The big question,: will the Kolkata Fair organisers take digital seriously in 2023 and give the people of Kolkata and beyond the chance to make their own choices about where and what format they buy? In a country of 755 million people online that’s a question that really oughtn’t even need asking. But this is India, where the digital publishing divide is not about technology but ideology, meaning the question needs to be asked.
The postponed Kolkata International Book Fair wound up this past weekend having broken all records for book sales, selling 23 crore rupees worth (just over $3 million), which given Indian book prices means a lot of books changed hands.
For the first time ever Kolkata had a digital element, despite past fierce resistance from publishers and from the event organisers.
Publishers and Booksellers Guild President Sudhangshu Sekhar Dey, presiding over the first ever hybrid Kolkata Fair, explained without a hint of shame that were two “possible reasons” for the unprecedented sales.
First, the fair comes after a gap of a year. People who have been waiting to flip over new titles seized on the opportunity as the curtains went up. Secondly, many who had been buying books online for the last two years desperately wanted to have a feel of the physical ones before buying.
The disparaging comments about digital sadly reflect a long-standing antipathy among some publishing elements in India towards the idea that anyone might want to even buy a printed book online, let alone read a digital book.
These will be the same people who earlier this year were lamenting the inability to hold the Kolkata Fair in 2021, saying publishers faced starvation.
Hedging their bets this year, Kolkata had a digital aspect, not that you’d know it reading the English-language press that the fair organisers spoke to.
But a different picture emerges in the Bengali-language press, where we find that the online element of the Kolkata International Book Fair drew 3.5 million visitors over the thirteen days.
Traditionally the Kolkata Fair’s physical incarnation attracts over 2 million visitors (as happened in 2020), but for 2022 the total count has so far been kept quiet, although an acknowledgment the fair averaged 90,000 visitors per day would put the final count at around 1.3 million – fewer than attended the Chennai Book Fair.
That 3.5 million online figure will be somewhat of an embarrassment to the organisers that have for so long insisted Indian consumers did not care for digital., but as there were no meaningful sales options tied to the fair it is the physical sales at the event that are making the headlines.
Leaving the big question, will the fair organisers take digital seriously in 2023, when Spain will be Guest of Honour, and give the people of Kolkata and beyond the chance to make their own choices about where and what format they buy?
In a country of 755 million people online that’s a question that really oughtn’t even need asking.
But this is India, where the digital publishing divide is not about technology but ideology, meaning the question needs to be asked.