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Malayalam Publishing during the Pandemic―A. V. Sreekumar

Report / Asian Literature Project "YOMU" (India)

Malayalam was the colloquial language of the common people in Travancore, Kochi and Malabar, even before the unification of Kerala as an official state in 1956. When the formation of the states based on language was implemented in India, the state of culturally united Malayalees came into existence in the name, Kerala. So it means that even before the shaping of the state, the identity of the Malayalee people existed through the spread of print media including newspapers, periodicals and books. In other words, printing and books played a substantial role in the identity formation of the Malayalees.

In 1945, two years before India's independence, All Travancore Library Association headed by P. N. Panicker started efforts to create new libraries and later it was expanded to Kochi and Malabar, giving a new escalation to book publishing and the spread of books. With the formation of Kerala state, the Library Association was remodeled into Kerala State Library Council. In promoting reading culture and high literacy in the state, a momentous role was played by Kerala State Library Council and books. In reverence of this, Kerala State Library Council received the UNESCO Krupskaya literacy prize in 1975. At present, there are 8,000 affiliated libraries and several private libraries in Kerala. In addition to this, academic libraries are also active in Kerala in over 1,000 educational institutions of higher academics, and more than 15,000 school libraries.

The reading culture that has developed through all these, is playing a fundamental role in the intellectual and cultural upliftment of the Malayalees. The credit of Kerala's better position in socialization, worldview and standard of living compared to other states is all because of this reading culture. In the early years of the formation of Kerala as a state, close to 50 % of the budget was spent on education, and there were funds to nurture local libraries. Even today a special library fund cess is levied along with property tax by local self government organizations to support local libraries and reading rooms.

Book publishing ventures around hundred are currently active in Kerala. More than 3,000 new books are published in Kerala every year. About three times as many books are republished each year. A new title is printed between 1,000-3,000 copies on average; and best selling authors from 5,000-10,000 copies. These books reach readers through hundreds of bookshops, online stores and through libraries including school & college libraries/universities across Kerala.

As Kerala has become a consumer society with more purchasing power than ever before, Malayalees have developed the habit of buying books rather than depending on libraries.

There are many innovations in the field of book publishing in Kerala. DC Kizhakemuri, freedom fighter, writer, publisher and co-founder of Sahitya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society—society formed by the writers for the writers, & the founder of DC Books has revolutionized the market with many innovative schemes.

One of them is the pre publication project. In this scheme, voluminous books averaging from 3,000-5,000 pages in multiple volumes are advertised before its publication and provides an opportunity to individual buyers to book them in advance for those in need. This attracts more readers as the books are available at 35%-40% less than the suggested retail price of the book. On an average Kerala produces at least 5-6 such voluminous books and retail customers make it a habit to procure such high priced books to add to their collection. Anywhere between 5,000-30,000 copies of such books sell, well in advance of its publication.

Paper back revolution in India was started by Mr. Kizhakemuri in 1950's by printing 10,000 copies of fiction at a cost of Rs. 1/book.

Book clubs, Book Bazaars, literacy drive, making the central government to abolish VAT/tax for books were some of the other major path breaking things by him which revolutionized the publishing in India.

Book fairs are another attribute of the book industry in Kerala. More than 100 book fairs take place every year in various parts of the tiny little state of Kerala. These book fairs have tens of thousands titles displayed & sold. The book fairs, which last from five to fifteen days, are attended by hundreds of thousands of readers. Apart from this, the Kerala State Library Council has been organizing separate book fairs in each district of Kerala for the last few years to display books by all the publishers in Malayalam for libraries to source & procure books. It should also be noted that Government of Kerala takes initiative to conduct similar book fairs once a year for schools in central locations.

Literature festivals are another feature related to reading segment of Kerala. Since the launch of the first International Literature Festival in Kerala—Kerala Literature Festival in 2016 under the auspices of the DC Kizhakemuri Foundation, more than three Literary Festivals have been held annually by various organizations. These festivals are attended by hundreds of thousands of people who are interested in literature, art and science. Books play a pivotal role in these festivals.

It is noteworthy that despite the proliferation of mobile phones and the unification of the world by Information Technology through the World Wide Web at the nascence of the 21st century, books have not lost their place in the enhancement of experience and knowledge of the Malayalee's even in the time of recent pandemic ! Although the readership of newspapers and periodicals declined sharply, it did not affect the books but readership has increased. The works of illustrious writers like Basheer, O. V. Vijayan, Madhavikutty, Padmarajan, M. T. Vasudevan Nair have constantly attracted young new readers. Though these young readers rely more on Information Technology and modern media for news, knowledge and data than the print media, they use books to expand their world of serious experience and wisdom; at times in digital format. But printed books even in these times of Covid-19 attracted more readers than other formats for reading.

