Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Speaking Volumes: The twilight of the Brahmins













In Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, there is a wonderful section on the fascination Japonisme held at a certain time in Europe, when Japanese bibelots, netsuke, robes and paintings found their way into Parisian salons: “Anyone would sell you anything. Japan existed as a sort of parallel country of licensed gratification, artistic, commercial and sexual.”

Often, what the collectors of that time picked up from Japan was unremarkable—the dross of everyday life, mass-produced objets d’art mingling with the rare and the exquisite. As de Waal recounts so beautifully, this early hunger was replaced by first a refined connoisseurship, and inevitably, a waning of the interest in Japonisme, a return to the less exotic and the more local.

In the last few weeks, as new books on India by Patrick French and Anand Girdharadass were released, a familiar debate came back to us, reheated and freshly garnished. Pankaj Mishra’s argument with French was over the content of the book—Mishra seemed unable to recognize or reconcile his vision of India, one of cruel economic inequalities and a dominant, often bullying, state, with French’s more upbeat India story.

Reading between the lines, the real anxiety was over French’s portrait, not the quality of his reportage: was this the authentic India, or had he missed the big story? Elsewhere, in a joyously savage piece of provocation, Mihir Sharma flayed India Calling, by Anand Girdharadass, for shallow journalism, and slammed the stereotypes of India that find their way into the “foreign correspondent” book.

But the real debate is one that tore Indian writing in English apart about a decade ago; it’s the question of what makes a book about India the genuine article, and who has the right to “represent” the country. The “authenticity argument” was rapidly buried, with a few stray knives in its back, in the world of Indian fiction—few readers, writers or critics wanted to police books to see how their Indianness rated on a 1-10 scale.

Fewer still are comfortable acknowledging what might be called marketplace realities. In the years when Indian writing was doing well, like a hardworking honour student, in the West, we were happy to measure our importance and success not by the literary impact of a Kiran Desai or a Salman Rushdie but by the sales figures and the prize shortlists. What we are all uncomfortable acknowledging is that the West—shorthand for the complex markets and divergent reading tastes of the UK, the US and a large swathe of Europe—has a sharply truncated view of Indian writing.

Much of the unease expressed by Mishra, and in a different form by Sharma, comes from questioning the need for the Big India book—at some level, we understand that these books are very rarely written by Indian journalists, and that the stories they tell, whether simplified or not, are influential even so. Some of the unease comes from a sense of disenfranchisement; it is telling, for instance, that there seems to be little need for the Big India book in Hindi, or Urdu, or Marathi. Outside of English, we lack either the curiosity or the need to explain India to ourselves.

What the West sees of Indian writing would be ridiculous, if that view wasn’t so influential; as with the age de Waal describes, where all of Japanese culture and history could be interpreted through the shlock, detritus and masterpieces of the art world. Over the last 30 years, some realities have been inescapable; Indian writing in the Western world is defined largely as Indian writing in English, with very few translations making their way abroad.

Writing from the margins—Dalit writing, the resurgence in Indian poetry in English, writing from the North-east—is rarely visible, and when it is visible, it’s exoticised, here and abroad. And by its nature, Indian writing in English has been largely privileged writing—if not quite limited to the sons of St Stephens’, most contemporary writers in this language come from the relatively enfranchised middle class, and their work reflects the limitations of their backgrounds.

In the same week as the French-Mishra rallies, complete with aces and double faults, were playing out at the net, a small piece of data passed almost unremarked. The Census 2001 figures, recently released, revealed that English had effectively become India’s second language, behind Hindi. Many of the new English speakers come from the small towns, or belong to areas of the metros that lie outside the charmed circles of privilege. English belongs to them now as much as it once did, about two-three decades ago, to the old class of writer-Brahmins.

And as this generation begins to tell and write their stories, they may not need to beguile the souks of the West with their Indiennisme. 125 million English speakers, out of whom a much higher percentage has made it their first language in the decade since the Census data was collected, is enough to make its own marketplace. I’m guessing here, but I don’t think this new generation of writers will find much use either for the Big India books or for the debates that drew us in over the last few decades.

Speaking Volumes: Cricket and Collaborators






(Published in the Business Standard, February 15, 2011; image from www.allvoices.com, AFP.)








Around the time that Shehan Karunatilaka began writing the first notes that became Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, another Sri Lankan writer was defining what drove him back to the desk, one novel after another.

"In the sense that writing is to retrieve the past and stop the passing of time, all writing is about loss. It's not nostalgia, in the sense of yearning to bring back the past, but recognition of the erosion of things as you live,” Romesh Gunesekara said in a 2007 interview. Gunesekara’s work had led him to explore the violence and the civil war in Sri Lanka in direct ways; then to move outwards, with a finely comic novel about cricket, The Match, and then back with a novel about the fragility of the environment, both external and internal, Reef.

In his first novel, Karunatilaka starts with an obsession; cricket, as seen through the eyes of an alcoholic journalist in search of a forgotten legend, Pradeep Mathew. For those who know and love the game—that would exclude all but 15 or so people in the subcontinent—Chinaman is a rare treat, brilliant in its ability to capture the nuances of the game, or to conjure up memories of test matches in an era when players wore whites rather than being mobile corporate billboards. And those with long memories will be able to match apparently fictional characters with their counterparts in real life, with considerable ease.

The difference between Karunatilaka and Gunesekara may be the difference from one generation to another; both writers grew up in a time of war, but for Karunatilaka’s generation, violence and bomb blasts were part of the environment, as they become for second-generation survivors of civil war. When blackouts and package bombs seep into Chinaman, around page 240 or so, they come in as interruptions to the journalist’s attempt to track down the missing cricketer; the announcement of the “worst terrorist attack” since 1995 in Sri Lanka is just a pause in the journalist-narrator’s intense struggle with his alcoholism.

Karunatilaka sets himself free to write about the things that matter to him, as a young novelist making his own way in the world: the perfect delivery, obsession and passion, sleaze, addiction, marriages, and writing itself. He may, as Gunesekara was, be drawn back into his country’s history in time, but Chinaman is, in a way, a declaration of independence.

Growing up in Kashmir, one of Mirza Waheed’s strongest memories was of a time when raids by the army on villages and towns had become increasingly common, routine business. At the JLF, he described the process: the informer would sit inside an army vehicle, and the boys and men of the village would be made to walk past. They had to pretend everything was normal; on one of these occasions, a man was shot by an army officer just before it was Waheed’s turn to walk past. This was also not uncommon, but as Waheed walked by, he realized that the man who had been shot was still twitching, possibly still alive. There was nothing he or the other men could do, except continue walking; the idea, he said, was to pretend that everything was normal.

The Collaborator should really have been a memoir, but that is not necessarily a criticism. Mirza Waheed’s first novel follows the story of a boy who becomes, unwillingly, a collaborator, a counter of corpses who must obey the orders of a cynical Indian army captain. The pages of The Collaborator smoulder with anger and with the narrator’s determination to tell a truth beyond anything that might be conveyed in a newspaper headline, a five-minute television clip.

Waheed’s prose is raw, deliberately unpolished as he captures the cadences of a boy who grew up in the Valley. “I saw my first dead body, before the population of dead bodies I deal with now, in that breezeless dry summer of last year… Farooq returned after three weeks. Tortured, he became a tourist site.”

The Indian army captain is a caricature, but one drawn from life; his drunken, rambling diatribes form a kind of Defence of the Realm speech. Waheed’s aim is to provide not so much a fictional reworking of the past as a thinly fictionalized testimony, the human story of the human rights abuses visited upon Kashmir in the form of a novel. That may limit The Collaborator’s appeal to some, but it does not limit its ambition.

