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Lost In Transition?

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As I stood in the entrance of the special children's Hall 14E at the World Book Fair in New Delhi and looked around in great anticipation, I was greeted by colourful shelves packed with children's books, waiting for an audience to swarm in and pick them up. But the children were missing. The hall reminded  me of the garden in Oscar Wilde's short story, The Selfish Giant, where the birds did not care to sing ,as there were no children, and the trees forgot to blossom. Unfortunately, the situation did not improve even as the day progressed. In fact the stall staff outnumbered the (virtually non-existent) visitors at the book fair.  One could offer many reasons for this. Primarily, the timeline of the book fair is off; it clashes directly with the Class X and Class XII board examinations. Stall owners complained that since students were missing in action revenues were down.

But the malaise afflicting this book fair, or any other that takes place nowadays, runs deeper. The whole experience of going to a fair, browsing for hours and physically picking up books to get a feel of them and then making a purchase is a process that the SMS generation seems to consider highly overrated. They would rather log on to the various online portals selling books and click to pick the book they want to order. Such transactions prove to be economical since the discounts offered by such websites are much higher than those offered at book fairs. Moreover, the launch of Reado's website, the online portal of India's biggest audio books company, Think Ink Media, bears testimony to the fact that the present and future generations are becoming increasingly impatient and need instant solutions that connect them to knowledge.

Shifting Focus
So is the book fair format passé? Well no. It is still thrilling to watch Javed Akhtar come to release a book and interact live with the audience. The World Book Fair held a series of discussions, seminars, author-meet interactions and workshops with celebrities. It has also tapped into the nationwide craze that is Bollywood and did a commendable job of bringing celluloid charm and its romance with publishing to life. But hiring huge halls, printing banners, trying to upgrade the furniture, and promoting the fair through embassies, overseas federations and associations using an enormous amount of resources is not the way forward. Book fairs need to get lean and mean. From start to finish they need to target young readers and for that they have to be present where this audience lives; in the world of blogspheres, chat rooms and applications.

Their approach needs to be rethought. At the end of the day, books need to sell for knowledge to be disseminated. The  organisers should concentrate on drawing crowds instead of the glamour of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Therefore, timing is paramount. And so is the need to create an ambience wherein both the adults and youngsters can relive their romance with books. Hence, discounts need to be rationalised and series' need to be packaged well. It would be better not to price books out of the market so that students feel they are better off photocopying rather than buying books.

All said and done, I enjoyed the quiet climes of the book fair. I was able to browse without getting pushed around by a jostling crowd and picked up loads of books for my little ones. But the excitement of being at one of the most premier book events was sadly absent. The huge empty spaces around me signified loss of business for the 1300 exhibitors who had taken the pains to participate. And this splurge did burn a big hole in my pocket! Old time book lovers like me are facing extinction. But we have been replaced by a new, enterprising species that likes to read but needs books in a pre-cooked version.