Thursday, Jan 17, 2019 | Last Update : 05:27 AM IST
The New Delhi World Book Fair is primarily a book retail fair where books are sold on an over-the-counter basis to customers.
My friend Lynn Scanlon, also known as the wicked witch of publishing, writes a popular blog, The Publishing Contrarian. She once said that ‘hand-sellers’ in the book trade were as rare as the hornbill in Arkansas. Lynn was referring to the fact that most sellers in a bookshop would not know their stock and any query would immediately be referred to the computer. During a visit to the Barnes & Noble store, the girl behind the counter immediately knew she did not have the book in stock but offered to order Lynn’s book from another store and keep it ready for her next visit. Lynn asked her not to bother and she would get the book elsewhere. It so happened she visited the same bookshop again after a fortnight and this time another girl was behind the counter. She beckoned Lynn over and under the counter was the sought-after book with a note from her colleague, ‘Reserved for tall woman with dark tan’. She had got the book on the off-chance that Lynn might still want it.
“Where are these dedicated hand-sellers these days,?” asked Lynn. Not having been to Arkansas, I answered that hand-sellers are as rare as the Tragopan in Nagaland! Hand-sellers in the book trade are now a rare species. Yet we sell books with our hand, surely. And if business is good, even the feet are pressed into service! All these skills of enticing customers and hand-selling would need to be in evidence as yet another edition of the World Book Fair that is being organised in Delhi between January 6 and 14. This is the 25th edition of a fair that began modestly in the capital’s Windsor Place in 1972. Except for an initial gap of four years, it has been held biannually, and now for the last five years, annually. It’s the oldest book fair in the country after the Kolkata Book Fair.
Over the years, the World Book Fair too has evolved, developed and changed. Now, and not for the first time, the relevance of the book fair is being questioned. Is it necessary to have the book fair over nine days at an age and time when online selling is the rage and bookshops are on the wane? Further, January and February are exam preparation months for students and they don’t have time to waste at the book fair.
The New Delhi World Book Fair is primarily a book retail fair where books are sold on an over-the-counter basis to customers. It’s important to stress this for its more famous counterparts in Frankfurt and London do not sell books physically but only rights, both territorial and language. As a result, the profile of visitors to the fairs change; it’s mostly related with the business aspect and some authors at Frankfurt and London whereas its readers and customers in New Delhi.
The World Book Fair depends for its business and for its success on footfalls. Many publishers have a business budget to achieve. While allocation of stalls is strictly done by draw of lots, many stall owners pray for a vantage position. In a shopping mall, the corner stores attract the heaviest footfall while other stores in the vicinity are called “interceptor” stores. They get the crowd spillover. Similarly, other publishers prefer a location near the trade biggies hoping to attract some crowd at their stalls.
The World Book Fair is a forum where publishers meet the reading public directly, almost a face-to-face encounter. This may sound strange but publishers sell books through distributors and it’s the retailers who meet the customers directly. The book fair stall is a nice training ground for rookies in sales. They need to know the stock well and particularly where it’s placed. They just have a couple of minutes to get the book for a customer ensuring he does not return disappointed.
The relevance of the book fair is also questioned as lit fests are now the order of the day. They are now 93 in the country and still counting. No city can be termed one if it doesn’t have a lit-fest! In New Delhi, we have more than one, with the Times Lit Fest proving so popular in Mumbai that it’s now also organised in New Delhi. There’s a fest in Noida too. Greater Noida does not want to be left out and so does Gurgaon. Kerala has both the Kochi Lit Fest and the Kozhikode Lit Fest within two months of each other. This year, we are likely to have Books on the Beach at Kovalam in March. On the other hand, the Jaipur Lit Fest that took off from humble origins has grown to be the most visible one in the country.
Do all these Lit Fests signify a growing engagement and demand for books in the country? Further, do they obviate the need for book fairs? All Lit Fests are sponsored events to underwrite expenses, hospitality and travel, particularly of the direct invitees by the fest organising committee. Publishers too are roped in to defray the expenses of their authors invited to the event. While the fests certainly lead to greater literary appreciation and an increased demand for particular books, it has been observed that in some Lit Fests, discussions have tended to become polemical with people keen to articulate their own particular viewpoints, with books becoming the casualty. All discussions should centre on what has been written and published unless it’s a keynote address. We know of a book discussion where the distinguished participants waxed long and eloquent. At the Q&A session, a member of the audience thanked all of them but said it would have been better had they focussed on the book under discussion!
A book fair, on the other hand, is a larger space for the general public to browse at leisure and select the books of their choice. With bookshops fast becoming a casualty of rapid and haphazard urbanisation, the book fair is the only forum where book-lovers can browse and buy. For those who are more literally inclined, at the upcoming New Delhi World Book Fair, there will be an “Author’s Corner” where an author is engaged in a discussion and other literary events. It’s a great opportunity for children to select books and participate in story-telling competitions. It’s a great day out for the entire family and leads to greater bonding of parents with their children even adolescents.
More importantly, the book fair enables the country to showcase the quality of its publishing and we have much to be proud about. The books are all “Made in India” and a warm tribute was paid by a leading publisher at the London Book Fair. Showing her latest releases, she said she had access to the best of publishing works in the world and our books ranked among the best! “We were once a part of FICCI’s delegation to Berlin at the invitation of our embassy there. All missions abroad had been asked to make all efforts to enhance foreign direct investment in India and in this case, the embassy had invited the CEO and two directors of the Bertelsmann group for a presentation. Bertelsmann was then the third largest media group in the world and were looking at India for greater investment with China as an alternative too.
The visit in 2003 was considered important enough for a minister to head the delegation. The CEO, Dr Gunther Thielen, was particular that in addition to other presentations, one on the state of Indian publishing must also be made. That was duly done and he and the team were invited to visit the New Delhi World Book Fair in 2004. It was at this fair that Bertelsmann, along with other top executives of Random House that it owns, stepped up investment and increased Random House operations in India.
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked