Himalayan publishing in European languages spells big money, but the market is dominated by books about idyllic mountains and touristic pursuits. While serious publishers in the region face hardships, some fly-by-night book packagers take short cuts to big profits.
Rama Tiwari started selling books lO years ago on the streets of Benares. He moved up to Kathmandu six years ago and today runs Pilgrims, one of the busiest bookshops in the heart of Kathmandu´s tourist district with a collection of 70,000 titles and a yearly turnover of NRs 35 million.
Tiwari´s rags-to-riches story provides a peep into the world of Himalayan publishing and book-selling. But such success stories mask the industry´s largely tourism-dependent nature. Publishing is not institutionalised and sometimes appears as fragile as theecology of the Himalaya. With one million tourists visiting the Himalayan region every year, publishers agree mat the local market for books is big.
The fact that visitors on holiday are ready to spend money means that books go easily. Bookstalls make a tidy sum because they buy mostly “off-price” copies in the Westand charge the cover price. Others specialise in ferreting out tum-of-the-century books on the Himalaya by colonial adventurers and selling them at stratospheric prices.
Foreign Buyers, Local Market
A visit to any Kathmandu bookshop shows shelves catering almost entirely to visitors or resident expatriates. Saraswati Bookshop is strategically located near the United Nations office in Patan and carries titles that range from mountaineering picture books to teach-yourself-Nepali series. Yoshikazu Shirakawa´s portfolio of Himalayan photographs, Sandro Tucci´s ´Gurkhas´, ´Honey Hunters of Nepal´ by Eric Valli and Diane Summers and Pashupati Sumshere Rana´s ´Kathmandu a Living Heritage´ are prominently displayed.
Publishers catering to the Himalayan region include university presses from North America or Europe and their subcontinental subsidiaries, big-time transnational publishers like Random House, struggling local presses trying to carve out a market niche and reprint merchants who come up with exhorbitantly priced out-of-print editions.
The biggest subject for Himalayan publishing, of course, is the Himalaya itself — its mountains and the inhabitants of its deep valleys. Shirakawa´s portraits of Himalayan peaks have been ever-lasting on the shelves. Honey Hunters of Nepal (Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1988) latched on to a subject that was uniquely Himalayan ¦— with not a shot of the snow mountains, just daringly photographed view of highland Gurungs battling honeybees. The book has gone on to be probably the most-translated and most-sold book on the Himalaya.
Kathmandu Valley, both as a geographical phenomenon as well as the font of Newari/Nepali culture, has been another exotic draw for the publishers. Since Perceval Landon´s two-volume A fepa/(Constable and Co., London, 1928) took a detailed look at Kathmandu, and even before, the Valley´s well-packaged offerings have proved an attraction for writers and publishers. The mostrecent output on the Valley is Pashupati Shumshere Rana´s Kathmandu: A Living Heritage (The Perennial Press IBD, Bombay, 1989).
Tibet, of course, is everywhere. Tibetan subjects in print include dharma, mysticism, anthropology, trekking, Lhasa, history, independence, human rights, Dalai Lama, exploits of the Khampas, and so on. “Anything on Tibetan society sells because of its exoticism, its politics and its mystery,” says a satisfied Kathmandu bookseller. Bookshops that have a pulse on the market have started specialising on Tibet. Pilgrims, for example, has already published or reprinted nine volumes on Tibet and Buddhism (one of the originals dates back to 1877) and has three more reprints in the pipeline. Bhutan and Ladakh, too, ride the crest of the interest in anything Tibetan.
The lack of serious bookshops in the region, which in itself is a function of the absence of readership, inhibits publishing. Whereas the bookshops in the main cities such as Delhi, Islamabad and Calcutta do stock books on the Himalaya for a local readership, the Himalayan region itself is barren. The great reading traditions in the British hill stations of Mussoorie, Shimla or Darjeeling have all but vanished. Hallowed bookshops such as Maria Brothers in Shimla are increasingly forced to heed the mass market interests of Punjabi tourists, who are more interested in picture postcards and film magazines. Punjabificaiion in the hills of Himachal and Uttar Pradesh and Bengalisation of Darjeeling and Kalimpong has shrunk the local market for Himalayan publications (which are overwhelmingly in English). Thimphu last year opened its first bookshop, but it caters mostly to tourists.
