In Delhi it is again the time of year when publishers, distributors and retailers are stylishly taking everything from the point of sale to the stock. This is the World Book Fair (WBF), which is held every two years across the huge hall of Pragati Maidan. This is the 20th edition of the fair, and although there are look-alikes across the country, it is undoubtedly the mother of them all.
In the 1980s and 90s, the Calcutta Book Fair was a go-to fair. But moving away from the ground, apart from other venues and organizational problems, Kolkata had to give up its title. Today the Delhi WBF is a huge affair, and it has gone beyond just one kind of retail exhibition.
In fact, no book fair in India would really qualify as a ‘trade fair’ like Frankfurt or London, where business and rights transactions are the norm. But like the Jaipur Literary Fest, we lack the focus or the ‘order and method’, we fill it with mere numbers.
WBF is a huge carnival. The last edition had more than 800,000 visitors, and organizers are wondering if it will touch the million mark this year. Pragati Maidan now has a direct metro connection and access is free. Of course the exhibitors have increased to about 1,300 since last year. It is still, of course, less than one-tenth of the total number of publishers in the country, according to estimates from various federations who number more than 15,000.
This year, for the first time, WBF dates have traditionally been down a full month from the end of January to the beginning of February. It met with some panic because many publishers felt it was too late for the library’s budget, and many schools would be testing and it could affect voting somewhat. The jury will rule on that one – the verdict will be out on March 4th when it will all be over.
So what are the business statistics from the fair? There is rubbing here – none. Ironically, for an industry that is seeing technological change at a pace never before seen, and in general an industry still clinging to management data, there is no reliable data available except estimates.
The National Book Trust (NBT) – the organizers of the fair – blamed it on the traditional publisher mentality and the ancient notion of ‘business privacy’ where exhibitors do not publish statistics. But even through conservative extrapolation alone, if the average turnover per participant is assumed to be Rs. Any week, business is done from all the leading bookstores across India. On top of trade purchases, rights deals, subscription sales, print contracts and other ‘collateral business’.
WBF – indeed the industry – has to take this to the next level with two days dedicated to ‘trade and rights’. A few years ago, the first two hours of the fair were scheduled trade hours where librarians and stockists could browse uninterruptedly, a practice since it closed. But if the 9-day fair could be shortened from seven days to two business days for consumers, then India would still see its need in the rights business as it builds a local-to-international rights network.
A large contingent of Indians is moving to Frankfurt but most of them are either English publishers-distributors, visiting principals or the rest of the merchants buying surplus stock. The size of the Indian Rights Pavilion is a testament to the fact that our rights are insignificant.
When was the last time you heard of Indian work in translation, like The Wolf-Totem was snatched from the Chinese or The Devotion of Suspect-X from the Japanese by buying the rights? It is only if we create a rights module here in WBF, that anyone can work slowly (yes it will take a few years) to exploit the rights potential of Indian languages in translation.
So what is the purpose of the fair? With the wave of online bookstores, does it still have any relevance? I believe it still has huge relevance. Quite simply it is its most basic, the only real direct interface publishers have to their end readers. This is the only time where you can actually put the range of your choice there and see the readers while browsing.
For most publishers, the rewards for combining the long tiring day’s game floor assistant and traffic police with that die-hard fan running after that obscure book you’d never sell. The joy of finding that long lost book, the agony of seeing something of value beyond your own budget, the wonder of seeing a bar combo offer … it lasts every day, hour after hour. For readers, this is a time where you can see, touch, browse lists and a whole range like you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
There are advantages to online, but most of all, you need to know which book you want, to get to the best sites despite the cross-recommendation. It is here that the reader can experience the joy of discovery যেখানে where he will see the whole series, vague impressions, rare titles.
Then there is bargaining. Fair rules make deep discounts impossible but a bargaining table with ‘fair prices’ and combination offers. Within nine days of the fair we have the largest bookstore in the world – every Indian language, lots of foreign and of course more than a million square feet of books to choose from in English.
(Author Managing Director, Hatchet India)