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THE WISDOM IN CALCULATED RISKS

The World Book Fair in Delhi proved that there is a crisis of over-production plaguing Indian publishers; far too many books are being published without an assessment of their market potential or of their publishers’ ability to serve all sectors of the market. The result is a surplus of books being sold off to wholesalers.

Why are so many books being published when any experienced editor knows that some of them ought not to be put in print? If risks have to be taken, as they must with any new book, why don’t publishers hedge their bets by printing smaller quantities first and assessing the market before going in for larger printings? Above all, do the number of new titles every year increase the turnover and profitability of the printing in the long run and attract newer authors and markets in future?

One point can be made that would help one understand why so many titles without a clearly defined market are published every year: outside the traditional textbook market for schools and undergraduate texts, publishing is a high risk venture. Success often occurs because of a hunch that satisfies the ‘gaps’ in market requirements. To begin with, publishers move cautiously even in safe sectors, sampling titles with trial editions before opting for big printings. These experimental editions of books are often merged with the regular editions after publishers have decided to put the book on their regular lists. Publishers, however, have to constantly expand their lists to ‘stay alive’ in the market. Despite all the conservatism of markets, every new title, if published with proper editorial and production standards, has guaranteed buyers at least in the libraries. This is not enough to take care of of the costs of an entire edition but production costs can at least be recovered.

But despite all the care that publishers take to ensure basic standards of publication, slippages do occur. They happen partly because of the lack of professionalism, but more so because it is fondly believed that the luck of the draw would favour offbeat titles. Vast quantity of unsold copies of books year after year that are finally sold over bargain counters may help retail customers pick up the odd title they couldn’t afford at the full price, but it doesn’t provide a pretty picture of the publishing scene. For one thing, many prospective authors feel that there was something inherently wrong with the publishers, which is why so many titles failed to make the grade. Not many prospective buyers realize that many factors go into the success of a book, and luck or timing have their own small roles to play. All the same, the huge piles of unsold books do reflect on the irrelevance of much that is being published today.