Of the 40 Indian publishers who hired their stands through the good offices of Capexil, (Chemicals and Allied Products Export Promotion Council) at the recently concluded Frankfurt Book Fair, most have returned home angry, disappointed and disgruntled. The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world’s largest and commercially most important publishing trade fair with rights being bought and sold and many a million-dollar deal brokered during its five frenetic days every October.
The Indian publishers’ stand looked like a shoddy bazaar. The publishers’ names and stand numbers were not in alphabetical order and a visitor had to browse through the entire lot in order to find the right exhibitor. In contrast, the stand opposite, that of the National Book Trust was a swish, elevated red and white affair, with persons willing and ready to help and guide the visitors. The NBT said its stand had cost Rs.12 lakh to build. Capexil and its contractors were unwilling to give The Hindu figures as to how much the Indian publishers’ stand cost.
“For many of us, especially the first-time participants the Fair was a disaster, a waste of hard-earned cash. Nothing was set up. My stand had not even been erected on the opening day of the fair. I had to go running around, begging for help from Ramesh Mittal, Chairman of Capexil’s Book Publishing and Printing panel and the elusive contractor, a certain Mohit Singla. I paid over Rs. 3,30,000 and I have absolutely nothing to show for it. It’s been a total waste,” Vijay Ahuja of DBS Imprints told The Hindu during a visit to his stall at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Mr. Mittal, when contacted blamed the contractor Mohit Singla who runs a company called Spacesense. “I had given him all the specifications. He came with a very impressive list of clients. I could not use the same contractor as the NBT because that firm has some auditing problems with Capexil. Mr. Singla assured me everything would be done very professionally and that the exhibitors would have to walk into their stands on the 9th of October to start doing business. The reality turned out to be quite the reverse. Nothing had been done. Some of the panels used were broken at the edges, the bookshelves were not the standard ones prescribed by Fair authorities. We were given reduced space and there was no one to help. Mr. Singla had said he would send two persons from Delhi. They never came. Water bottles, kits, badges, everything was handed to the exhibitors late.”
Bipin Shah of Mapin Publishers said, “I was shocked by the cavalier way in which everything was handled. Many of the publishers came through Capexil because booking a stand through them worked out cheaper than through Fair authorities. But we were cheated out of our space. The minimum space that the Fair authorities can book for you is 4 sq.m. Here we were squashed into less than 3 sq.m per head, packed in like sardines and about a metre and half running along the back of our stand was lost because the contractor did not have the right specifications. The materials used were shoddy and not up to specifications and Fair authorities at one stage threatened to dismantle the stand.”
Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books, a veteran of many Frankfurts said, “Everyone was blaming Mr. Mittal of Capexil. He is a very decent man but the organisation under him turned out to be totally incompetent. The contractor turned up very late on the eve of the opening. That is the only day exhibitors get to set up their books and displays. Our badges and directories were not given on time. He never bothered to introduce himself and we did not know what was happening. We received only one badge whereas every exhibitor has to be given two. Each badge costs 45 Euros — not a small sum for a struggling Indian publisher to cough up. We decided to go through Capexil because it was working out cheaper.”
Mohit Singla when contacted by this correspondent blamed Capexil. “They gave us the wrong specifications. My persons could not go to Frankfurt because the German Embassy refused them visas at the last minute. I have photos of the stands and they look very nice. I don’t understand why these people are complaining so much. The Fair authorities told me I could not use that metre and a half of space at the back. That’s not my fault”.
In the end the German Book Office in New Delhi intervened to save the stand from humiliating dismantlement. But at the end of the Fair, when the stands had to be taken down Mr. Singla had allegedly done a disappearing act again. “This man who had made us so many promises was not even there to see the completion of the project he had started”, said Mr. Mittal.
Said Urvashi Butalia, “Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, the fact is that the collective Indian stand always looks the worst in the Fair. Even Pakistan last year had a wonderful stand, attractive and beautifully laid out. This is a good example of how India shines abroad!”