Good books are those that sell. This fact that one of my fellow classmates highlighted was ‘liked’ by Manas Saikia at once and that became the take-off point of our interesting journey for the day with the Managing Director of Cambridge University Press Pvt. Ltd. His take on addressing an odd group of students was quite different from the others we have come across. He acknowledged that he has no idea of what we know and so he decided to begin from the origin of printing press itself.
His presentation, complete with a slide show, was filled with tiny yet power-packed facts about the publishing world that gave us a number of occasions to go ‘Ah!’, ‘What?’, ‘Seriously?’, ‘No way!’ all throughout. Taking the reader through a tour of the whole day is something I don’t want to do for the simple reason that if you were not there, you missed it forever and a 900-something-word article cannot enlighten you enough. What I will do is rather talk on a topic that he discussed with us extensively at a very informal yet informative level.
Book piracy is something that intrigues everyone these days. But no one has yet come up with an appropriate solution. This applies especially to countries like India, Bangladesh and other developing nations where the large middle-class population includes ardent readers who refuse to part with a large sum of money for ‘buying’ books for reading. Manas traced the Indian habit of ‘borrowing’ books in any form for reading to the Vedic ages. It was a part of the core Indian tradition to pass on knowledge verbally, a process based mainly on mutual trust, admiration and sharing attitude. It is this passion to share that refuses to let go of the Indians and mutates over ages to take the form of piracy at large—be it books or audio-visual materials.
During the course of the fairly open discussion that we had with Manas, the point that repeatedly came up was the dearth of reading materials in the market for the student community. According to most of us, this is what instigates students to go for photocopying, somewhat illegally, even the whole of the books for reference. It’s not that we are not willing to buy the books but the market fails to provide us with enough of these for buying. Copies of important academic texts are hardly seen even at the most reputed libraries of the country. The publishers somehow lose contact with the academic community at large and hence the whole problem. Manas acknowledged this and mentioned that it is only recently that INFLIBNET or the Information and Library Network Centres have come up to help universities join together to improve library facilities and information resources.
Is the absence of legal constraints the root of all disasters? Is it because the laws of the country have many holes that book piracy is causing such a huge loss to publishers? Or is it because the critical texts in many subjects are priced so high that students/ research scholars find it easier to bypass the law than abide by it, at least in this part of the country? Questions are many, but answers are few. And the problem does not remain limited to academic books—it spreads out to fictions, non-fictions, books of general interest, etc. Someone visiting The Seagull School of Publishing had aptly pointed out that Indians are ready to have a single serving of alcohol for 450 bucks, but when it comes to a book, that is an absurdly high price to pay. What should the course of action then be?
Manas came up with an idea that he and his fellow colleagues in the industry have been nurturing for some time now. It involves going up to universities and asking them to ‘tax’ photocopiers in and around the campus for every page copied. A part of this would go towards the publishers in collective. But does that necessarily curb photocopying or book piracy? It makes things a little more expensive but does not solve the inherent problems. This seems justifiable to some extent from the viewpoint of a publisher who is losing out on the revenue portion but in the long run will this address piracy?
During the second half of the day, all of us, including Manas Saikia, chose to deter piracy from eating up our valuable time. Instead, he chose, very kindly, to talk about the job profiles of editors at different levels in the publishing world, the employer’s habit of spoiling employees, publishing houses as task masters and of course, about salaries. For those of us who are willing to find a place for ourselves in the world of books as editors and designers, these small but critical pieces of information were among the prettiest rewards of the day.
The day was indeed fruitful and we got the perspective of neither a publisher, nor an editor but someone who knows the art or business of books just as well if not more. Manas Saikia’s concern about the book industry has built up over time with experience as a book distributor, sales person, commissioning agent, book officer and as the joint owner of one of the largest publishing house in India. With such exposure in that field, he cleared our misconceptions and addressed our concerns regarding the idea of books as part of trade, as things that need to be sold and not just loved. I genuinely hope that following his guidelines we can sell books that we consider good and come up with sustaining innovations in the age of the electronic media.