On write track: Independent publishers talk about the shift in the Indian publishing industry

Amid the highs and lows, independent publishers talk about the shift in the Indian publishing industry, existing alongside the global players and how they are adapting to the technological revolution

On write track: Independent publishers talk about the shift in the Indian publishing industry
In the past two years of the pandemic, the publishing sector in India has seen its set of highs and lows—temporary closures, emergence and boom of debut authors, and a technological revolution as books moved to audio formats.

When the news of Amazon India’s publishing arm Westland Books shutting down spread, a raging debate arose on the Indian publishing sector. The survival of home-grown houses in particular was greatly contested in the face of multinational big fish and audacious signing amounts for bestselling authors.

In the past two years of the pandemic, the publishing sector in India has seen its set of highs and lows—temporary closures, emergence and boom of debut authors, and a technological revolution as books moved to audio formats.

We speak with independent publishing houses to know how the existence of the multinational publishers impact them, the debate of the hefty author fee, how they are adapting to the technological revolution, and more.

Gautam Padmanabhan, business head, publishing division, Pratilipi

‘Future of publishing requires relooking and reinvention’

Gautam Padmanabhan, former CEO of Westland Books and the current business head of publishing division at Pratilipi (the new venture will comprise largely the publishing, editorial, marketing and sales teams that managed Amazon’s Westland Books before it shut down in February this year), says the transition from Westland has been a smooth one. “Our last working day at Amazon was on May 27 and we joined Pratilipi on June 1. We are still understanding the processes and the new systems, and settling down. It has been a positive start,” he says. Under Pratilipi, they are now looking at a mindset change, in terms of what else can be done with content after commissioning it—from podcast to dramas, OTT, audio, comic book adaptations or maybe even gaming opportunities in the future— adapting to as many forms as possible.

The team at Pratilipi’s publishing division will be continuing with what was being done traditionally—a combination of fiction and non-fiction. Padmanabhan also hints at possibilities of their fiction content being taken into comics and their content being translated across languages on their app.
As for book-to-screen deals, Padmanabhan says there is a team pitching ideas to studios that would be interested in adapting content. “In future, the process will start as soon as the work is commissioned and even before the publication of the book,” he says.

Commenting on whether the shift at Westland to a more digital approach was already on the cards, Padmanabhan says: “We were thinking about how we would continue our business even before Pratilipi was in the picture —about approaching it as content rather than pure publishing.” He says that the future of publishing requires relooking and reinvention and a content-based approach rather than just publishing books.

The transition
Initially, there were reports of Westland shutting down. Shortly after it wrapped up, it was announced that the Westland team had shifted to Pratilipi. Padmanabhan tells us what went behind the scenes. “The announcement of shutting down was made on February 1. One of the earliest people to reach out to me was Ranjeet Pratap Singh (co-founder and CEO of Pratilipi). He wanted to explore possibilities and spoke with Amazon and us. Initially, there were talks of taking over as an entity and company but for some reasons it didn’t work out. Ranjeet, then, came up with the idea that the team could join Pratilipi and restart. There was no takeover. Rights to all authors were reverted and now we are signing those authors who are willing to work with us,” he says.

The reasons for the closure of Westland were claimed to be hefty royalties to big authors. While Padmanabhan declines to reveal what actually led to Westland’s closure, he says that at the end of the day, every publishing house’s advances or royalties are based on what they think a book can earn and that way, the publishing industry is like the film industry. “Books from big authors are like big-budget films. They may be hit or flop—just that the scale of risk and amount invested are lesser than films. The issue of hefty royalties is true for publishers worldwide and not just in India. So, Westland was no different than other publishing houses operating in the market,” says Padmanabhan.

Some of the big authors from Westland that Pratilipi has retained include Rujuta Diwekar, Pavan Varma, Devdutt Pattanaik and Manu Pillai. Padmanabhan says that they are open to the possibility that they can continue their deal with Amish Tripathi in some other capacity, since he has signed up with HarperCollins.
Pratilipi’s publishing department will encompass Westland Books which will be publishing under Westland’s imprints like Context and their children’s imprint Red Panda. He says the process of taking imprints from Amazon is underway, but it is more of an MoU. Pratilipi will be commissioning books as well as opening the floor for self-publishing. This year, they plan to publish 60-90 titles. Their front list titles will be available as books as well as e-books and some of them will be headed the audiobooks way.

