Looking Back | Chairperson’s Letter at Pratham Books

May 30, 2014
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This letter was written for Pratham Books Annual Report 2013-2014.

We had more passion than experience. We had more commitment than competence. Like most start-ups, Pratham Books began with little more than a dream.

Sure, it was a grand vision. We wanted to enable ‘A Book in Every Child’s Hand’. Born out of the Pratham network, we set ourselves up as an independent, non­ profit publisher of children’s books on January 1, 2004. We would enable appropriate, indigenous content of high quality and an attractive price, and in multiple languages, to democratize the joy of reading for India’s children.

As Founder-Chairperson and chief funder for exactly ten years from that date, I can truly share that we have moved closer to that vision than co­- founders Ashok Karnath, Rekha Menon and I thought possible on that cold January morning. Ten years later, we have nearly two thousand books, millions of readers, and a truly inspired volunteer community apart from a dedicated in-house team. And we have tried disruptive innovations every step of the way.

It has not been easy. We had to convert our lack of baggage into an advantage. While Ashok, our Managing Trustee had to quickly learn the difference between offset and digital printing, he also had to retain his fresh eyes. While some of us, including, myself, had to become children’s authors overnight, we also had to build out a plan to draw in real professionals.

We learnt rapidly along the way. We wanted to scale access, and we had to think differently. We chose to build a hybrid organization- with significant philanthropic capital, with a market-ready approach and with strategic alliances across the big players – the government, other publishers and non-profits. We had to innovate across the distribution cycle, and go where no publisher could go before. We tried everything we could. Our books went along with the door-to-door sales, women of Unilever, they went with the Indian Railways; they landed up in kirana stores and rode in the backpacks of solar energy salesmen.

Not everything worked. But we learnt from our failures and continued to innovate. We successfully drew in an ever enlarging circle of writers, illustrators and even co-publishers. We leveraged both technology and common sense to keep our costs low and our productivity high. We enabled more simultaneous translations per title than most other publishers. We did not get paralyzed by the desire for perfection; we knew our books and our outreach could be better and we focused on doing the absolute best we could do, with the resources that we had.

It helped that ours was a societal mission. This was not about us. Pratham Books clearly wanted to be a catalyst, a platform, and a bold innovator. There was just one real goal – to democratize the joy of reading. Many people naturally veered towards this mission. Not just writers and illustrators but many others who gave generously of their time and talent. Volunteers came forward by the dozens to help more children access more books.

I believe the real transformation came when we realized that the only way to truly break out of a low equilibrium was to leverage new technologies and new ideas. We decided to put up a lot of our content on the Creative Commons, allowing people to use our content freely, making stories available to children everywhere in a digital format, and on multiple devices so as to increase access. If we could not do it alone, we would enable others to do it with us.

They did it and how. Today, Pratham Books has one of the largest repositories of free children’s content. Enthusiasts across multiple countries have downloaded our books, rewritten them, translated them into many languages, printed them, distributed them, and even sold them. That’s been fine with us; we are happy with a small attribution about the source.

With that big idea, we have broken free of many constraints. Potential new distribution channels have opened up. A printer in, say Guwahati can now simply print and sell our Assamese books, if she wishes to.

Many more contributors have understood that this platform may not give them much money but will give them unprecedented reach, with all its implications. Non-profits have been happy to have good content, free, to give to the children they work with. I believe this has been a game changer for us.

I cannot resist a personal testimony. The Annual Haircut Day, which I myself penned under the pseudonym Noni, about a character called Sringeri Srinivas, has become astonishingly popular. Sringeri’s stories have been read not just in many Indian languages but also in languages around the world. Such as French, Chinese and Lojban, which is an Internet language! This could never have been possible if we had not freed up our content for others to use. I may never know exactly how much ‘print revenue’ we might have given up on Sringeri Srinivas, but I do know that our policy has made it possible for millions more children to have the same access to stories that I had, albeit in a more modern form.

This is why I can say with conviction that Pratham Books, in a short span of ten years, has moved energetically closer to its vision. Best of all, under Suzanne Singh’s leadership as the new Chairperson, with her vast experience as the earlier Managing Trustee, Pratham Books is set to take things to an entirely new level, as you shall soon see. I wish Pratham Books all the best for its second decade.

Everyone can help. I hope you will join Pratham Books in its mission. “A book in every child’s hand- or on her mobile phone!”

 

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