HARSHA MAN MAHARJAN
Here is my aricle on alternative book fair published today in Republica
The book exhibition of not-for-profit publishers, Alternative Book Fair, ended on Dec 14. Himal Association organized the fair from Dec 10 at Sabhagriha, Kathmandu. Fourteen NGOs participated in the fair. However, they were dissatisfied with the flow of visitors. What went wrong? The organizer and the organizations that participated in it have been forced to think about it. Martin Chautari, the organization I am associated with, also participated in this fair. The ideas I am presenting in this article is the result of my interaction with friends and my observation of five days at the fair. Martin Chautari has been participating in this fair since the first edition, which was organized in 2005.DEFINITION: INTERPRETATIONA friend of mine entered Sabhagriha when he saw a banner of Alternative Book Fair at the front gates. He had assumed that Sajha Prakashan had once again organized a book fair like it had done a few days earlier. But he could not make out what the word alternative stood for. I also saw a student asking his friends about the meaning of Alternative Book Fair. This is a fair of not-for-profit book publishers. It started in 2005 as a bid to uplift and popularize books published by NGOs/INGOs. I think this is alternative in two ways.
One reason to for using the term ‘alternative’ is the not-for-profit nature of the whole affair. Mainstream publishers are commercial and their sole interest is to seek and earn profit. Some of the not-for-profit publishers have been producing books of good quality which would have been expensive if the same were published by commercial publishers. Some NGOs even distribute books for free.Another reason is related to the fair itself. It is alternative as it is another version of the main fair Global Exposition and Management Services Pvt Ltd, in which many small booksellers and publishers shun from participating as the rate of the stalls are exorbitant. However, the rate of stalls for the Alternative Book Fair is far cheaper.UNINTERESTED ORGANIZERSHimal Association was the sole organizer of Alternative Book Fair 2009, which was unprecedented in the history of the fair. In the first fair, there were nine organizers: Martin Chautari, Himal Association, Room to Read, Rato Bangla Kitab, CWIN, Action Aid Nepal, INSEC, CNAS and Bagar Foundation. Martin Chautari came up with this idea at first. It did consultation with other organizations and other eight organizations agreed to be the organizers. But Martin Chautari took all the responsibility to organize the fair. It planned the inauguration and closing programs. It worked as the secretariat for the fair. All organizers did different activities to attract visitors. Rato Bangla and Room to Read arranged student visits for different schools, and Room to Read earmarked reading space for children in the fair. It was evident that all organizers were full of zeal.In the second edition of the fair in 2006, the number of organizers went down to six. Three organizations – CNAS, Bagar Foundation and Rato Bangla Kitab – not only stopped being organizers; they were unwilling to even participate in the fair. Even so, Room to Read and others continued to play significant roles to increase the flow of visitors. Martin Chautari did programs related to publishing everyday in cooperation with Fine Print. In 2007, the fair was not organized. In 2008, Himal Association and Martin Chautari were the organizers. It was organized as a part of Film Festival organized by Himal Association. Books were launched during the fair. These kinds of activities helped to publicize the fair in the media.However, in 2009, the flow of visitors to the fair was remarkably low. The participating organizations complained that Himal Association did not give sufficient interest to publicize the book fair. It was engrossed with films only. Nobody inaugurated the book fair. It had never happened before. No publicity efforts were made to attract attention of the media and visitors. Though Jagadamba Publication brought out a new book by journalist Kanak Mani Dixit it was launched in Yala Maya, Patan, not Jagadamba’s stall at the fair. If Jagadamba Publication had launched the book at its stall at the fair, that would have attracted more visitors. This shows lack of coordination between the organizers and participating organizations. It also shows lack of homework on the part of the organizer.My primary concern is the disinterest of NGOs to be partner organizers of the book fair. Ideally, the fair should be organized through cooperation of NGOs/INGOs. That demands a lot of homework before the fair. All participants must consider the book fair as their own. However, what has happened is that participation of organizations has decreased.LETHARGIC PARTICIPANTSIn 2005, the number of participants of the book fair was 30. It went down to 25 in 2006. In 2008 it was 28. This year, there were only 14. These figures clearly show that many organizations have stopped participating in this fair. There are many reasons behind this. Some organizations want big sales, which would at least cover the cost of hiring a stall. They are wrong. This fair began with an aim to bring different not-for-profit publishers at one place and share their problems and search for remedies. It also started to take these publications to their target audiences. Its aim was to popularize publications of not-for-profit publishers.Some organizations point out that they lack human resources to oversee their stall. It’s true that this is a problem for many NGOs as they operate with inadequate staff. But some participants are solving this problem. For example, in the latest fair, SAWTEE used a volunteer to manage its stall. What is needed, I think, is coordination among NGOs/INGOs. A lot of NGOs/INGOs have published different materials related to their work and they can make it available to the masses through these kinds of book fairs.WHAT LIES AHEAD?The organizer/s and the participating organizations have to work collectively to popularize the Alternative Book Fair. Himal Association has to evaluate its weaknesses. If this is done, I think we can be happy about the outcome of the next Alternative Book Fair in 2010. The organizer also has to think about the duration. Is organizing the book fair once a year good? Can we organize it once every two years? I think it will be okay if this fair is organized every two years. There are many organizations, which come up with very few publications in a year. They believe that it is worthless to participate in the fair with the same old publications. There is another option too. If an organization has few publications, the organizer has to encourage them to keep a stall jointly with some other organization facing the same situation. Actually, Education Network, a combination of three organizations, has been doing this since the fair’s inception.(Writer is associated with Martin Chautari, a policy research institute in Kathmandu.)