- In conversation with the legendary Vijitha Yapa
By Naveed Rozais
Vijitha Yapa is the definition of a Lankan household name. We’ve all grown up hearing it and, at least, I hope, looking forward to our next visit to the Vijitha Yapa bookshop to see what magical books there are for us to peruse.
The man behind the brand, Vijitha Yapa himself, is no less legendary, with a career in journalism and publishing that spans nearly 60 years. From working as a freelancer for a number of foreign newspapers in his youth to being the Founding Editor of not just one but three national newspapers – The Island, The Sunday Island, and The Sunday Times – Yapa also started his own publishing company (and prolific bookshop network) and Sri Lanka’s first PR company, VYA PR.
His name and hard-hitting journalism have graced international bibles like The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Financial Times, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Gulf News, and International Herald Tribune. He also became the correspondent in Sri Lanka for the Times of London.
The Sunday Morning Brunch too sat down with this publishing legend for a chat on just how the publishing industry is faring amidst this latest crisis and how he hopes we can recover.
(Some of) the story behind one of Sri Lanka’s biggest names in publishing
Looking back on how he first got into publishing, Yapa reflected on how as a journalist working with foreign publications, his work became well-regarded, and a New Zealand publication asked him to shadow then Opposition Leader J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ) for a day (this was in 1977 or 1978). The subsequent connection he formed with Jayewardene on this assignment and over the next few years saw JRJ ask Yapa to become part of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission after he became President, a position Yapa accepted on the condition of being allowed to keep his journalistic integrity and links with foreign publications, independent of his work with the incumbent administration.
Yapa’s commitment to his journalistic integrity (and the publication of an article that called out the administration’s treatment of Sirimavo Bandaranaike) ruffled some feathers and eventually saw Upali Wijewardene (the Chairman of the Greater Economic Commission) at the time ask him to be the founding editor of The Island, a project Yapa took on. He delivered its very first issue in a very short span of time (including recruiting staff and creating the base of the paper in a time before the digital age) amidst other international journalistic commitments.
Some years later, Yapa was once more offered the chance to be the founding editor of another national newspaper, The Sunday Times. It was at this point that the beginning of Vitjiha Yapa’s focus on publishing as a business also began. The Vijitha Yapa Group of Companies began in April 1981 when Vijitha Yapa Associates were appointed by Dow Jones & Company Limited of the US to represent it in advertising sales and distribution of its publications as the exclusive agent. In 1991, the Vijitha Yapa Group decided to establish a chain of bookshops, based on a recommendation from Yapa’s wife Lalana.
But what drew Yapa to publishing in the first place? “I observed that most of the books on Sri Lanka were written by Indians or other foreign nationals,” Yapa explained. “There were novels, but with books on Sri Lanka, it was the technical aspect that drew me in.”
This love for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan books that capture the unique Sri Lankan perspective is what has driven the publishing arm of Vijitha Yapa, which has so far published 120 titles and counting on a variety of subjects.
The most successful Vijitha Yapa Publications so far have been ‘Road to Nandikadal’ by Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, ‘Sam’s Story’ by Captain Elmo Jayawardena, and ‘The Road from Elephant Pass’ by Nihal de Silva. These books won the prestigious Gratiaen Award in 2001 and 2003 respectively as the best literary works in English produced in Sri Lanka. Marshall Cavendish bought the rights to ‘Sam’s Story’ for Southeast Asia.
Understanding what ails us
The most apparent immediate effect of the current crisis and the pandemic before it on the publishing industry is, of course, the havoc it has wreaked on costs, which in turn has seen monumental increases in the prices of finished books. Even essential books had seen prices increase dramatically, Yapa shared with The Sunday Morning Brunch, using an example of a Sinhala-Japanese dictionary as an example. He noted that while this dictionary used to cost around Rs. 1,500, it now cost upwards of Rs. 5,000.