Ravi Singh, publisher & co-founder, Speaking Tiger Books

‘Huge sums paid by large publishers to authors kill diversity’

Ravi Singh, publisher and co-founder of Speaking Tiger Books, doesn’t hold back when talking about the impact of the large companies on smaller publications in India. Speaking Tiger Books was founded in 2014 by Singh and publishing veteran Manas Saikia. Singh says that in all these years of functioning, the journey has been both exciting and satisfying in terms of the books they have published. However, as an independent and small publishing house, the last two-and-a-half years of the pandemic have been trying. “Even before that, small publications always struggled in a market dominated by larger publications, but these are challenges one has to live with. Our biggest asset is our selection of authors,” he says, adding that in the last decade, publishing has changed dramatically.

“In the mid-90s and early-2000s, the size of the market was growing. After 2005, more publishers came in and everything changed dramatically. The mass market became a huge disruptor. What people didn’t notice was that the mid-list shrunk and the big titles started to sell more. This was a drawback as the mid-list is where the interesting books sit, where new voices and new authors are. When that shrinks, that’s not good for the publisher,” he says, adding: “But when the market grows, it grows for everyone.”

Singh lays emphasis on the problem of huge amounts of money being offered by big publishers. “Publishers like us are trying to make space for new voices, but it is difficult as we are constantly facing the dangers of paying huge advances by large companies. This kills diversity as the money is completely monopolised by the big-ticket authors, leaving little space for new voices,” he says.

Speaking Tiger Books publishes nearly 80-100 titles every year and is on the road to recovery after the pandemic. Singh hopes that big authors make intelligent decisions as he looks forward to onboarding realistic and new voices. “We have always wanted to work with authors whose works have made sense to us instead of signing big names. We have a remarkable list of authors,” he shares.

Before starting his own venture, Singh had been the editor-in-chief of Penguin Books India and co-publisher of Aleph Book Company. “After a point, I couldn’t relate to Penguin. Today, the list of Penguin is huge and interesting but there doesn’t seem to be any identifiable sensibility to me. We want the world to know what we publish and why we publish and not anything that goes. We want to make profit but not huge profits. In big publishing houses, the salary bills alone are ridiculous and can run 20 small ventures,” he says.

As a publisher, he also feels that the mythology being published today is limited to Hindu mythology and not Indian mythology.
“Other faiths don’t have that kind of stories, there are faith-based stories and other challenges like that of personification with certain faiths, but the oral history is rich. The Sufi tradition is full of good stories, but everyone only reads and writes the Mahabharata or other Hindu mythology which is limiting. There should be diversity and we hope to find good writers. It is all about taking chances,” he signs off, sharing that he would really like to start publishing in Punjabi soon.

Trisha De Niyogi, CEO & director, Niyogi Books

‘The market for illustrated books is growing again, translations are finding prominence’

There is a thing about second-generation publishers—they have been in the market long enough to understand the highs and lows of it, are constantly re-innovating to stay relevant and have carved out their niche. Trish De Niyogi, chief operating officer and director of Niyogi Books, calls the journey ‘tumultuous’. A second-generation publisher and an economist by degree, she followed in her parents’ footsteps out of interest and combined her knowledge of math and economics and their takeaways to implement it into the publishing sector. Niyogi says that in the last two years, Niyogi Books has seen the best and the worst of times, and in the last two decades, it has also seen the book market grow.

Niyogi Books was founded in 2004. Niyogi says that since their existence, the industry has not changed much. “When my parents started (the publishing house was founded by her father Bikash D Niyogi), there were few players in the market for illustrated books but there was always a need for more, hence we sustained. Today, the market for illustrated books is growing again,” she says, adding that back then there was not much happening in the translation space but now translations have found prominence.

In 2019, Niyogi Books started its own translation imprint, The Thornbird, to translate fiction from Indian languages to English.
Raising the issue of hefty advance royalties being paid to authors by MNC publications, Niyogi says it is always a problem for independent publishers as they can’t afford to pay hefty amounts. The challenge of visibility in the market is another issue that Indian independent publishers are often faced with, according to her. “At times our job roles are not very streamlined as we are short of resources, but we are innovating and have both young and debut authors as well as well-known authors in our list,” she adds. As for the audio technology revolution, she says that Niyogi has been slow in adapting to it as it requires a lot of capital, but they are actively conducting podcasts and using audio-visual elements to promote their books.

