Thomas Abraham

In Delhi, it’s that time of year again when publishers, distributors and retailers scramble frantically to get everything from the point of sale to inventory right. It is the World Book Fair (WBF), which takes place once every two years and spreads across the gigantic halls of Pragati Maidan. This is the 20th edition of the fair, and while there are look-alikes all over the country, this one is undoubtedly the mother of them all.

In the 80s and 90s, the Kolkata Book Fair was the fair to go to. But with the maidan’s move, apart from other location and organizational issues, Kolkata has had to give up its title. Today, the WBF in Delhi is a mammoth affair and has gone beyond just a retail exhibition of sorts.

In fact, no book fair in India would really qualify to be a ‘trade fair’ like Frankfurt or London where trade and rights agreements are the norm. But like the Jaipur Literary Fest, we make up for what we lack in focus, or ‘order and method’ in large numbers.

The WBF is a giant carnival. The last edition had more than 800,000 visitors and organizers wonder if this year will reach the million, as the Pragati Maidan now has a direct metro connection and entry is free. Certainly, the exhibitors have increased to about 1,300 since last time. That, of course, is still less than a tenth of the total number of publishers in the country, as estimated by the various federations that put the count at well over 15,000.


This year, for the first time, the WBF’s data has shifted from the traditional late January to early February to an entire month later. This has caused some consternation as many publishers felt it was too late for library budgets and that many schools would have exams, and that could affect turnout a bit. The jury is known about this – the verdict will be pronounced on March 4 when everything is over.

So what are the stock market’s business stats? Here’s the trick – there aren’t any. Ironically, for an industry undergoing technological change at a pace like never before, and typical of an industry still coming to grips with management information, there is no reliable data available apart from estimates.

The National Book Trust (NBT) – the show organizers – blames the traditional mindset of publishers and the archaic idea of ​​”trade secrets” where exhibitors don’t release numbers. But even just by conservative extrapolation, assuming an average turnover of Rs 2.5 lakh per participant (by the way, the big ones above Rs 20 crore), one looks at a fair turnover of more than Rs 30 crore in cash sales, which is more than three times the business done by all the leading bookstores across India in any given week. Trade purchases, rights agreements, subscription sales, print contracts and other ‘collateral matters’ are added to this.

Trade rights

The WBF – indeed the industry – needs to take this to the next level with two special days for ‘trade and rights’. Years ago, the first two hours of the exchange each day were designated trading hours for librarians and traders to browse uninterrupted, a practice that has since been discontinued. But if the 9-day consumer exchange could be shortened to seven days, with two working days as working days, India might still be able to do its bit in its rights trade as local-to-international rights networks evolve.

India has a large contingent going to Frankfurt, but the bulk of these are English publishers-distributors, visiting clients or residual stock traders buying excess stock. The size of the Indian rights pavilion testifies to the fact that our share of the rights pie is negligible.

When was the last time you heard of an Indian work breaking out in translation through a rights purchase, such as Wolf-Totem was picked up from Chinese or The Devotion of Suspect-X from Japanese? Only if we build a rights module here within the WBF, we can gradually (yes, that will take years) work on exploiting the rights potential of Indian languages ​​in translation.

So what is the scholarship for? Does it still have any relevance with the wave of online bookstores? I believe it still has great relevance. Quite simply, it is, at its most basic, the only real direct interface that publishers have with their end readers. This is the only time you can put the range you want there and view readers as they browse.

For most publishers, the long, boring day of playing floor assistant and traffic cop all in one has its reward in watching that die-hard fan chase after that obscure book you thought would never sell. The ecstasy of finding that long-lost book, the agony of seeing something more expensive than your budget, the amazement of seeing a bargain or combo offer… it’s all there every day, hour after hour . For readers, this is the only time you can see, touch, browse lists and the full range like you can’t do anywhere else.

Online has its convenience, but in general you need to know which book you want, despite the cross-recommendations that the better sites have. This is where a reader can experience that joy of discovery – where he/she will see full series, obscure imprints, rare titles.

Then there are the bargains. Fair rules make it impossible to give big discounts, but bargain tables with ‘fair prices’ and combination offers abound. What we have over the nine days of the fair is essentially the world’s largest bookstore – over a million square feet of books to choose from – in every Indian language, many foreign and of course English.

(The author is General Manager, Hachette India)

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