Bengali publishing industry scripts its revival

The once robust Bengali publishing industry, hit hard by the pandemic and the consequent lockdowns, is seeing a revival with the lifting of restrictions and the holding of the Kolkata book fair in March this year, according to publishers and authors alike.

“They have reawakened the industry,” said Subhankar Dey of Dey’s Publishing, one of the most reputed Bengali publishers, about the recently held book fair, organised after a gap of two years, and the overall lifting of lockdown restrictions putting the business on the path of revival.

Young publishers

“In the last five years or so, a number of young people got into the business, many of them coming out with literary works that were off the beaten track. They too suffered due to the lockdown. But the book fair helped them reconnect with their readers and they are bouncing back now,” said Mr. Dey.

There are close to 400 Bengali publishers and 200 little magazines, most of them concentrated in Kolkata’s busy College Street, which is once again bustling with activity. College Street was not only hit by the pandemic but also by Cyclone Amphan which washed away countless books from its iconic pavements.

Rhito Prakashan, established in 2015, is one such example of younger people getting into publishing. “Lockdown was a serious threat. There was a time when I personally used to deliver books at doorsteps of readers, riding on a motorbike, after taking special permission from the police. Once online platforms started to function, things became a bit easy. We also ventured into e-books,” said Aitrayee Sarkar, proprietor of Rhito, whose recent bestsellers include by Goutam Mitra (a literary biography of Jibanananda Das) and (a collection of pieces on Goddess Durga and her family).

“The book fair gave us the much required push. It not only saved many publishers but also binders, paper suppliers, practically everyone related to this trade,” Ms. Sarkar said. She added, “I think publishing is going through a major shift. It is increasingly seeing out-of-the-box ideas and new ways of promotion. We are heading towards an entirely new ecosystem, and people seem to be accepting our experiments. This itself points to growth. Established publishers are helping us. I personally go to publishers like Dey’s and Sahitya Samsad for advice.”

Writer Parimal Bhattacharya said if the feedback he has received from his publisher Ababhash is any indication, then things are indeed looking up. According to him, the response for most of his non-fiction books, particularly and (which he recently transcreated as ), has been “extremely good”.

“Most Bengali non-textbook publishers are small-scale and operate rather informally. The pandemic hit them badly. But many adapted to the changed situation rather quickly. After the first few months in 2021, when restrictions were eased, they switched to online marketing, some even with their own delivery network. Now a large percentage of readers prefer to browse and order books from their home rather than making a trip to the congested College Street. This is a welcome change, since Kolkata has almost no indie bookshop where Bengali readers can browse at leisure,” Mr. Bhattacharya said.

He too agreed that many young publishers had appeared over the last few years, with fresh ideas and new titles, and that they were using social media to connect with readers on both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border. “I see a new, phoenix-like dynamism in Bengali publishing, with a growing young readership. The response was extremely good during the last book fair for most publishers,” Mr. Bhattacharya said.

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