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When books make news… out of Goa

Frederick Noronha

It’s that time of the year when we need to look at one of Goa’s most successful secret, a conference being held mostly in Goa itself. Publishing Next was held last weekend, over four days, at Miramar, greeted with only a little attention in the media and elsewhere. Yet, for the book publishing fraternity nationwide, this event has already made its mark.

In money terms, to be honest, Publishing Next has been struggling to cope. Each year, it has had to go out to find funding and a suitable venue. It started off at the International Centre Goa, then shifted to the Central Library, and this year was held at the Goa Science Centre in Miramar. In between, it tried hosting its event in the book-loving state of Kerala, and even holding additional events in New Delhi.

What makes Publishing Next particularly brave is that it is privately organised, by a returned expat Goan couple from Margao. Despite Goa being seen as at best a holiday destination for the country, its organisers manage to draw a nationwide audience, to discuss a whole lot of serious issues related to the world of books, and to add value to those taking part in this small-but-serious event.

Publishing Next looked like just another uncertain ambitious dream when it was launched in the early 2010s. GEC-educated engineer Leonard Fernandes and his wife, Queenie Rodrigues with a management background, have tried various options to make it work. With minimal support from the State, an event such as this has gone places and captured attention.

This year was the eight edition of Publishing Next, or PN. For a year or two, it could not be held in Goa, or not held at all, because of uncertainty over raising resources for hosting it and other issues.

An event of this kind does two things for Goa. First of all, it builds the can-do spirit. It reminds us that while we might be a tiny part of the South Asian reality, we can still lead, at least on niche issues, and themes which people need to meet over and discuss. Secondly, it offers hope that Goa has some options beyond thoughtless tourism and reckless mining, in fields where value is added through thought and insight.

India as a whole already has its own publishing events. But what makes PN different is that it is seen as a smaller event, where participants meet in a friendlier atmosphere, and a lot of space is devoted to alternative and regional language publishing. But that does not mean that big players don’t take part.

As could be expected, much of the participation is from the rest of India. There are a few from abroad. Only a few are from Goa; it was a long, long time ago when Goa was home to the first printing press in Asia, way back in the year 1556.

A whole lot of issues relevant to the world of book publishing emerge from an event like PN. At one level, it might seem like technical-talk to most. But the price of the books you buy, the diversity of opinions and themes these present, the possibility of getting work out in small regional languages, and the taxes you pay on the words you read… all these get determined by how the industry sees, understands and imagines itself.

As could be expected, the main pressures being faced by the book publishing industry come from three fronts – economics, technology and government policies. These shape the future of the book in India.

As a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in Goa – the big cities might have been different – it’s impossible not to remember how deprived we felt by a lack of children’s books in those times. Children’s books were simply not being published in most parts of India, and the few that were, were not reaching Goa. Foreign books were few and costly.

Over time, the situation changed. In the early 2010s, things were actually looking up for publishing in India. India’s boast then was that the country was the second or third largest publisher of English-language books worldwide. There were also many books being published in Indian languages. The National Book Trust (NBT) had been active in holding publishing training courses across the country and that helped significantly to enhance the diversity.

The downswing in industry has cut into this sector too. India, being a price-sensitive economy, wants its books at an affordable price. But there is only that much of belt-tightening that is possible in an already low-margins industry.

Authors often have a legitimate grouse about the challenges of getting published. But, for a change, here one hears the other side of the story, which doesn’t usually surface at most times.

Issues of economics not only cover the costs of production, but also difficulties in distribution (and getting paid), viable printing options, rising cost, paper pricing and a lot more. It’s interesting how the PN event manages to avoid sounding repetitive or boring, despite holding eight editions of the event.

Sessions held this time were given catchy titles and looked at ‘Point of Sale: Distribution and Bookselling’, ‘Doing it Yourself: On the Impact of Self-Publishing’, ‘Value Added: On Partnerships and Collaborations’, ‘Working Capital: On the Viability of Publishing Translations’; and ‘Go-to-market: On Promoting and Marketing Books’. It is immediately obvious that the bulk of the questions are about economics.

But changing technology also plays an important role in this fast-changing field.

Print-on-demand is a new-ish technology, which tells you that it’s possible to print one or two (or 50 or 100) copies of a book, instead of having to do 500 or 1000 copies. Some in the printing field spoke about their highly automated plants. These can print and bind a single copy of a book, after an order was received for it, via Amazon or whatever online, and then dispatch it. Within hours.

This sounds good and is technically feasible. But how does it actually work? Does it cut into the margins, and whose? Can small players have access to such options? The real test of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

Different parts of the country are undeniably differently blessed when it comes to accessing affordable printers. Goa has limited options, while bigger cities like Delhi, or even the Belgaums, Sholapurs and Kolhapurs of our neighbourhood are seeing interesting possibilities.

The governments, Central and State, too play their role in terms of promoting books nationwide. In recent years, the inexplicable changes in the rules and procedures for handing out ISBN numbers – international standard book numbers are crucial in making a book look professional sometimes – had impacted the sector hard. It was only after a campaign with the ISBN authorities in London that the issue got sorted out. More recently, GST of 12 per cent on printing is like a tax on knowledge, and a heavy burden at that. Sometime back, at a library-related meeting in Goa, it was decided to request Goa’s representatives on the GST Council to ask the national body to cut back on this heavy burden.

Books need to be seen as a social good, and promoted through various arms of the government, if we are really aiming to educate our millions, formally and informally. Libraries have a role to play in promoting the book culture. Yet, one hears of how libraries in some major Indian states have become prone to corruption in orders placed. In Goa, book grants have helped to promote the field; but when restrictions are placed against translations, compilations, or Goan books authored by expats and others outside Goa, we seem to be unfairly restricting the field and cutting out on merit.

Publishing Next manages to draw a wide range – some big name or well recognised publishers, book-reviewers, authors.

CEO of HarperCollins India, Ananth Padmanabhan, shared with some of us the story of how he grew from working on the shop floor in sales at a bookshop on a salary of `800 in the 1990s. He had a father who loved reading, while as kids they read late into the night from the crack of light that entered through a door left slightly open.

Arpita Das of Yoda Press is herself a daughter-in-law of Goa, and of the prominent urban planner Edgar Ribeiro family.  To appreciate the energies generated by this event, one can get a hint from Twitter, the online micro-blogging site, by just searching it for ‘publishing next’. At each event, awards are given to a range of categories – from book covers to children’s books, publisher of the year, etc. That so many good titles from across the country enter this Goa-based competition is a matter of pride.

Leonard, Queenie and the PN team have shown what is possible, out of tiny Goa itself. Now it’s time for the rest of us to recognise the same, and make sure events like these don’t die from a lack of support and local involvement.

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