Publishing in Nepal is generally thought to have begun when Jang Bahadur Rana, the founder of the Rana clan that would rule the country for close to a century, brought back a printer from a visit to Europe in 1850. However, much earlier than that, in 1821, the Mission Press in Serampore, in modern-day West Bengal, had published a Nepali-language translation of the Bible. In Nepal though, several books were printed only in the 1860s, among them the Muluki Ain (the Civil Code), and some translated versions of British military manuals, probably printed on the same press that Prime Minister Jang brought from England. Either way, these three factors would set the tone for Nepali publishing trends for the next two centuries: that the industry started with legal and military documents (implying government control over publishing), that it was in the Nepali language or translations into it, and that an important component of Nepali publishing took place in India.
By today, Nepal’s publishing-and-printing industry has seen an impressive growth, particularly in the last two decades. According to one estimate, there are now some 2000 printing presses in Nepal, and around 700 in the Kathmandu Valley alone. This spurt in publishing coincides with a shift from treadle to offset presses during the early 1990s. The majority of these are small-scale enterprises, and today just a dozen presses have full-colour facilities with modern binding, folding and various lamination services. The industry, which has already seen investments of around USD 3.5 million, has been directly or indirectly providing employment opportunities to more than 100,000 people. A report by the Press Council of Nepal indicates that 85 percent of newspapers are printing on modern offset presses with desktop publishing facilities, with the remaining 15 percent still using old cold type and treadle presses. Despite obstacles, including problematic supply of electricity, printing paper and human resources, the industry’s annual turnover of USD 170 million indicates a very healthy publishing sector.
Despite this growth, the distinctive trend that was set in place 200 years ago largely continues. For instance, after Calcutta, Benaras became the hub for Nepali publishing until the first quarter of the 20th century. Even today, Nepali publishing in India not only still occurs but continues to play an important role. Nepali printing presses have to import the paper they use, and the taxes incurred inevitably increase the cost of book production. However, as there is no tax on importing published books in any language or from any country, and the cost of production is lower in India, many Nepali publishers continue to print their products there and then ‘import’ these back to the home market. This is not merely to save money, either, as the quality provided by Indian presses remains, by and large, better than what is available in Nepal. The Nepali publishers are also still far behind in exploring the possibility of markets in India and elsewhere, not to mention the huge challenge to match the international counterparts in terms of quality and cost.
737 a year
After nearly two centuries, Nepali publishing really gained momentum only after the formal introduction of the multiparty democratic system in 1990. Among other things, the political and legal transformation offered a first-time opportunity for Nepali society in the printing and publishing sectors. With private-sector investing in new technology, NGOs and INGOs began not only to print their routine reports and documents but also to focus on the publication of academic and semi-academic writings in book form. Importantly, this coincided with the arrival of offset and digital presses around 1992. The entry of offsets also meant that in terms of composing, Nepal never moved from cold-type, monotype to linotype, but rather jumped from cold type to offset. However, screen-printing technology and treadle presses are still popular, and are used to publish wedding or invitation cards, ephemeral materials and other low-quantity productions. Digital technology, notwithstanding issues regarding availability of human resources, their transition and adaptability to the new system in the earlier days, is now on the verge of replacing old printing technologies throughout the country.
A new arena of publication in both Nepali and English was spawned by the newly liberalised policies in the education sector that encouraged the growth of private schools and colleges. Nepali has been the language of dominance throughout, its position consolidated by state policy to make it the official language. Only in recent days has the hegemony of Nepali-language textbooks been increasingly challenged by the other vernacular languages, at least at the primary level, due to government policy to encourage teaching in the mother tongue for students up to the fifth standard. Apart from basic textbooks and reference materials for grade school and college-level education, there has been a surge in academic writing (in Nepali) in Nepal, which is being published by non-government academic institutions. This is a significant turnaround from previous decades, when such writings were limited to government-funded universities and their research institutes.
The volume of book production, distribution and consumption has also gone up in Nepal, including with regards to English-language publications. While it is difficult to state the exact number of books published in English or Nepali in any particular year, it appears that in the 125 years before 1990 around 15,000 titles were published in Nepali. The last quarter-century, meanwhile, has seen the publication of an equal number of books – though not including books published in other local languages or those not deposited at Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP, for which this writer works and for which Himal’s editor is member-secretary), the country’s largest repository of Nepali-language materials.