It would be wrong to think that English publishing on the Himalaya is new. It goes back at least two centuries, and the writers invariably were European adventurers out for some good old spying, climbing and exploring. The ex-explorers andimperial agents wrote as they went, or produced tomes once in retirement in Kent or the Cotswolds.
The e arly writers, many of whose labours are now reprinted and turning a tidy profit for Indian and Nepali publishers, include Brian Houghton Hodgson, whom Landon described as “one of the greatest labourers in the sphere of Indian research and record that has ever lived”; M. Sylvain Levi in archaeology; Dr. Wright, a scholar and Dr. Oldfield, a surgeon assigned to the Kathmandu residency; Sir Charles Bell, Laurence Oliphant, and so on. These were, of course, preceded |1 by accounts written by Kirkpatrick, Hamilton and Fraser.
It used to be that ex-explorers and ex-diplomats wrote on the Himalaya. Today´s “serious” books increasingly are written by anthropologists, sociologists, historians and other academics, as well as by ex-Peace Corps volunteers, ex-Gurkhas, en-mountaineers and ex-development workers.
In India, the tiny publishing house of Mani Press continues to maintain traditional standards. Founded decades ago, at Kalimpong, by the formidable literateur and educationist, the late Dr Parasmani Pradhan, Mani Press has contributed a small but important number of primers and textbooks in Nepali, bilingual dictionaries, collected essays, poetry and fiction books in English and Nepali. Mani Press is also the earliest, and arguably the best, publisher of books in Dzongkha. Latest offerings include a seminal work on Himalayan orchids by UdaiC. Pradhan, exquisitely illustrated on handmade paper and bound in Bhutanese plaid. Bharal Mani Pradhan, who runsMani Press, is currently investigating the possibility of bringing out a Lepcha/English dictionary as well as a collection of fiction and poetry by writers from the Darjeeling district.
Of the other publishing in the area, the journal, Himalaya Today, produced in Gangtok, deserves mention. But, although it is certainly eco-friendly, Himalaya Today is less user-friendly and often carries abstruse pieces culled from the research papers of academics.
Malice in Wonderland
The irony of Himalayan publishing is that Nepali publishers, in the heart of the Himalaya, pooh-pooh the idea that the field is a gold mine. “How can you say that the region is a publisher´s wonderland?” asks Govinda Shrestha, of Rania Pustak Bhandar, Nepal´s senior book-seller and publisher. “Show me any good book on a serious subject published here in the last ten years?”
Shrestha considers as “serious”, publications such as Toni Hagen´s Nepal (Kummerly & Frey, Beme, 1960), Dor Bahadur Bista´s People of Nepal (HMG Department of Publicity, Kathmandu, 1967), and Kirk patrick´s old classic An Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul (William Miller, London, 1811). Rama Pustak has published more than 60 titles ranging from the Barnamala to the Bibliotheca Himaiayica series on the Himalaya. But does he sell? “It takes a minimum of three years to sell one thousand copies of a good book,” Shrestha says.
A Guide to Trekking inNepal by Stephen Berzuchkapublished by Sahayogi in Kathmandu is an example of the potential market for high-quality products targetted to tourists. The classic is in its sixth edition and is now printed in North America and UK. The book took five years to sell its first editions. Now, there is a new edition almost every year.
The Bibliotheca Himaiayica series may be considered jewel in the crown of Himalayan publishing. The series was initiated in 1973 by Halvard K. Kuloy, a Norwegian who was ResidentRepresentative of U riicef in Kathmandu
in the 1970s. Bibliotheca Himaiayica was well received among academic Himalophiles, but their number is small. Its first edition came out in 1973. The most recent reprint, The Traditional Architecture of Kathmandu Valley (1989), has sold only 300 of the 1000 copies, which shows how fast the market saturates. Another piece of serious publishing, also from Ratna Pustak, is the journal Kailash, which has failed to come out for the last three years. It has aprintrunof500for 200 subscribers and is on the verge of extinction.
