Bengali language publishing: yesteryears to date

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Debajyoti Datta, Shishu Sahitya Samsad (P) Ltd shares how the Bengali language publishing has evolved, the challenges now and how the industry can be revived. Publishing in Bengali has a history of more than two hundred years and a very rich tradition. It began with Fort William College and Baptist missionaries. The social reformers of that age felt a strong urge to communicate with the newly educated Bengali middle class and developed the prose-writing form in Bengali. They published their works on their own and distributed those almost freely. The pioneers among them were Raja Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Bankimchandra and many others. Even Rabindranath Tagore initially published his books at his own expense.

Debajyoti DattaIn the period of anti-British freedom struggle, many publishers, who were essentially also revolutionaries, began to publish magazines, booklets, books to propagate their ideas among the people. They courted arrest, imprisoned; their press and publications were ransacked, confiscated for sedition. But they were dauntless. The story of these great revolutionary publishers was never been recognized by the official history of freedom movement in India nor it has been chronicled by any non-official historian or publishers association.

The legacy continues…

One can easily contemplate from this short narrative that early Bengali language publishing did not follow the western commercial concept of profit and loss. This legacy is still prevailing among many of the today’s Bengali language publishers. They publish little magazines, books; cost of which is borne out of their pockets. They never consider commercial interest as one of the important aspect of publishing. As a result the publishing industry in Bengal was dominated by personal motivation and aptitude, rather than professional approach for a prolonged time. Most of the publishing houses here are proprietorship business due to the fact these are personal aptitude-oriented; as a consequence many publishers withered away within first generation, at best they can continue to second generation. Third generation publisher is seldom found among the Bengali publishers. A few exception can be cited: Dev Sahitya Kutur, a renowned publisher is running into its fourth generation; M C Sarkar & Sons, Sahitya Samsad are in their third generation; Ananda Publishers is in its second generation.

Key players…

The publishing business in Bengal is very small in volume. The govt. does not count it even as a small scale industry. From the days of freedom struggle, publishing was a means of communication of the revolutionaries. Most of the publishers at that time are also revolutionaries. Afterwards they entered the publishing business. And so publishing is mostly family business here. In most of the cases, the publisher’s personal aptitude is not transmitted to the next generation. As a result publishing is usually one generation business.

The key players in Bengali publishing are Dey’s Publishing, Ananda Publishers, Mitra O Ghosh, Sahitya Samsad, Dev Sahitya Kutur and a few others. Recent new entrants are Parul Prakashani, Patra Bharati, Deep Prakashon, Prativash etc.

Economics of Bengali publishing…

Essentially the economics of Bengali language publishing is same as economics of any other publishing. But with a tiny market of books only in West Bengal is a hindrance to the expansion of Bengali book market. Population wise, the Bangladesh book market is much larger than West Bengal. The export-import legal complicity prevents us from exporting books in Bangladesh. Moreover, piracy is rampant in Bangladesh, but we cannot take any legal action against them. Another problem of Bengali publishers is the low price of Bengali books compared to English books. With so small return, they cannot afford to appoint expert professionals in editorial marketing, production etc. And the readership of Bengali books is shrinking day by day.

Distribution & marketing: a challenge

The Bengali books are sold in West Bengal, north-east States and among NRIs. A few books are also sold in Bangladesh. Customers are mostly from middle class.

The nature of distribution channels in West Bengal is so poorly organized that it can be very well said that it is almost non-existent here. Individual publishers have their agents (book-sellers) scattered around the districts. Most of the publishers cannot even cover all the districts.

Besides, there is no such solid organized plan for book promotion marketing and sales in West Bengal. A few publishers can afford online sales. Most of the publishers do their marketing individually according to their own capability.

Expanding horizons but print runs shrinking…

Recently there is an attempt to publish Bengali books of different genre other than fictions. So reference books of various disciplines (History, Philosophy, Political Science, Science etc.) are being published. But the author base is rapidly declining due to lack of creativity.

Besides, print runs are decreasing. We started with minimum of 1000 copies print-run. We printed our children book usually 2000-3000 copies per print when we started. Now these figures have gone down to 300 and 500 copies respectively. We need refreshing ideas and organized efforts to come out of this stalemate.

Ways to revive the Bengali publishing industry:

We need to do the following to revive the industry:

1. Develop the distribution channels.

2. The Bengali book publishing centre in and around College Street should be spread to all the districts of West Bengal.

3. Pre-publishing study of actual number of target-readership should be done; which will enable the publisher to be cost-effective.

4. To join actively the literacy campaign in organized way to increase the number of readership.

5. To attract creative authors, increasing their royalty may be considered. Agreement with the authors should be transparent.

Debajyoti Datta is the Managing Director of Shishu Sahitya Samsad (P.) Ltd., a Kolkata-based publishing company. He is the member of the Publishers and Booksellers Guild, Kolkata, under whose leadership the first Kolkata Book Fair was organized. He was the secretary of this organization for three years from 1982-84 and its president from 1987-88. He was elected as president of the Federation of Indian Publishers in two consecutive terms (2001-03).

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