International Book Fair - September 18 - 27 | Sunday Observer
Only if Corona pandemic does not disrupt daily life

International Book Fair - September 18 - 27

28 June, 2020

Sri Lanka Book Publishers' Association has announced that the International Book Fair, Sri Lanka's foremost book exhibition will be held at the BMICH from September 18 to 27, if the Coronavirus pandemic does not disrupt day today life. The Sunday Observer met Vijitha Yapa, President of the Sri Lanka Book Publishers' Association to discuss the upcoming International Book Fair and the Swarna Pusthaka and Rajatha Pusthaka award ceremonies which are the main literary award ceremonies for Sinhala literature.


Q.You have announced the dates of the International Book Fair and the Swarna Pusthaka Award Ceremony. How will you organise these events when the country is still struggling with the Coronavirus pandemic?

Vijitha Yapa

A.We have announced the dates of this year's Book Fair and the Swarna Pusthaka Award Ceremony, but it all depends on the health authorities and what guidelines they give us. This is a temporary announcement which we have put, just to get an idea of what the interest is. Yes, we have booked the place, the BMICH for those dates, but nothing has been finalised yet. We cannot do that until the health authorities tell us what their specific instructions are.

At present for those who are coming for the political rallies, the health authorities want their names and addresses. So, with the sort of crowds coming for the book fair, even if the numbers are halved, that will be quite a task. But we hope that the rules may be relaxed after the election. Because of that presumption we are just making announcements and getting a feedback and we are holding discussions with the authorities constantly.

With the Swarna Pusthaka Award Ceremony, it needs only three hours whereas the book fair goes on for 10 days. So, we are hoping very much that it can be held. But we cannot say anything for certain.

As for the Rajatha Pusthaka, we have decided only to make the media announcement. Ideally, we would like to hold all these events as they are our main events, but once again it's too early to give make an official announcement. This is the end of June and the Book Fair is normally held at the end of September. So,we have almost three months to plan these things. But the thing is we haven't been given the health authorities' guidelines. When those are given, we can take a firm decision.

Q. If the General Election is held without any obstacles, why not the Book Fair?

A. Yes, it is right, but you should also understand the Government's concern. You know, we have suffered for so long that we have to be careful that we don't get a second wave of the Corona virus pandemic. Some countries are already having this. So, we cannot go ahead with our publication schedules until we know things a bit more definitely.

Q. Would you expect to reduce the number of book publishers who are keen on participating at this Book Fair?

A. That is a difficult question to answer, because after we make our official announcement, once we are very clear, then people will have to apply for the stalls. At present, we can't tell what the costs are and what places are available.For instance, one of the halls at the BMICH which is called the Nuga Sevena,is not available at all, because it is dilapidated. Everything is a bit uncertain at the moment, but we hope perhaps in July or August things will be clearer. We are just gathering information now.

Q. Can we hope that international book publishers would come to the Book Fair if the current situation prevails?

A. There again, it all depends. You know now anyone who comes into this country must undergo fourteen days duration, therefore, we cannot expect any foreign publisher to come under this condition. So, what I envisage is that if the Book Fair is held, foreign publishers should get their local representatives or those who are selling their books to run the stalls for them without any foreigners coming in.

On the other hand, even the foreigners have their own problems. If you look at New Delhi and Chennai, there are places from where a certain number of publishers would come for our Book Fair. But Chennai is now on lockdown and Delhi is also sealed. So, it is too early to say anything, but let's see how things develop.

Q. It is evident that there is a considerable reduction in the number of readers who frequent bookshops now. Do you believe that this will be seen at the Book Fair too?

A.I think there has been a thirst for knowledge, because during the curfew period bookshops were closed and people had not been able to visit them. Even today, our bookshops are open, but the numbers who are coming in is very low. Don't forget earlier, people came with their families to bookshops. So, things will definitely return to normalcy, but it takes time. However, the situation would affect the Book Fair too.

Q.Will there be an increase in the prices of books?

A. We can't say, but certain restrictions have been imposed. Paper for instance. Only a certain type of paper is imported. When we met recently with Mr. Basil Rajapaksa, we said that there is a special kind of paper on which books are printed, but unfortunately that particular type of paper has a 15 per cent tax. So, we appeal to the Government to reconsider it. If that happens prices would probably go down.

Q. Don't you think that the readership of books had dropped during the last few months because of Covid -19?

A. It is very difficult to say. Though bookshops were closed during the curfew, their websites were open. Therefore, a lot of deliveries had been made by various bookshops to customers.We, ourselves have done so, not just to the Sri Lankan market, but to the foreign market too. We delivered our orders to New Zealand, Australia, Germany and some other countries. So, I don't think we can say our readership has dropped. Readers did not just order books, but they borrowed books from each other during that time. I read in a newspaper that some writers were able to write books during that period, so a lot of creativity was there.

Q. The global book publishing industry has been affected severely by the Coronavirus outbreak. How does this scenario affect our book publishing?

A. During the pandemic, book publishing has been affected by a number of factors. For instance, for the past three months we had not been able to get book supplies from overseas. Even though the books were supplied, there were no planes to bring them.

Of course, shipping services were there, but if you get books by ships, it may take up to two months to get them. The majority of the books we import are in English and many books come from India.

There again, India has been very badly affected by Covid-19. We could buy a few books from places such as Germany, but the major number of books come from the Western world. Then, there is the problem of transportation. Even for us, we were told to work from home. You know, you can write books at home, but how do you sell books from home? So, these were factors which created problems for us.

Q. If by chance you couldn’t hold the Book Fair and the Swarna Pusthaka Award Ceremony on the scheduled dates, what would you do?

A.With regard to the Swarna Pusthaka Award Ceremony, I don't see that there is a big issue. We have given the books to the judges and they are choosing the winning books now.

As I said earlier, the Award Ceremony needs about three hours, so it is not a big problem to hold the ceremony. Other than that, we could announce the results through the media if the ceremony was affected by the outbreak. The Book Fair is a different event altogether, because it involves thousands of people.

Q. During the last curfew, as the Book Publishers' Association, you had many discussions with the Government to maintain the bookshops and solve their problems. What sort of responses did you receive from the Government?

A. The responses are very good. We spoke about the books, paper, exhibition hall, and other matters. In fact, we do not have a good exhibition hall in Sri Lanka which attracts foreign exhibitions. We have the BMICH, but if you look at it, it is very small. For the Book Fair we have to erect tents there. But if it rains, it is very difficult for the crowd to move about there. Usually, at the Book Fair we have about 400 stalls.

To create those stalls, we have to erect tents. So, we had a long talk with the Government about this exhibition hall issue and we are looking for a good exhibition hall in the future which has 50,000 square feet.

However, we heard about a German investor who wanted to invest in an exhibition hall of about 50,000 square feet. That will be adequate to a great extent to have the Book Fair, but unfortunately, there wasn't a land for this project. So, now I heard that the investor has gone to another country. In our discussion we asked about this matter too.

The other thing with regard to books is that we have not yet exposed ourselves enough to the foreign market. We need a special program to reach this target. If we take the London Book Fair or the Frankfurt Book Fair, during that period the hotel room costs go up three times the normal. So, this means a lot of money and a lot of investments. Even airline ticket prices also go higher during that particular time. Hence, many factors had to be looked into.