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The fair that set forth a reading habit

The 46th Chennai Book Fair came to an end on Sunday. From 20 stalls in the 1st edition in 1976 to close to 900 stalls this year, CBF has grown from strength to strength. An idea mooted to increase book sales brought about a reading revolution in the city and a spurt of publishers in Tamil. DT Next tracks the evolution.

The fair that set forth a reading habit
Thousands thronged the Chennai Book Fair at the YMCA grounds on Sunday.

CHENNAI: In the mid 1970’s, publishing was a niche business. Apart from the British publishers like MacMillan and Orient Publishing, Indian publishers were only a handful.

The Indian publishers got together for one of their monthly sojourns, an imposed activity as the association members felt that they were not meeting enough.

A seed was sown during one such meeting about the possibility of conducting a book fair and a consensus led to the first Chennai Book Fair held at the Mughal-e-Azam school on Anna Salai (then Mount Road) in 1976. Only one of the members who was part of the first organising committee is alive today.

Good for business

“I was just 23 – the youngest among them all. We had a meeting at the BI Publications office on Mount Road, where it was proposed that we (publishers) do something to encourage reading among the public,” recalled K Srinivasa Murthy (70) of Krishnamoorthy Booksellers.

His father, the late publisher K Krishnamurthy, was one of the signatories of the association when it was known as the Federation of Publishers and Book Sellers Association in India.

KV Mathew, credited to be the father of the book fair movement in India, was the then general manager of BI publications. “The government liked our idea of fostering a reading habit and agreed to provide us a hall for free. The first book fair had a little over 20 stalls,” recalls the septuagenarian.

Of course, it wasn’t all public interest, he admits. “It was enlightened self-interest too. If more people bought books, it was good for business,” Murthy smiled.

Seed of the idea

Until the first book fair was organised, the Book Publishers’ Association, a small yet scattered group, had not come together or worked together for anything.

According to Murthy, the association itself was a birthchild of a Ceylon-based publisher, Peter Jaysinghe who formed the association in 1954. A decade earlier, Jaysinghe had founded the Asia Publishing House and is attributed as the first Indian publishing house to induce professionalism into the business.

“The association became dormant over the years and met only when the publishers had issues to sort out,” Murthy recalled. It was the year before the first book fair that the members decided to meet every month and during one such meetings, evolved the idea of a book fair.

In 1976, when the first book fair was held, Tamil publishers were piggybacking on the English publishers. “Only Vanathi and Arunodhaya had set up stalls in the initial years. To encourage more Tamil publishers, stalls were rented out at concessional rates,” explained Murthy.

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More Tamil publishers

Cut to 2023, the tables have turned drastically. Out of the 900 stalls, three-fourth were given to Tamil publishers and booksellers, according to a BAPASI office bearer.

This could explain the success of the book fair as a cultural movement – the emergence of Tamil publishers and evolution of Tamil readers. According to BAPASI office bearers, a footfall of over 15 lakh was recorded this year.

For a long time, BAPASI organised its book fair in the premises of the Quaid-E-Milleth College for Women before they eventually moved out due to lack of space. In the last few years, the book fair has been held at the YMCA grounds in Nandanam.

Support from the government and media has been helpful for the success over the years too. In the present book fair, at least 10 media houses have set up stalls, with a few even covering the events live. The advent of YouTube channels has helped the cause too.

Media support

However, Murthy attributes the surge in popularity to another reason – TV.

“We decided to advertise on TV in 2000. One of the channels gave us a slot free of cost, the other at a concessional rate. That year, we couldn’t handle the crowds,” he said.

Over the years, the support from TV news and print media has only grown.

A well-wisher sent a two-page note to the organisers highlights challenges and issues faced by the public. These were also addressed over the years. After that, ambulances and fire engines have been kept on standby at the venue.

“I still track comments on social media where readers make constructive criticism about the venue and the arrangements and pass it on over to the organisers,” Murthy smiled.

Dip in sales

Some publishers feel that the allocation of more stalls this year has affected sales. “The ideal ratio is 70:30 between publishers and booksellers. However, more booksellers were allotted stalls this year which led to dip in sales for publishing houses. Compared to the previous edition, sales in our stall fell by 15%,” rued Gandhi Kannadasan of Kannadasan Padhipagam.

Kannadasan, a former President at BAPASI, had steered the CBF during a difficult time after the 2015 Chennai floods. He opined that some of the booksellers bought stalls through non-functioning members of BAPASI and since several stalls sell the same titles, it affected sales of original publishers.

Probably nothing explains this better than the sale of Ponniyin Selvan, one of the staple bestsellers in CBF. “At least 150 publishers have brought out Ponniyin Selvan after the release of the movie. There was some kind of saturation in sales in this year’s book fair,” pointed out Parameswaran of Geetham publications.

Concurred Gopal of Aruna Publications, who added: “It depends on the quality of the version. If the print quality is good with good illustrations, the public is willing to shell more money too.”

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Interactive platform

For the authors, the book fair provides a platform to interact with their readers. Sahitya Akademi winner and acclaimed Tamil writer, S Ramakrishnan is a regular at the CBF, interacting with readers and giving signed copies whenever requested.

“Five decades ago, we fought against money. Now, we’re fighting against time,” quipped Murthy. “During the initial years of the book fair, spending on books was considered a luxury. Now, the number of stalls and books sold have increased, but publishers are competing with a person’s time. There are more distractions these days due to OTT platforms and other mediums of entertainment. For the modern-day reader to dedicate time to read a book is a huge ask.”

There are crests and troughs. And some members are unhappy with the way things are run. But the one thing that the BAPASI accomplished — the annual book fair has become a cultural movement. A movement, even today, has encouraged more publishers and authors to release books – all thanks to the Chennai readers.

And the Chennai Book Fair proved to be a blockbuster, despite movie releases by 2 of the reigning stars of Tamil film industry during Pongal holidays.

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Srikkanth Dhasarathy
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