Status of Bengali Language Publishing: An overview

Debajyoti Datta, Managing Director, Shishu Sahitya Samsad (P) Ltd shares the history and trends of Bengali language publishing industry.

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History of Bengali publishing industry…

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,

In 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.

Legacy is on…

One can easily contemplate 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 like Dev Sahitya Kutur, a renowned publisher is running into its fourth generation; M C Sarkar & Sons, Sahitya Samsad are in their third generation; and Ananda Publishers is in its second generation.

Some facts…

According to 60 years of Book Publishing in India edited by Dina N Malhotra, more than 80,000 books were published in India during the year 2004 of which number of Bengali books published is 5,538 and placed fourth among all the Indian languages after Hindi, English and Tamil.In the ‘Publishing Scenario: Malayalam’ of the said book, Ravi Deecee splendidly narrated the history of Malayalam publishing with some intense observations and his views. Those are generally applicable to all the regional languages, particularly to Bengali publishing. So let me note some of his observations and views here.

  • In fact many publishers have played a seminal role in mapping the socio-cultural and educational scenario of Kerala. D. C. Kizhakemuri—the doyen of Kerala publishing—had a beautiful vision: A concept of 100 per cent literacy in a hundred days, which paved the way to Kottayam being the first 100 per cent literate town in India.( P. 95)
  • Direct marketing has also played a key role in developing a new market for books in Kerala in the last ten years or more…. Most of the main players also run their own chain of bookstores within the State. The last ten years have witnessed a greater number of titles and volumes being published in Malayalam, with publishers doing cost control measures due to reduced net margins. For the mainstream publishers, the number of copies has also increased from the average of 1000 copies to 2000-3000 copies. ( p. 96)
  •  . . thanks to the Malayali’s almost insatiable appetite for reading. As a result, translations into Malayalam have been prolific, especially in the last few years. The translation of The Da Vinci Code in Malayalam has sold over 20,000 copies in less than three months. (p. 96)
  • SPCS (Sahitya Provarthaka Cooperative Society) paid 30 percent royalty to authors initially. While SPCS was paying 30 percent royalty to the writers, it commissioned various lexicographers, editors, scholars and translators on copyright basis for a lumpsum. Most of the writers in Kerala lined up to be members of prestigious SPCS in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Hundreds of new writers flourished under the patronage of SPCS. And with the bookstores in almost all major towns, SPCS was able to print 3000-5000 copies of a book, and authors were able to earn their livelihood from writing. (pp. 100–101)

Key players in Bengali literature…

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.

Bengali publishing industry now…

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.

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 complicacy 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 system…

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 (booksellers) scattered around the districts. Most of the publishers cannot even cover all the districts.

On book promotions…

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.

The readership….

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.

Recently there is an attempt to publish Bengali books of different genre other than fiction. 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.

Ways to encourage readership, thereby giving a boost to the industry…

The Bengali publishing industry is going down. We need refreshing ideas and organized efforts to come out of this stalemate. In my opinion the key ideas may include developing the distribution channels and pre-publishing study of actual number of target-readership to enable the publisher to be cost-effective. Besides, the Bengali book publishing centre in and around College Street should be spread to all the districts of West Bengal. Publishers also need to actively join the literacy campaign in organized way to increase the number of readership.To attract creative authors, increasing their royalty may be considered and agreement with the authors should be transparent.

(Debajyoti Datta born in Kolkata is the Managing Director of Shishu Sahitya Samsad (P.) Ltd., a Kolkata-based publishing company. He is a chemical engineer by education and a printer-publisher by profession. He started his career as a trainee in Saraswaty Press and later he came to the publication business as a full-fledged publisher-printer. 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). Now he is also the member of the following organizations: Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Association of India, New Delhi; Bengal National Chamber of Commerce & Industries, Kolkata. He is Charter Member of Rotary Club of Ballygunge. )

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