Despite fears that books are out of fashion, the fair has grown steadily over the past 45 years
Despite the massive changes in publishing, Tamil readership continues to grow. The year-over-year increase in the number of book titles, publishers and, of course, revenue has led to strong profits for the industry. The Chennai Book Fair, now in its 45th year, is proof of Tamil Nadu’s thriving reading culture.
Despite its humble beginnings in 1977, the Chennai Book Fair is now considered an important event in the city’s cultural calendar. Organized annually by the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI), the first fair was held at Anna Salai’s Madrasa-i-Azam School.
“It was amazing. The publishers thought people were crowding the fair and queuing just to buy books,” said Tamilmagan, a writer.
“Over the years, the fair has changed location. For over 25 years it was held at Quaid-e-Milleth Government College for Women, Anna Salai, then St George School, Kilpauk, then YMCA Physical Education College Ground, Nandanam. In the meantime, the fair has also taken place at drive-thru restaurants and on Island Grounds,” he said.
Something for everyone
Starting with just 22 stalls, the association set an example of how to organize book fairs. In 2003, Chennai Book Fair achieved a turnover of almost ₹6 crores. In 2013, about ₹12 hearts. In 2020, before COVID-19 hit, revenues hit ₹20 crores. Even in 2021, hit by the pandemic, the fair generated revenues of ₹12 crore.
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The Neyveli Book Fair, promoted by Neyveli Lignite Corporation, and the Erode Book Fair, organized by Makkal Sindhanai Peravai, a cultural organization, owe their success to him.
These fairs offer books on all subjects, including a general category including cooking, gardening, personal development, spirituality, quiz programs and astrology – the latter has a dedicated readership for every generation.
Print never dies
“Each year, we organize the fair for 10 to 12 days. But as we are in the middle of a pandemic, in order to control the crowds, we have stretched it to 19 days,” said A Loganathan, Executive Committee Member, BAPASI. “Between February 16 and March 6, we have three weekends and readers can visit the fair hassle-free,” he said.
Organizers wanted to have 1,000 stalls this year but could only receive government clearance for 800 due to COVID-19, Loganathan said.
Despite fears that books are out of fashion, the fair has grown steadily over the past 45 years, he said.
“Previously, publishers reserved a stand. But in recent years, most of them have reserved two stands to display their books. As a result, each year more than 10,000 new titles are presented at the fair. This at a time when there is a perception that young people prefer to read e-books,” Loganathan added.
Kindle is extra
S Subba Rao, a writer, said that for serious readers, Kindle is a supplement. Most still prefer physical books.
“About three decades ago, publishing houses only published classics by popular writers and readers only revolved around these books. Now, readers are looking for new genres, and as a result, editors and writers are coming up with unexplored topics. That said, that doesn’t mean the classics have lost their importance. They continue to play a role in building early stage readership,” he said.
Rao said that despite popular perception, social media has played a role in improving Tamil reading culture.
Study on the lack of readership
According to Prabahar Vedamanickam, Associate Professor, Department of Tamil, The American College, Madurai, there is a need for reliable readership surveys in the state.
“There is a market for Tamil books, no doubt. But do 20-year-olds read books in Tamil? There is a rural-urban divide when it comes to reading culture. In urban areas, young people can read more in English. We need proper readership studies to establish trends,” he said.
Vedamanickam said Diaspora Tamils could contribute to the booming market as for them price is not an issue.
“Many other books are currently being translated into Tamil. There are more computer science writers. People in the film industries are writing books and novelists are turning into screenwriters in the age of OTT platforms. Publishing and promoting books has also become easier. Overall, literature has become a healthy pursuit, and it has given hope for a decent life by writing,” he said.
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Tamilmagan, who is also a publisher, said that due to the “print-on-demand” process, most publishers do not suffer significant losses.
“Print on demand has eased the burden on publishers. Today, they are even ready to publish the work of newcomers. First, they release limited copies, say 300. If things go well, they release another 200 copies. This was not the case before. Publishers had to print at least 1,000 copies and most of the time they were unable to sell them. Some established writers have now started their own publishing houses,” he said.