This Fortnight in Publishing (13 June 2017)

The core question still remains: why? “There’s a contradiction at the centre of things,” they tell me, “and so it is with Tunglið”. They both love and hate that books “strive for permanence”, and how we attempt to “reconcile ourselves with impermanence by making permanent things”. Writing a book is, for some writers, a deluded attempt at immortality. Tunglið saves its authors from this delusion.

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Hello and welcome to This Fortnight in Publishing.

I begin with the slightly bizarre since that seems to be the mood of the times. There is a small publishing house in Iceland, which prints its books in batches of 69 on a full moon night. Books that are not immediately sold are burned, and first-grade French cognac is used to fuel the flames. The publishers believe that publishing is filled with undue worrying and self-promotion – all of it quite degrading when you think about it – and this is a kind of liberation. In another part of the world, there is a woman with a mission. She fills out lengthy paperwork to convince some of most reputed libraries in the world to make a small addition to their collections – to add an extra page on evolution to the Gutenberg Bible. She has succeeded in adding the addendum to 39 of the 48 extant Bibles. 

Now we have that out of the way, onward to matters closer at hand. Since last summer, the issue of ISBN allocation has been slowly spiraling out of control. Things began optimistically enough when in April last year, Smriti Irani's Ministry of Human Resource Development announced that a new online application portal for ISBNs (the unique identification code for each book) has been launched and that publishers will be able to get their ISBNs in seven days. Applying for ISBNs has always been a tricky matter, and publishers reacted to the news with cautious excitement. However, instead of speeding up the process, the online portal only seems to have made things worse over the last year. ISBN allocations now take three to four months according to publishers, and emails, phone calls, and official complaints are never answered. A greater concern is that the new process requires publishers to submit information about the book (book jacket, blurb, author bio) which may lead to increased government censorship. It appears that publishers have taken a step forward and have started sending complaints to the International ISBN Agency directly, and the agency has reportedly send a letter to the MHRD saying that it is "seriously considering revoking the appointment of [the MHRD] and awarding ISBN agency of India to another organisation.” Though this letter was sent on 29 March, I could not trace any official response. According to one publishing professional, while they have been relying on their current stock of ISBNs to tide them through for now, things are going to get difficult as time goes on.

Those who are inclined to be optimistic and are looking for some good news will be happy to hear that the Indian publishing industry is doing quite well compared to its counterparts in the US and UK, largely driven by its educational sector. However, it being such a large pot, I suppose it is very hard for the government to resist the temptation to stir it. Following complaints about the quality and price of textbooks published by private players, the Central Board of School Education (CBSE) is pushing for all CBSE schools to use only National Council for Education and Research (NCERT) books. This is not new for the CBSE; prior to the April 2017 circular, there were similar circulars in April 2016 and July 2015. However, the language of the circulars seem to be getting more contrite. While earlier it was a gentle request to stop foisting unnecessary textbooks on children, the current circular says "All the schools affiliated to CBSE are required to follow directions given in Circular No. Acad/13/2016 dated 12.04.2016 regarding use of NCERT /CBSE textbooks but often the Board receives reports and complaints regarding the pressure exercised by schools on children and their parents to buy textbooks other than NCERT/CBSE." The use of the word "required" has caused some ambiguity, with schools unsure about whether they are mandated to use NCERT books. Counter-accusations have in turn been made, with publishers pointing out that the NCERT would be unable to handle the increased volume of printing and distribution and that the material is hopelessly out of date. NCERT has responded by saying that it will undertake a review of its textbooks. 

To clarify the issue once and for all, Maharashtra English School Trustees Association (MESTA) took the issue to court. The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court ruled that the textbooks published by private players can be used as additional reference sources, but NCERT books are mandatory in schools.  In another surprising turn of events, the MHRD has stepped in and has pointed out that several complaints have been made about the textbooks that the CBSE itself publishes, and hence, they should be discontinued from the next academic year. 

We don't have any clear numbers on how big the CBSE textbook market in specific is, though numbers have been tossed around that over a 1,000 publishers operate in the segment. Only next year's financial results will show what effect this decision will have on the education market.

That about wraps it up for this edition; have a good week everyone. 

As always, write to me at chitra@thecleancopy.com.

Chitralekha Manohar