Going global

Getting bigger: The new venue of the London Book Fair.  

The London Book Fair this year, unlike previous editions, had quite a visible Indian presence.

INDIAN publishing has still a long way to go before it can be called even remotely "international", but now there are signs that at least the bigger publishers have started to shed their insularity and there is a new confidence to engage with the global market - even if, at this stage, it means nothing more than simply showcasing their books.I remember the time when it was hard to spot Indian exhibitors at major world publishing events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair and the London International Book Fair. As an Indian journalist, it was embarrassing to be constantly asked: "But where are the Indian publishers?" And when you put this to the Indian side, the standard refrain was: "Well, it costs too much. It's not really worth it." What Indian publishers found more profitable was picking up loads of cheap "remaindered" titles and then selling them in India after marking up the price. There is nothing wrong about it. Remaindered books are meant for this sort of business and small publishers the world over take advantage of such deals. But the problem with Indian publishing was that it tended to concentrate exclusively on quick moneymaking propositions. No wonder, the Indian contingent at foreign book fairs came to be mockingly called the "Ansari Road gravy train" - a reference to the street in Delhi where some of the biggest publishing houses are concentrated.

Changed scenario

Happily, that phase seems to be over and, judging from the Indian participation at this year's London International Book Fair (March 5-7), they are finally emerging out of the purdah. Though, even on this occasion, India was heavily outnumbered by publishers from much smaller countries - especially from Eastern Europe - there was at least a semblance of Indian presence, thanks to a little help from CAPAXIL, the body which promotes Indian book exports.For the first time, about a dozen Indian publishers had their own stalls in addition to a much larger group of printers who have become truly global in recent years. The quality of Indian printing is now internationally acknowledged and labour costs being cheaper in India, a number of leading publishers from around the world are now outsourcing printing to India.So, how did it go for Indian publishers?Sanjoy Roy of Foundation Books said he was extremely pleased by the response, and his company was even thinking of setting up a distribution outlet in Britain. Kapish G. Mehra of Rupa and Co., which has been exhibiting in London for some years now, said the level of interest in Indian books was growing with each year. "Previously, the interest was focused mostly on books that talked about the exoticism of India. But, this time we also noticed a great deal of interest in Indian fiction and serious biographies. A couple of titles that evoked a lot of enthusiasm were One Night @ the Call Center, AB The Legend and Calcutta Edifice," he said.

Getting bigger

This year, the Fair moved out of Olympia, its traditional venue in Central London, to a bigger and brighter venue in Excel, southeast London, to meet the demand for more space and better facilities. What began as a weekend fair for librarians in a hotel basement has now become one of the most important publishing events in Europe with hundreds of publishers, literary agents, rights experts, printers and booksellers from around the world attending it every year. Unusually for a fair which has been free from controversies all these years, there was a bit of a flap this time as several leading writers, including A.S. Byatt and Ian McEwan, stayed away from it protesting against the organisers' links with the arms trade. They were also upset that the fair was held at a place which hosts Europe's biggest arms fair. "The event's organisers Reed Exhibitions has, since 2003, accumulated a portfolio of arms fairs which grease the wheels of the global weapons' trade. Last September, the book fair's own venue hosted Reed Exhibitions' crown jewel: Defence Systems and Equipment International, Europe's largest arms fair," they said in a joint letter. On the opening day, tempers ran high for sometime but soon the Fair settled down to business as usual. Certainly it had no effect on the "partying" which has become such an integral part of the fair. The Canadian Booker Prize-winning novelist, Margaret Atwood caused both excitement and sniggers when she introduced a pen which allows writers to autographs their works in remote places from the comfort of their own homes. She said she came up with the idea after she found endless book promotion tours and autographing books a little too strenuous. "It was pretty strenuous and I thought wouldn't it be good if you could sign books with a signature that whizzed through the air? I went to some companies and asked if such a thing already existed and they said, actually no. So, I asked if it could be made and they went away and thought about it and said, yes," Ms Atwood chuckled provoking one critic to mumble: "So, now you know how much writers care about the mythical 'personal' contact with their readers." The highlight of the Fair was the announcement of the longlist for the women-only 2006 Orange Prize for fiction. It includes some big hitters such as Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Walters and Ali Smith. But it would not be until June that you would know who is the winner. Incidentally, Ms. Smith missed it two years ago after being shortlisted. So, would she be lucky second time around? AWAY from the Fair, the Nehru Centre hosted two high-profile India-related book events. One was the launch of Mushirul Hasan's new book, Nehru: Personal Histories, a pictorial history of the Nehru "dynasty' published by Roli Books in collaboration with Mercury. In a discussion, chaired by the Pakistan-born writer and activist Tariq Ali, Prof. Hasan explored the hold of political dynasties on popular imagination, and answered questions about the contribution of the Nehruvian vision to the development of modern India.Then there was the launch of journalist Shrabani Basu's Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Hayat Khan, which tells the extraordinary story of Europe's only Asian secret agent in the Second World War, who was later shot by the Nazis. A descendant of Tipu Sultan, Noor was born in Moscow to an Indian Sufi father and an American mother. Brought up in France and Britain, during the Second World War she trained as a wireless operator before being recruited by the European secret service and sent to France.According to the author's synopsis, by late 1943 Noor's luck had run out and she was "betrayed, arrested and imprisoned". She made two dramatic escape attempts but was recaptured and sent to Germany where she was tortured and shot. She was one of the only three women spies to be awarded the George Cross. Published in Britain by Sutton Publishing, it is to be printed in India by Roli. Look out for it, if you like tales of bravery and courage. H.S