Lit fest around Chennai book fair will help Tamil publishing industry: Badri Seshadri
Badri Seshadri, who runs publishing house Kizhakku Pathippagam, comes from a corporate background; what drove him to take up Tamil publishing, with its multitude of challenges?
Badri Seshadri stands out among publishers. Unlike others, he comes from a corporate background. A former co-founder of CricInfo.com, he is now the Managing Director of an IT company. He spared time to share his perspective on the book publishing industry. His perspectives come ahead of the upcoming maiden Chennai International Book Fair. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with The Federal:
What are the challenges the publishing industry faces post-pandemic?
Post-pandemic isn’t the only problem publishers go through. Year-on-year newer challenges crop up. There are plenty of reading options available today. There is a lot of free content, audio books, e-books. From where are you going to get the readers? That’s the problem for the publishers.
The pandemic didn’t impact us in a big way. People were buying online. But the shutdown of economic activity affected us. Now, we have come back to where we were pre-pandemic, if we can say so.
Sales of Tamil books have come down by a small margin. It affects us in scaling up publishing activities. On the other hand, there is a substantial increase in the sale of English print books. We are managing through cost-cutting and print-on-demand to avoid keeping stocks.
Why are Tamil book sales falling?
There are long-term changes happening in the education sector. A whole lot of middle class have shifted their children to English medium education. This applies to the whole of India, but it is on a higher scale in Tamil Nadu.
Tamil has become a second language. Reading comprehension in Tamil is abysmal today. This results in a higher number of readers wanting to be reading in English rather than Tamil. Such readers shift to English books. Today we have a generation who read much of their classical Tamil literature in English and not in their mother tongue in Tamil Nadu.
On the other hand, listening comprehension in Tamil is far better. That’s why audio and video products work differently.
Can translation fill this gap in poor reading comprehension?
Our focus is on publishing original content. Translation is a distant second. Quality of translators is also quite poor. It is a thankless job, even though it takes a lot of effort. Think of a 200- or 300-page book. It takes time. Even after a round of translation and a couple of rounds of editing, they aren’t satisfactory.
However, if we have a highly accomplished person in a particular topic, who writes naturally in the given language, the quality is far better. Even though we publish a lot of translations, it takes lots of effort. With the time spent to translate one book, I can publish 10 original books. And translated books don’t bring revenue either.
Where’s the Tamil book publishing industry placed vis-à-vis other Indian languages?
Hindi has the biggest numbers since it is written in a single script from Rajasthan to Bihar. Marathi, Telugu and Bengali come next in sheer numbers. But Telugu doesn’t have a highly developed publishing industry. Malayalam, with less numbers, has higher literacy as well as more readers.
Marathi and Bengali are fiction driven markets. Their non-fiction isn’t much developed, including politics. Tamil finds a place here. Kannada, Telugu and Gujarati markets are small while the rest are tiny.
Malayalam publishing has a unique problem of being under the monopoly of one publishing house. Likewise, in Bengali, one newspaper group controls the market. Marathi is a fragmented market. Pune is the publishing capital of Marathi. Hindi publishing has its own unique problems. Marketing a Madhya Pradesh author in Rajasthan or Bihar is a challenge.
Are government and institutional support vital for publishing industry?
This could vary from state to state. A lot of publishers are dependent on state subsidies or library orders. They cannot survive with a direct-to-consumer model.
Institutional support for the publishing industry is vital. There is deep rooted corruption in Tamil Nadu when it comes to purchase of books from publishers. But procurement of books is highly democratised in Kerala. I haven’t heard of governmental corruption in Kerala. But Tamil Nadu is prone to corruption. In the previous regime (AIADMK), for 10 years, corruption was in full swing in buying books for state-run libraries. School book purchase was worse. It was chaotic. We have to wait on what the DMK government will do since they haven’t started to procure books.
What can other states learn from Kerala library procurement?
Ideally, we have to follow Kerala. The local bodies and their councils, representing direct beneficiaries, decide what books are bought for the libraries in Kerala. They are given a budget. There is a culture that has evolved there.
In Tamil Nadu the ultimate beneficiaries don’t have any say on what books are bought. We may not be able to replicate the Kerala model in states like Tamil Nadu immediately, given the decades of corruption. When you decentralize it, it will signify decentralizing corruption (in Tamil Nadu). But local bodies and the ultimate beneficiaries of book purchase should be given space at least shout if low quality books are bought. Ultimately, the books are bought for their consumption, right?
Has the digital era impacted reading habits?
The arrival of the Internet has been great for the reader. Publishers are there for the reader. As a reader I am thrilled with the Internet. I have access to books I never imagined I could access but for the net. How to adapt to this changing scenario is vital. How to build a profitable business is the key. It is very vital for longevity and for you and to come up with innovations.
What used to work for us earlier isn’t working any more. We are constantly expected to re-look at what we are doing. Once this works, we will survive. Others might perish. The problem is there for both the writer and the reader.
For a while I believed the publisher as an intermediary will disappear. Writer and reader would meet each other, I believed. A whole lot of self-publishing, I thought, will happen. But it hasn’t picked up. But a lot of trash has been published in the name of self-publishing.
An international book fair is taking place for the first time only now, in Chennai. Does it show BAPASI (Book Sellers and Publishers Association of South India) or Tamil publishing in poor light?
It’s a bit unfair (on BAPASI). The Delhi Book Fair is international because it is supported by the National Book Trust. Central government funding is significant. The Kolkata Book Fair is a fascinating event. Bangladesh will always participate since they share the same script unlike Punjab (divided between India and Pakistan). But it is basically a Kolkata fair, with miniscule international participation.
Even though BAPASI represents south India, it is basically a Tamil Nadu-based booksellers and publishers association. BAPASI has done the job of conducting an annual book fair. It is tremendous. The current idea of an international book fair is of the DMK. It is a government initiative, working along with BAPASI. Not all the days of the fair, but the last three days.
What is the importance of conducting an international book fair?
International book fair is primarily for buying and selling rights. It is a good idea. In Kerala they have tried it. But I am more excited with the Jaipur Literary Festival model. It is slowly evolving into a book fair too. So, BAPASI can organise a literary festival along with the fair they conduct.
Such initiatives will help bring in international authors, Indian English and translators. There will also be Indian language authors. It will democratise the landscape. Institutional support is important initially. But in a few years, the industry body will be able to take it up on its own.
Can international publications collaborate with Tamil publishers?
Penguin may not do it directly. But a consortium of publishers will be of help. By the time the editorial process starts, they will know what are going to be their top 10 English titles. Multiple language publishers can work along with them. We can share raw translations as and when ready. If we can do that, by the time the English version is ready, we can also have the other language translations for release. It is a possibility.
What are the important books Kizhakku has lined up for the January fair?
We have conceptualized serializing of books which is new, at least for us. Using our daily magazine Kizhakku Today, we published the content as a weekly serial. Authors share content with us every week, which we compile into a book.
The app named Binge has done it even though they aren’t into publishing as such. We are hoping the 10 titles visualised as a book through Kizhakku Today will make an impact in the book fair.
What drove you to take up publishing?
Being a reader, I wanted to be part of the ecosystem, even though it has been an expenditure column for me. It is a risky, thankless business which isn’t lucrative either. I am getting into my areas of interest. Book publishing is one of them. I do other things to generate income. If not material, perhaps I have other gains. It gives me fulfilment.
I am always looking at technology in whatever I am doing. Artificial Intelligence in publishing is my next target. Hope something interesting happens on that front too.