Monday, April 22, 2013

World Book and Copyright Day: To Retrospect and to Look Forward

The World Book and Copyright Day is celebrated on April 23 each year. The first connection between books and April 23 was established by Spanish booksellers, who chose that day to commemorate Miguel de Cervantes. In 1995, UNESCO proclaimed April 23 as the World Book and Copyright Day.

Defining a book was not too difficult a few years back. There are different definitions used in different countries, but the UNESCO defines a book as a “bound, non-periodical publication, having 49 or more pages.” However, especially with the advent of e-books, this definition is in need of improvisation and discussions on the matter are currently ongoing.

Library Books, Pouya Sh at English Language Wikipedia.

The UNESCO recognizes several important functions of books. They are important as vectors of values and knowledge, depositories of the intangible heritage, windows onto the diversity of cultures and as tools for dialogue. Books are also important as sources of material wealth and copyright-protected works of creative artists.

Many countries do have a National Book Policy. The objective of having such a policy is to recognize it as a culturally and economically important industry and implementing steps to promote it. For example, it is possible to grant special concessions on bank loans, investments and postal services. Recognizing publishing as an industry will enable to increase the employment of experts in this field, which in turn, will help improve professionalism in the industry.

The publishing sector of Sri Lanka is currently at a critical condition. Behind all the attractive books which flood the market lingers this uncomfortable truth. New technology has made publishing a comparatively easy venture than a few decades ago. Therefore, the quantity of books published in Sri Lanka is larger than ever before. However, the quality of these publications has become the victim of the flood of books.

A quality book is the product of the input of many people. The writer is only one, albeit the most important contributor. But, the writer cannot be the publisher, the printer and the editor. All good books need the input of these services. For example, editing a book is a time consuming, serious exercise. However, since Sri Lanka is a comparatively small market, our publishers are finding it difficult to employ professional editors in sufficient numbers to cater for all the books that are published. Therefore, many books that are published have serious shortcomings, spelling and grammatical errors being only one of them.

Sri Lanka’s small market has also thrown many publishers into a rat race of publishing any piece of junk with a potential of earning some money which come across them. Furthermore, they find numerous ways to increase the sales for these books. There are many libraries scattered around the country in schools, local governmental bodies and other governmental and non-governmental institutions. These are a ready source of customers for these publishers. Once a book has been purchased by the library, it may or may not be read by the reader. But, that is none of the publisher’s concern.

One cannot always blame the publishers for these shortcomings. Many authors are also responsible for this situation. Their only aim is to earn some easy money through writing a book. Many of these writers do not have the required writing skills. They are opportunists. For example, there are many instances where the story of a famous film or a television series has been ‘retold’ in Sinhalese by one of our ‘writers.’

This brings us to the other crucial component of this UNESCO day, Copyright. However, it is doubtful if many of the writers have even a basic idea of this aspect. Copyright infringement and even outright plagiarism is not uncommon. This is something a professional editor can also look into. Lacking such services, a publishing company may release such a book without realizing the true nature of it. But the sad part to this story is that even such books have been recognized by various literary prizes on some occasions in the past.

By recognizing publishing as an industry and awarding them relevant concessions will help improve the quality of the book industry in Sri Lanka. With a proper national policy for improving and regulating the standards of our books, we can hope for a better future, where our writers are more recognized even internationally. Many “Third World” writers have reached international fame. There are Indian writers who are world famous. Some African writers are even more famous. But Sri Lanka, a country with a much better literacy level and a rich language and cultural heritage, is still lagging far behind. It is clear evidence for the need of a considerable overhaul of the book industry. It will be a worthy investment for a brighter future of Sri Lanka’s literary scene.