Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wishlist for the Future of Children's Publishing

Suzanne Singh draws up her wishlist for changes she wants in the children’s publishing space ...

Via DNA (published on 14th December, 2011)

As a not-for-profit publisher with a dream to put a book in every child’s hand — and India has 300 million children — our wish list for the future of children’s publishing is long... but here are three trends that Pratham Books thinks will help make India a reading nation: Firstly, more original content from Indian publishers in Indian languages to reach more children. India has 22 official languages and 1,600 dialects; but a country with such diversity produces children’s books predominantly in Hindi and English. Bookstores are flush with imported books of varying quality. All this content is in English, set in foreign surroundings, with characters and situations far removed from that of an Indian child. Also in stores are derivatives of the two Indian epics, and the Panchatantra and Jataka tales. We are not seeing enough innovation to create books that reflect the contemporary Indian reality. 

With more than half of India’s 300 million children studying in government schools, there is a need to make reading material available to these children in the state’s language. Only if our children have quality reading material, can we expect them to be better readers.

The oral tradition of storytelling has almost disappeared in our families, leaving little scope for our traditional stories to be a part of an urban child’s life. There is therefore an urgent need for books drawn from our cultural landscape. It would be a shame to let go of the evocative, earthy flavours of our regional stories, the unique phrases and contexts of a place, just because we do not care to publish in the languages they are written in.

Looking back, looking forward

There is a huge need in India for affordable books of good quality to introduce the non-readers into the fold. Selling books in the sachet format is a second trend we would like to see. Our experience with story cards at Pratham Books has proved just how useful, enjoyable and exciting a four-page ‘book’ at `2 can be. We have found equal success with bilingual books — books in two languages for the price of one. They help children to learn a second language, and in the non-English medium world, bilinguals are being used to learn English, the language of aspiration for many.

Shopping patterns are changing too. Traditional bookstore owners have been complaining about dips in sales up to 30% owing to people’s preference for online-shopping. While it is a valuable and pleasurable experience to browse through printed books in a shop, the convenience of e-tail platforms is such that publishers and retailers have to be ready to embrace new technology too. 

Sharing worldwide with Creative Commons

In a dynamic world, books and reading are a constant. We may read less or more, we may give up one genre to take up another, we may read them on different media, but the popularity for the printed book is constant. In a city like Bangalore, where the population is increasing exponentially, the number of readers too is going to keep increasing. It is safe to predict that the demand for books is not going away for a long, long time. 

At Pratham Books, for instance, we put out many of our titles in several languages under the Creative Commons license. This creates a multiplier effect where the books get converted into new forms and many derivative works get produced. So we get content for iPads, iPhones, e-readers, audio-clips and digital content for the visually-challenged. 

Once a book has finished its life cycle including reprints, we believe publishers can make the same content available under the Creative Commons. This allows for more and more derivatives and translations to be available to children. 

And as technology penetrates further it would be easy to upload all content to computers in libraries or pre-load content as we did in One Laptop Per Child, Nepal, and we could also try that with the new Akash tablet. Rather than seeing digital devices as threats, we see them as exciting modes of communication that make children want to read more. 

Publishers need to take technology in their stride and welcome it.

Suzanne Singh is the Managing  Trustee of Pratham Books

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