By Bhupendra Khadka
Taranidhi Regmi, 37, of Morang, lives in Kathmandu and runs Sunbarshi bookstore in Dhapasi and delivers literary books to about 90 bookstores across the country within two or three days of its publication. When Covid-19 started to linger a month ago, he posted a photo of himself milking a cow in his home on his Facebook page. During this time, he was asking publishers which books were to be popularised for the new season, and was promoting some of the books published earlier. He was also expecting to open the market that had been sluggish since last year. However, that did not happen. The world was shaken by the pandemic of COVID 19.
Printed books by authors from around the world did not reach the market and the books that were about to be published got stuck in the printing presses. Thousands of literature festivals as well as book-tours were put on hold. As Nepal went into lockdown, all sectors and industries were locked down too. Citizens were seen returning home from east to west and from west to east, dreading an uncertain future.
How would the world economy fare? How would the developed countries revive their collapsed economies? When would the land ports and airports open? At the same time, there was the speculation that the pandemic may push about 40 percent of the world’s population into starvation.
You may think that this is not the time to talk about books but rather to talk about lentils, rice, vegetable or to talk about how to earn a living! But, it is essential that we should talk about the mind too.
What will people do inside their house during the lockdown? It is natural that people will spend time with their family members.
I also watched movies and read books. The pace of reading seemed to be such that after going through the books that had been lying at home for so many years, many people repeated them; e-books on various sites and on social media gained popularity. This time, it has been proven that books are really an integral part of human lifestyle. It is almost impossible to imagine a home, a school, a society and a person without books in today’s world.
Nepal’s book market is badly hit by the pandemic. Literary books account for only 10 percent of the NPR 4.5 billion book trade which also includes textbooks. It accounts for 75 percent of textbooks and stationery and 15 percent of imported and research related books.
Nepal’s literary book market is small with a total investment of around US $2.6 million. Nevertheless, the publishers who have invested in it are not in a position to even pay the rent due to the slowdown and near closure of economic activities during the pandemic. Likhat Pandey, President of the Nepal National Book Dealers and Publishers Association, says, “If the lockdown continues for long, most bookstores will close for not being able to pay the rent.”
As Pandey said, book publishers are also in trouble at the moment. Books printed are stuck in the warehouses and the ones ready for printing are on computer files. It is becoming difficult to get money from the sellers due to adverse conditions. In such a situation, new books cannot be published. It is very difficult to run a publishing house. Many publishers are saying that they will choose an alternative trade if the book market does not open for about six months.
Many may think that it is foolish to talk about books in the absence of a secure livelihood. But books are necessary to keep society moving, to entertain and to raise education levels. Books, as I pointed out earlier, have proven to be an indispensable asset through the pandemic.
The Ministry of Finance in Nepal has also transferred the budget allocated for the purchase of intellectual property to the Corona Fund during the lockdown. This clearly will impact the purchase of literary books by government schools. It is increasingly unclear if the NPR 6 billion in the President’s Education Fund will now be spent on buying and selling computers, school furniture and books.
The market for Nepali books, which has been on the decline since last year, was also hit by the government’s customs duty on imported books. The only alternative seems to be e-books.
Rakuten Kobo, a Canadian multinational company, did well in the global market for e-books and audio-books during the pandemic. Similarly, Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and others also made a profit in the book trade during this time. At a time when the sale of printed books is difficult and the world is advancing in digital technology, it is necessary to find a market for it in Nepal too. I wonder if any company in Nepal will be able to do business as these multinational companies are doing.
A few companies in Nepal have been trying to test its feasibility and some books are being digitized. Publishers in Nepal are, thus, optimistic about the sale of books from such digital platforms. If such efforts find fruition, the few technology-loving and technology-friendly readers will benefit. However, about 90 per cent of Nepal’s readers depend on printed books as ebooks are not popular with them.
According to the Wall Street Journal, best-selling books sell at least 3,000 to 5,000 copies. The Publishers’ Weekly states that books which sell 1,100 copies a day for about a month after its publication can be categorised as one of the top five best-selling books. Whatever the international rules, good books usually sell 3,000 to 6,000 copies in all in Nepal.
Publishers overwhelmed by the current situation brought on by the pandemic and the lockdown would not dare to publish books by any random authors. Also, the numbers of writers who write poorly but publish books by investing on their own will be reduced due to financial constraints.
Only high quality books in fiction and non-fiction will be written and published due to all the above constraints. We can only hope that that the market for Nepali literary books will become bigger and wider, even if it takes a little longer.
Bhupendra Khadka is the CEO of Book Hill publications, one of the leading publishing houses in Nepal. Khadka not only leads a publishing house, he himself is a poet, a popular radio jockey, a public speaker, book editor and a national award-winning lyricist. Having written songs for more than 5 dozen movies and also recorded more than 350 songs, he also holds a record in bagging almost all prestigious music awards in Nepal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @KhadkaBhupendra
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