding that the Indian book trade should be allowed to develop).

Publishing has changed beyond recognition since. It’s not only that technological changes have transformed the practice of publishing, and metal typesetting, letterpress printing, blocks and galleys are now a thing of the past, but the change is so much more profound, so much more wide-ranging.Ansari Road is no longer the only home for publishers in Delhi, there are just too many of them to fit in there.

More importantly, Delhi isn’t the only home either: Indian language publishers have always been located in the particular state to which the language belongs, but in the seventies, many English language publishers moved to Delhi. Today though, location doesn’t mean the same thing, and publishers choose to work from Chennai, or Mumbai or Kolkata, or Thiruvananthapuram, or Kottayam, or up in the mountains and down in the plains, and they work with typesetters who are located in other cities, printers who might even be in other countries.

In the early days when I began working in publishing, there were only two or three kinds of books that got taken seriously. These were school textbooks, academic books for use at university level (which included social sciences, the natural and applied sciences, engineering, architecture and a whole host of other subject areas) and the odd novel, usually destined to take the textbook route. Trade publishing, or the publishing of books of general interest, hadn’t yet made its presence felt.

It was around the eighties I think that things began to change.

Enter Indian trade books in English: the late eighties and early nineties were the time when the profile of English publishing in India began to change, and trade publishing made its way into this market.

The next big change came about in the nineties when India began to open up to foreign investment, and very quickly, as things became increasingly liberalized, large multinational publishers started to look towards this market — one of the few in the world which still shows considerable potential for expansion.

But, while the large and medium sized ‘foreign’ actors worked hard to open up the space for Indian trade publishing in English, it was the Indian actors who actually often took the initial step of experimenting with new things. Rupa, a publisher and distributor, was one of the first to look at mass market books in English, moving away from the literary work, to the more popular one. If Rupa made the initial foray into the mass market, publishers like Tara and Tulika broke new ground where children’s books were concerned, just as Kali did where women’s books were concerned.

And then there’s the entry of the adventurous young — long years ago when I left my job to think of setting up my own publishing house, people thought I was a bit mad. But today, young people are doing this all the time: a few years ago a group of young men and women came together to set up Blaft, a wonderful, dynamic publishing house that focuses on translations of pulp fiction; there’s Navayana, set up by two men, to publish works by marginalized people, Phantomville which focuses on graphic novels, Kalachuvadu which publishes both fiction and non fiction in Tamil, New Horizon, set up by two Silicon valley entrepreneurs who sold their stake in an enormously profitable website, Cricinfo, to concentrate on books, Panther Books, set up by one man (and his family) to bring the best medical knowledge to the world in electronic form, Ratna Sagar, a quality publishing house doing textbooks and books for children that is providing strong competiton to the OUP . . . and the list goes on.

There’s no doubt these houses are publishing new and interesting titles, but I think it’s important to recognize that the real innovations are coming from elsewhere, that it is the independent, small (sometimes not so small) Indian publishers who are really the ones who should be credited with putting Indian publishing on the international map. They may not be making money hand over fist, but they’re doing something they believe in, and something that actually is the change.

Long years ago, Robert Escarpit, researching on book reading habits across the world defined India as a region of ‘book hunger.’ Exciting though the publishing scene in India is today, as we stand poised on the brink of many changes and new developments, it’s worth remembering that in a country where there are still millions of people who can’t read, and millions who do not have access to education, there’s much that remains to be done.

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