Thursday 25 September 2014

Guest Post: Sam Perera on the Colombo International Book Fair

The Colombo International Book Fair (CIBF) is Sri Lanka’s leading retail book market, and an all-round celebration of the written word. Sam Perera is co-founder of the Colombo-based Perera-Hussein Publishing House, a company riding the crest of the new wave of Asian fiction, and committed to authors who inspire, provoke or entertain. Sam here writes about visiting CIBF, which he attended as a publisher-exhibitor, and which concluded last week.

"Noel tells me he visited every stall at the book fair but didn’t find anything unusual or exciting except with us. He congratulates me on our range of Sri Lankan authors and proceeds to buy Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast – a rags to riches picaresque which he says might echo his own story. Fellow publisher Janaka Inimankada makes it a point to tell me that his daughter loved our children’s book Milk Rice 2 which he bought her the previous evening. A young man recovering from a boating accident and nursing 64 stitches on his arm tells us that he wanted to stock up his bookshelf and that ours was the only stall he visited. We remember him from the year before. A young lady announces that she bought and read our foray into hint (flash) fiction Short & Sweet from cover to cover, in one go, and that she is hungry for more. This is the imagined reading public we came to meet, and they do not disappoint us.

The month of September is devoted to celebrating literature in Sri Lanka; festivals and award ceremonies abound. The Godage Awards and State Literary Awards cover the most categories, but for writers, the most desirable is the Swarna Pustaka or Golden Book Award offered by the Publishers’ Association. The covetable jackpot of LKR 500,000 is bagged by the year’s best novelist (in Sinhala) and LKR 50,000 each goes a fair way to console the runners up. Following hot on the heels of this award ceremony, and easily eclipsing it, CIBF is a 9-day event (reduced to 7 days this year) organised independently by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association, without state sponsorship. The biggest such event in Sri Lanka, the Publishers’ Association claims it attracts a staggering one million visitors or one-twentieth of the Island’s population to Colombo and to the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) during that period. Verifiable entry estimates are based on ticket sales and exclude, according to its organisers, free passes to school children, clergy, and staff and stall holders.

We began exhibiting at CIBF ten years ago – in the cheapest possible stall, in the least desirable hall, with just 5 titles to our credit. Over the years, we have watched CIBF grow and luckily, we have been able to keep pace. Moving steadily from hall to hall, the Perera-Hussein Publishing House can now afford to exhibit in prime halls and we now have more than a hundred titles to our credit. This annual participation is the only time we have a retail presence which provides us with an opportunity to meet our readership.

As always, I get to the Fair early and have my pick of prime parking spots. But large though it might be, BMICH has inadequate parking to handle the crowds the Fair attracts. The parking lots fill up very fast, spilling over into adjoining streets. For once, the usually strict traffic police are indulgent with vehicles parked in no-parking zones. If you still didn’t find a spot, free shuttle buses ferry people regularly to the halls from designated parking areas. Reasonably priced tuk-tuks and even a stepped up public transport will drop you off just outside the BMICH premises. No one produces an excuse for not turning up. Leaving is another matter altogether as inconsiderately parked vehicles that block your exit will easily result in frayed tempers.

Once you have joined the line, bought your nominally priced ticket (LKR 20), and received a free map of the stalls, you will be amazed by the thronging mass of humanity who share your objective – that of picking up a book at a bargain price. More than 200 different exhibitors from all parts of the island compete to bring you that bargain and make their Sinhala, Tamil or English books available to this once-a-year extraordinary public. Of course the Sinhala language segment is the biggest, and non-fiction often trumps fiction. School books, science books, study aids, history books, collectible books, religious books, music books, art books, translations – if I didn’t list your preferred reading matter, rest assured that it can be easily found.  And yes, for general readers, those award winning books are available at lots of stalls. The publisher of a novel shortlisted for this year’s Swarna Pustaka award made me green with envy by saying that the nominated book had sold close to 7,000 copies by the 3rd day of the Fair. Who says no one is reading?

By 11am the fairground is full. If you brought the kids, and they need distracting, the children’s corner will take them off your hands. Reps from the British Council or Room to Read will keep them busy while reading them stories. For a few rupees you can have your portrait sketched or learn to draw at the art camp. Book launches, readings and discussions complement the main offering. Hungry? Want a break from browsing? Conveniently placed food stalls sell everything from noodles to pizza to ice cream. Mount Lavinia hotel offers more up-market restaurant food. Or if you prefer, you could bring your own picnic and eat in the shade of a tree. Tea, coffee and plenty of free filtered water keep you from dehydrating in the sweltering heat, not forgetting the air conditioned stalls! Towards evening, you will witness musical manifestations and mini theatre – for CIBF isn’t just any old book sale or exhibition, it is a major red circle on everyone’s cultural calendar.