In their starkly different ways, Chinaman and The Collaborator are books that remind us of the new generation of writers who’re coming up behind the Rushdies, Seths and Ghoshes. One book deals headfirst with a history of violence; another chooses to break with the past and write a Sri Lankan epic that rarely mentions the civil war directly. What both writers have in common is confidence and conviction.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book review: The Sly Company of People Who Care




(Published in India Today, February 2011; this is a longer version.)




The Sly Company of People Who Care
Picador India,
Rs 495, 281 pages
Rahul Bhattacharya








VS Naipaul made two observations that should be committed to memory by all aspiring authors, and travelers. The first was that his travel books, specifically the ones about India, were all books about himself as much about the country. The second was about technique; in his early years as a traveler, Naipaul said, he was so taken “with the odd idea of the writer as the reader of externals that [he] never thought to make simple inquiries of people”.

Naipaul weaves through the pages of The Sly Company of People Who Care, referenced explicitly twice, paid homage to in several gorgeously written, sharp passages about Guyana. But of all the men—and they are, mostly, young, ambitious men—who have genuflected at Naipaul’s shrine, Rahul Bhattacharya may be his one true heir.

To say that is also to diminish the impact of this first novel, one of the most original and striking debuts of an already crowded year. “Guyana had the feel of an accidental place,” writes the narrator, an accidental voyager in search of meaning, a shape to his life; but this will be no ordinary bildungsroman. As Uncle Lance will tell him about Guyana, “it have everything… It have Hindu chu’ch, Muslim chu’ch, chu’ch of Christ. We got embassy, orphanage, vulcanisin, pawnshop, cookshop, rumshop, short-time’—the by-the-hour humping rooms. “..We got Blackman, redman, buck, chinee, coolie, dougla all lashin each other.”

The task Bhattacharya sets himself is not easy; The Sly Company of People Who Care could, in less skilled hands, have become a 21st century version of the 20th century novel where the protagonist takes the Grand Tour, goes to darkest Africa or mysterious India, and finds himself, conveniently and sharply outlined against a new landscape. And Guyana, as the author is well aware, is one of the last of the places on the map marked Here Be Dragons, one of the few places relatively untouched by the gritty prose of the indefatigable travel writer.

One clever way to avoid writing the exotic Indian novel is to write the exotic Guyana novel instead; but Bhattacharya's interest in place is far deeper than that. Guyana doesn't stand for anything except itself; and it is the country's history that allows the author to explore issues like migration, displacement and the rediscovery of self against a richly contemporary landscape.

The narrator becomes, briefly, a porknocker, prospecting for diamonds along with a bandit called Baby; it is not Baby’s banditry but the slow revelation of his possible insanity and his evident penchant for violence that will derail this relationship. The soundtrack to The Sly Company of People Who Care is there in every chapter; “gospel-soaked romps”, ska, chutney and reggae, soca and militant ballads.

“If water was Guyana’s essential truth, then porknocking was its most essential endeavour.” The porknocker is the man who goes after “the shimmers of desperate human coveting”; they get the glory, the rawness, the adventure—“got even the lone sorrow”. Every page of this novel glimmers with Rahul Bhattacharya’s controlled but wonderfully evocative prose; as you would expect from the author of a brilliant non-fiction work on cricket, Pundits From Pakistan, this is not journeyman or amateur writing in any sense. If Naipaul provides one kind of reference point for Bhattacharya, another is less obvious: the young Graham Greene, exploring the dark political comedies of just-hatched, unfledged regimes, would have shared Bhattacharya's eye for the grotesque.

In the second section, Bhattacharya switches pace, bringing the journalist to the fore. “You leave: what wound do you leave behind?” he asks, interrogating history through the fictional but unforgettable Ramotar Seven Curry, “whose passion was attending weddings”, through the Indian family who are terrified of their own success and what it might attract.

