I have an annual ritual of plonking myself among the cartons for a manual count of the stock of our Pickle Yolk titles every March 31. We are small enough yet to handle it without much ado. This year, the 31st has rolled into the 15th of the next month and the storeroom remains unopened. The world is beset with grave concerns and mine is a simple enough problem that can wait.
Business for one and all in the publishing industry has come to an eerie, aching standstill and no one is willing to hazard a guess on the when or how of the revival. I reach out to my colleagues in children’s publishing to see how they are faring. Independent publishers all, our email conversations end up being predictable enough. We are all struggling with the uncertainties to a common external problem, the extent varying with our size and scale of operation.
At the core, the lockdown has hit the publishers where it hurts the most — by cutting off all online and offline sale, distribution and revenue options. “The immediate impact has been on collections,” says Pranav Singh, publisher, Ponytale Books. “March-May of every year is when most independents are able to get the bulk of their payments. As a result, our biggest worry is to be able to pay royalties to our authors on time.”
Besides, publishers have had to cancel book events and put on hold all planned new releases at a time that is typically the busiest and the most lucrative for children’s books. “One of the key seasons for us is the summer holidays,” says Singh. “This will be impacted severely going forward.”
Tulika Books cancelled the launch of Zakir and his Tabla by Sandhya Rao and Priya Kuriyan. “(It) was scheduled for before the lockdown,” says Radhika Menon, publisher, Tulika Books. “We were doing it at our bookstore and as it looked like it was going to be a packed event, we thought it best to cancel it. (Social distancing) hadn’t yet become mandatory, but reading about how the virus was spreading was warning enough,” she adds.
There is a collective disquiet among the independent publishers that is compelling us to look for answers to the most fundamental question of lasting out this waiting period. “For independents, the loss of momentum will mean that we have to literally start afresh and I see that happening only from October this year. The key is to survive till then,” says Singh.
For publishers of printed children’s books, the interim survival is taking on creative forms online. With several of them initiating author readings and open interactions with their creators, it’s a veritable online litfest feast of sorts. Karadi Tales, for instance, has had a handsome line-up of authors, storytellers and artists as part of their ‘Katha with Karadi’ Facebook Live sessions. Karadi’s other commendable feat has been creating Farmer Falgu Stays at Home, a free e-title and an audiobook in their hugely-loved Farmer Falgu series by Chitra Sounder and Kanika Nair, especially for the lockdown period, in a matter of less than a week. Katha India’s latest e-release The Mystery of the Missing Soap by Geeta Dharmarajan, again a free resource, is another timely read on the uncertainties around the pandemic.
I am especially excited to hear about Tulika Books’ ever-popular Thumb Thumb series of 10 books going online one by one, complete with engaging activities. Pratham Books is planning to revive their ‘Missed Call Do Kahaani Suno’, too, where children get to listen to their favourite stories in the language of their choice over an IVR. The Book Lovers’ Program for Schools (BLPS), sister concern of the Bengaluru-based independent publisher Ms. Moochie, is running online sessions every day for the children they normally serve via schools, alongside holding teacher sessions.
By every indication, the publishing world will take a long time to recover from the impact of not just the lockdown but the overall COVID-19-led slowdown. And printed books will face most of its brunt. “We have to think of alternative strategies. We are thinking of digital books but how well they do and what the loopholes are remains to be seen,” says Menon. Could a fresh start take on more open, equitable forms of how content is accessed by readers? “We can hope that it will move, as scientists are starting to, to a DRM-free model and a rejigging of the idea of ownership of material; but does that fit capitalism’s tightening noose?” asks Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan.
Perhaps, something like Pratham Books’ open licensing of the content through their online StoryWeaver platform is a possible model for more publishers to follow, though it does come with its own practical questions of the funding. With its free, open access to 19,000 storybooks in 230 languages, StoryWeaver saw an increase of 143 per cent in the readership last month alone. It’s easy to see how these books are filling in for the sudden gap in access to physical books.
Intensive critical rethinking is also essential for children’s publishing to question the horrors of social inequalities in our country that gets thrown up with a mind-numbing frequency with each new crisis. “We have already seen how the impact of unplanned, negligent policy decisions falls disproportionally on women and marginalised groups, and the last few weeks have been a horrific and extreme illustration of this,” said Butalia. “Our work will always be interlaced with the context of this region, and so our publishing and ethics must engage with the fraught conversations about the structural inequalities that have been criminally ignored in the response to this pandemic,” she adds.
This should be true for all of us. Our post-recovery world cannot look like the one it is isolating itself from. The near future will most certainly not be anything like the past and I see that as an opportunity. The crisis has shown the world its unpreparedness for and its indifference to unresolved aspects of inequality, human migration, globalisation, authoritarianism, wild animal trade, racism and more. I hope we do see a paradigm shift in drawing up our publishing plan for children’s titles by addressing these; we owe this to our young readers.
More than ever before, our children are socially aware and environmentally conscious. More than ever before, they are the ones asking us tough questions. And so, more than ever before, we need to give them books they can relate to and engage with. This, therefore, is where we in the children’s book industry must make the penny drop.
(Richa Jha is an author and the founder and publisher of Pickle Yolk Books)