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Big crowds throng Book Fair but not to browse and buy

Biryani was a bestseller at the 38th edition of the Book Fair that ended at Milan Mela on Sunday with the bitter-sweet aftertaste of rising footfall and slowing sales.

Individual publishers had been murmuring about a steady dip in sales growth over the past few editions, but the writing seems to be on the wall after the 2014 event: the “regular buyer” is no longer interested in the Book Fair.

While the Publishers and Booksellers Guild that organises the fair wouldn’t officially admit to a drop in business, it acknowledges the need for “fresh ideas” to lure the book buyer.

Guild secretary Tridib Chatterjee said literary seminars were not getting enough people in, necessitating innovations such as a mix of literature and music. A committee comprising professionals from various fields will be formed to come up with more ways to bring back the bibliophile.

So what’s amiss at the Book Fair that used to be an annual pilgrimage for the Calcuttan who likes her book as much as she does her biryani? Who are the people who throng the fairground now and walk out with packed food rather than a bagful each of books? Metro reads between the lines.

Where have all the readers gone?

Twenty lakh people visited the Book Fair this year, three lakh more than last year’s footfall. But the refrain of publishers is that many visitors aren’t even inclined to check out the stalls, let alone buy books.

“Serious readers aren’t coming to the stalls,” said Rajesh Dey, commissioning editor (academic) at Cambridge University Press. “What’s disturbing is that even institutional buyers like the IITs or the Bose Institute are moving away. A professor turning up and enquiring about a book he or she wants or someone stopping by to ask about a new publication doesn’t serve our purpose.”

Officials of some of the other established names in the business echoed the concern over fewer people entering the stalls to browse and buy. Many academicians have apparently told publishers that the Book Fair was no longer the best place to look for books. Kids not reading as much as the previous generations did has also hit the business.

“The sales figures reflect a drop since last year. Children are finding it difficult to carve out time to read books, or maybe their interest lies somewhere else,” said K.N. Kutty of the Children’s Book Trust.

“Discount” is no longer a magic word unless it is substantial enough to beat what’s on offer outside the precincts of the Book Fair. “Why take the trouble of visiting the fair if the discount is the same as that offered by shops and online retailers?” a retired police officer said.

Narosa Publishing House raised the percentage of discount on some of its titles to woo buyers but it still didn’t work. “We deal in specific publications, mostly on science and management. Last year, we needed to deposit our daily collection in a bank because of the volume. The response wasn’t so encouraging this time,” said Ravinder Singh of Narosa.

Some stall owners said the ambience of the Book Fair was turning away a section of the regular buyers.

“Over the years, we have had readers who didn’t bother about discounts. A few would sometimes seek a discount and we would offer them that. That’s not the issue,” said a senior official of Orient Blackswan. “This year, we had invited several department heads from universities but they declined to come, saying the ambience for enjoying the smell of books was gone.”

A young professional who had visited the fair complained about being asked to “keep moving” inside a crowded stall. “It was just like being in a crowded Puja pandal. There were repeated announcements for people to keep moving so that those waiting outside could enter. How can anyone browse through books in such an ambience?” he said.

Fair deal for books or food & fun?

For the 12 days of the Book Fair, Milan Mela was the hangout of choice for lakhs of people looking for a place other than a mall or a park to spend the afternoon or evening in.

They were everywhere — the lawns, benches and fountains — but not inside the stalls. Some sat enjoying the music and the variety of food on offer. Others were like driftwood, going wherever their feet took them within the sprawling fairground. A very small percentage visited the stalls and exited with books.

“It’s time to think whether tickets should be reintroduced,” said a senior member of the guild who owns a publishing house that specialises in books on law.

An official of publishing firm Rupa said business was better on days when the fairground wasn’t as crowded as on a weekend. “The book lover wants some breathing space to browse and buy,” he said.

The crowd-pullers at the Book Fair were, of course, the food stalls. And if there’s food, can litter be far behind?

“We were greeted by heaps of garbage and stink every morning,” said an official of McGraw Hill.

The crowd inside the children’s pavilion was sparse compared to the audience at a television channel’s live programme on the opposite side. On Saturday evening, singer Antara Chowdhury drew a large crowd as she performed live near the Jago Bangla stall.

Tolly star Dev was the big draw on Saraswati Puja, followed by Prosenjit a few days later and then Rupam Islam and many others. “There was a time when music was banned during book-release programmes,” former guild president Kalyan Shah recalled. “Today, the fair is a place where you have fun.”

Why wait to buy a book at the fair?

The emergence of alternatives has hit the Book Fair hard. “Academicians receive catalogues from different publishers and visit the stores at leisure to buy instead of taking the trouble to visit the fair,” said Bhaskar Chakrabarty of the department of history, Calcutta University.

Many readers prefer the comfort of stores with defined layouts, though Gautam Jatia of Starmark begs to disagree. “The beauty of the Book Fair is that one gets to see so many titles at one place, something that a store can never match,” he said.

A section of publishers say online bookstores are taking away buyers. “This year, I noticed people visiting the branded stalls and noting down titles, but not buying any,” said Sudhangshu Dey of Dey’s Publishing.

But Abhinanda Datta, a student of English at Jadavpur University, thinks the Book Fair can still survive. “I buy books online but I also visit the Book Fair. Holding a book is very exciting,” she said.

Too much of a hassle

There is no alternative to Milan Mela for the Book Fair, but it’s still not ready to provide the best of facilities to the 20 lakh people who turn up over 12 days. Parking is a problem and the lighting in parts of the fairground is less than ideal.

For many of those dependent on public transport, Milan Mela poses a challenge that isn’t worth the trouble. “I had to walk nearly 6km to reach home after coming out of the fairground. I did not find a single taxi or a bus that wasn’t crowded enough for me to get into,” said Kausik Mitra, a state government official.

“Should the guild not make adequate arrangements for people who ensure crores of rupees worth of business?” he demanded.

Why do you or don’t visit the Book Fair? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com