And finally, his narrator explores yet another foreign country—love and the erotic, courtesy Jan, short for Jankey, both of them “surprised by one another’s Indianness”. Praise god that Bhattacharya is one of the few writers who can tackle the bawdy, the erotic and the grimly pedestrian journeys of lovers with equal ease. The final chapters, the final lines, take this powerful, funny and poignant novel to a pitch-perfect finish.

There have been some outstanding debuts this year, including novels by Shehan Karunatilake and Mirza Waheed, but The Sly Company of People Who Care towers above the rest. Naipaul, if he had been a young man exploring an unknown world today, could have written it. But Rahul Bhattacharya’s understanding of displacement and drifting comes from a completely original place, and he has all of the humour and the sharpness of the young Naipaul, with none of the spleen. This book, and this writer, are here to last.

Parallel imports (3): From the publishing industry

(The debate over parallel imports is a matter of public interest--it affects readers, writers and the publishing industry. This is why the publishing industry thinks the 2m amendment will be bad for business--copyright lawyers have had a very different perspective. To follow the debate, read back on Divya Dubey's blog: here, here, here and here. Previous posts on Akhond: here and here--interesting debate in the comments.)

Copyright Amendment & Proviso 2m: A response from the Publishing Industry

Introduction

India is the third largest publishing nation hub in the world today after the US and UK. There are over 17,000 publishers in India and, given the spread of English-medium education, it is estimated that over half of them deal with English language publishing. English is the language of pan-national education, commerce & business, law, official transaction and indeed literature; and plays a significant part in India’s new found global stature. Publishing has two strands—educational and trade (general/consumer). Both have contributed immensely to India’s growth as well as cultural development. While writing and publishing in English have had a century old tradition, it is essentially the last two decades that have seen the industry come into its own. A large reason for this maturity, growth in volumes and revenue has been the environment under which publishing and Indian writing has been allowed to flourish—and the single greatest reason has been a secure territory, upholding the concept of territorial copyright and the prohibition of parallel importation.

The Issue


The proposed amendments (to the Copyright Act of 1957), specifically proviso 2m, which uphold the rights of authors in the music and film industries unfortunately hurt book authors with far reaching consequences to the publishing industry and the state of writing. Proviso 2m has no real benefit to anybody outside a segment of importers who, with parallel importation legalized, will be able to freely import any overseas edition to the detriment of local industry, authors and eventually the consumer. The publishing industry—Indian publishers as well as multi-national groups—and authors are together protesting this proviso.

The reasons for the amendment

The following are the main reasons for the proviso that we could discern—(a) the notion that the customer will benefit from lowered prices; (b) the assumption that publishers price too high; (c) the assumption that publishers mainly transact in old editions; and (d) that this will impact mainly imports and only foreign publishers would be complain and (e) that some sort of intangible disharmony exists if copyright is not equated with patents and trademarks. All of these assumptions are unfounded and in many cases blatantly false.

The writing community’s objections (encompassing authors, publishers of every kind—small, large, Indian and foreign owned—and booksellers) have been outlined in the accompanying paper (note from NSR: not carried in this post), but in a nutshell cover:

