Screen presence

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Feb 10 2013, 08:41am hrs
India is now the second-largest e-book market in the world, with almost 25 million e-book buyers in a month alone. And why not, because from back issues of magazines, cookery books, comics and even banned books, the screen today has it all

India has had a long association with reading and education, and the medium of this dissemination of knowledge has changed over the centuries as technology has progressed. The earliest form of reading was through the oral traditionwhere learned men travelled the land, imparting wisdom and knowledge in the form of stories. The oral tradition then began to make way for the next stepcarvings on tablets. The permanence that a carved tablet provided over the oral tradition was not lost on Indias early authors. But its difficult lugging around a bunch of stone tablets from village to village. The invention of paper and the dissemination of paper-making techniques transformed writing. Books were now as durable as one could want, and they were light.

This is the medium that has had the longest time under the sun, with the invention of the printing press driving book publishing to new heights. But we are now at the cusp of yet another transformation in the book industry, and this could be even more far-reaching than the invention of the printing press. E-books, or digital copies of physical books, are driving this revolution, and the increasing ubiquity of tablets and smartphones is providing e-books the same advantage physical books enjoyed with the printing press.

Globally, the e-book industry has grown from $78 million in sales in 2008 to $1.7 billion in 2011, according to several recent reports. And this was estimated to grow to $3.5 billion in sales in 2012. This astounding growth is being pushed mainly by Amazon, the gigantic e-retailer, which enjoys an estimated 65% market share in e-books. India is typically a year or two late in adopting consumer technology innovations from the West, but the e-book space is bucking this trend. According to Bowker, a publisher based in the US, there were almost 25 million Indian e-book buyers in February 2012 alone, making India the second-largest e-book market in the world.

Several companies have spotted this opportunity in India and are moving fast to capitalise on it. RockASAP Retails subsidiary company Rockstand, for example, has recently brought out an e-reading app for tablets and smartphones in India. According to RockASAP Retails head, Rishi Mohan Jha, This (25 million Indian e-book readers) is without any promotions or campaigns, implying that even a small amount of advertising could see a huge expansion of the e-book market in India.

This growth in e-books is happening because we are entering a gadget era. Tablets and smartphones are coming out with more capacity, more features and lower prices, says Jha. The app his company is offering is focusing on Android gadgets at the moment, which makes sense, considering almost every four out of five tablets run on Android.

When the e-book market was in its infancy, growth was powered by Amazon and its Kindle line of e-readers. They were cheap, portable and had impressive storage capabilities. But just like PCs have been suffering from the onslaught from tablets, so have e-readers. Over the course of the past year or so, consumers preference for dedicated e-readers has declined from 72% to 58%, according to a survey by the Book Industry Study Group. Simultaneously, the number of people who prefer to read on tablets has increased from 13% in August 2011 to 24% in May last year. Rockstand seems to have caught on to this trend. We have no plans to bring out an e-reader. We want to concentrate on the app, says Jha.

Rockstands e-book app offers many advantages of a physical book and provides some new ones unique to the digital mediumyou can make annotations, share them instantly via social media, adjust the text size and spacing between words and, when your eyes begin to tire, get the app to read the book out to you. In addition, you dont need to be connected to the Internet for extended periods of time to read these books. All you need the connection for is to download the app, and then the books you want to read. Once stored on your device, they can be read any time, offline as well.

According to Jha, one of their main competitors is Flipkart, which offers home delivery of physical books. Being entirely online, Flipkart can offer attractive discounts, something Rockstand has to contend with. But then, the digital medium is sure to lower costsand thereby create the potential for price discountsfor Rockstand as well. After all, digital books dont come with huge printing costs unlike physical ones. On an average, you will find a 10-15% discount, but this can go as high as 40-50% as well. For example, if you want back issues of a magazine, you might even find youre getting these for free on our app, says Jha. Notably, Rockstand is entering the regional language space as well, which means you will be able to read a Tamil book or magazine too.

The e-book market holds huge value for publishers and authors. While Amazon has already become an established name in the self-publishing industry (e-books have made self-publishing a hugely viable model), Penguin, too, is starting a self-publishing unit in India. Not only does this give more authors the opportunity to get their books out, it gives them a global audience as well. E-books, unlike physical ones, are not limited by national boundaries, only by the availability of the Internet. As an aside, it is interesting to see what e-books are doing to censorship. While talking at The Indian Express recently, author Salman Rushdie said that, technically, Satanic Verses is still banned in India, but not if you have an e-book!

Even from a business angle, e-books are attractive for even conventional publishers because of their revenue-generation capabilities. Publishers are happy to give us their books because e-books form an additional source of revenue for them; they already have their core business in conventional publishing, says Jha of Rockstand.