A reader for every book

As we hear time and again these days, the Indian book-publishing industry is booming. The numbers of books coming out is up significantly compared to previous years, and in languages offering a bigger footprint, particularly English and Hindi. Yet amidst all this, what is the state of 'alternative' publishing – those non-mainstream, often not-for-profit, publishers typically focusing on causes rather than money? In fact, since the beginning of India's economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, alongside the 'discovery' of the Indian market by international publishing conglomerates there has been a notable parallel profusion of small-scale publishing houses. Recent years has seen massive growth in independent publishing, helped on in particular by technology having lowered costs, enabling better-quality printing and making outsourcing and tapping freelance work easier. At base, publishing has become far more accessible for all. Yet one issue in particular has continued to dog these independent operations: distribution.

'Alternative publishers in India basically face the same challenges that publishers face everywhere – selecting content, adding value, making public,' says Joseph Mathai of the Independent Publishers' Distribution Alternatives (IPDA). 'But these challenges are made more acute by the relative small size of the operations of alternative publishers.' With the exception of some small publishers, such as Zubaan, which now has a tie-up with Penguin Books, most distributors who supply to retailers do not want to use publishers that are either not established or are publishing titles that do not seem likely to result in high sales.

Such 'dis-economies of small scale' work against alternative publishers. The more experienced members of a small publisher's staff are typically forced to spend more time on administrative and financial tasks, thus taking them away from promoting the published books. As Mathai says, 'The entry of more and more big players in the publishing field' is taking place in a market that is quickly expanding, but in a way that is stacked the odds against the small players. 'There has undeniably been an increase in the book-reading public,' Mathai continues, 'but a substantial segment of this growth is powered by an increasing demand for self-help books and "easy reads", which really are not the kind of books that alternative publishers are interested in bringing out.'

As such, getting the types of books that small-scale publishers typically focus on into the hands of those who are interested in reading them has become a significant issue. It is one with critical implications for the survival of individual publishers and, perhaps, the overall sector of alternative publishing.

Alternative alternatives
Distribution was one of the main reasons behind the formation of the IPDA. It explains itself as being grounded in the idea that liberalisation is leading to small-scale publishers 'being pushed to the margins by the entry of multinational corporate publishing houses', mostly from the Western world. 'For us, available shelf space was shrinking, as we were crowded out by mainstream publishers. We do not have such long lists of books. If we go as a collective, it has its advantages,' says Amrita Akhil, the marketing director for IPDA. Today, IPDA includes publishers such as LeftWord, Navayana, Samskriti, Stree-Samya, Three Essays Collective, Tulika (Delhi and Chennai), Women Unlimited and Zubaan.

IPDA functions as a collaborative marketing-and-distribution initiative. Its goal is to achieve the widest possible exposure and distribution of books published by alternative publishers in the form of small presses, as well as self-publishing. More recently, these options have also begun to include print on demand (see box) and e-book formats. Put together, they publish books covering a wide range of subjects such as social sciences, gender studies, the humanities, leftist literature, development studies, international relations, politics, cultural studies, fiction, books for children and young adults, general-interest non-fiction and even some poetry. Besides the eight partner publishers, IPDA is the official distributor for other publishing houses, and is also exploring alternatives to strict copyright and 'all rights reserved' approaches to publishing.

In IPDA's case, unity is strength, and the alliance is now distributing over 2000 titles. There have been some notable success stories, including some that would normally not be associated with alternative publishing. The two volumes on artist Amrita Sher Gil published by Tulika, for instance, included reproductions of 147 paintings, a select bibliography of works on the artist as well as her translated letters and other writings. It cost over INR 5000 and sold more than 1500 copies. For Tulika and other alternative presses this experience has demonstrated that small-scale publishing operations need not be restricted to low-cost books.

A number of other models have also been tried to get past the distribution bottleneck. One is direct marketing to the customer, which particularly serves authors who are in a position to make more money from direct sales to a niche audience as opposed to bookstore sales, similar to popular speakers who sell books after their speeches. The Other India Press in Goa, for instance, prints and distributes a useful catalogue of alternative books in India, and markets these and its own publications through direct mail order rather than rely only on bookstore sales.

One of the innovations by Other Books in Kerala is based on teaming up authors and sponsors, acting as a link between them, with the objective of ensuring that themes connected with the peculiarities of a small region of Kerala actually get written about.Kerala even boasts of a state-run institution that could be seen as an alternative publisher – the Kerala State Institute for Children's Literature, which aims to promote reading among children. Started in 1981, this remains the only state government-run project of its kind. The initiative has relied on the strong culture of libraries in Kerala to bring its books to readers, with some 6000 book-lenders spread across the state.

Still, much remains to be done. For instance, Kannan Sundaram, of Kalachuvadu publishers, suggests that more bookshops and distributors need to be set up focusing specifically on the works of small-scale presses. Until that happens, Sundaram says, book fairs are a critical component of promotion for alternative publishers. Nonetheless, the potential for growth clearly exists, and the arrival on the scene of so many small players has led many to express excitement about the new diversity of the printed word in India. While the value of these new works cannot be judged in terms of profitability alone, alternative publishing houses are trying to make available to the reader a world of new ideas – and creating space for many more voices to be heard.

A copy at a time

Goa-based Leonard Fernandes is a young engineer who, with his wife Quennie, started an online used bookstore aptly titled, as any book lover would agree, dogearsetc.com. They also offer editorial and pre-press services, such as proofreading, editing, formatting, preparing non-English text, translation and more. Not only does dogearsetc.com stock used books, but also books from alternative publishers such as Yoda Press, IPDA and Tulika, whose titles are not easily available.

Still, it is the Fernandeses' print-on-demand service that is of interest to those who want to publish just a few copies of a new book. Unlike a normal publishing process, in which a publisher prints and then sells, under print-on-demand the book is sold first and then printed. So, authors can put up their book on dogearsetc.com (or anywhere else), and when one copy gets sold they can get just one copy printed. With this new technology, the price of printing a single copy, while high, is not prohibitive.

Print-on-demand 'is a one-off thing,' says Leonard. 'The per-unit cost is higher, but you're saving on the total cost.' He points to one book of about 130 pages and says, 'If you print a thousand copies via the traditional method, it might cost you 40,000 to 50,000 rupees. With print-on-demand, it might cost you just 120 rupees per copy. You can even get just one copy, if you wish.' Rather than investing tens of thousands of rupees, an author spends just a few hundred.

With print-on-demand there are no unsold copies lying around, there is no requirement to print thousands at one go. Rather, an author can use that one published copy as 'proof of concept', a prototype to show to a larger publisher, who could consider a full print run. The print-on-demand option can also be used for a niche audience – for a lecturer to share his or her book, or to share one's mother's book of recipes with family and friends.

In short, print-on-demand seems to offer the logical extension of the ideology behind small-scale alternative presses in the first place: a continued opening of the publishing option to one and all.

~ Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based journalist.

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Himal Southasian