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MORE OF AN ART THAN A BUSINESS

Bookwise

With the widespread use of personal computers and the advent of reprography — the process of reproducing, reprinting, or copying graphic material especially by mechanical or electronic means, computer-assisted book production and the internet, publishers have entered ‘the electronics age’ and turned what was an art-and-business enterprise into a wholly business venture. Publishing must be run on the principles of business if it has to survive. Thus, basic financial principles permeate all publishing houses now.

Does this mean that publishing, that has to do with ideas and is at its core an exercise in communication, will now have to think only of ‘the bottom line’, sometimes at the expense of the lesser commercial elements of the book business? Will the rapid advances in print and communications technology push the pace of reform in favour of bigger business ventures irrespective of the market’s capacity to absorb them? What are the consequences of overproduction of books?

Computerized setting and bigger and faster printing machines have their own internal logic: they demand a steady volume of work with larger printings of each title to keep the machines running. This means that editorial decisions of whether a work is worthy of publication or not, is not as important as keeping the machines fed. This leads to an overproduction of books of dubious quality and creates a lack of warehousing space and inventory costs, which are already overburdened with earlier stocks.

Many Indian publishers have failed to realize a simple fact about the market: there are strict limits to how much a market can take and while the production of a book does not take much time now, thanks to the latest machinery, the writing of it does because many of the best authors have already been signed up with western publishers. Libraries which have become the primary market for Indian publishers cannot absorb an entire print-run; individual buyers, a diminishing number, are expected to make up for the gap which they fail to do. Publishers are therefore left with large unsold stocks that are finally written off as remainders and are put on sale at greatly reduced prices.

The crisis of overproduction, which believes that production rather than demand is the key to prosperity, has had profound effects on publishing. In the West, some have predicted the demise of the traditional book as communication has increasingly shifted to the Internet. The impact has been less dramatic in India but some inevitable changes have taken place.

First, while the number of new books have gone up, the actual print-runs of each (other than the traditional textbooks) has gone down considerably — sometimes as low as 300 copies. Small printing, which does not allow for economies of scale, means higher prices and lower sales. A vicious cycle leads to half the stock being sold off for lesser prices with the author getting little either as royalties or advances.

Second, publishers need to cut down the number of titles they publish every year and in many cases, charge authors for the production and marketing costs. This is an already accepted practice for scholarly books that have a limited readership.

Authors, on their part, would need to post their research and findings on the internet if their works are not accepted by publishers. There are no other ways to tackle the market.