The print gets bigger

Written by Suman Tarafdar | Sudipta Datta | Updated: Jan 27 2008, 04:28am hrs
We need to make a book look sexy enough. When Thomas Abraham, the India head of Hachette, the latest and biggest of international publishers to enter the Indian publishing market makes that statement, you sit up and take note. To launch its operations in April this year, it is the most eagerly awaited entry by the rather minuscule Indian publishing industry. Abraham concedes that festivals and fairs of which the three most prominent in the country are on or about to start the Kolkata and Delhi international Book Fairs and the Jaipur Literary Festival attract eyeballs and media space. But what we need is good old hardsell, he asserts.

Statements like these are no flash in the pan. Signs that publishing will be a big ticket sector in the future are aplenty. Chains are becoming the norm as exemplified by Tatas Landmark, Shoppers Stop promoted Crossword, RPG-led Spencers Books & Beyond, Apeejay Surrendra Groups Oxford Bookstore, Future Groups Depot and the Reliance Groups Timeout, which launched last month in Bangalore and is set to inaugurate its second outlet a mega 40,000 sqft store on the Delhi-Gurgaon border. Then there are standalone chains like Corner Bookstore Company and Om. Random House, Harper Collins, Picador, Paragon, Routledge, Taylor & Francis all leading global imprints have had sales and marketing departments in India for a while, but in the last year or two have started editorial departments challenging the position of the leading trade publisher in India, Penguin.

Theres consolidation everywhere, which means the widest sweep ranging from self-help books, textbooks, management, career enhancement, leisure reading or coffee-table books and what have you, says Vikas Gupta, MD, Wiley India. I can predict a phenomenal growth curve for Indian publishing as the market has massive potential and would like to include both English and regional language publishing, says Sage Indias VP-commisioning, Sugata Ghosh. While the book retail industry has been growing steadily, the book retail category is still unorganised and fragmented, with stand-alone bookstores accounting for more than 80% of book sales, points out CB Navalkar, CEO, Crossword.

Experts in the sector agree that hitherto the bulk of publishing has been textbooks. Along with distribution right, thats where the big bucks were. But with Amazon and Borders looming over the horizon, distributors in India, in keeping with the global pattern, may well be a threatened lot, say insiders.

We have had no trained sales or marketing teams in India, points out Shruti Debi, editor, Picador India, explaining why literary publishing in India is particularly tough.

More disposable incomes, greater availability of books from better format stores will help the sector, authors as well as the reader, says Pramod Kapoor, publisher, Roli Books. He admits that in the short run, some Indian publishers may be affected, but the process will see more investment from outsiders and publishers getting more creative, ultimately resulting in better books. The greater acceptance of biographies and non-fiction books are signs of maturity for the Indian market, adds Kapish Mehra, Rupa. Today, if India can produce quality content it would also find markets all over the world, says Gupta.

Even international publishers dont just survive on the basis of their domestic consumption alone. Content is developed keeping in mind the potential sales in their home countries and their possible spin-offs elsewhere in the world, through economical student editions, reprints etc. Today, given Indias growth, a lot of new opportunities for developing world-class content are appearing here. Navalkar cites the example of Namita Devidayals The Music Rooms as an example of a novel that is now available worldwide.

N S Krishnan, marketing head of Random House, points out that the company has seen double digit growth in the last two years, and with a star line up for 2008 including new books by Salman Rushdie, Vikas Swarup and possibly Dan Brown, things can only look up in India.

Distribution will change for the better, he says explaining that it might take some years, but will make the situation much better.

Indian publishers have registered higher rates of growth, given their focus on new Indian authors, points out Navalkar. But the need of the hour is for publishers to join hands with their retail partners to market books/authors and build the reading habit, he adds. So, what are the top genres of book sales in India According to Navalkar, its childrens books (40% of volume sales), fiction and business and management.

Corporatisation is happening as well, explains Jaya Bhattacharji, MD-Journals, Routledge, saying this would probably take after the global trend where four-five conglomerates now dominate the sector. However, moving towards a Frankfurt book fair-like facility which is more trade oriented will help the sector get more focused. Right now the Delhi and Kolkata fair are excellent occasions underwritten by the government, she says.

We expect a boom in quality children's books. And cellular stories Japan seems to be fascinated with them. Five out of Japans top-10 selling works of fiction are the paper bestsellers which were composed for and on the mobile, says Geeta Dharmarajan, founder of Katha.

Writer William Dalrymple, a Penguin author, cant stop gushing about Random House Indias new covers for old Anita Desai classics like In Custody and Clear Light of Day. The new covers are the most attractive repackaging of classics I have ever seen. He welcomes the arrival of international publishers as good news for the publishing world. Penguin is very professional and quality is as high as anywher. The work they did on my last book The Last Mughal was excellent, but still, when competition arrives, it can only be for the good.

Dalrymple admits there has been a design revolution in advertising in Indian magazine publishing. This, he feels, is spilling over into the book industry. The market dynamics have changed too. For example, if Dalrymples City of Djinns, a bestseller when it was published, sold 6,000 copies in hardback, The Last Mughal sold 35,000.

Anita Nair, author of Ladies Coupe, says: Things have improved for writers to the extent that there is greater visibility and perhaps a little more media space. Hence, the reading public gets to know a little more about new books and may be persuaded to acquire them, if not read them. But does greater income free Indian writers from trying to work in another profession Well, no not yet. Its still going to take a while before writers published only in India will be able to live off the income derived from writing and publishing in India, says Nair. A Capexil study, in fact, estimates that 25% of the books are pirated. Challenges remain, of which perhaps the search for the new reader is prime. A basic problem is the unattractive way languages, especially English, are taught in schools, where no one is even speaking properly, says Debi. While most are confident about the content being generated by Indians, Vidya Virkar, partner of Strand Book Stall says, We dont have enough good Indian writers in fiction.

Offshoring in the publishing sector is an area that has enormous potential. India is already a global hub of publishing services both horizontally and vertically, says Gupta. The services being offered include data conversion, content development, editorial services, and multimedia services. Navalkar adds that the printing of many popular international encyclopedias (such as certain Dorling Kindersley titles) is now carried on in India. India has been the destination of choice for publishing services, says Vivek Mehra, CEO & MD, Sage India. A large part of the growth came from STM (science, technology, medicine) and a large chunk of future growth will continue to come in from this area. Technical content generation is another related but high value service that will see continued growth. Indias robust legal framework and its engineering pool are fueling the growth of publishing services in this area. Legal publishing especially will see a steep growth, thanks to the need for more cost efficient ways to handle routine legal paperwork.

Glitches aside, the optimistic mood of the sector can only augur well for all stakeholders in the sector, probably the reader the most as he is wooed to make that crucial purchase. And fall for the hardsell.