Also by 11am, you are rubbing shoulders with an amazing cross section of Sri Lanka. If you missed the head of state, you will see presidential hopefuls, ministers, hangers-on, off-duty armed forces personnel, teachers, clergy, office-workers, housewives, collectors, architects, journalists, editors, film-makers, CEOs, junior staffers, doctors, lawyers and ambitious parents who want their children to improve their reading skills. In short, you will see anyone who can read or wants to in a nation with a 91.2% literacy rate. Colombo being what it is, you will undoubtedly run into old friends, close friends, new friends and various levels of acquaintances, for, during the space of this event, the book fair is THE place for chance encounters.

At the commencement of the fair, self-published authors with limited readerships tout their books around hoping an indulgent stall holder will exhibit their book. Prospective authors target publishers who suit their work, but given this is a retail rather than trade fair, I’m unsure of their success rate. Students came to our stall looking for books we published in 2006, and have already declared out-of-print, saying they are reading these titles in university.  I am thrilled, but unfortunately, small publishers like us can’t afford to keep an active backlist and we turn them away with regret. Blue a collection of naughty stories for a mature audience was also high on the asking list – again, it is a title we let lapse after ceding sub-continental rights to an Indian publisher. Students who are unfamiliar with our publishing profile ask for every old, established and outdated author from Charles Dickens to Erich Segal through Jane Austen (so that’s what they teach!) We direct them to the major bookseller stalls that do a rollicking and continual business in school texts.

Antiquarian books on Ceylon which are in the common domain are reprinted by an Indian publisher who does a steady volume of sales. They don’t have a corner on the market and aren’t the only ones selling reproductions. A slew of vendors carry reprints of obscure and famous writers who have commented on their week, months or years spent in Ceylon. Emphasising the international element, UK, Malaysian and Singaporean publishers are represented by local agents. Indian publishers come themselves. One of them expressed surprise not only at the number of stationery stalls, but at the long lines of people waiting patiently to buy stationery. In quiet moments, exhibitors troll the stalls themselves and quite often give each other trade discounts. This is also an opportunity for them to see what’s out there and strike new alliances. Walking through the bargain section with my partner Ameena Hussein, she spotted the first edition of her book Zillij, which has long been out-of-print. The vendor, who is unknown to us, greeted her warmly saying he recognised her from TV and media photographs.

School books and stationery are probably at the top of people’s wish list, followed by leisure reading. This is also the one time that the general reading public has access, in one location, to small publishers of esoteric works who don’t have the marketing muscle to place their books with major retailers. A fair number of people may have come just to check out the scene, but regardless of whether they came to browse or buy, you would have seen very few people walking around without any purchase whatsoever. More often than not, people carried multiple bags from multiple stalls. Given that I like to guess what people spend, I think that on average, everyone spends a minimum of LKRs 1,000 per visit excluding food and beverage. Multiply that by over one million entrants and you will be blown away by the money changing hands at the exhibition alone!

Small publishers like us exhibit more for visibility and goodwill rather than sales. Unlike major booksellers, we have no stocks to clear or sales targets to reach. For us, it is rewarding enough when people say they are familiar with our work or that they have no hesitation in buying books that we have published. This reassures us that we are on the right track. Our authors too enjoy coming to our stall and chatting to a new readership.  Retired senior consultant surgeon and established author, Dr Philip G Veerasingam who has written his third amazing memoir Tales of an Enchanted Boyhood dropped by from Avissawella and autographed copies for his fans. New entrant Ashan Jayatilaka presented his fantasy-adventure debut novel Knights of Olympus: Tristan’s Conquest to delighted visitors who snapped it up. School teachers were especially interested in our books that have been approved for school libraries.

This year China was the Fair’s guest of honour, and as can be expected, their pavilion carried unusual and interesting Chinese books. I was invited to attend a formal ceremony where, on behalf of Sri Lankan publishers, Mr. Vijitha Yapa, who is one of the foremost motivators of CIBF, signed an agreement with the Chinese Minister of Culture for a cultural exchange and mutual translation of works between our two countries, paving the way for Sri Lankan publishers to exhibit at the annual Beijing International Book Fair. As a memento, I received a book mark and a beautiful woodcut, inked before my admiring eyes.

Whatever difficulties exhibitors or the general public encounter, they are really minor annoyances considering that, arguably, CIBF is the world’s most interesting place to be in the month of September and it is easily one of Asia’s largest book fairs. Year-on-year attendance continues to show growth - this year was no exception, with more visitors than ever before. However, a victim of its own success, the CIBF has outgrown its favourite exhibition grounds. Due to a fire at BMICH some time ago, the space allocated for the book fair was reduced this year. As a result, the demand for stalls was high, and the price of stalls was higher. Unable to afford the raised prices, a few smaller publishers and organisations producing interesting materiel dropped out, as did a few state institutions. The number of days the book fair could run was reduced to seven. All of which should provide enough incentive for the Publishers’ Association to look for a new or alternative exhibition venue to host what is easily Sri Lanka’s largest and most vibrant exhibition."