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FEATURES/Biggest Questions of 2013 | Jan 7, 2013 | 6324 views

How long does the book made of paper have?

I don’t think it matters in the long run how much time paper has left. As long as content remains alive, we’re okay, says Urvashi Butalia
How long does the book made of paper have?
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The more difficult change has been the one that has come with the digital revolution

T

he one thing that can be said with certainty about the state of the publishing industry in India is that nothing can be said with any certainty. After 1972, when the government commissioned the National Centre for Applied Economic Research to do a survey of book publishing in India, there has been no systematic study, so we have no reliable stats at all.

Some people in publishing say the industry in India is valued at Rs 5,000 crore; others say Rs 7,000 crore (these are the figures most widely bandied about).

Just as no one really knows the size of the industry, no one really knows much about growth figures. Everything is based on impressions, assumptions and speculations, with some facts lying at the bottom. The general wisdom is that in trade publishing (books targeted at the mass market), growth is somewhere between 20-30 percent annually. About other sectors not much is known, although some estimates can be made for the educational sector by computing growth in education and institutes.

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Growth will not stop in the near future. India is one of the few markets in the world that is not yet saturated and that still has a very low per capita book consumption. As education grows, as literacy improves, as urbanisation spreads, as incomes increase, as the media spreads, growth in books will also accompany these, although the form of the book may well change.

This is of course why all the big guns are flocking here: They see growth, growth, growth! This is borne out by what we see happening on the ground: An increase in the number of bookshops (even if some chains have shut down shops, we still have more bookshops than we had in the seventies), online selling, book festivals, more authors. We know change is happening, we just don’t know how much.

One of the interesting things about Indian publishing is the mix of old, new, independent, multinational, and multilingual. All of this may change with the big guns coming in.

What is certain: Indian readers are changing. It’s difficult to say how, but it is clear that the Indian reader is hungry for things to read and, for me, that is the beginning of a major change. They’re open to all kinds of books, which is also important.

Look at the genres jostle with each other (and working!): Autobiography, fiction, detective fiction, cookery, cricket, blogs, etc. And that’s in all languages, not just English. Plus there is so much exchange between Indian languages now. And so many literature festivals! Some of it is the copycat effect, but a lot of it comes from a genuine interest in books and more writers writing.

I think festivals are great for authors: They bring readers and authors together and nothing could be better for the craft of writing and for publishing. Also, in a country that is still not well served by bookshops, they help readers to have access to books.

If there is any caution I would put to this, it’s this: I hope more and more of our litfests keep a balance of English and Indian languages (I refuse to call them regional, it’s insulting) and sell books in those languages, and I hope more and more of them go to smaller cities and towns.

Today’s challenges have seen some in Indian publishing reacting well, seeing change for what it brings, both the good and the bad; others have fought for protectionism, tried to stop FDI, some for political reasons (and these are often suspect) and others for practical ones, or commercial ones. So many are scared of losing their markets to the big guns, but I think we have to really think on our feet about how to deal with this, and people are not doing enough of that.

The more difficult change has been the one that has come with the digital revolution. Those publishers who have taken this on board have done very well in coping with this change.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 11 January, 2013
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