Indian book market Posts

Letter from India ( Vol 1), 20 March 2019

India is a sub-continent. In terms of the book market there are many markets that reside within it. The vast variety of literature that exists in the Indian regional languages is a testament to this fact. For some years now translations from various regional lanaguages into English has been growing. Three of the recently published translations are from Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada. These are Outcaste by Matampu Kunjukuttam ( translated from Malalayam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan), Kalpakam and Other Stories by K. Savitri Ammal (translated from Tamil by Sudha Ratnam) and No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories by Jayant Kaikini ( translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana).

Outcaste ( Brushte) is an extraordinary story recounting the sensational excommunication of the high-born Namboodiri Brahmin Kuriyedathu Thatri and a large number of her lovers ( some say 64!) from the Hindu kingdom of Kochi. It is a true incident that rattled the aristocracy as well as the Brahmins. Although this incident occured in 1905, more than a century later it continues to haunt the imagination of Malayalis. Interestingly Thatri’s lovers belonged not only to the most powerful families of the Malayali Brahmin aristocracy but also were Nair and Sudra men. It was a scandal that was written about in the papers such as Malayala Manorama.

Mayampu Kunhukuttan wrote the novel in Sanskritized Malayalam. According to the translator Vasanthi Sankaranaryanan this encapsulated the grandeur of lifestyle of the Namboodiris and the practices that prevailed amongst them and the Nairs while also lacing it with the acerbic wit of the Namboodiris. While the story itself is fascinating for it evokes a historical moment when attitudes towards women were conservative despite the Namboodiris and Nairs following some matrilineal customs. The novel was first published in Malayalam in 1969 and translated in to English for the first time by Palgrave Macmillan in 1997. At the time the formidable editor Mini Krishnan was responsible for the list. In fact the novel was also adapted for theatre. Now that list is defunct but fortunately select titles from the Palgrave Macmillan backlist such as Outcaste have been resurrected. Aleph’s publication of it is timely. The issues raised in the story as well as the depiction of the strong women characters and the revenge wrought on her paramours by Thatri do not in any way seem dated. In fact the astounding events gain relevance in modern times with the conversations revolving around women and of course the #MeToo movement. While the story itself is gripping the presence of detailed footnotes while explaining the context/customs to the reader can also prove to be very disruptive to a smooth reading experience. Nevertheless Outcaste will be talked about for a long, long time to come.


Kalpakam and Other Stories by K. Savitri Ammal was first published in Tamil in 1958. While the primary focus of the stories is on upper-caste households in the early part of the twentieth century, it is the women characters that are unforgettable. Many of the situations, the predicaments depicted such as conversations about marriage ( “Sarasu’s Marriage”), finding the appropriate bridegroom (“Kalpakam” and “Remarriage”), the social pressures of being a childless woman (“Parvati’s Decision”), balancing career and love at a time when the concept of working women was considered unusual (“An End Unforseen”), treating single women irrespective of age as free labour ( “Dilemma in Kindness”), the idea of love and freedom of choosing one’s partner (“A Journey to Rangoon” and “Kalpakam”). Many of the situations described are very similar to scenarios women of today find themselves in. Take for instance the social attitudes towards single women of perceiving them as commodities rather as individuals with their own free will, barbed comments towards childless women and the insistence on getting married at the appropriate age. The gentleness of K. Savitri Ammal’s writing, with its even tenor of tone while sharing a story, however disturbing it may be, is conveyed beautifully in the translation by her grand-niece Sudha Ratnam. Not being familiar with the original language of Tamil in no way hinders the fine reading experience of the stories translated smoothly in to English. The translation seems to retain the flavour of the period when the stories were first written as evident in tiny details of using “Chennai” and “Madras” interchangeably without in any way being adamant about transfering phrases in Tamil in to English as is — a characteristic trait often found in translations of Indian regional language texts into English. The emphasis in this translation seems to be on the pure joy of reading about another culture through its stories in a more-than-competent English translation — it is a translation imbued with love.

Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories won the DSC Prize 2018. It is a collection of his short stories written in Kannada over the past few decades. They begin in the 1980s and some are as recent as a few years ago. These are stories of ordinary folk, ordinary situations, every day predicaments that exist in the vast melting point of Mumbai. It is a vast metropolis where the vast gap between the haves and have nots are stark. Mumbai is associated with vast crowds, masses of humanity moving from one place to the next. Whereas in Jayant Kaikini’s expert hands even the ordinary nameless person has a distinctive personality and identity. Some of the stories are moving, some are haunting, some are full of kindness and warmth, some are disturbing but the one common feature they all have — the stories are unforgettable. The stories were jointly selected by the translator and author. There is an essay included in the book about the translation process. It is insightful for the snippets of conversation shared between the author and translator particularly in translating “the flavour of speech, the hybrid Hindi-Urdu-Dakhani speech which is the cultural vernacular of Bombay and is signalled prominently in all the stories.” Tejaswini Niranjana continues “In the flow of plain Kannada writing, these hybrid phrases are signposts that function in such a way as to mark, in Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s phrase, a sort of territorial realism. Jayant an I argued about how much of this to translate into English. After he complained about my frugality, I put back some of the phrases I’d removed or translated out. But I also worried about the book what we were setting adrfit in the world, away from Bombay, and the fact it would acquire readers without proficiency in Hindustani. I solved the problem by doing parallel translations — leaving in the Hindustani word but giving the meaning in English either close by or elsewhere in the sentence so that the attentive reader eventually understands the meaning. This way, nothing goes completely unexplained, even as the public language of the city makes itself heard in the sentences.”

The Indian book market is also known for its vast variety of original literature in English as well as for many international titles. It is a market that is growing at a phenomenal pace with a growing number of readers, particularly many young people, but it is also a price sensitive market. So for publishers to offer good literature while being acutely conscious of the pricing structures will always be challenging but it does not deter them from creating it.

20 March 2019

Publishing & GST: Making the book fair & square

My article on “GST and publishing” has been published in the Economic Times on 12 January 2019. The original url is here. I am also C&P the entire article below. I had first written about the impact of GST and publishing within a week of the new taxation system coming into effect on 1 July 2017. My article was published on 8 July 2017. Here is the link.

Publishing is part of the creative economy. Books are made by transferring knowledge, information, data and ideas into a defined valuable product. According to Nielsen, the Indian book market is worth $6.7 billion. It is the third-largest English language market in the world, and many regional language markets are thriving.

It is broadly categorised into school publishing, academic (books and journals), trade (fiction, general non-fiction, graphic novels, etc) and children’s literature publishing. From independent players to large MNCs with varying business models — traditional, self-publishing and hybrid publishing —there is a broad spectrum of publishing firms.

No industry that sells its products commercially can be indifferent to costs. But in book publishing, the input costs are so high that everyone in the supply chain (from publishers to distributors and booksellers) operates on slim profit margins. In some cases, even these don’t exist, as the idea in the book becomes more important to publish.

On July 1, 2017, the goods and services tax (GST) came into effect in India. Many taxes imposed in previous systems have continued under GST, but new taxes have also been introduced. Asignificant one is the 12% tax on author’s royalties that has to be deposited as part of the reverse tax mechanism by the publishing firm on behalf of the author with the income-tax authorities. Unfortunately, publishers do not get any benefit in this arrangement, since most authors do not have GST certificates.

Other input costs, too, have increased, as GST has to be deposited on all invoices raised by vendors to whom publishing services are outsourced. There has been an effective increase of cost across the board of about 12-18%. Given that publishers don’t benefit from input tax credit as books are not taxed, some of the increased costs have had to be passed on to readers by increasing the price of books, which have increased by 10-15% since GST was imposed.

Overhead costs like rents, travel and communication have also increased from 15% to 18% due to GST. Those firms that can afford to pay for extra manpower to contend with the extra paperwork and monthly filing have hired extra staff to ensure smooth operations. But this monthly filing of returns impacts the cash flow of smaller companies badly, at times even bringing publishing to a momentary halt.

Every age of mechanisation has produced more texts, and with it a stupendous growth in reading. First, it was the invention of the moveable type that made ‘books’ easily available and a ‘reading public’ was created for the first time. Then, with the Industrial Revolution, mechanised printing presses sped up publishing dramatically. Currently, we are in the middle of yet another major dislocation: the Information Age.

On principle, GST is a destination based tax that aims to build better cash flows and working capital management for proprietors. Ultimately, it is also meant to help the consumer by reducing the tax burden on the product at point of sale. Unfortunately, the benefits of input tax credit can only be gained if the book is taxed.

Printed books are a non-taxable commodity primarily to make education affordable. For now, there is an uneven taxation policy on the different forms in which books are made available: print books (0%), e-books (5% if it has aprint component) and audiobooks and journals (18%). But, in India, the primary consumed product is the printed book. Survival of firms will depend on how much financial stress they can bear. Perhaps levelling a minimal GST on books across all formats will help contain the financial burden on most publishers. Ironically, technological advancements will further propel the divide. For, only those readers who can afford books — in any form — will be able to access information.

Both publisher and reader have been affected by GST. The question is whether publishing houses on all sides of the tax issue can sort out their differences, and present a united alternative to GoI —one that preserves the key benefits of GST, but removes its unintended side-effects.

12 January 2019

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