Delhi World Book fair: A fair like no other – Blue Barrows

Thomas Abraham

In Delhi it’s that time of year again when publishers, distributors and retailers are scrambling around frantically getting everything from point-of-sale to stocks right. It’s the World Book fair (WBF), which comes around once every two years sprawling across the giant halls of Pragati Maidan. This is the fair’s 20th edition, and although there are look-alikes all over the country, this one is undoubtedly the mother-of-them all.

In the 1980s and the ’90s, the Kolkata Book fair was the fair to go. But with the move from the maidan, apart from other venue and organisational problems, Kolkata has had to give up its title. Today the Delhi WBF is a mammoth affair, and has gone beyond just being a sort of retail exhibition.

Actually, no book fair in India would really qualify to be a ‘trade fair’ like Frankfurt or London, where business and rights deals are a norm. But like the Jaipur Literary Fest, what we lack in focus, or ‘order and method’, we make up for in sheer numbers.

The WBF is a giant carnival. The last edition had over 800,000 visitors, and the organizers are wondering whether this year the million mark will be touched, given that the Pragati Maidan now has direct metro connectivity and that admission is free. Certainly the exhibitors have gone up since last time to about 1,300. That’s still, of course, less than a tenth of the total number of publishers in the country, as estimated by the various federations who put the count at being well over 15,000.

Month of March

This year, for the first time, the dates of the WBF moved from the traditional January end to early February period to a whole month down the line. This has met with some consternation as many publishers felt that it was leaving it too late for library budgets, and many schools would have exams on, and that might affect the turnout a bit. The jury is out on that one – the verdict will be out on the 4th of March when it all gets over.

So what are the business stats from the fair? Herein lies the rub – there are none. Ironically, for an industry that is seeing technological change at a pace like never before, and typically of an industry still coming to grips with management information, there is no reliable data available apart from guesstimates.

The National Book Trust (NBT) – the fair organizers – blames it on traditional publisher mindsets and the archaic notion of ‘business secrets’ where exhibitors don’t divulge figures. But even just by conservative extrapolation, assuming a Rs 2.5 lakh average turnover per participant (incidentally, the big ones top Rs 20 crore) one is looking at a fair turnover of over Rs 30 crore in cash sales, which is more than three times the business done from all of the leading bookstores all over India in any given week. Trade buying, rights deals, subscription sales, print contracts, and other ‘collateral business’ are on top of this.

Trade & Rights

The WBF – indeed the industry – needs to take this to the next level with a dedicated two days for ‘trade and rights’. Years ago, the first two hours of the fair every day used to be designated trade hours where librarians and stockists could browse uninterrupted, a practice since discontinued. But if the 9-day fair could be shortened to seven days for consumers with two days as business days, India might yet see the fillip it needs in its rights business, as local-to-international rights networks build.

India has a large contingent going to Frankfurt but bulk of these is either English publishers-distributors, visiting principals or remainder merchants buying surplus stock. The size of the Indian rights pavilion is testament to the fact that our share of the rights pie is negligible.


When were the last time you heard of an Indian work in translation break out through a rights purchase the way Wolf-Totem was snapped up from Chinese or The Devotion of Suspect-X from the Japanese? It’s only if we build a rights module here within the WBF, that one can gradually work up (yes it will take years) to exploiting the rights potential from Indian languages in translation.

So what purpose does the fair serve? With the surge in online bookstores, does it still have any relevance? I believe it still has huge relevance. Quite simply it is at its most fundamental, the only real direct interface publishers have with their end readers. This is the only time you can actually put the range you want up there, and watch readers as they browse.

For most publishers, the long tedious day playing floor assistant and traffic cop rolled into one has its reward in watching that die-hard fan chasing that obscure book you thought would never sell. The ecstasy of finding that long lost book, the agony of seeing something priced beyond one’s budget, the amazement at seeing a bargain or combo offer…it’s all there every day, hour on hour. For readers, this is the one time you’ll get to see, touch, browse lists and full range as you can never anywhere else.

Online has its convenience, but by and large you need to know what book you want, notwithstanding the cross recommendations the better sites have. This is where a reader can experience that joy of discovery-where s/he will see full series, obscure imprints, rare titles.

Then there are the bargains. Fair rules make it impossible to deep discount but bargain tables with ‘fair prices’ and combination offers abound. What we have over the nine days of the fair is in essence the world’s largest bookstore-over a million square feet of books to choose from-in every Indian language, a lot of foreign ones, and of course English.

(The author is Managing Director, Hachette India)