Last week, sitting for almost three hours at the Educational Book House stall on the first day of the Ninth Nepal Education and Book Fair 2005 at Bhrikuti Mandap, writer Samrat Upadhyay sold 200 copies of his two fiction books. That was more than a book a minute. When his books were all gone, fans started bringing other writers' novels for Samrat to sign anyway (pic, right).
Anjan Shrestha, a bookseller who was the force behind Samrat's impromptu book-signing ceremony, later said that he was overwhelmed by the Book Fair visitors' spontaneously positive response toward Samrat's works. He should not have been. What is truly overwhelming is that at a time when many well-regarded (at least by newspapers) Nepali-language books struggle to find readers, let alone buyers, two works of fiction-that too written in English-by an expatriate Nepali have since 2003 sold a total of 8,000 copies in Nepal alone. How can we interpret this fact to understand the opportunities and threats facing Nepal's book industry?
In recent years, the publishing industry, in tandem with the then vibrantly competitive Nepali press, has made much progress. True, much of that progress has meant that publishing houses in the private sector have made sizeable investments to upgrade the hardware. As a result, it is possible now to publish well-designed, colourful books and magazines in both hard and soft covers by using the latest technology on varieties of paper available in Nepal-something that was unthinkable even five years ago.
But these production-focussed hardware upgrades have not been matched by a market-oriented appreciation for software issues. These would be issues such as networking with agents to find new writers, hiring editors to revise the content, training marketers and promoters, making arrangements for authors to appear in public to sign books, using the media and readers' groups to create a buzz about the books and their authors and even doing tie-ins with other relevant products to sell books.
One reason for this mismatch is that it takes time to develop such software capabilities. During the Panchayat era, independent book publishing was not a state-approved business. As a result, most businessmen could never dream to be anything more than traders of books, each of which had to clear the censors. It was only in the pluralistic times of the 1990s that some entrepreneurial booksellers were able to take advantage of the openness and competition to transform themselves from traders to independent producers and marketers of books. And the first thing they did was take loans to invest on hardware so quality printing could be done in Nepal and not outsourced to Thailand or India.
Besides, they developed relations with foreign publishers and brought choices, including Samrat's books, at affordable prices to book-buying Nepalis. In light of this development, it is distressing to see how the recent rollback in press freedom has already started strangling this industry by driving up its cost of doing business. After all, when forward-looking entrepreneurs are forced to adopt a back-to-Panchayat practice of pleasing not their customers but the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Information over every book they publish or import, they are not only likely to lose the business advantages collected over the last 14 years but also unlikely to see any incentive in addressing the software issues that are so necessary to increase sales and outreach.
Samrat's books sell in Kathmandu as legal Indian reprints. How much nicer would it be if our book industry was allowed to live up to its potential to be a direct part of the global publishing industry so Nepali writers' books could be sold in other countries while others' books could be sold in ours.