The books don’t tally

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on September 12, 2014

Sanjoy Roy from Teamwork Productions, which organises this and 18 other festivals in 11 countries

Literally yours: Full house at the Jaipur Literature Festival

Only participation, no profits, in the booming business of literary festivals in India — over 60 at last count

Every January, the 200-year-old haveli of Diggi Thakurs in Rajasthan is transformed into the Mecca of literature. Authors, publishers, book lovers, journalists and gawkers gather at the Diggi Palace for what is now India’s most celebrated lit-fest — the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Cut to Kolkata. Just when India is gearing up to celebrate Republic Day, Kolkata Literary Meet (KaLaM) will kick off at the grand Victoria Memorial. Authors will hold forth during the day and the evenings will reverberate with music and dance. It is irrelevant that just a fortnight prior, the city played host to a similar event — the Kolkata Literary festival.

Miles away, the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) on the shores of the Arabian Sea is host to the Mumbai International Literary Festival every year. These are few of the over 60 lit- fests held in India annually. Their venues are magnificent and settings opulent. In theory, this should spell profits for the publishers and organisers. But the reality is that despite the vast number of attendees and the general acceptance of literature festivals, most of these accumulate losses. This raises a question mark on their survival.

The Jaipur fest, in its ninth year now, has never made profits. “Every year, we have to invest in the property more than before due to the exponential increase in the number of visitors,” says Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director at Teamwork Productions, which organises the Jaipur Literature Festival apart from 18 other annual festivals in 11 different countries.

Roy reasons that an increasing number of visitors (and hence costs) outstrip the increase in investments made every year. From an attendance of 7,000 in the first year, the fest saw nearly 2 lakh people in 2013. Neither Teamwork nor DSC, the real estate company that was the lead sponsor until last year, had realised that the numbers would increase so rapidly. DSC, therefore, had to make way this year for the Zee Group, which could bring in more funds than was envisaged when the festival was originally curated.

While entry for visitors is free, the Jaipur Lit-Fest charges a delegate fee of ₹2,500 per day and a discounted rate of ₹10,000 for five days. This doesn’t add up to much. Other festivals are even worse off. Their only sources of revenues are grants and sponsorships. “Sponsors don’t confirm till the last minute about giving funds. The government is not yet forthcoming to put money in fests. It is difficult to sustain for long without support,” says Atif Hanif, director, marketing, at the Lucknow Literary Festival, now in its second year.

Yet, Hanif doesn’t want to give up so soon. “Lucknow has a rich history and culture. And a lit-fest is the best platform to showcase it all. We created a concept last year. And this year, sponsors are showing a little more willingness to fund the event. We hope that with time, things will get better.”

Sponsors, on their part, remain choosy about putting money in lit-fests. Most of them feel the festival should resonate with the values of the company. Google is a major sponsor for both Jaipur and Kolkata festivals. “The Jaipur lit-fest is a platform for free expression — also the core values for Google. Thinkers exchange opinions freely. It gives us good visibility as a brand,” says Paroma Roy Chowdhury, director and country head, Public Affairs at Google India.

She says KaLaM is a similar effort in the east. “The fest gets an excellent line-up of speakers. The east is also a critical talent market for us. Being associated with such a fest will give the brand a fillip,” she adds.

As things stand, fests have two options to become profitable — increase sources of revenue or cut down costs. The first option is a tad difficult as sponsors are selective and Indians aren’t particularly fond of paying for cultural events even though they don’t mind spending on Bollywood movies or cricket matches. “We don’t see that culture in India yet. Literary meets are meant to reach out to people and so you don’t charge,” says Malavika Banerjee, director at Gameplan, a sports management company that also manages the Kolkata Literary Meet (KaLaM).

Interestingly, KaLaM, in its third year now, has been a profitable venture since its inception. While its only source of funding is sponsorships, Banerjee carefully chose the second option to remain profitable — keeping costs under check. “We invite smartly. We don’t have a flabby festival — only 45-50 sessions,” she says. Banerjee has also capped the number of visiting writers at 70. Besides, she has access to a lot of local writers, who don’t have to be brought in. This saves her the expense of travel and stay in expensive hotels.

In contrast, the Jaipur Literature Festival is a far more costly proposition. Roy points out that they buy 4,000 room nights in the city’s hotels for visitors and guests. “Around ₹1 crore to ₹1.5 crore is the cost for flying in over 300 authors, speakers and musicians from across the world. Some have to be flown business class and along with local travel, this is about a fifth of the total fest cost,” he says.

Money spent on infrastructure, venues, technical arrangements such as LED screens, lights, mikes, and recordings for live streaming for worldwide distribution cost another ₹3 crore.

Food for 1,500 visitors, 750 journalists, 250 volunteers, and 300 crews for five days is also a huge chunk of the cost. Along with miscellaneous expenses for website design, print and marketing, the Jaipur lit-fest cost about ₹8 crore this year.

“Where most lit-fests tend to start becoming economically unviable is when they start being less discerning, and thinking that more programming is good programming. A lit-fest should be qualitatively good rather than large,” Banerjee says, adding that “you can’t be the kumbh mela of literature, if you want to make money and cover costs.”

Since lit-fests are not corporate entities, there is no way to verify the truth behind their financials. Organisers prefer to keep profitability under wraps as love for literature rather than lucre makes for a good pitch. But for those who are serious about making money and declaring it to the world, Banerjee’s formula of not turning the fest into a kumbh mela should work.

Banerjee, so far, seems to have had a strong grip on finances. Unlike Jaipur, where four or five sessions run simultaneously, Banerjee is particular about having only one session at a time. That saves money on multiple locations at the venue and maintains the essence of sessions. Moreover, focused fests require smaller venues to accommodate about 500-600 people. “We also have a clear brief — to capture the readers’ perspective. So we try to bring in only writers who are read and a few interesting names who add to the programming,” she says.

At Jaipur lit-fest, while organisers don’t seem to be making money, there are plenty of others who are. Books worth ₹90,000 were sold in 2006 and the figure zoomed to ₹49 lakh in 2013. “I have a firm belief that the festival, in the long run, will not only break even but more than pay the costs,” says Roy. But then, Jaipur lit-fest has almost become an international event. Most other literary festivals in India will be better off trying to follow Banerjee’s formula of keeping costs under check.

Published on January 24, 2014

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