“Basically, the major problem here is that there has been a 100% devaluation of the rupee, which immediately means everything has doubled. Whatever is coming into the country, or rather, trickling in, I should say, comes in with higher taxes and procurements made to banks,” Yapa said. He added that these increases had affected things across the board, from administrative expenses like the fees to send or receive remittances to the cost of materials like paper which had skyrocketed to things like transporting books to distribution points, regardless of the fuel shortage, although the fuel shortage had certainly made things much more difficult and expensive.
These already immense increases in costs were also compounded by new policies that limited publishers’ financial freedoms and flexibilities, Yapa added, noting that, for example, where previously publishers could consolidate resources, this was now no longer allowed and additional taxes, especially on products like paper, had only served to gravely aggravate the problem.
“Paper is now taxed at 30% because of the category into which it has been placed, and you now have to pay ‘spot cash’ on the spot to get paper because the price doesn’t stay the same week to week,” Yapa said, adding that for many companies, this would mean taking out loans at very high rates of interest, compromising their ability to function in the long run.
Other issues that plague the publishing industry include logistics, from finding spare parts to keeping printing presses operational to being able to distribute books. But another problem Yapa shared with us that not many people may consider in the context of print was pirating, where books under copyright were scanned, reprinted, and sold by unscrupulous publishers and other parties.
“There are ways to fight this, but action must be taken by the publisher who owns the copyright,” Yapa explained. “You have to complain to a special unit for copyright protection at the CID, but for publishers, and especially foreign publishers, this can be a costly affair every time the case is called. Since Sri Lanka is a small market, they don’t see it as a major issue. It is very important to us as publishers to discourage selling pirated books. We don’t stock them, despite inquiries from customers who sometimes get upset because these books are available outside,” he added, and encouraged all publishers to pay extra caution to piracy both inside and outside their organisations.
The Colombo Book Fair: a spot of colour
All eyes were on Sri Lankan publishing last month when the Colombo International Book Fair took place for the first time since before the pandemic. Organised by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers Association (SLBPA), of which Yapa is President, the book fair saw an attendance of over one million people over its 10 days (18-26 September).
“It was a big risk, putting on the book fair,” Yapa said. “No large event [of the same scale] has been held in Sri Lanka for the last two years. We held the book fair with lots of restrictions, working with PHIs and following rules given to us like wearing masks, having washing facilities, etc. Luckily for us, not one case of Covid-19 was reported during those 10 days.”
Commenting on the size of the crowd, Yapa did note that in general the book fair typically attracted a million people or more, so it was nice to see that number remain steady despite the challenges of the last few months and the years before it, especially considering that this year’s book fair was smaller than previous editions, with about 250 stall spaces not being erected in order to hedge bets and manage costs and risks.
“The proceeds of the book fair do not go to the SLBPA,” Yapa highlighted. “It’s used to create scholarships for very poor students, and this year, we were able to provide scholarships for six such students to pursue their university education. We kept the stall fees the same as they were the last time to give better opportunities to the vendors. We wanted to attract people but also make it a successful exhibition of Sri Lankan publishing. We had tremendous responses from publishers and sponsors as well as from the general public. Everyone who came in left with at least one book, which is a tremendous thing.”
Speaking of what went on behind the scenes to incentivise people to purchase books in these troubled times, Yapa shared that as far as possible, publishers had tried to stick to their old prices as well as offer the discounts they normally did during the book fair. There were also other incentives like a free bus service running from Borella to Bambalapitiya that the SLBPA organised to provide people a little more ease in travelling to the book fair at a time when fuel, like so many other things, was in short supply.
The power of the written word
One thing that drives Yapa is the power of the written word. To this end, as President of the SLBPA, he and the rest of the association are always pushing for Sri Lanka to showcase at fairs and exhibitions internationally, as well as work continually with other countries on seminars and training that can improve the quality of publishers and writers in Sri Lanka.
These efforts to show Sri Lanka’s potential are hampered by the various challenges of publishing in Sri Lanka, which even before the pandemic and the economic crisis, was a very expensive affair, and something he feels needs support at the Government level to be given the power to reach its true potential. This kind of support would stem from recognising and revising things like taxes for paper to creating easier frameworks and systems for publishers and most importantly, strengthening education.