Tamil publishers thrive on State patronage

Advancements in printing technology have also aided the industry

Published - February 11, 2022 01:27 am IST - Chennai

Literary cause:  A surcharge of 6% on property tax collected is used for maintaining a library.

Literary cause: A surcharge of 6% on property tax collected is used for maintaining a library.

A regular visitor to the annual Chennai Book Fair in the last two decades would have noticed how stalls selling Tamil books had moved from the margins to the centre-stage. The Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI), which organises the fair, has 430 members, of whom 350 are Tamil publishers.

Though a variety of factors, including Tamil Nadu’s historical association with printing and the new trends in printing technology have contributed to this growth, it is the patronage of the State government that sustains the Tamil book publishing industry.

“It is no exaggeration that many Tamil publishers thrive only by supplying orders to public libraries. The current intake is 1,000 copies per title. The State government has been a forerunner in implementing educational schemes such as Samagra Shiksha, funded by the Union government. Procurement of books for 12,000 panchayat libraries comes as an additional bonanza for the publishers,” explained Olivannan, CEO of Emerald Publishers.

A historical perspective to the trend is offered by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), who recalled that India’s modern library movement, despite many problems plaguing it, had its origins in Chennai. “S.R Ranganathan, the famed librarian and bibliographer, was a founding member of the Madras Library Association and the Tamil Nadu Directorate of Public Libraries is a robust organisation,” he said.

The government’s role is explained by the fact that the Madras Library Act (now Tamil Nadu Library Act), first such in the country, was enacted as early as in 1948. A surcharge of 6% on property tax collected is used for maintaining a library to date. Like the December Music Festival, the annual Chennai Book Fair has also become a part of the city’s culture and attracts people from all over the world. While library orders and the book fairs, organised in Chennai and almost in all districts, played a major role in giving impetus to the publishing industry, Mr. Olivannan said the new trends in printing technology had led to a paradigm shift in the publisher’s investment for printing books.

“There is a substantial increase in titles, but copies are printed in small numbers. Technology comes in handy when it comes to printing a few copies in a cost-effective manner. A writer can make use of it to reach out to specific customers with specific subjects. It is possible to print just one book in a flash,” said A. Sowrirrajan, Director of Adyar Student Xerox, who prints books for many publishers in Tamil Nadu.

“We can print 20 lakh pages per day for a book. Technology has removed all the bottlenecks and today, pages go straight from the computer to the printing press. We have also switched over to a perfect binding to create a clean, crisp and professional printed product and dispensed with the sewing method. Everything is done under a single roof,” Mr. Sowrirajan explained.

Issues persist

However, the benefits have not been uniform for everyone. In the Tamil publishing world, many publishers pay very little or no royalty. The purchase of books for libraries by the government has become an excuse for many publishers to run more than one publishing unit, all functioning under one roof, to get library orders for more titles. According to Mr. Olivannan, low print run also had become a negative factor. “Publishers are contented with selling low volumes, even as low as 50 copies. They make little or no effort in marketing the books. Another worrying factor is that publishers are shying away from major responsibilities such as investment (the author invests) and marketing. If this trend continues the industry will soon be wrapped in a pall of gloom,” Mr. Olivannan said.

In his paper, ‘The Tamil Book—Publishing Industry and the Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic’ , Mr. Venkatachalapathy had said, Chennai Book Fair is one of the largest book fairs in India. However, at the same time, however, he pointed out, “It should be noted that while the New Delhi and Kolkata book fairs are heavily funded and subsidised by the government, the Chennai Book Fair receives no such largesse.”

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