The book is a cultural product. It is a space that binds an idea, technology and market. We live in an era of post-tangibility, post-commercialization and post-liberalization. Meaning, the book makers are imagining books and their markets beyond their traditional forms, conventional business structures or direct financial gains. What force is changing the very basics of the book publishing and allied activities in contemporary times? How much of this global trend is reflecting in the Hindi publishing industry?
Hindi publishing has travelled a long way from the day Udant Martand, the first Hindi newspaper was formally published by Pandit Jugal Kishore Shukla in 1826 from Kolkata; to the dawn of the Naval Kishore Press that got commercialzed in late 19th century; to the era of independent publishing in early 20th century hallmarked by numerous letters Dhanpat Rai aka Munshi Prem Chand wrote that clearly reflected his anxiety to make Saraswati Press a profitable venture; to new found freedom of expression in newly independent India in the year 1947; to the new era of digital publishing and finally, the age of hybrid publishing in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
A closer look at this rather breathtaking journey will underline two constant factors that have defined the Hindi publishing ecosystems—social change and adoption of technology. Whether it was the use of German printing presses in the 19th century or collaborations with Amazon or Swedish audiobooks giant Storytel in contemporary times, the Hindi landscape has provided a fertile soil for new modes of book consumption.
In addition, it is also quite interesting that the dominant millennial audience has inspired most Hindi publishing houses to think, market and package their books and more importantly, themselves younger. ‘We have evolved from being publishers of Hindi, that was usually considered a regional language to being global players. We are producing our books that are read all around the world, in topics that cater to most age groups in world-class print and digital quality,’ says Arun Maheshwari, MD, Vani Prakashan. The Print-On-Demand (POD) programme formalized by INGRAM, special eBook editions on Kindle, Juggernaut and other domestic players have made Hindi books available in multiple geographies in multiple formats.
‘Kos-kos par badle pani, char kos par badle vani’—underlines the diversity and intrinsic capability to adapt to geopolitical conditions innate in the dialects of Hindi, spoken and understood by 53.60% of the total population of the Indian subcontinent. With more than 9 States in India that identify Hindi as their dominant language of communication, and with 650 million speakers globally and 450 million who use it as their mother tongue, we are still at square one, asking—is this population reading in Hindi? These numbers have remained a decorated trigger point for discussing the Hindi publishing volume and turnovers. Also, what form of reading material is mostly used? For a newspaper reading audience amounts to a different financial cycle when compared with that of book readership.
These questions will not be answered unless an Indian Book Policy is instituted. After all, a country with more than 23 official languages does deserve an unbiased, objective policy that can quantify the quality work produced in all languages, including Hindi. It is not a hidden fact that publishing is essentially a data-deficit industry where statistics are mere estimations. As industry expert Vinutha Mallya wrote in her 2016 published study Numbers and Letters, ‘Last known comprehensive industry report was “The Survey of Indian Book Industry”, published in 1976 by the Delhi think tank, the National Council for Applied Economic Research. With the release of Nielsen’s report, the industry has new figures of its worth to replace the oft-quoted but unverifiable ones—INR 14,000-crore growing at a rate of 15 percent, compounded annually. Various official bodies, including the Federation of Indian Publishers, have used these very numbers over the last few years. The release of Nielsen’s report provides us with an opportune moment to take stock of the industry as a whole.’
Despite the lacunae at the macro level, it is important to note that most Hindi publishing houses are, in fact, tirelessly making the publishing sphere as vibrant, competitive and global as any international conglomerate. Vani Prakashan, Rajpal & Sons, Prabhat Prakashan, Rajkamal Prakahsan Samuh, Yatra Books, Samwad Prakashan, Hind Yugm, Bhartiya Jnanpith, Kitabghar Prakashan, Peoples Publishing House etc., are e-savvy, organized and robust publishing houses that have curated their lists, managed authors’ portfolios and marketed their books with a lot of mindfulness and strategy. The books range from mainstream kavita, kahani, upanyas, yatravritant to flash fiction, graphic novels and bold novellas. Echoes Alind Maheshwari, Director-Marketing and Copyrights, Rajkamal Prakashan Samuh, ‘Content curation is very important for us. We have selected our books very carefully in the last 70 years and the goal has always been a large reader community.’
The online bookstores, one of the most comprehensive innovations of the digital revolution to hit of shores of global publishing industry with the new millennium, brought with them an enhanced lifespan for books. They created interesting contexts for rethinking about making a book travel and find its readers globally. With it, however, came the biggest bane for the traditional bookselling business. The online booksellers bargain for heavy discounts with the publishers that get transferred to the readers largely due to online retail’s low operational costs.
Says Anupam Kumar of Anupam Booksellers in Patna, ‘The business for trade books in Hindi has dropped drastically due to the free home delivery offered by the online bookstore. We depend upon textbook sales to run the show now.’ The corporate bookstore chains are in tougher times compared to the independents due to heavy overheads and operations costs. The independents like Kumar or Rwar bypass these heavy overheads by multitasking and keeping the overall profile of their bookstores low budget. Perhaps, it would have been desirable to have the Government of India moderating this situation, by probably taking a cue from the French counterpart. In July 2014, Aurelie Filippetti, the Culture Minister of France had banned free home delivery of books by a giant online retailer to protect the small booksellers.
The Hindi language readership is quickly absorbing the literatures from other languages through translations. Neeta Gupta from Yatra Books would concur that the successful English language publications have found success stories when translated into Hindi. The Dainik Jagran-Nielson Hindi Bestseller List also makes provision for translations into the bestseller listings. Most international conglomerates have found it necessary and lucrative to initiate their Hindi operations, recent additions being Harper Collins Publishers-Vani Prakashan tie up, Oxford University Press’s Hindi wing and merger of iconic Hindi Pocket Books with Penguin Random House.
The 300-odd literature festivals in the country host Hindi authors from all genres and age groups. The spirit of a very social and polemic language is located in the very heart and imagination of the country that lives in 22 national languages and hundreds of dialects.
Aditi Maheshwari Goyal is Director, Copyrights and Translation Department, Vani Prakashan, and Managing Trustee, Vani Foundation, New Delhi.