Sales to the local intelligentsia of Kailash or any other academic publication, is practically nil. This is due both to a lack of scholarship among the locals as well as the relatively high cost of books and journals. Once in a while, a particularly striking book will attract some local sales, such as anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista´s Fatalism and Development (Orient Longman, New Delhi,1991), an analytical work on the Hinduisation of Nepali society which has something for everyone to be angry or pleased about. The book is already well into its second edition, and there is talk of a third.
But Bista´ s book is an exception. On the whole, local publishing on the Himalaya is a labour of love. The profits just are not there, say publishers and distributors in Kathmandu. Himalayan publishing is not a high-volume business. The maximum a book can sell is about 10,000 copies, after years on the racks. Print runs of books that do well are between 2,000 and 3,000 copies. According to one estimate, there are about 80 regional publishers on Himalayan topics. In New Delhi alone, there are about 50 publishers on Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Ladafch and Sikkim. Publishers with good distribution networks include India Book House, Vikas, Manohar, Sterling and Natraj (of DehraDun).
However, there are the publishers who are not as ´serious´, a new breed which cares little for quality but everything for quick profits. Fast buck book peddlers based in Benares, Jaipur and Delhi are invading the Himalayan market with cheaply produced, badly edited titles with little intellectual weight. The intention is to tap the exoticism of the Himalayan market with catchy titles and flashy covers, and to make off with the cover price value before the readers get wise to the what´s in side. These publishers are averaging one title on a Himalayan subject every month.
A typical scam runs thus. The India-based publisher (where printing costs arc a third of Kathmandu rates) is on the lookout for manuscripts that can be palmed off as real scholarship. Someone comes along with his Masters dissertation, unedited and of little value. The book is printed and hard-bound in, say, laipur. It is given an attractive colour cover and a mark up of IRs 200. The-writer´s contract is to seH 200copies, which she or he does by peddling
the book in Government departments and among friends. Thatalready provides IRs 40,000, which covers all the costs. The rest is profit. Some of these pseudo-publications are given to bookshops, while rest are bundled off to libraries and institutions through agents who do it for a commission (which is as high as 40 per cent).
At other extreme are the big-time publishers from North America, who use their power and resources to sell the Himalaya for high profit Those that regularly publish on Himalayan subjects include Simon & Schuster (New York) which published Jeremy Bernstein (of The Wildest Dreams ofKew fame), Fodor´s Travel Publications Inc (London andNew York) and even Un win Hyman Limited which publishes paperbacks like Escape from Kathmandu.
A few years ago, Random House* the New York-based giant, took over Shambhala, a publishing house that focuses on oriental mysticism, and especially Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that it specialised on Him alayan subj ects indicates profits are there. Unfortunately, the local publishers of the Himalayan region are in no position to tap this multi-million dollar market. The problems are: low print and paper quality, the poor quality of the (largely un-edited) copy and, most important of all, lack of marketing and distributing muscle. The best the local publishers can hope for, therefore, is to nibble at the edges of the vast market that does exist
While the distribution bottleneck exists it is also true that there is a lack of business skills and knowledge of the worldwide market and how to tackle it. Indian mega-publishers such as Vikas seem to have successfully tackled this, but not so the smaller publishers. Rivalry and pettiness add to the problem.
“Some booksellers will write to the publishers rather than get the books from the distributor in Kathmandu,” said Madhab L. Maharjan of Mandate Book Point and secretary of Nepal´s Booksellers´ and Publisher´ Association.´ ´Booksellers are still not functioning professionally, which affects publishers and ultimately Himalayan scholarship as a whole.”
To gear up for the market that is bound to develop, publishers and booksellers must institutionalise. Must a Bibliotheca Himaiayica languish because Kuloy i s go tie ? Must.a Sahayo gi give up a lucrative book in hand because it does not have reach? Unfortunately, successful publishers are mainly family businesses. They revolve around individuals with vision, and decelerate once those individuals lose their drive. Even Pilgrims´ Rama Tiwari is not sure that his successful business, the envy of other booksellers in Nepal, will survive him. “I have built up this collection… once I die this (bookshop) will also die. I do not see the zeal in my family to continue with this business,” Tiwari says.
Bhattarai is a Kathmandu journalist.