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Losing track of books

Frederick Noronha


We have long been told that India is on its way to becoming a book publishing giant, and that it has a lot of potential in this field. Depending on which figures you take, India is the sixth-largest book publisher in the world (after China which is now on top, the US, UK, Russia and Germany).

Book publishing has indeed grown a lot in recent years. The technology is suddenly becoming accessible here. Presses have improved in quality. You can get almost world-class quality in some of the bigger Indian cities (but not so easily in Goa). Indian book prices tend to be surprisingly affordable, though some also go in for high-priced options.

Books are very important to Indian society too. This medium can reflect the diversity of the country. Together with media like newspapers and radio (other than the excessively commercialised segment, in my view), it also meets the needs growing hunger for information, or entertainment. In a country where literacy is growing, as is the population, books indeed have a vital role to play.

But, as someone who has dabbled in this field for the past decade (first tentatively, and then getting increasingly caught up with it), one has seen how this field is being decimated. Thoughtlessly, one policy at a time.

A-year-and-half ago, a new government policy announced that handing out of International Standard Book Number (ISBN) would go completely online. (The ISBN is a 13-digit unique number assigned to each book. While you can still publish books without ISBN numbers, it is free in India. Having these numbers on your book comes with multiple advantages, while identifying a book, selling it or getting it into libraries and the book trade.)

It seemed like a great development, because some publishers and authors had already been experienced difficulties in getting these numbers earlier.

But taking the ISBN allocation online caused problems of its own. It was accompanied by a whole lot of new requirements and regulations. This not only made the entire process slower, but also more arbitrary.

Each time you went in for a set of ISBN numbers, you would need to submit all your enterprise’s (registration, bank and other details) paperwork all over again. It is not as if such details change every few months.

There were requirements like the contentious Aadhaar card. Unhelpful bureaucrats sometimes appeared even keener to trip up publishers. After delays of many weeks, or months, one would get asked for another set of documents, face further details, or simply find one’s application rejected.

Some of us had our operations badly disrupted or delayed, thanks to the unhelpful attitudes. Maximum governance, minimum government?

My own personal experience is of having to wait for eight months before getting another set of ISBN numbers, face needless rejections, and then get sanctioned a lot of just ten numbers (instead of a hundred, as done earlier). Every book needing an ISBN required a fresh application too.

It was only after some of the smaller publishers networked via cyberspace, took up the issue, and drew attention to it, that the authorities got pulled up. The international ISBN agency in the UK threatened to withdraw the permission given to the MHRD’s Raja Rammohan Roy National Agency for ISBN, to distribute ISBNs in India, if it didn’t pull up its socks.

But the story doesn’t end there. At present, smaller publishers across the country seem caught up with how to cope with the GST (Goods and Services Tax). Books haven’t had sales tax levied on them in India. But now the worry is how much the printers would add to their bills, and how this will affect the end-buyer of books in India. has a good article which explains: “There’s no GST on books. And yet books will become more expensive”. It notes that supplies will have to pay GST, and that will raise the cost of producing books in India.

There are additional issues over GST being levied on author’s payments (called ‘royalties’, but in most cases it is actually a very small sum if not a pittance), GST on ebooks (which are more eco-friendly and could have a big role to play in the years to comes), or even the amount of bureaucratic work that will go into having to file repeated GST returns.

(IPA, the International Publishers’ Association, has long argued for a shift to a zero rate of VAT/GST on all books, whether print or ebooks. It argues that books are a special kind of commodity and that they should be treated as such. It says that a zero VAT/GST rate to be the best way to support reading, education and a thriving knowledge economy. Books are particularly price-sensitive. “Taxing books restricts their circulation, which is of concern to developing countries trying to bridge a knowledge deficit, but should also worry developed countries trying to maintain their competitive advantage,” argues the IPA.)

To add to this, there are other problems to be faced.

Goa, where tall promises have long been made about promoting books and reading, today lacks an active library movement which it had some years ago. Librarians are not organised, or only hold token functions once or twice a year on some national days. How can libraries grow in such a context?

We have a few show-piece libraries (at Patto and Navelim), but little is done to promote reading as an activity. Unlike states like Kerala, we have no multi-decade old reading movements.

Because Goa has a huge neighbour like Maharashtra, books published there tend to flood our libraries. Never mind whether these get read or not.

Even some good schemes which departments like the Directorate of Arts and Culture had, not long back, have been changed in recent years. So, grants are now made available after a book is published, and only if it is selected. The earlier scheme (of offering grants to authors wanting to write a book) was more of a safety-net. Today, it is made into a kind of lottery; the awards are higher, but amidst more uncertainty.

But the biggest toll is taken by the poor understanding we seem to have about the role of books in our society. Up-to-date statistics about books published in India, or Goa, are not available or widely known. While the bigger players in the field are well organised, the small players are not given due recognition. It is these players who can change the field for the better. The need to keep books reasonably priced, affordable and accessible is seldom mentioned, which is strange for a region with needs like ours.

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