1. No real drop in prices: India is already the lowest priced market in the world in each publishing segment with price mark-downs ranging from 30% to as much as 90% for educational textbook pricing. These pricing structures have evolved keeping in mind the socio-economic realities of our country. Low as these prices are, they are still vulnerable to remainders and targeted exports which undermine local industry’s ability to compete.
2. Infringing imports will still be cheaper: One rationale for this amendment is that books from overseas are more expensive and therefore incapable of hurting local lower priced editions. This is completely untrue if one studies the dynamics of publishing. Given that the west is a ‘frontlist’ market (over 85% of shelf space is new books), books on an average have a shelf life of just 3-4 months. India by contrast is still largely a ‘backlist’ market (where established books run on longer) and it is every publisher’s endeavour to create books that backlist. Publishing is a passion and hunch-based business that already functions on a cycle of swings and roundabouts where the successes also cross- subsidize the smaller, niche interest books. Even without remainders, books from the west will inevitably be sent in here at targeted ‘undercut’ price levels that will undermine local Indian publishing investments and therefore writing (with no justifiable long term consumer gains).
3. Notional consumer gain: There will be absolutely no consumer gains in the long run. While parallel importation might result in marginal spoiler pricing in the early stages, it will be seen that after this short phase of undercutting, pricing will eventually stabilize back to the price points that currently exist. But the damage done in the medium and long terms will be immense.
4. Remainders and dumping will kill the market: This is an inevitable process that will result, and will hit authors, publishers and consumers alike. Authors will be hit by loss of royalties and future opportunity; publishing will lose margins and investment power; and booksellers will (due to the indiscriminate flowing in of imports) be forced to change stocking patterns, actually reducing choice; and pricing will be a constantly fluctuating mechanism offering no certainty of best buy.
5. Unjust position for the author: Worldwide wherever full-fledged publishing exists there is territorial copyright that respects the author as copyright holder. 2m will in effect disregard the copyright owner’s wishes by denying them their economic rights and actually putting them in a position of disadvantaged competition with a third party (wholesaler/importer of infringing editions)—which imagines an unjust intellectual property system.
6. Author royalties hit: Remainders will give authors no royalties, and targeted export sales from overseas—now legalized—will result in authors losing royalties by as much as 50%.
7. Local writing hit: It must be emphasized that it is not just authors with international editions but local Indian authors too who will bear the brunt of this as rights potential dwindles, publishing programmes shrink and publishers reduce investments in building authors.
8. Current editions: It can easily be verified that every textbook or trade book has the most current edition released here at the same time and much cheaper than the international price.
9. No scarcity: Any book anybody wants is available either locally or by procurement, and always at a special price.
10. Not about protectionism: Competition does not exist the same way in publishing. Unlike the consumer industries, where a Coke sold is a Pepsi not sold, a Vikram Seth sold is not an Amitav Ghosh unsold.
11. Unanimous opposition from every stakeholder: Publishers—Indian and foreign owned, large and small, educational and trade; booksellers—large chains and small independents; authors—international and Indian; literary agents, and overseas publishing companies are all opposing 2m. The other main stakeholder, the reader or end consumer, as we have shown will be adversely hit in the long run.
12. No reciprocity and mature market: The amendment would remove the level playing field. Indian publishers would not be able to sell their editions abroad, but every overseas English language market would be able to freely sell competing editions into India. India is fast approaching being a mature market with a thriving local Indian industry but would soon lose this. Every mature market that is not just a trading market has territorial copyright—India will soon become the sole exception.
13. Cultural development impacted: Writing and its dissemination (whether educational or trade) plays a major part in the creative and cultural development of any nation; and the ever growing stature of Indian writing (awards, festivals, a burgeoning literary tradition, cutting-edge education) will be severely hit.
14. Cultural sensitivities: Local publishers are bound by local laws and keep in mind cultural sensitivities, religious sentiments and Indian laws while publishing or importing a book; indiscriminate ‘dumpers’ are not.
15. Forex outflows: The standing committee report cites possible savings with reduced royalties outflow whereas the opposite would happen. Much more will flow out with payment for the massively increased imports.
16. Ancillary industry hit: Publishing supports a whole host of small scale businesses like typesetting, printing, proof-reading, copy editing, designing, etc—all of which will be impacted over time.
17. Re-export a huge issue: Currently low priced editions are created by local rights licences and reprint rights. These are granted under the sole condition that these editions stay confined to India and do not flow out to damage parent markets. The amendment leaves this window also open, and should this happen, original rights holders will be reluctant to grant rights and thereby prices will actually go up for educational editions, eventually fostering piracy.
18. Books are significantly different from patented products. Because authors are different from consumer goods inventors who register patents. A cellphone is a cellphone is a cellphone. Yes there will be patented technology differentiators but certainly not the same as each book being a unique creative object, where the creator has ‘enshrined rights’, or at least so the other part of this amendment (films/music) would lead us believe. So why the discrimination against book authors in terms of a complete disregard as to their interest.
19. Not enough consultation with stakeholders or engagement with detail; no substantiation of the assumptions that are driving the lawmaking process. Conversely, legal precedents exist here that have upheld territorial copyright; it is not clear what major lapses have been observed that necessitate proviso 2m, which far from benefitting any of the constituents involved will actually have a hugely adverse impact.



With no credible evidence for any of the assumptions, no clear and irrefutable benefit and looking at the severely damaging repercussions, it is the Industry’s demand that proviso 2m be deleted from the proposed amendments.

***

Parallel imports (2): Publishing and the 2(m) amendment

(This was a follow-up to the blog post on parallel imports, below; carried in the Business Standard, February 19th. Thomas Abraham and Prof Shamnad Basheer continue the debate over at Divya Dubey's blog, in considerable depth.)

Call this the war of the slogans. On one side, copyright lawyers and the Ministry of Human Resource Development offer the lure of cheaper books for Indian readers. On the other, publishers and authors speak of the death of Indian publishing as we know it.

Section 2(m), a proposed amendment to India’s copyright law that would allow the parallel import of books, is a dry piece of legalese, but it’s sparked a blog war, a flurry of publisher white papers, and a wide debate on copyright and territory.

The rationale is a legally sound one — to align Indian copyright law with Indian patent and trademark law, both of which follow the principle of “international exhaustion”: once a product has been legitimately sold, that product can be resold anywhere in the world without the consent of the owner of the copyright, be that the author or the publisher.

According to the Association of Publishers of India, “This proviso would mean that books published in any country could be freely made available and sold in India, without this amounting to infringement of copyright.”

Theoretically, parallel imports would allow a publisher or a printer who does not hold copyright to an Indian edition of a book to print his or her own editions of the book, under certain conditions, and release them back into the Indian market. There is also a fear among publishers that this might lead to widespread “dumping”, where the market is flooded with cheap, remaindered books.”

When this applies to books, specifically, one side argues that allowing “parallel imports” of books would open up the Indian publishing market to competition and would allow readers access to cheaper books. The other side argues that authors and publishers would suffer, and that in the long run, so would the reader. Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India, states his position succinctly: “This would be the death of publishing and writing as we know it in India — and ironically by a surfeit of books.”

Step back from the rhetoric and the very complex issues involved about the intricacies of copyright law, territoriality in publishing, the book remainders market and book dumping, and here’s how the amendment is likely to affect readers, authors, publishers and booksellers.

Booksellers

Perhaps the sharpest summary comes from Landmark Bookstore’s Madhu Mohan: “As booksellers, we want to give our customers a wider range at a lower price. An open market immediately affords both: the cost of this is that publishers with Indian market rights might suffer. The more significantly affected parties are authors, publishers and readers. If, arguably, territorial rights are not sold, authors might earn lower advances. Publishers who have paid for territorial rights, are not able to get the full benefit of their monies. Readers should welcome the change, because at the outset they will get lower priced books.”

His view is echoed across the bookselling industry, with reactions ranging from indifference to the possible repercussions to cautious alarm — for many booksellers, a weak or damaged Indian publishing industry is also a negative.

Almost all booksellers agree that the short-term benefits of allowing parallel imports would be to lower the price of books. India already has among the lowest-priced English language books in the world, but it would be interesting to see if even lower prices reeled in a different kind of reader. As Mohan points out, book imports would be cheaper; books published in India by Indian or foreign authors would be adversely affected. The long-term scenario is another matter; if the Indian publishing industry is hit hard, we could be flooded with cheap, low-quality remainders, or lose price benefits in the long run.

