Intellectual seeding

November 21, 1997

Ravi Dayal charts the progress of the world's third largest publisher of books in English

No one quite knows how many publishers of books there are in India, but estimates place the number at about 12,000. They are a mixed lot, not only because of the languages they publish in and the number of titles produced,but also in the range of their activities. Roughly a third of the 12,000 function spasmodically and should not be counted as regular publishers; some 4,000 probably produce fewer than 20 new titles a year; another 2,000 perhaps do 30, and 200 are reasonably large with an output of 50 or more new titles a year. Some 70 per cent of the private publishers run bookshops, many have a share in printing, and others in importing.

Apart from the private publishers, there is the brooding presence of about 1,000 government or semi-government institutions that mushroomed largely in the first two decades of independence. They not only make official reports available and the sort of material produced by governments anywhere in the world, but have made forays into general publishing and, over the decades, established a new monopoly of textbook publishing for the state-run schools. Together, these government institutions consume about 70 per cent of the paper available in India for books and form the largest publishing conglomerate in the country. Their product is undistinguished and their functioning lazy: combined, they probably produce no more than 2,000 new titles a year and have done little to add to the stature of Indian publishing.

Such vibrance and variety as exists in Indian publishing springs entirely from the exertions of its private publishers, even though they have been largely excluded from servicing the capacious school market that has nourished publishing elsewhere.

There are no definitive figures for the number of new titles published annually, but a semi-official source indicates that in 1993-94 some 50,000 titles were produced (as against half that number two decades earlier): of these roughly 50 per cent were in English, with the major Indian languages accounting for most of the rest. India is the third largest publisher of books in English in the world. Whereas much of the publishing in the Indian languages has been of poetry and fiction, with comparatively little scholarly and reference material coming from them, English-language publishing has been primarily educational and scholarly, but in the past 15 years the range of general books and creative writing in English has grown and improved a lot.

In 1947, publishers (like everyone else in the country) were confronted by a dauntingly harsh environment. There was neither enough serious writing being done nor a strong enough market to support what was being written, to sustain a large publishing industry. This is not to deny that plenty of worthwhile material had gradually been published over the years before 1947. But English-language publishing, which has played a seminal and catalytic role in the spread and development of ideas in India since 1947, was still dominated by three British publishing houses, Oxford University Press (founded in India in 1912), Macmillan (founded in 1903), and Longmans (founded in 1906), who concentrated on importing books from abroad and producing books for the colonial educational system, but also occasionally encouraged Indian scholarship and thought.

The literacy rate in India is still woefully low (52 per cent), but an enormous expansion in education has nevertheless occurred since 1947 and, despite the acute social and economic problems confronting the country, there has also been an enormous expansion of its economic base. The exact size of India's middle class today is the subject of much speculation, but 200 million is probably a reasonable estimate. Besides, life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 50 years, so those who want to read and write have a decent life span in which to indulge themselves.

By the mid-1960s it was evident that the infrastructure of India's intellectual life was not only considerably larger but also much more active than in 1947. The seeding that occurred through the major universities after 1947 nourished the general level of debate and performance in innumerable areas, including creative writing. It also provided a receptive audience for books, particularly for those written by Indians, and has led to a lively interaction between academic disciplines and writers in general. Fifty years ago most of the ideas discussed seemed to originate in Britain, and sometimes in America or Europe. What with its democratic institutions and boisterous debate, India remains exuberantly open to ideas from everywhere - a liberal flow of books from abroad has always been encouraged even when foreign exchange was scarce - but these are now leavened with much indigenous thought and utterance that have given the country an intellectual independence lacking even 35 years ago.

As no part of India can bear to be dominated by another region of the country, its lively democracy has ensured that English continues to be used, partly to stave off the ambitions of the Hindi-speaking belt. The fact that 50 per cent of the books published in India are in English not only reflects the relative liveliness, productivity and economic well-being of those who know the language, but also their numerical importance. In the immediate aftermath of independence most Indians probably thought it right that English should be removed from the country; innumerable strategies were devised to encourage the use of the Indian languages and starve out English. However, English not only survived, but its use dramatically increased from the 1960s and onwards. Somewhat astonishingly, India's English-knowers form the second largest language-group of literate people in the country. Though there are some 300 million Hindi-speakers in the country, the low literary level of this group gives it a literate population that is only slightly larger than the country's English-knowers.

Over the past 50 years publishing has been shaped by, and reflects, all these developments. It has been an exciting time for those connected with the making of books, and to have been associated with the spread of new ideas and writing, whether as editors or business people. Nevertheless, India's publishers have usually had to function in an exceedingly difficult environment and in the face of heavy odds. The economy has grown,but for much of the past 50 years it has not grown fast enough and India has had to live with all manner of scarcities. For publishers these included shortages of paper, film, adequate type-setting and printing facilities, even proper glues and binding materials, all of which contributed for many years towards making Indian books look uniquely shoddy at a time when production standards were being transformed elsewhere. Severe foreign-exchange restrictions and periodic economic crises over most of the period obstructed the import and use of materials that the reading public and publishers abroad took for granted. Indian books still do not match international standards in their appearance, so exports are lower than they should be. Given the scarcities, plus problems like power failures, an archaic telephone system, the delayed arrival of computers, fax machines and much of the gadgetry that has quickened the pace of manufacturing books elsewhere, publishers in India have functioned until recently with early 20th-century technology and a disregard for deadlines. Technology and materials apart, in the heyday of the government's socialist rhetoric (from the 1950s to 1970s), publishers had to cope like everyone else with a plethora of regulations that severely hampered rational economic activity. The giant inroads made by the state into educational publishing devastated many private publishers in the 1950s and 1960s. The latter still operate only on the margins of the school system but mercifully the margins are now much larger than 30 years ago, thanks to the proliferation of "English-medium" private schools. Prices, of course, keep rising and the generally undercapitalised Indian publisher works on tenuous financial foundations.

The mortality rate in publishing is high, with once-famous imprints like Asia and Vikas having gone in oblivion or hiding. Despite the market having expanded since 1947, it remains comparatively shy of buying books and is very price conscious, the library system is sadly underfunded, and the ways of too many librarians so mysterious as to seem corrupt to the straight-laced. The English-literate readers, the backbone market, are still scattered over a wide area and difficult to reach in the absence of enough good bookshops in all but the largest cities.

The material conditions of life in India seem likely to improve in the coming decades, and 48 per cent of the population will surely be drawn into the net of literacy before very long. Publishers here have much to look forward to.

Ravi Dayal was head of Oxford University Press in India for many years; he now runs his own publishing house.

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