The period of time after the 1990s has seen no less than a publishing miracle. Booksellers who have turned publishers have been mushrooming all over the country with a superb frenzy. But one ought to look away from the marvel of the flood of books that are being produced every day, and focus on a worrisome truth; what is being churned out disappears into thin air from the market within months.
Why does this happen? The answer is simple. It happens because the book trade has become the final arbiter of what sells and what does not regardless of what common readers may want or what the scholars may recommend. This simplistic formula — only prices, discounts and credits matter — is what has landed the book trade in a perennial financial crisis.
What is the modus operandi of the bookseller-turned-publisher who has neither the publishing infrastructure nor editorial expertise? How does the system work and why should the publisher and author be wary of these fly-by-night operatives?
These small-time publishers have all the paraphernalia of an established publisher: a registered imprint, publishing contracts, membership with the Federation of Indian Publishers and a wide circle of contacts with teachers and librarians. As far as the market is concerned, they know their territory simply because they have been providing the services they required on an everyday basis. These publishers have one simple objective: to make quick money by any means. This is done in four ways.
First, the establishment costs are kept low. The bookshop doubles up as a publishing as well as editorial office, with no additional staff. In fact, almost all these publishers are single proprietory firms where the boss decides on his own what is to be published.
Second, there are very low print runs; some of them could be as low as just 300 copies that are priced at six times the unit cost of production. This means that the investment can be recovered on a sale of one-sixth of the edition.
Third — and this is happening more and more often — these publishers look for subsidies that involve paying the publishing house to bring out the book. The source of the money could be the government, or a university grant; it could also be the author of the book. The quantum of the subsidy is negotiable, but it usually covers the cost of production, along with handling costs. Very simply, the publisher’s investment is almost negligible.
Fourth, the author’s royalty is pegged to not more than 7.5 percent of the published price of the book. But this return is calculated by the publisher on ‘net returns’, that is, the amount the publisher would receive after providing the trade discount to the bookseller. So, if a book is priced at Rs 100 and the trade discount is 40 per cent, the author’s royalties would be calculated at Rs 60, not at the full retail price.
All that the publisher does is hand over the typescript to a printer with instructions to print and bind the required number of copies. There is no editing or preparing the copy for the press and virtually no professional proof reading; the latter is also left to the printer.
But who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? It isn’t the publisher or the printer, but the author who is desperate to have his book published and very often prepared to shell out the money for it because it pays off in the absence of a critical readership that would judge a book on its merits.