The expansion of the economy in England in the early 18th century resulted in the emergence of a middle class, thirsting for knowledge, and The Spectator, a single sheet daily newspaper published by two Englishmen Joseph Addison and Richard Steele from March 01, 1711 to December 06, 1712 was instrumental in catering to that middle class. In a previous post, I had described the motivation for Addison and Steele to start The Spectator,what they did and how they did it (if you haven't read that post yet, it may be a good idea to read that before reading further).
A similar class of people wanting to be enlightened is emerging today in India.The identity of this class, a veritable middle class, is defined not by their level of affluence, but by their inability or discomfort in reading in the English language, when compared to their fluency in their native tongue. Most of this class (about 95% of India's population) cannot read, write or speak English at all. While some can read, write and speak English, they are unable to do so fluently enough to be comfortable reading in English.
Their appetite for knowledge has been kindled by the breadth of programming they have been exposed to on television,, but unfortunately television is constrained both by time (slots) as well as the choice of what one can watch being dependent on what the channel chooses to broadcast. Television cannot satisfy their craving for knowledge.
The problem these people face today is that there is little or no hope for them to gain access to knowledge (history, biographies, ideas, science and technology, IT, economics, politics, globalisation, social issues and the like) in their native tongues, since there is very little knowledge-oriented content being published in the Indian languages. What little is published in the Indian languages tends to be pedantic and academic, putting off such readers. The lack of sufficient content in the Indian languages is also one of the main reasons for the PC penetration increasing very slowly. Without knowing English or being comfortable with English, it is quite difficult to use a PC, let alone to use it to access the Internet, where most of the information and content is in English anyway. So there is a total lack of motivation for those who don't know English to use PCs or get on to the Internet.
But it is clear that there is latent demand for
knowledge out there which is currently not being met. If knowledge and content can be presented to this large class of
people in their native languages, in an easy going style and in a manner they can grasp, they will jump at the opportunity to enrich
Now you may wonder if what I've said is just my surmise or if it is indeed really the case. Let me explain why I believe it is indeed true. In early 2004, my friend Badri and I set up New Horizon Media,
a book publishing company to publish knowledge-oriented content in Indian
languages, starting with Tamil. We felt then (and still do) that the way to change society for the better is to increase overall awareness and knowledge levels amongst the people. The reason we decided to do so by starting out with publishing books is simply due to the fact that the book-publishing has an established revenue model with people willing to pay for books, as opposed to the Internet where people are still not tuned to paying for the content they get online, let alone the fact that only a small fraction of the populace have access to the Internet today.
In the past 15 months, we've published around 70 titles in Tamil (through கிழக்கு பதிப்பகம் - Kizhakku Pathippagam, our imprint in Tamil). Some of our best selling titles have been
- அம்பானி - ஒரு வெற்றிக் கதை - a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani
- அள்ள அள்ளப் பணம் - a simple introduction to the how the stock market works
- டாலர் தேசம் - a political history of America
- 9/11 சூழ்ச்சி - வீழ்ச்சி - மீட்சி - a book on the 9/11 attack, who was behind it and how it was planned and executed
- பாக். - ஒரு புதிரின் சரிதம் - a political history of Pakistan
- இஸ்லாம் - ஓர் எளிய அறிமுகம் - a simple introduction to Islam in an FAQ format
- ரமண சரிதம் - a biography of Ramana Maharishi
Addendum: other titles published recently that are amongst our best selling titles include
- Infosys நாராயணமூர்த்தி - a biography of Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys
While we started out with the idea that there was a need for increasing awareness and overall knowledge levels for the betterment of society and that the best way to get started was by publishing knowledge-oriented books, we had little idea of how the readers would respond. We have been pleasantly surprised to find that these books are selling well across the entire state of Tamil Nadu. We priced டாலர் தேசம் - a political history of America, an 850 page hardbound book at Rs. 350 which is at the highest end of pricing in the Tamil market and yet the book has sold over 1000 copies in less than a year's time. We have learnt from booksellers that the buyers of the book on the political history of America and the one on the 9/11 attack ranged from politicians to policemen! What better indicator of the hunger for knowledge.
Annie writing in Known Turf about the views of Sudhish Pachauri (a professor of Hindi at Delhi University, a Hindi critic and writer) and her own, echoes this and feels the Hindi literary world is out of touch with its readers.
The new readers of Hindi books are keen on information. They want to read about globalization and its impact. I write about media and my books sell. People want to read about politics and media. Kameshwar's 'Kitne Pakistan' was a success, because it dealt with the Indo-Pak issue with great sensitivity, and humanity. Readers need an understanding of poetry and sociological issues.
"The reader's world has changed. The writer has failed to notice...
Literature is not a stable thing. It changes. Public tastes change. They are 'constructed' in fact, and have to be 're-constructed', every so often. We need to form public tastes, as well as cater to them. Newspapers no longer do that - we need to, but we can't, without the right media... that is the other crisis.
The crisis is that writers in Hindi don't have a finger on the pulse of the public. That's why there are few big names, as far as the masses are concerned, in either poetry or fiction; because the masses know where to seek a reflection of their needs and ambitions. Writers are not writing about the challenges ahead. They don't know what challenges lie ahead!"
The kinds of books that are turning into best sellers are an indication of the hunger amongst the non-English speaking population to learn about various new ideas, concepts, history, biographies, science and technology, economics, politics, globalisation, the world out there and more. The challenge before publishers and writers is not only to cater to this demand but to produce more content and further stimulate the creation of demand.
The positive impact that The Spectator (see my earlier post) had on English society in the early 18th century is an indication of what is possible if the knowledge hungry are provided with enough ways and means to enhance their knowledge in a manner that they can easily grasp. Just as The Spectator did then, I would like to wager that there is an opportunity before us today to make a major impact in India by unleashing a torrent of knowledge in all Indian languages on receptive readers.
The Indian language publishing industry (offline and online) is headed for a decade of healthy growth with room for lots of players innovating and experimenting to satisfy a people hungry for knowledge. The advent of blogs has democratised publishing and enabled everyone with an interest in writing to write and reach out to an audience. There is tremedous incentive for people to write and writing talent can now automatically bubble up to the top. The best writers of the future are more likely than not to be active bloggers. The fact that there are over 580 Tamil blogs out there with more starting up each month augurs well for the Tamil publishing industry. I'm sure the same applies to other Indian languages too.