Over the past few years, the success of independent publishers in carving a niche for themselves by coming up with indie presses, translations, feminist narratives, and quirky literature has been something to behold. They have launched new talent, earned accolades, and engaged readers by publishing innovative and important books. Sadly, the lockdown has ensured otherwise.

With bookstores pulling down the shutters and online deliveries of books halted until recently, independent publishers are bearing the brunt. Though there has been a small spike in e-book sales and readership, the overall financial impact on independent publishers remains significant.

A survey on the impact of Covid-19 on small presses carried out by the Bookseller and writer development charity Spread the Word in the UK, revealed that 60 percent of the small presses polled fear they could be out of business by the autumn, 75 percent were uncertain if they will make it beyond March next year, while 85 percent of the publishers have seen sales drop by more than half.

Owing to the current COVID-19 pandemic, India has been in full lockdown since mid-March, which has brought every operation associated with publishing to a standstill. Publishing a book at a commercial scale is a risky venture, given its nature of transactions which are mostly credit-based. Publishers spend a lump sum of money upfront, provide their books to the distributor, host launch events, then propose bookstores to stack their copies, and yield a return payment after six months of publishing!

Confronted with an unprecedented crisis is Zubaan Books, one of the many independent publishing houses, that is foreseeing a ‘no-revenue year’ for itself. Zubaan Book’s owner and a renowned author herself, Urvashi Butalia claims to have not sold a single physical book since March 2020.

Expecting a bleak future for the independent publishing house, she said, “the sale of physical books and the value chain is severely affected in the wake of the restrictions imposed on public gatherings in book launch events, transportation, and industrial establishments.

With no customers coming to bookstores and printing presses being inaccessible due to state border closures, we are reluctant to invest in printing and uncertain about taking up new manuscripts.” Mulling over the financially-lull quarter it has been for the publishing business, Butalia added that, “it is ironical that we survived for 36 years with barely any financing and then got knocked down by a virus!”

The pandemic has forced Yoda Press, another Delhi-based indie publishing house known for coming up with noted works on socio-political themes, to give up its office space due to the inability to pay fixed costs.

The onset of the lockdown propelled publishing houses to not just explore the digital space as a new launching pad for fresh content but also necessitated the adoption of the format. For instance, the publishing giant, HarperCollins India went “digital overnight” to sustain the ecosystem of publishing and follow the literary calendar it was committed to.

Meandering the similar route, Roli Books, is utilizing the lockdown by not only promoting and marketing its work digitally but commissioning new initiatives such as a virtual series of book discussions, debates, and, podcasts and even gearing up to document a brand-new imprint ‘Roots’ about family histories.

Optimistic about the novel way of audience engagement, Kapil Kapoor, Roli Book’s director, expressed that, “through regular online marketing we are stirring up the demand of our published books that are available online.” He announced that “by the next month, we will be publishing an anthology of short stories by first-time writers who were roped in online and have ample opportunities to sustain for the next two years by regularly curating scripts for new books.”

However, both Butalia and Kapoor agreed that for indie publishers, discovering and publishing new voices is something that will always remain relevant, more so in these precarious circumstances, when writers can record, make sense of, perceive and express the instability that surrounds.

Raghav Arora is a budding development professional working with a multilateral organization and is an ardent admirer of the visual arts, theatre, and documentaries.

Cover Photo: Darya Ganj, a hub of local, national and international publishing houses, came to a standstill when the nationwide lockdown was imposed. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons