Kathmandu: Ajit Baral always wanted to be his own boss. A nine-to-five office job is not his cup of tea, he says. This disposition to work was cultivated in Baral early on. That meant he had to do something that would interest him and provide him the freedom to do it in his own time. His interests—reading, writing, and editing—were cultivated early on, too. And when he was brainstorming ideas, Baral knew that his father, Durga Baral, a renowned artist and political cartoonist who goes by the nom de guerre Vatsyayana, was looking for a publication house to print a collection of his cartoons. Baral wanted to publish his father’s artwork himself and thought about opening a publication house. He discussed it with his friend Niraj Bhari and the duo agreed to give it a shot. It was 2006.
Today, FinePrint has established itself one of the leading private imprints in Nepal and been a catalyst to the rise of reading culture in the country. Since their first book, titled Vatsyayana and his Barbs, the publication has put out around 100 books so far. The team behind the publication also organizes regular book tours, recitals and a literary festival. The enterprise has come of age.
In now way has it been smooth sailing, however. Baral recounts an early setback: “We were clueless about how the business of the publication house would become our source of bread and butter. The business started with very little capital, so little that it went to zero after putting out the first publication.”
But their first book did good business and helped the publication stay afloat. Bhari’s sense of the graphic helped the book to become popular, Baral says. Many readers appreciated the book for its layout and designs.
“We wanted to stand out from other publications, so we equally gave priority to the cover page, layout, and graphic of the books,” says Baral. “Back then, publication houses did not pay attention to the graphic and layout design of the books.”
Before starting FinePrint, Baral had done an internship at LeftWord, an India-based publication house that seeks to reflect the views of leftist politics in India and South Asia. This significantly helped him to run a publication house.
“Similarly, we also made an extra effort on editing,” added Baral.
Likewise, FinePrint also brought an innovation in the book’s marketing strategy. For instance, they published a volume of “Karnali Blues” and distributed it at the book fair. Most probably, it happened for the first time in Nepal. The idea to distribute the volume of “Karnali Blues” created a hype for the book among the readers before its full version was released.
Another new practice was introduced in book launching events.
“Earlier, writers used to organize book launches at their own expense but we changed the trend and began holding the expenses of the book launch,” said Baral. “We started doing book tours in different parts of the country. Similarly, we also made a music video for the promotion of books and started advertising books in media outlets.”
All of these were new practices in the book industry of Nepal. It helped to make their books popular in the market. Likewise, FinePrint is also the pioneer to print books on lightweight paper.
“The printing of books in lightweight paper has made it easy for the readers to carry the book wherever they travel,” says Baral.
When FinePrint was starting out, there was no reading culture and it compelled them to print books in fewer numbers. But now the condition is different; the number of book readers has swelled. Some of the reasons behind it could be the changing promotional strategy of books and wide coverage of books in the media, Baral says.
“The media just does not only advertise the books but it also reviews them and recommends them to the readers. The media can make a celebrity out of an author.”
Social media has equally helped the books to reach out to larger audiences. But on the other hand, it has also become a challenge for reading culture. “People spend a huge amount of time scrolling social media and do not make time for reading books.”
When FinePrint was starting out, there was no reading culture and it compelled them to print books in fewer numbers. But now the condition is different; the number of book readers has swelled.
Another challenge is the education system.
Baral says, “Our education system does not promote the culture of reading non-text books. There are no proper libraries in many schools.” He adds, “The government also does not take any initiative that promotes the culture of reading and writing.”
Current book scene of Nepal
“A while back, I used to say that this is the best time to get involved in the Nepali book industry. At that time there used to be larger discussions on Nepali books, the number of readers and books was increasing,” said Baral. “The trend was very encouraging. But now I feel like the reading trend of Nepali books is declining.”
While Baral is saying that the business of Nepali books at recent times is not up to the mark, on the other hand, he has learned that English books are doing good business. “Our studies have shown that the Nepali readers are switching to English books.”
As most of the students study in private schools, they mainly focus on reading only the English content. Similarly, English books are also easily available on internet platforms. This is the reason, Baral believes, that the readership of English books is increasing and Nepali is decreasing.
Preference of Nepali readers
In Nepal, a large number of audiences prefer self-help books. “Books that discuss how to be happy, satisfied, and rich garner a good number of audience.”
Likewise, biographies and autobiographies of successful and celebrated figures are also read on a large scale. Nonfiction is much more preferred by the readers. With that, romance and speculative fiction are also read widely.
Impact of Covid in publication house
The first couple of months after the pandemic struck, no movement took place in the book industry. Book stores and publications, everything was closed. This made them financially weak. Even after things were back to normalcy they had a problem.
“We could not recover the loss made during the lockdown. This made it difficult to pay the rent of the office and the salary of staff,” said Baral.
Digitalization of Nepali books
Although it is almost certain that the future of books is e-books, Nepal is backward in digitizing books.
“We have a very small market and we are still not adequately developed in technology. Just a few years back we started paying the money digitally,” said Baral.
“The investment in E-book is expensive. As our book industry is small we can’t afford to invest in the digitization of books. It is hard to get the profitable return shortly from the investment in digitizing Nepali books.”
From this year FinePrint is planning to publish around 25 books annually.
We already have some quality books for the coming days, we are preparing to publish those books very soon, said Baral.
Likewise, FinePrint is also focusing on translation.
“Our books also need to go global, so we are also working on translations of some of the best Nepali books,” he said. “Few of them are about to hit the market.”