Main characteristics, main challenges, main perspectives for the future

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers, in a journal on the occasion of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2006

Indian publishing is on a tremendous growth curve reflecting the economic trends of an increasingly globalised Indian market. The worth of the Indian publishing industry is estimated anywhere between 1.3 and 1.6 billion dollars and is the third largest in the world in English language publishing. The interest in the international market in India and things Indian – from food, fashion, films to IT and business services – has also created a lot of interest in books by Indian authors. A wider international market is always healthy for the domestic market and this is the trend we are seeing in Indian publishing today.

           India’s young demographic profile has created an attractive market for businesses targeting children and youth, and this includes publishing. Large multinational publishing houses and established Indian ones are tapping successfully into this market that is seeing a boom in children’s products in branded clothes, shoes, fizzy drinks, chocolates, computers, multimedia products and stationery. While the impact on children’s publishing has led to more Indian children’s books in the market, there is the real danger of books being seen primarily as ‘products’ with the accent on slick packaging. India now offers top-of-the line pre-press and printing technologies and has become a major outsourcing hub for publishing houses from all over the world.

          However, the historical circumstances of children’s publishing in India have created a situation where there is little professional expertise or experience in areas like editing, writing, illustrating and translating. A dynamic and vibrant children’s publishing scene relies on the creativity of not just authors and illustrators, but also of publishers, editors and distributors. Unfortunately this is not the case in India and specialized children’s publishing is still developing. Because of this and the continued dominance of imported books in the market, much of what is being published today has the look, feel and style of western books and doesn’t take into account any of the cultural specificities of the content or the end user.

          India’s colonial legacy is a school education system that is completely at variance with its diverse cultural character. Post-independent India pursued a massive nation building agenda in which continuing the centralized, textbook-oriented British system  seemed the most practical way of  tackling mass illiteracy and administrative logistics. But lack of political will and imagination has created an impoverished system where children have little outside the textbook to nourish their minds. In such a scenario there was no space for specialized publishing houses except a couple of state-subsidized organizations.

          It is only in the last 10 years that a few independent publishing houses have entered the field, each in their own way breaking new ground. In the last five years or so the economic scene has changed dramatically and India finds itself billed as having the fastest-growing economy along with China. It is poised to become the third largest in the next 30 years based on the ‘demographic dividends’ that the half-billion ‘young’ population can yield. These are extremely alarming statistics for a country that is still struggling to feed its children and send them to school.

           It is against such a backdrop that children’s publishing is growing in leaps and bounds, with large and small players in the fray. Children’s publishing is being transformed from a neglected and unviable business into a consumerist one with huge market potential. When children’s books are produced in response to a rapidly growing retail market comprising bookstore chains and lifestyle bookstores, the danger of children’s books becoming packaged products is very real. While in the developed regions, excellent books continue to be produced in spite of largescale commodification thanks to a tradition of excellence and creative synergy of writers, illustrators and editors, the situation in India is very different. Here, a textbook-like approach to children’s books is transformed by the dictates of the market into assembly-line production. And in this climate, creating the space for a vibrant, multilingual, culturally-rooted body of children’s literature is a huge challenge.

          Children’s publishing in India has no support from school and community library networks. Large bookstores do not give space or visibility to indigenous children’s books, there are no exclusive children’s bookstores, nor does children’s publishing receive attention in media or academia. Books are created and positioned as entertainment products that flood the markets along with remaindered books and imports that have always been the mainstay of the book trade. In the absence of a vibrant book culture, good books by talented writers and illustrators, both in English and the regional languages, have little space to grow.