Authors

For authors, what’s key about the 2(m) amendment is the way in which it would affect the writer’s copyright over his/ her work — and also the shifts it might bring about in the industry in general. Copyright lawyer Nandita Saikia observes that once a publisher effectively loses control over an edition of a book — if competing editions are allowed into the market — “This would significantly diminish the ability of publishers to invest in Indian authors and Indian writing.” From Abraham at Hachette to Chiki Sarkar at Random House to Tata McGraw Hill, there seems to be consensus on this aspect of the amendment.

In contrast, Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society argues strongly in favour of 2(m) and dismantling the “licence raj” that requires booksellers and distributors to have authorisation to import books: “Allowing people to import goods without permissions (with appropriate duties) is taken for granted in all other areas, so why not copyrighted works? After all, it is not the act of publication that gets affected, but the right of exclusive distribution.”

But many authors point out that publishing and bookselling operate differently from other industries, and the dynamics of writing and bookselling are not comparable. Author Amit Varma puts forward the writer’s objections: “As the author of a book, I should have the right to assign the rights to sell my book to any publisher in India that I feel like, and the law should protect that right, and my contract with the publisher. Parallel import obviously makes a mockery of that right, and can deny me significant potential royalties.”

Publishers

At Penguin India, Andrew Phillips is blunt: “We stand firmly against the amendment. Penguin is both a ‘foreign’ publisher and an Indian publisher and we believe it will affect both parts of our business. We don’t believe the effects will be minor — to the contrary, this would have a fundamental impact on the publishing business both for international authors and Indian authors who aspire to be read outside India.”

The publishers’ arguments are complex, but stripped of the technicalities, they rest on the question of territoriality. When publishing worldwide operates on the basis of territorial agreements — authors sell rights to their works for specific regions — opening up the market unilaterally makes little sense. India might open its market, via 2(m), to competing imports and editions; but Indian publishers don’t have the right to sell similar editions of books in the UK or US markets.

In other words, the market would open up only in one direction — and this could diminish Indian publishers’ ability to nurture new writing, release Indian editions of foreign authors, and pay authors significant royalties.

Behind the rhetoric, nothing about this proposed change in copyright laws is simple, and the repercussions for authors and publishers are likely to be both significant and adverse. There’s an interesting parallel in the Australian market, which, like the Indian publishing industry, is thriving but relatively young, and lacks the clout of the formidable US, UK and European markets.

Two years ago, when the move to allow parallel imports of books was discussed in Australia, that discussion was fierce, impassioned and hotly contested. Nor was it limited to the industry; when readers realised that the debate was really over what they would get to read, which authors would benefit or lose out, and how this would impact their intellectual lives, the debate went public.

In the case of Australia, it took a full year of discussion before it was finally decided not to introduce parallel imports for the publishing industry. Whatever the possible adverse effects — or benefits — of parallel imports, we haven’t had that discussion yet in India. It’s a necessary one, and it affects anybody equipped with a mind, a wallet and the ability to walk into a bookstore. This would be a good time to have it, before the law is set in stone.

(Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India, responded in a mail that he's given me permission to share:)



It is amazing that we are embarking on lawmaking without one of the questions below being answered conclusively to show that the matter in hand was studied and due diligence done:

1. The assumption that prices will drop and current editions. This presumes that as a norm (enough to necessitate a law) prices are therefore too high and current editions are not available. What evidence exists for this? What are the current price points that exist by segment? Is any segment with common use books higher priced on average than it should be? Can this law succeed in dropping prices? By what estimated levels and with what resultant collateral damage? Is there a single book (whether consumer or educational) that can be cited as example of not being available in India on the same day and much cheaper than abroad?

2. Following from the above, is a 70-90% level drop in pricing from international levels not good enough for textbooks? Why not? Not that publishers want it (subsidies i.e) because they say books for common use are cheap enough, but why can’t the equivalent of the ELBS (a low priced Book scheme that existed between 1960 and 1997 funded by the British Govt) be rolled out again (by the Indian govt. this time) to aid student purchasing (their biggest stated concern)?