What evolved in the last decennium continues to flourish in the age of post-truth, post human, transcendence reality, artificial intelligence and digitalization. Books have also expanded to digital forms, e-books and audio books have become more widespread. Still, the prominence of the print book seems to be reigning the world of readers. Readers still rely heavily on print books for in-depth assimilation of knowledge, information and experience. Large volume books published through pre-publication projects are still well received.

While in many parts of the world during the Covid-19 pandemic when self help became the top among best selling titles, Kerala continued to read more fiction and best selling authors became more popular and more copies of their latest works sold compared to non-Covid period. The genre 'novel' itself evolved various subdivisions from crime fiction and upmarket fiction into again sub division of those; and have become more popular in the recent past. In recent times without mentioning the name Upmarket Fiction, novels that are literary and crowd pleasing have been published extensively in Malayalam. Similarly, during the last 18 months or more, lot of readers in Malayalam vouched for crime fiction that give literary equivalence to the characters and the plot relying on modern science and technology instead of giving importance to the plots in old investigative novels and expressing it in a popular form.

Some of the best selling literary fictions sold 12,000 copies in three months or 30,000 copies in six months and 12,000 copies, and the crime upmarket fiction novels sold 15,000 to 20,000 copies in two or three months evidenced this fact. While novel is gaining pre-eminence in the book world, the books in the categories of autobiography, experience and memoir are widely read. Likewise, books on history and politics as well as spirituality and motivational are gaining traction and reading.

As the pandemic closed around the world, it hit markets in all sectors. Although the closure affected bookstores, it is worth noting that books have been able to sell well on the online market. The online market for books has grown by 400% to 500%. In the same way, the cessation period was also a period of increased reading. It is significant to note that the main feature of this period was that people who had a habit of reading in the past, who had given up the habit due to various hectic lives have returned to book reading. In Kerala during 2020 with the lockdown still in place, bookstores across Kerala were allowed to open. This decision to treat books as an integral part of life during the lockdown shows the importance of reading in the daily life of Malayalees. It not only just saved the book industry and the livelihoods of writers in the state but also revived a new trend of reading in Kerala. Many innovative ideas were applied at this time including delivering the books through Zomato—a food delivery app to readers while the pandemic related lock down was happening.

While we are sure to see a major shift in reading and buying habits, one thing is for certain: the book will remain a necessity and the pandemic proved that the publishers will deliver it in affordable and easily accessible formats for their readers.

It is also noteworthy that the book market is now better than ever before as the market is recovering. Another feature of this sector is that in contrast to the fact that libraries used to buy more books, the purchasing power of individuals is increasing notably and they are buying more books and private family libraries are mounting.

All this indicates that books will not lose their position in the future of the advancing digital world that will change all spheres of life. In different advanced and innovated forms, reading will definitely continue as an integral part human life.

Using social media collateral against print promotions -in post Covid era brick & mortar stores promoted printed books, e-books and audio books and a convergence is happening in the market. Audio books gained popularity during the pandemic and gained substantial growth during pandemic. The biggest gains from the popularity of the audio book is, it is helping print books to sell more. E-Books has gained traction; and at the peak of Covid-19 readers switched to e-books for a short while as the safest mechanism. DC Books—the leading publishers in Malayalam acquired almost 75,000 customers in one day during the beginning of the lock down. This was because offered free e-books on a particular day for readers to down load. Online sales showed phenomenal growth during pandemic and almost all the publishers in Malayalam used their own online store or major online stores to sell their titles.

A. V. Sreekumar
Editorial head of DC Books. He was born in 1965 in Thrissur district in Kerala. He completed his schooling at Saint Anthony's High School in Thrissur. Following which he completed his studies from Christ College Irinjalakuda, Sree Kerala Varma College Thrissur, University of Calicut and University of Delhi. He holds a Master's Degree; and M Phil Degree in Malayalam Literature.

He has presented M Phil thesis on "Praxis of Marxian Aesthetics in Malayalam literary criticism". His PhD thesis titled "Mutation in Malayalam Poetry after 1960s" from the University of Delhi remains incomplete.