          Mainstream publishing today caters to two kinds of markets – quality books for the more discriminating English-speaking urban elite and mediocre to poor quality books for the masses made up of India’s vast and growing middle class  Both markets are huge and growing and will keep the children’s book market thriving. The majority of parents and teachers uncritically follow the trends set by this market. Compared to even five years ago, there is greater awareness of the need for well-produced Indian books which educate their children about Indian culture and heritage. But the kind of books they are most comfortable with are those that promote cultural stereotypes. So we are seeing the creation of a slew of book-related media including live-action films, animation films, television programmes and DVDs, that are based on Hindu mythology. Hindu mythology with its great epics, fantastical settings and characters, magic and drama is being transformed digitally for a global market that has been primed for them with the heady success of films like Superman and Spiderman, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and of the Japanese cultural export Manga and Anime. Brand India is being promoted globally through monolithic cultural images that reinforce stereotypes that middle-class India, with its growing purchasing power, strongly identifies with.

          Unfortunately, this marketing frenzy and hype leaves the huge majority of Indian children out in the cold. Therefore, the challenge to committed publishers who believe in the transformative and pro-active power of children’s books is two-fold: What kind books do we create for a generation that is growing up in an increasingly divided world? And how do we create a market for them both within India and outside? It recognizes the need to create a space for strong indigenous voices that reflect the pluralism and multilingualism of the country. Owing to India’s large illiterate and semi-literate population, the process of change and pro-action is slow and long. Yet, ironically, when economic conditions are favourable for the growth of children’s publishing, we find ourselves caught in the universal crisis of globalization where there is less and less space for creating an inclusive and democratic market for children’s books. 

          There are no two opinions about the values children’s books must reflect and always have at every point in history: peace, non-violence, honesty, fairness, justice are some of the universal values that sensitive children’s writers and illustrators all over the world have conveyed through words and pictures. Styles have changed in response to social, economic and cultural changes in society, but the values have remained constant, although every generation has had to battle its own complex moral dilemmas. In the best children’s books these complexities get distilled into their clearest and most creative forms. The biggest challenge confronting committed children’s book publishers caught in the dizzying tempo of globalisation and technological change is whether we can continue to reach out with the kind of books  we believe in.

          Unexpectedly, in India, the very forces of globalization are creating a parallel and more discriminating market for children’s books. The demand for quality education in order to develop a skilled workforce for a country that will emerge as a global power in the next ten years has given a strong momentum to education for the underprivileged. So we are seeing a wave of educational initiatives through private-public partnerships all over the country. Reading literacy is suddenly in focus and the need for good books is being recognized. Books in local languages are characterized by a strong cultural distinctiveness, unlike the homogeneity of books produced for the mainstream market.

          When the focus of publishing shifts from the globalised marketplace and targets the vast majority of underprivileged children, it opens up the possibilities of creating books that include the realities of their world and that of the world outside through stories and pictures that don’t exclude their cultural experiences. There are rural libraries in pockets of the country which have well-produced books in local languages with folktales from forgotten parts of the country, real stories of  tribal children and street children, popular science and math books, translated classics from other countries, books of creative verse and songs, proverbs and riddles, resource books for art and craft using inexpensive local materials and so on. A more egalitarian and ecologically harmonious sensibility is central to these books. While texts reflect the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversities of the world, pictures create a visual language that is enriched through adaptations of folk styles, street art, illustrations by tribal and folk artists, photography and digital art reflecting the ethnic and the contemporary in exciting ways.

          To go against the trends of the globalised market, and yet produce books that are financially viable, is a challenge. Much of this kind of publishing remains local and part of organizations involved in grassroots work. But there are mainstream publishers who have taken up the challenge of balancing the two kinds of publishing.  In the last few years, books from small publishers from India that have won international acclaim reject the overtly slick and glossy ‘international look’. They reflect the cultural experiences of the marginalized and strike a universal chord. Sensitive writers and illustrators have helped create books that reflect all that defines what good children’s books are.

          If committed children’s publishers can hold their own, bucking global trends, a body of children’s literature can emerge that is socially inclusive in every sense.  The chances of such literature becoming mainstream are greater in a thriving democracy like India where the lives of the majority are untouched by global market forces. If we can connect across places and languages with such books perhaps we can move towards creating a democratic and just world for future generations.