3. Assuming the market is opened up: what happens to stocking patterns as remainders flow in? How much do readers benefit? Will the same choice exist?

4. Author’s legal position: How does this affect their rights? If the economic right to exploit their work as they choose is valid, providing the societal need for ‘greater good’ (availability and pricing) is also served, then why is this law necessary?. How can one part of the same law support author revenues (film, music) and the other (books) deny it? What sort of intellectual position is this that puts the author in competition with a wholesaler for their own work (yes with this law a wholesaler will have greater right than the author in controlling the economic rights pertaining to a book in India)?

5. Author royalties hit: Has anybody looked at the question to see --by how much? Why is it bad if authors are derived of rightful income? Should the reader care?

6. Is this just a law that governs foreign imports? Will Indian authors/Indian’ publishers also be hit? how?

7. The dynamics of publishing: why is the 80:20 rule critical to survival and the fostering of literature & cultural development; and why will that be severely hit by this amendment?

8. A section of IPR lawyers support of the amendment flows from a love for uniform law (remove ‘national exhaustion’, bring copyright law on par with patents and trademarks)? Why is it not justified for books? Is the notional elegance of uniform law clouding their ability to see ground reality? Are these legal organizations (some of whom publicly advocate piracy) actually advising the government?

9. The case for Libraries: why can’t the law just address this gap (if it is a gap and can be proved as such) by giving libraries the right to import up to 5 copies for self –use? But why do publishers say direct ordering from abroad would still be a waste of the tax payer’s money?

10. Why are the UK, US, Australia, Canada, S. Africa-- the five biggest English markets following territorial copyright? Why should or shouldn’t we follow the same? Why are Japan and New Zealand not valid markets to emulate? Why is reciprocity not being delivered?

11. Who has looked at impact on ancillary industries—from large scale printers to hole-in-the wall typesetters?

12. On what basis did the standing committee say that foreign exchange outflow will fall since licensing will come down? Why do publishers say the opposite will happen? Why are they (the lawmakers concerned) refusing to read the various representations that have been made, and engage with the detailing?

13. Booksellers: Is there even a mid-term benefit for booksellers? Will the Rs 10-20 average drop (proved statistic right now) bring in more customers? What will happen to any bookstore’s buying/stocking when book prices fluctuate like stock prices? How much will they stock? How much will they invest in a promotion (which means stack-up displays, spending on POS, organizing author events etc)? Do they want a situation where they are permanently calculating that a week later they’ll be forced to drop prices because the neighbouring bookshop is selling it cheaper? So are books to be permanently reduced to a month long window?

14. Any book can flow in violating local libel, sedition, defamation laws (let’s not forget “religious sentiments”) and be discovered after the fact. How will you hold anybody liable for violating Indian law?

15. Why do publishers say that the flow of remainders can’t be addressed by anti-dumping law for books (the way they perhaps can for cellphones or microwave ovens)?

16. Educational publishers are worried about re-export inherent in the wording of 2m and there’s been no clarification. Is the statement of law clear on re-export?

17. Scarcity: why do publishers say that today you can actually get in any book in the world cheaper than buying from Amazon, and in about the same time? Is there any real scarcity?

18. Is there any validity to publishers’ statements that the last 20 years have steadily seen a growth in publishing industry (writing, publishing, intellectual engagement, cultural development) like never before and all of it can come undone by this new law?

19. Look at comparative prices of essentials—the roti, kapada aur makaan argument. Prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing and are higher than developed countries (from onions in London, to a 1 acre plot in Melbourne being cheaper than a Gurgaon apartment, to petrol in almost any country). Is this then the priority of govt. needs to follow (to make John Grisham cheaper by Rs 15?)?

20. The existing environment under which publishers’ exist—rampant piracy, low reading habits, hugely lowered prices and bad credit cycles. Rather than fixing those to foster reading (which every major country is investing in for the next generation), do we need 2m?
 
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