Under my byline

Hydra tales

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 13 February 2010


Having spent three days at the just-concluded 19th Delhi World Book Fair (which I wrote in detail about here), I’m ready to speculate a little about change in the books industry.

To start with, what most of us think of as a “book” is not what the books industry makes most of. Story, narrative, fiction — especially the stuff that wins all the famous awards — makes up only a small share of the titles published every year. Vastly larger numbers of educational, business-and-management, and science-technology-medicine (STM) books are made, even if they never make it onto the newspaper books pages.

Trade, or the publisher-to-publisher business of books, played a larger role at this book fair than ever before — in India, at least. And much of this trade happened in the areas listed above, not in fiction.

There’s a reason for this. It’s not just the appetite for educational, business and STM books that makes them important for trade, but the fact that such titles are truly international. A management text, thanks to globalisation, can be used more or less anywhere. Likewise an educational or STM title. At the fair, a German and an Indian publisher of educational books for young children told me, together, that children are the same everywhere, so their titles can travel. I wouldn’t have believed it; but they know their market.

Because such content is universal (once the inconvenience of translation is overcome), it opens up a potentially big market for even small publishers from peripheral countries like India. It’s much harder for a publisher to cultivate a self-sustaining list of writers of quality fiction and narrative non-fiction than it is to get teachers/practitioners to produce learning-aid books tailored to a particular syllabus, children’s age group or profession.

So, just as a major phase of consolidation in the global books industry is winding down — think of the giants grown omnipresent since the 1990s, like Pearson (Penguin et al), Bertelsmann (Random House et al), Hachette (dozens of imprints) and NewsCorp (HarperCollins) — trade is allowing content from a small publisher to travel internationally on the back of a large publisher or distributor, or even into a single new market (say, Argentina) via a local publisher. Nobody loses; the small operator gains.

And that’s bringing the publishing Hydra‘s tail around to meet its heads. Modern publishing began in the 15th century as a cottage industry — one man, one printing press — and retained that individualistic flavour well into the 20th century. Then, changing markets triggered waves of consolidation. Now, thanks to universalisation, once again a “publisher” is a person with a name and a distinct publishing taste of his or her own.

Where a small publisher cannot profitably sell content upward and outward, he or she can now ally with other independents to reap the benefits of joint marketing and distribution. It’s happening worldwide; and locally, see for example the Independent Publishers Development Alternative, a grouping of academic and leftist publishers.

That’s my last observation from this fair: like the Internet, world book fairs appear to be encouraging niche operators. Not only are the leftists back, so are the believers. Post post-9/11 and Gujarat 2002, the poison of religion seems to have been drawn, and the book fair was awash with fringe faiths. Weird, but invigorating — like the fair as a whole.


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