The e-friend

Updated: Feb 10 2013, 09:27am hrs
Namrata Rao

Relegated to the back shelves of bookstores, Hindi and vernacular books are now finding a new friend in online portals. E-commerce has done for them what brick and mortar stores failed to doprovide access, publicity and discounts that have helped push sales phenomenally.

The availability of e-books and the presence of numerous online selling portals, such as Flipkart, Dial-a-Book and, among others, have become another medium through which Hindi and regional publishers can reach readers. Reaching people was the major challenge, says Piyush Kumar of Prabhat Prakashan, which has been publishing books in Hindi and Sanskrit, among other languages, for more than ten years. But e-commerce has facilitated and given a boost to retail for us.

Kumars view is endorsed by Arun Maheshwari, managing director, Vani Prakashan, a leading publisher of Hindi books: Figures tell us that books should be available through distinct sources. That is the only way to multiply their obtainability. Those who want books will get them in any case. The issue is dissemination. There are innumerable readers in the country. Indias middle class is the largest in the world. And there is a passion in this middle class to read. Online portals and e-books are our helper agents. They are, for us, a new bookshop.

Adds Kumar: The market for Hindi books is ever increasing. In the last two years alone, the growth we have seen is 20%. In tier-II and III towns especially, the demand for Hindi books has increased enormously. The percentage of our book sales on Flipkart is increasing every day. We are seeing a good response from all sources of online purchasing. And this concept is catching up in smaller cities too, such as Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi and Gorakhpur, among others.

Says Ashok Maheshwari, managing director, Rajkamal Prakashan, a 66-year-old Hindi publishing house: Hindi books are given a stepmotherly treatment. Many bookshops originally never stocked Hindi literature. Now they do, but thats just to show that they have Hindi books too. The variety of books there is very limited. The space allotted is also very less, he says, adding, The sale of books online has grown tremendously. People have increasingly started ordering and buying books online. Our readership has increased, and readers also have started making informed choices. They know which books are good, which ones to buy and they are buying good literature.

Besides having to jostle for space in the many bookstores of the country, another long-standing issue facing Hindi and regional books is the quality of publishing. Till some time ago, publishers would readily reduce the inputs to match the reduced price of a regional publication as opposed to an English one. The printing and paper quality would be inferior, and, consequentially, the end product would lack finesse. The kind of hard work that should go behind a book was not being achieved, both at the writers as well as at the publishers end, says Rajkamal Prakashans Maheshwari. But now, slowly, we are understanding and remedying this. Both the writers and publishers there is a lot of improvement in the quality of print. Our books can now compare with the best English publications in terms of the quality of print. We dont think we are lagging behind any more in this regard.

However, with the rapid popularisation of English throughout the country, one cant deny that the major chunk of the Indian publishing space and bookstores today is owned by publishers of English books. A bookshop is a place where a person should get books of every language, but sadly, thats not the case because we are living in an era of specialisation, says Narendra Kohli, a 73-year-old author, whose huge body of work in Hindi literature has been instrumental in the period since 1975 being sometimes referred to as the Kohli era. If you go to a shop where they sell only English books, how can you hope to get a Hindi title there

Publishers also feel that since English is the language of the world, it is natural that its presence will be dominant. Says Vanis Maheshwari: English is a world language and it encompasses the literature of the world. So, of course, the space for it will be bigger and readers, too, will be more. Hindi also has a great variety. But its the language of just our country. And even in our country, there are, say, five states where the language is spoken.

So is there any way Hindi and regional books can come out of the shadows and earn their rightful place in the market The need of the hour is marketing. Hindi books and writers need good marketing. If thats achieved, there will be improvement by leaps and bounds, says Rajkamals Maheshwari.

Theres just one big threat. And thats how to make our books more easily available. And for this, what we need are kiosks and availability centres all over, suggests Vanis Arun Maheshwari. The post office can also be roped in. It should be partially changed into a bookshop. A postman could then deliver books from door to door. That becomes another way of distribution. The problem is that we just dont have places where our books can be made available.

Book fairs, too, are a significant step towards reaching the remotest corners of the country, feel publishers. There should be book fairs in the smallest towns and cities of the country. For the next five years, the focus should be on district-level fairs. Then for the next 15 years, the focus should be tehsil-level fairs. Thats one way we can reach more people, says Kumar. Another key focus area should be cost-effectiveness. How can we lower the price without affecting the distributors margin. Publishing is a four-wheel vehicle made up of the publisher, author, distributor and reader, and all four should benefit.

Sukumar Shrinivas Beri of Abhinav Pustak Mandir, which publishes books in Marathi, feels the publishing infrastructure needs to be collective. Publishers should get together and work as a team, he says, adding, Marketing, too, needs to improve.

The New Delhi World Book Fair, for one, is a potent vehicle of marketing for these publishers. And they are unanimous in feeling that the only expectation they have from the fair is to make contacts and to reach out to people. Though our sales target is R20 lakh, our expectation is just that more and more people should drop by, says Rajkamals Ashok Maheshwari.

Agrees Vanis Arun Maheshwari: Sales is not a concern. In other book fairs in the world, selling is not allowed. Its permitted just for a day or two. But ours is a country of fairs and haats. But I personally dont support the idea of allowing the sale of books at book fairs. Instead, here we should just be providing informational pamphlets and promotional material. The readers who come and collect this material from us will naturally go to their local bookshops and ask for our books. Thats how book sellers will see a market here and thats how the development of this market can take place.