A lasting love affair with books and children

It sounds like a fairytale but it’s really just a publishing house on a mission

June 17, 2017 04:00 pm | Updated June 23, 2017 11:46 am IST

Banaswadi, between Outer Ring Road and Cox Town, is quintessential semi-suburban Bengaluru, with the mandatory vegetable stalls, fish shops, bakeries and a Kingfisher pub. It is neither the city centre proper nor part of any planned satellite township on its outskirts, and it most definitely doesn’t look like a hub for Indian children’s publishing.

But this happens to be where the headquarters of Pratham Books is located, in a lovely bright office on the third floor of a somewhat nondescript pink building.

They’ve hit the news recently for being nominated for the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award—worth five million Swedish kronor (₹3.6 crore) and considered the Nobel Prize for children’s literature—and in April they got an astonishing $3.6 million (₹26 crore) grant from Google.org to develop their path-breaking open-source platform, StoryWeaver.

Currently, StoryWeaver offers stories for kids in 67 languages, both Indian and foreign, which have so far been read about one million times. As I logged on to the online platform, I even found several surprisingly fun translations of Indian stories in my own obscure tongue, Swedish. And all of it can be accessed for free.

I soon learn that Pratham Books’ target of putting ‘a book in every child’s hand’ means exactly that: they want to reach hundreds of millions of children in India and offer at least 20,000 titles. Although it sounds like a too-good-to-be-true fairytale, I quickly discover that theirs is an efficiently managed, visionary, not-for-profit publishing house staffed by hard-working and competent professionals.

Gratis online access

In the foyer, books hang from the ceiling by way of a surreal decoration over a couple of work stations. I’m led into a conference room that has cheerful yellow walls with scripts of several Indian languages painted on them. Most of the editorial staff, the chairperson, Suzanne Singh, and one of the founders, Ashok Kamath, join in for a chat.

Kamath explains why he started Pratham in 2004 with Rohini Nilekani, who is also a Pratham Books author, and Rekha Menon: “Many of us had already worked in the non-profit sector, bringing reading skills to children at the bottom of the pyramid, but we saw that there was a big need for reading material that could be priced as cheap as ₹2.”

To make printed books affordable, they introduced the concept of truly low-cost publishing through their colourful ‘story card’—a single A4 or A3 page, printed on thick, durable paper, which can be folded so that it becomes a simple picture book. Today, 13 years on, these are still as cheap as ₹4 per copy, and such ‘story cards’ have, for example, been distributed to over 70,000 pre-schools in Bihar.

Kamath continues, “Many of our authors and illustrators work with us at low cost because they believe in the mission. The second thing is that we decided to build our work around the idea that multiple languages result in larger market volumes. Bestsellers in India at that time meant 2,000 to 3,000 copies, but we were routinely printing 10,000 to 15,000 copies and so were able to achieve an economy of scale.”

The numbers talk

Today, Pratham Books prints an average of a million hard copies of their books per year, and offers 3,100 downloadable titles on their StoryWeaver platform. According to their own research, each printed book they put out is read seven times on average, which means that the million copies they print have a seven million strong readership.

While they sell in bulk to institutions and organisations, they also crowdfund through their Donate-a-Book platform. (The average price of their printed books is ₹35, so a donation of ₹1,000 would translate into a classroom set of about 30 books.)

And they, of course, allow gratis online access—so if you have no children’s library nearby, you simply log on to the StoryWeaver platform to read in a range of languages. Their online library has 14,000 registered users, but since they also give access without registration, another one lakh unique unknown visitors browse for stories to read.

Around 3,000 volunteers participate in their annual ‘One Day, One Story’ reading championship, which reaches tens of thousands of kids, the biggest programme they coordinate.

While listening to them rattling off these impressive numbers, I begin rethinking my writing career—maybe I should write for kids too? Noticing my obvious admiration, Singh says, “You know, we started from scratch, but our mission focus defined us. When you have your goals clear you will not say: I will not print in a language because there is no way to distribute the books to children who need them. But we would instead find ways to get the books into the hands of children!”

“So I think the way we looked at our work was very different from other publishers. The key thing that differentiated us was that we were not deterred by prevailing practices in publishing—most of us did not come from a publishing background and so we didn’t know what we could and couldn’t do. We simply did what we needed to do to fulfil our mission of seeing ‘a book in every child’s hand’. And I think that was the exact thinking that drew us to open-licensing.”

We’re catalysts

To take StoryWeaver to the next level is their next project—the grant from Google.org will be used to scale up this platform by adding more stories, to expand the distribution and create an offline version, so that more people can access, repurpose and translate the published works.

To make sense of this enormous endeavour, I put a simple question to them all: What do you see as your job?

‘We’re catalysts,’ says Singh and explains how they wish to bring together content creators and users—not only writers and readers but also educators, language teachers and librarians, translators and online language groups.

The StoryWeaver platform has material in Indian languages from Bengali to Bhojpuri, tribal tongues like Kora and Santali, good old English or even older Sanskrit, as well as in foreign languages such as Kurdish (spoken by a Turkish minority with a large diasporic refugee population). This makes StoryWeaver an every-child’s dream bookshelf.

To overcome distribution hardships, Purvi Shah tells me they plan to develop short six-to-eight-page books to be read on mobile phones. This means that a kid living in a town without a bookshop, but whose parents own a smartphone, can read them. And if the parents don’t have a smartphone, Pratham Books will provide audio stories through their Missed Call campaign: essentially, a child can dial a number and receive a return call that delivers the story in the child’s chosen language. Some kids were apparently so thrilled with this that over a short period of time each of them used the function more than 200 times to hear different stories!

“Any which way that we can get a story out to the kids, we try our best,” says Shah.

The author’s latest comic detective novel set in Bengaluru is the bestselling Hari, a Hero for Hire .

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