January 7, 2013

The world of Indian book piracy


Boys selling pirated books in India

Much of the book piracy coverage in 2012 focused on China, while India, a country where studies estimate 20-25 percent of books are pirated, went largely unmentioned.

This week in the New York Times, Sonia Faleiro has an interesting account of the underground world of selling pirated books in India.

Faleiro notes that, although India has a long history of piracy, it is only more recently that you can buy books such as Fifty Shades of Grey on every street corner. She says,

“It wasn’t until the ’90s that best sellers were pirated; today, they dominate the black market, selling at less than half the Indian cover price. Eagerly anticipated books like those in the “Harry Potter” series are often available the morning of their worldwide release. As a result, the books most readily found in Mumbai these days aren’t purchased in the city’s established bookstores but outside, where children peddle shrink-wrapped paperbacks.”

She describes a Fagin-like industry, where “seths” — pirated book suppliers — gather gangs of trustworthy boys to sell pirated books. They need to be trustworthy given the high value of the product.

Suppliers traditionally hire only boys.

“Boys move fast in traffic, and they carry many more books,” explained Ganesh, a seth I spoke with in Haji Ali. Ganesh, who uses only one name, is just 19 years old and has 15 boys working under his direction…. Selling in traffic is also considered a starter job. After dodging speeding buses for a few years, inevitably suffering injury, child peddlers typically graduate to safer work as hawkers of fruits or temple flowers. If they’re ambitious, they become seths, working a group of children as they themselves were once worked.

We treated the book piracy trade, when I was briefly in India, with amusement and acceptance, and it seemed, so did the locals. (I didn’t work in publishing then, I’m sorry!) In Udaipur I stupidly swapped two legitimate paperbacks purchased at a Sydney bookstore for one shrink-wrapped copy of William Dalrymple’s The White Mughals, which the bookseller assured me was real. If was of course, as fake as can be — the paper so thin that the pages almost tore each time the page was turned.

Akshay Pathak at Publishing Perspectives also offers a nuanced view of the publishing situation in India. He argues that most Indians aren’t even aware of the issue.

“Waiting at a traffic signal in any major city of the Subcontinent, one would be amazed at the range of pirated books being offered. Till a few years ago, this would only include international bestsellers such as those by Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer; but today, they include Ramachandra Guha’s historical writings to Jaishree Mishra’s novels.”

Access to legitimate titles might also be a problem. As Pathak notes, there exists an unhelpful practice of giving rights for all Commonwealth countries collectively to a British publisher. Because of this, according to Pathak, many titles never make it to India, and Indian publishers are unable to acquire rights to them.

Given India’s strong tradition of patronage for the written word, as with China, an adaptive and flexible approach would surely be most rewarding for those wishing to grow the market for non-pirated books.



Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.