One for the book

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on May 08, 2020

Tough questions: Should we be talking about books when people are starving?   -  ISTOCK.COM

A publisher yearns for the return and prosperity of the printed word in a post-lockdown world

*Should we be talking about books when people are starving? Are books essentials in our lives?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been in constant touch with friends in Italy who provide almost daily updates on the state of the Covid-19 pandemic there. A couple of days ago, one of them rang up for a phone chat and I could hear the relief in his voice.

“At last,” he said, “the curve seems to be flattening. Now we’ll have to tackle the difficult business of whether or not to lift the lockdown.”

In his area, in northern Italy, close to the Lombardy region, the situation had been particularly bad. His town, though, was in a better shape: The lockdown was complete, but supermarkets stocking food were open for business, and people had to carry all kinds of self-certifications and produce receipts for their purchases. Now the government has allowed some shops to function.

As he told me this, he suddenly became very agitated, almost incensed. “And do you know,” he said, “what these stupid intellectuals have done? They have demanded that bookshops open along with other essential services. How can they do that? How is buying a book an essential service? What if I want to buy a pair of shoes?”

As a publisher whose life is about books, I was taken aback by this remark. I posed his question to myself and found no easy answer.

What is really more important? Buying a pair of shoes or buying a book? Are books essential in our lives?

I did not argue with my friend, but I knew that in my heart, I held a different view of books.

To a publisher — especially, a small, independent publisher like me — the Covid-19 lockdown is like the death knell. No moment, therefore, could be too early for the return of books and their buyers.

I jokingly say (and actually it is the truth) that as small publishers, we lurch from crisis to crisis in our lives.

But this crisis is different, for it’s not just we who are on tenterhooks, but the ecosystem, community, channels of distribution et al. Printing presses are shut so we can’t print books. Distributors’ warehouses are closed, so are bookshops — the books can’t move. Even if they could, there is no transport. Some bookstores have now opened, but we can’t rid ourselves of the question: Should we be talking about books when people are starving? Do people really need books?

There’s no easy answer to this question. Food for the body is important, but so is food for the mind. Despite the advances in digital technology, the printed book is still very often the first go-to option for those who want to learn, or be entertained, or be in the presence of great minds and stories.

As a community, publishers themselves are divided about this. Books are our livelihood. But that’s not the only reason we want them to survive. Many of us in the profession do not see profit as the only horizon, or even as just a horizon.

So the question isn’t simple — we can’t switch to something else just because publishing is no longer a profit-making enterprise. Many of us passionately believe in the books we create and are committed to putting that knowledge out there in the world.

Our own work as feminist publishers, for example, is deeply political. We tread that fine line between operating like a business and thinking like activists.

Our presence in the world of publishing is for the purpose of putting feminist knowledge at the centre-stage, amplifying feminist and women’s voices and publishing not for money (although it helps!) but for society.

This may sound lofty, but it is true of most small and independent publishers whose starting point is not profit, but a political commitment. Where will the ongoing crisis lead us?

Once again there isn’t an easy answer to this question. So amongst us, there is concern and confusion, but as always, there is also a lurking sense of the possible, a sliver of excitement. Many of us, for example, have turned to the digital space for things we were not able to do: Cross borders (you don’t need visas on the Net), bring in authors and speakers from other countries, source visual material and find ways to showcase it on the Net, hold discussions and workshops.

None of this will make us money — for that we have to wait till we’re able to print books again. The books won’t make us money either, but at least they will find their way into markets. Perhaps they’ll give us enough to break even and continue publishing.

Meanwhile, the digital presence, however limited, will allow us to remain in touch with our community, with readers, to help us come up with new ideas for books, to locate new authors, and, maybe, even have discussions about new ways of doing what we set out to do all those years ago: Amplifying the voices of women, particularly those from the margins, in our country and beyond.

Urvashi Butalia   -  BUSINESS LINE


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan


Published on May 08, 2020

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