The Freedom To Read, in India

Gautam John

It isn’t always necessary to ban a book to ensure it isn’t read. With six in ten children unable to read grade 2 texts and half of all children in public schools graduating without being able to read fluently, most books will remain unread. The public education system has created, and continues to create, generations of children for whom books are effectively banned.

For the fortunate few who can read, there are further roadblocks on the road to reading. First, of the 80,000 odd new books published each year in India, only around 30% can be considered children’s books. And of those few, 50% are published either in Hindi or English. This, in a country that has 21 official constitutionally recognised languages and many 100s more used across the nation. It is fairly appalling that while the United Kingdom prints close to 6 books for every child, the Indian equivalent is 1 book to every 20 children.

To make the “Freedom to Read” a meaningful proposition in India there are at least three elements of the puzzle that require bolstering. We need more content, in more languages and ways of circumventing the high cost of distribution in India. ‘Innovation’ is a much-abused term that in the context of the Indian children’s book publishing industry, has invariably begun and ended with product and price strategies. For the “Freedom to Read” to be truly effective, publishers will need to create new models of innovation to address the entire content cycle – from the creation, distribution and consumption to the conversation around content – to make an impact in the gargantuan problem that this space represents.

These are not unrealistic expectations either. At Pratham Books, where I work, we have been piloting many such innovations across the spectrum and have diverse learning from these experiments. At the product level, we now have products that span the range from Rs. 2.00 to Rs. 30.00 and have multiple product forms as well – from story cards to books to newer folded paper story formats that are very low cost but maintain high quality standards of product and content. The distribution of reading material, so long as it is tied to physical formats, remains challenging but we have explored new avenues including non-traditional ones such as the railways and the postal service. However, the largest innovations have come at the strategic level – of what it means to be a publisher.

As a publisher, a constant question we ask ourselves is what the dimensions of our mission statement of “A book in every child’s hand” are and what the contours of the problem we are solving are. For example, producing low cost (yet, high quality) books might very well mean that, if access to reading material is the problem, we are only moving the problem to a lower price point. Similarly, does it have to be a Pratham Books’ book in a child’s hand or does it suffice to enable a child to have access to any book?

However, some of the more vexing questions go to the heart of being a publisher – were we acting as content creators and gatekeepers of content? What the rationale of keeping content, that had been published but might not be re-published, locked up by asserting copyright over it and whether there was greater value in setting such content free. Given our audaciously large mission, we had to find ways to create infinite good with finite time and resources and in the process, to create more value, within the ecosystem, than we capture. With this background, we realised that innovation at a process, product and service level alone was not enough and that we needed to innovate at a business model, strategic and management level.

Having answered most of these questions using “openness” (whereby, we asked whether allowing unrestricted access to use and re-use of their content furthered our mission) as a test and finding that it did fit our mission, the second set of questions to answer was more technical – how, as a small non-profit, do we accomplish ”openness” and not find itself overwhelmed and sapped of resources. It was at this point that we had a moment of realization – that reading is an extremely social activity and that there are communities and organizations that were more than ready to help it achieve its goals. While much has been written about this model of ours (see: http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Case_Studies/Pratham_Books and http://blog.prathambooks.org/p/cc-tracker.html) I will restrict myself to two elements of this strategy that strengthens the “Freedom to Read” in the context of the challenges laid out at the outset.

What this new content model, as outlined above, has allowed for is the creation of multiple derivative works, using a single Pratham Book’s book as the catalyst in languages we are unable to publish in, locally printed in places we are unable to deliver to and read in formats we are unable to publish in without any negative impact (we might go so far as to say, it had a positive impact) on our revenue streams. Most importantly, it allows for an inclusive “Freedom to Read” where even those who are print challenged have content made available to them in formats that they are able to consume.

Secondly, this ‘free’ content allied with our mission, has created an incredibly engaged, vibrant and active community around reading. A community of champions that are foot soldiers in making this right to read significant – over the last three years, we have experimented with assisting individuals hold book reading or book launch sessions in geographies in which we are absent. This came to pass as a request from the community itself – that while Pratham Books could not be present everywhere, the community was and all they needed was a minimum amount of material support to extend our reach. Year 1 saw 19 such events on a single day, year 2 saw 54 and this year, we had over 400 reading sessions conducted by over 170 champions covering 28 states and 2 union territories done in 5 languages that the book was published in along with 9 new languages that the book was translated in to by the champions and impacted over 18000 children. All in one day. (see:http://prathambooks.org/1-day-1-book-250-sessions and: http://champions.prathambooks.org)

For the “Freedom to Read” to be effective, innovation must be at the core of the publishing world, not merely at the periphery and we must leverage the power of the collective to achieve this societal goal. But mostly, it involves us, as individuals and as a nation, acknowledging that it as an important and basic right. Without that, stasis is all that remains.

(Gautam John is an educator and entrepreneur who works with the Akshara Foundation and Pratham Books. He’s at twitter/gkjohn.)

(More posts on Banned Books Week:  go here)