November, the month of Rajyotsava, is that time of the year when there is much debate on whether or not people read Kannada books any longer.
While official figures seem to suggest that the Kannada book industry is in the pink of health, those in the business of publishing and selling books warn that official statistics need to be taken with scepticism.
According to statistics with the Department of Public Libraries, 6,995 new titles in Kannada were registered in 2012. That is an increase from 6,795 in 2011 and 5,348 in 2010.
The single-window book purchase system introduced by the government, with the purpose of promoting Kannada writers and publishers, has resulted in an increase in the volume of book production, says Mahantesh M. Badni, Director, Department of Public Libraries.
Nearly 3,000 Kannada titles — 300 copies each — are bought annually by the department and distributed to libraries in district centres and gram panchayats.
However, publishers have a different story to tell. “Numbers are right in the literal sense, but we need to see beyond just numbers,” says Prakash Kambathalli of Ankitha Pusthaka, an 18-year-old publishing house and bookstore.
Mr. Kambathalli says that barely 20 per cent of the books that “officially” exist are available in the market. “There is no dearth of so-called publishers who print just enough to make use of the government scheme, but never market them,” he says.
The reality, according to Mr. Kambathalli, is that footfalls in Kannada bookshops are dwindling.
“We have to face the fact that most of the Kannada book readers today are aged above 40,” he says, which is not a surprising phenomenon considering that English is fast becoming the medium of primary education even at hobli levels.
“The stagnation in the number of book shops is an indication of this,” says Mr. Kambathalli.
He adds that new forms such as e-books have not caught up in Kannada, unlike in English, given the age of the readers.
A.R. Udupa, General Manager at Navakarnataka Publications, says that the declining trend is particularly marked over the last two years.
“This is in contrast to the situation about a decade ago when there was a sudden spurt in good quality books and in a great variety of genres,” he says, agreeing with Mr. Kambathalli that language of instruction has a big part in shaping this trend.
Mr. Udupa adds that in contrast to southern districts, including Bangalore and Mysore, the readership for Kannada books is better in North Karnataka and interior Malnad.
“If a city like Bangalore still has a readership, it comes from migrants who had their primary education in Kannada and have come to settle down here,” he observes.
This is a phenomenon Mr. Udupa has observed during the annual week-long book exhibition Navakarnataka holds on the Infosys campus in November.
“We do good business, but all our buyers are those who had their primary education in districts such as Shimoga or Dharwad,” he says.