The Asian Communication Handbook (2008), a media-trends resource, reported that book production in English is around 50 titles per year in Nepal. However, the ISBN Registration Office Nepal, housed at Tribhuvan University, along with other information indicates that between 1990 and 2010, around 2800 books in English were published, meaning an annual average of around 133 titles. Within these 21 years, MPP has collected around 15,490 titles of book published in Nepali, an average of 737 titles per year, or seven times the English-language rate. Again, these numbers do not include books published and registered outside of Nepal. In addition, only an estimated 10 percent of Nepali-language books are exported to other countries, particularly India, as reference books for Nepali literature, whereas 90 percent of English-language books are imported.
Over the past half-decade, a new trend has begun to shape the Nepali publishing sphere, as several new publishers have realised the need to market their products. Young entrants in the sector are also pushing the envelope by targeting particular readers. Many new books published today are introduced in the market with a book launch, typically comprising of a reading session by the author or a discussion of the book. Most often, such events are attended by socialites, a few book lovers and some journalists, ensuring a bit of coverage in the following day’s papers. Some publishing houses have also begun to make sizeable investments in design, leading to interesting layout, attractive covers and good-quality paper. Even editing has started to see increasing emphasis.
Nepal imports most of its paper, among which the high quality ones (of more than 100 GSM) are imported from Taiwan, Japan, Korea and China. The lesser-quality papers, however, are either produced in Nepal itself or imported from India. The production of colourful magazines, coffee-table books and stylish covers are possible not only because of better digital printing technology but also due to the availability of quality paper. In Nepal, apart from the publishers of glossy magazines, of which there has been a boom in recent years, the other major consumers of high-quality paper are national and international development agencies.
A look at the production volume and quantity of sales provides some indication as to the consumption and popularity of books in the Nepali market. For first editions, print runs today are typically 1000 copies, a number that has become a benchmark among many Nepali publishers. Another important indicator, though one that is often overlooked, is whether a book is easily available at book stalls along urban footpaths. If a book sells along the footpath, that work is clearly selling en masse. In the Nepali context, books sold along the footpaths are mostly pulp fiction; only a few titles manage to sell both at the high-end bookshops and on the streets. Further, works sold along the footpaths are rarely English-language titles, if at all. This places additional limitations on the readership for English-language books – and publishing of all kinds, academic or otherwise. Of course, it would also not be a generalisation to suggest that the English-language readership is largely limited to Kathmandu.
This is not to say that the street only sells Nepal-produced pulp fiction. Footpath book stalls also offer a wide variety of international bestsellers, from popular fiction to biography to self-help, but in Nepali translations, typically pirated. For instance, at least five different Nepali translations of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist have been seen on the streets of Kathmandu. However, some publishers have also translated and published a few international bestsellers with copyright permission, in an attempt to intervene into the local pirated market – a healthy sign, indeed.
Let us consider a few more examples. In 1998, Jagadamba Prakashan, the publisher affiliated to MPP, published Atmabrittanta, the autobiography of B P Koirala, in Nepali. To date, more than 20,000 copies of the Nepali version but just a thousand copies of the English version have sold. Likewise, in 1980, Sajha Prakashan, one of the country’s oldest and largest publication houses, published 5100 copies of the English-language Vignettes of Nepal, by the geographer Harka Gurung. Sajha has still not run out of its copies, whereas Himal Books, another Kathmandu-based publisher, published the Nepali translation of the book in 2007, and has sold more than 7000 copies. Similarly, Siris ko Phool, a Nepali-language novel by Parijat, one of the doyens of Nepali-language literature, has sold more than 100,000 copies to date since its first publication in 1965, whereas its English translation has sold little more than 2000. Even the English-language bestsellers of Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa have not sold more than 10,000 copies in Nepal.
There is another interesting trend at work. Most of the English-language books published in Nepal are non-fiction, whereas most Nepali-language books are the opposite. The MPP catalogue shows that at least 70 percent of Nepali-language books are generally categorised as literature. This shows a clear demarcation in terms of production, distribution and consumption. In Nepal, most academic and semi-academic books are available solely in Kathmandu, and even then mostly at selected shops.
One obvious reason for this is that the English language entered Nepal relatively late, with the country not having been forced to bear the colonial baggage vis-à-vis the English language. Other reasons could be literacy rates, standards of education and the overall state of Nepali society as guided by its politics. Nonetheless, young readers with growing exposure to the English language, and a discerning taste for Nepali and other national languages, will inevitably help to shape the future of publishing in Nepal.
~ Deepak Aryal is a media researcher with Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya archives, Kathmandu.