Under my byline

Fair business

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 18 April 2009

OVERLEAF 25

India is the “Market Focus” country at the London Book Fair, which calls itself “the leading spring book publishing and rights trading event”, this coming week. In 2006, India was “Guest of Honour” at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the biggest book fair in the world (in 2009, it will be China).

The habit of paying special attention to the business and art of literature of particular countries at the great international book fairs (including Kolkata, where this year’s “theme country” was Scotland) is not so old — centuries younger than book fairs themselves. The trend seems to have started in the 1970s, but only in the 1990s did it pick up momentum. So India, this enormous, un-ignorable, English-reading country, is not late to make it onto “focus” lists; the reason it had to wait even this long resembles the reason why Western business was seriously attracted to India only in the 1990s.

Inevitably, though, when one is talking books, culture looms over business. The Frankfurt fair pleasantly resolves the contradiction by describing itself as a “major cultural event”. Business happens, but within the framework of culture; without the urge to culture, there is no publishing business. In Germany, trade fairs with international reach are an ancient institution, and hence part of culture.

At London, the organisers are more uncomfortably alive to the contradiction, and at some pains to define themselves. In an interview last month I asked Alistair Burtenshaw, director of the London fair, what they had learnt from other major fairs about running a focus country programme. He said: “We are clearly a trade fair. ‘Market Focus’ might sound very business-orientated, but I do feel that in order to spread literature you do need both — you need fantastic writers and writing, great translators, but you also need great publishers, publishers who are passionate, they’re excited, they’re enthusiastic about work and want to make it a success and are good at business. And then you need great distributors, great booksellers who know how to sell a book to an audience whether it’s online, an individual store or a chain. We feel that you can’t ignore the business element.”

So this year the array of “seminars” which is the backbone of the Market Focus programme will include such topics as bilateral trade, publishing services, children’s publishing and the Indian publishing market, apart from the regular literary panel-talk by Indian writers famous in the UK. The seminars were organised by Sujata Sen, Director East India — resonant title! — of the British Council, in consultation with a staggering array of Indian organisations: ICCR, ITPO, Capexil, CII, NBT, Sahitya Akademi, Federation of Indian Publishers… (Yet, to my uninformed eye, most of the ideas seem to have come from the British Council, which is to their credit.) And there are prizes to be handed out: international young publisher of the year, UK young entrepreneur of the year.

This potentially fruitful jumble of objectives is where the “culture” leaks in again — UK culture, that is. To the question “Why India?” the answer always includes “cultural and linguistic diversity”. It’s a self-conscious and very contemporary message from the multi-culti UK, where diversity is a professed political and social good, as is youth, yet the actual understanding of and ability to manage either are rather weak. After centuries of association, India is still new and mysterious to Britain — a testament to the depth of the relationship, or to relative size, or a sign that Britain remains boxed in by the various other-hoods it shelters and which colour its outlook to the rest of the world.

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