Bringing India and Singapore closer through books

RRamachandranCelebrating 50 years of cordial diplomatic relations in 2015, India invited Singapore, through the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS), to be the Guest of Honour for this year’s New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF), from 14 to 22 February 2015. In this exclusive interview with Kitaab’s editor-in-chief Zafar Anjum, Dr. R. Ramachandran, Executive Director of NBCDS, shares his experiences from the NDWBF.

Singapore was the Guest of Honour country at this year’s NewDelhi World Book Fair. Has this strengthened  cooperation between India and Singapore? 

R. Ramachandran: Our links with India has always been good professionally. What has not happened over the years is Indian public awareness of our authors and publishers.  The large number of authors and publishers and the 30 programmes organised at the Fair, schools and bookshops has broken the ice and Singapore, besides being a financial centre,  has  also become known now as a literary and publishing hub  among the Indian readers. This awareness would lead to more publishers being interested in our books as they would be saleable in the Indian market.

Besides, Indian reading public had been hitherto insular. They have been reading Indian tittles in English and in their local languages. As India is opening up, there is  an  interest in other parts of the world, particularly Asia. This became apparent when Indians bought reprinting rights to some of our fiction and non-fiction titles.

The other important factor is that the  Singapore Publishers’ and writers’ perception of the  quality and the range of Indian titles has greatly improved. They now know that Indian publications have reached international standards both in content and packaging and therefore would be of interest to Singaporean and ASEAN readers

Hence, I would think that the literary  and  publishers links would be strengthened as there would now be a business motivation behind the literary and publishing initiatives.

 What should be done next?

Immediately, this constant refrain that the Singapore market is small and publishers cannot succeed should stop. If SIA and the World Scientific had thought along similar lines they would not have succeeded as globally respected brands in their respective businesses.

Next, Singapore must continue to take part in the New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF). This would  help us to build on the network and good-will established.

The regional market and particularly the Indian market is challenging. Publishers and writers must think long term and should not go for immediate gains and profits. Authors and publishers must develop good relations with the Indian publishers, authors  and distributors and  sell at Indian prices. They should  go for large print runs and thereby develop their brand,  readership for their  titles and a fan base for their authors. Thus, when the middle class  in India expands further and the rupee appreciates they would have a  ready and profitable market to  promote their titles .

To penetrate and consolidate themselves in the Indian market, Singapore publishers must initially take  the following three steps:

First, they  must position themselves as agents to sell translation rights of our English books to Hindi – Hindi being spoken by 50 percent of the Indians and this amounts to about 500 million potential readers  of books in Hindi.

Second, they must sell reprinting rights of their popular English titles. As 10 percent of the Indians speak English, this would amount to at least 100 million who should be able to read English at different levels.

Thirdly, publishers should also   buy Indian books not only for Singapore but also for the ASEAN market. We must not make the mistake the Westerners have made – positioning themselves as sellers and showing little or no interest in buying Asian titles.

Can you tell us about the strength of the Singapore delegation that visited the NDWBF 2015?

There were about 55 participants. They were publishers, authors, storytellers, illustrators, booksellers, academics, librarians, teachers and arts administrators. The delegation represented the entire continuum of the book industry right from the creators, the writers to the distributors. The Indians were impressed by the numbers as well as the varying expertise of the members. With such a strong and diverse group we were able to organise different programmes not only at the Fair but also at schools, the National Museum as well as the bookstores in and around New Delhi.

How did you find NDWBF different from other book fairs from around the world?

The NDWBF is unique in that it appeals to the general public across the board – the consumers and the trade and publishers group. It had a variety of programmes catering for each of the groups .This all in one event – unlike other Fairs –  was in our favour.

It gave our delegation an opportunity to be exposed to  the reading habits of the public as well the offerings of the Indian publishers. For the  professionals, there were a variety of stimulating and informative programmes and for the publishers the CEO Conference and the Rights Table gave an opportunity to meet their counterparts and transact business.

The other feature that was not part of the Fair but was organised by the German Book Council as a pre – NDWBF event was the Globalocal Conference. The two day conference for publishers was a bonus for our participating publishers as they had an opportunity to meet and confer with not only Indian publishers from all over India but also from other parts of Asia and the West

One striking feature that was missing at this Fair is the prevalence of electronic publishing. This is perhaps due to the fact that e-book penetration of the Indian market has only been less than 17 percent. The printed book is still the dominant media in India.

What was outstanding about this fair? And what could be the areas of improvement?

The variety and number of people it attracted right from children to senior citizens, the ordinary reader to a sophisticated scholar stood out.  It was a happy event with lots of buzz and activity where the power of imagination   and the joy of dwelling in it through books and reading was evident. A carnival atmosphere prevailed and the book and all it stood for was celebrated.

One thing that could be improved is the Fair grounds itself. There is a great need for upgrading and modernising the existing facilities at Pragati Maidan that appeared jaded, cluttered and inadequate to cope with the huge patronage and support the Fair received.

The other point that was a little awkward was that the Fair highlighted two countries  –   one as the Guest Country of Honour and the other as the Focus country. This is unlike the practice in other Fairs where only one country is the key country of focus and that is the Guest Country of Honour. This diverted to some extent the attention and spotlight from the Guest Country of Honour.

I was glad to learn from NBT officials that they would only focus on one country from next year onwards and that would be the Guest Country of Honour.

What were the highlights of this fair in your opinion?

The CEO Speak, The Rights Table, the multiplicity and a mixture of programmes for all age groups – ranging from serious discussions, cultural and literary performances to mere book launches and meet the author sessions were both unique and different.