Guwahati: In August this year, a small news story featured in some Assamese daily, but barely made it to even the front page of the locals. Tapan Patgiri, a 45-year-old printing press owner, was found hanging at his business establishment in Guwahati on a Sunday. A resident of Noonmati area, Patgiri is suspected to have committed suicide due to a severe financial crisis, as his business did not pick up after the Covid-induced lockdown.

Patgiri may have taken the extreme step in distress, but it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the mood on Pan Bazar, considered the intellectual hub of the city, is not bright either. 

Home to a variety of booksellers and many vernacular publishing houses, the pandemic has spread far and wide affecting all the creative and cultural sectors. It has also left indelible marks on the publishing sector, leaving the entire business gasping for breath.

The Pandemic Impact

Forced to down their shutters for a prolonged period due to the lockdown, the entire industry came to a halt last year. Moreover, the online stores too were delivering only essentials. This affected their sales and revenue, the frequency of publishing new titles, the logistics of production, and the entire trajectory of distribution and working of the retail chain. The bookselling business continues to suffer as a result of the fact that, despite stores being open now, books are not regarded as essential commodities.

Pradyumna Bhagawati of Unique Books Retail, which deals with both academic texts and other leisure reads in English, says, “The current sales are less than 10% of what they were before the pandemic. Add the closure of schools, colleges and universities into the equation, the demand for academic books decreased and also the general books are also not as popular as before”.

Publishing and bookselling are dependent on communication. The existing restrictions on movement have thus created severe roadblocks in their operations. “We source books from publishers in Delhi and distributors in Kolkata. The communication and transportation issues have impacted our workflow and delivery mechanisms in the last 3 months,” he adds.

Along with other languages, publishing in local languages has been impacted by the pandemic as well.

According to Amrit Kumar Upadhyay, proprietor of Purbayon Publication, “The lockdown and the different restrictions have jeopardised our communication process. The priorities of people and their whole approach towards life and work have changed to a point where book reading is less prioritised today. Therefore, people are spending less on intellectual pursuits now.”

He continues, “We were publishing before the pandemic but now with various retrains and constraints in place, we are putting much thought before going ahead with a new project. Many of our works are also pending at various stages.”

Ranjan Sarma of Bandhav is of the same view. “The current scenario is wrought with grief and misery. People buy books when they are in a good mood and the desire to read strikes, or when they see a good book in a stall. When their survival itself is a question, life is more essential, not books,” he says.

“The buyers have decreased today as everyone is confined indoors and also we no longer have the support of book fairs,” he adds.

The other challenges of publishers, according to Purbayon owner Upadhyay, include paying the rent, staff salaries and other lags in distribution and retail.

Speaking about the employees, he adds, “There have been no layoffs from my staff. They are all co-workers and friends. I’m making sure they’re able to keep going and being aware of the situation, they’re also helping me out in every way they can”.

Challenges of Regional Language Publishing

The decline in book sales by local publishers in local languages can be attributed to several different factors that existed long before the pandemic came into the picture.

“Some obstacles for the regional publishing sector have existed even before the pandemic, and now Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation. The impact is far greater than what we had expected since we had estimated the end of the pandemic last year itself, but the brutal second wave this year has changed everything”, Upadhyay adds.

The Assamese publishing sector has faced numerous problems in recent years, beginning with the advent of the internet and social media. Furthermore, in a globalised village, Assamese literature is less popular due to a decline in readership, lack of online accessibility, outdated marketing tactics, and a failure to keep up with the conventions of the new world.

In addition, the local industry is a print book market and operating offline from brick-and-mortar stores. As a result, unlike publishers in other parts of India, it lacked a built-in audience and an immediate plan for a rapid shift to online models. The publishers are still perfecting and strengthening their infrastructural arrangements to adapt to the changing circumstances.

The Way Forward

Established in 2017, Purbayon Publication is already ahead of many others in the business, “We offer books on Amazon and Flipkart, and we also have our website where customers can make purchases while also attempting to assist individuals who contact us via social media,” says Upadhyay.

He also elaborates on other efforts to give regional language publishing a new edge, “We’ve already launched the Kindle versions of two of our books and hope to expand the service to other titles in our library. We’re also looking into audiobooks and translating Assamese books into English, but the current scenario has created several roadblocks in our processes.”

Sarma of Bhandav says, “We’ve started taking direct orders, eliminating the previous gaps and lags, and we distribute books to any location based on the order. However, we have not yet partnered with Amazon because they charge a high commercial benefit and their business model is incompatible with a small publication like ours.”

“But instead, we have partnered with some local e-commerce and delivery platforms like Scientia Books,” he adds.

Impact of Online Education

On any given day, students and other knowledge seekers would throng the streets of Pan Bazaar in quest of the best books for their course curriculum or usual reading affair. With priorities of people now changed and classes continuing in online mode, the streets are witnesses to a drastic decrease in the crowd today.

Pradeep Kalita, whose livelihood is based on a small roadside bookstall near College Studio & Colour Lab in Pan Bazaar, says, “With schools and colleges closed and exams cancelled most of my books are lying unsold. Also, people who walk by my stand on their way to work used to see a book on display and buy it from me. But now that fewer people are passing by, sales have decreased.”

Shanti Prakashan, which specialises in a wide range of academic textbooks in both English and Assamese, says, “The closure of academic institutions has led to disruptions in our sales figures. We’ve had to trim our list and publish only eight new titles this time.” 

Also read: COVID-19 review: Health minister Mansukh Mandaviya to visit Assam on Aug 17

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