When asked what sets Niyogi Books apart from the other Indian publishing houses in the market, she says it’s their illustrated books’ list. “Our offerings set us apart, our books make for great gifts and have great shelf lives,” she adds.

In terms of expansion, Niyogi Books is set to venture into the children’s space later this year. This, according to Niyogi, will be an extension of their illustrated books and will focus on stories about breaking stereotypes and books that are not didactic but fun with a message.
In terms of policy changes, Niyogi has a different yet important suggestion for the government.

“Books are heavy in weight and each book weighs around 2-3 kg. The freight charges in India for books are very high as they depend on weight. Delivering apparel that way is much cheaper, but we have to spend a lot on delivery. Nobody becomes rich by publishing a book. In the last few years, our margins have shrunk from paper costs going high to logistic rates increasing. I would request for concessions for books to be made. We have book mails in the US. Something like that could be implemented here as well,” she suggests.

Priya Kapoor, director, Roli Books | Kapil Kapoor, MD, Roli Books & CMYK Bookstores

‘Publishing books is not always just about publishing big names’

One of the oldest and most prominent names in independent Indian publishing, Roli Books is roughly 45 years old. Established by author Pramod Kapoor, the publishing house’s legacy is being carried forward by Priya and Kapil Kapoor, second-generation publishers.

Kapil Kapoor, managing director, Roli Books & CMYK Bookstores, shares that there has been a lot of change in the Indian publishing industry over the years. “The readership for non-fiction and illustrated books has increased. Earlier, the illustrated books market would be limited to only a certain section or the tourists but now there is a demand in the domestic market as well. There are a lot of authors, photographers and illustrators creating content,” he says.

According to him, the presence of big players in the market has only helped the industry grow. “It has helped the entire ecosystem grow. One company can’t contribute to increasing the readership. The MNCs coming in and giving a platform to Indian authors has helped in the growth of the sector. Of course, there are challenges amid the presence of large global behemoths but that’s there in every industry. There’s room for everyone to grow and thrive,” he adds.

Priya Kapoor, director of Roli Books, shares that more recently, they have tasted success selling the audio-visual rights of their books. On the issue of well-known authors publishing with the international publishers, she says that in India, there is a lot of talent. So finding good authors is not a challenge and that publishing books is not just about publishing big names. “The responsibility is to give a platform to new names and new talent. You can’t always win by paying more,” she says.

Priya agrees that even the readers are open to reading new works by new authors and the more the publishing platforms, the more opportunity there is to publish and get published. “The readers also want to expand and read Indian authors and stories. There has been a growing audience for fiction in the last few years. People are spending money on books and not just bestsellers. The game is changing on a year-on-year basis,” says Priya.

Roli Books has largely published on culture and history. Does the current political climate make their books even more relevant? Kapil says that the short-term environment doesn’t matter and that they are fortunate to have a rich history, culture and tradition.

As for expanding to more genres, he says that they have been genre agnostic in the sense that they have not shied away from genres. They have published memoirs and even books on the banking sector, something never done before by them. However, Priya adds that at some point, they would love to publish children’s stories but that would be different from the usual children’s books that we see.

With audio being a large part of the publishing sector in the last two years especially, Kapil and Priya agree that it will help increase the consumption but not impact the traditional bookstore in any way. “Consumption of audio comes naturally to Indians,” they say, adding that they are happy with the digital format as the revenue comes back to the publisher and the author. Roli Books has already done audio versions of some of their published books and are open to introducing audio-only titles.

Talking about policy changes that would help the publishing sector to flourish, Kapil says that there is GST on both the royalties and the printing cost. The import duties, too, are charged on imported books. These regulations haven’t helped the situation in any way. And this has always been the case. No matter what the government, you have to make room for yourself, feels Kapil.

Urvashi Butalia, director, Zubaan Books

‘Government policies need to be better, make things easier’

Delhi-based independent publishing house Zubaan, which was established in 2003 as an imprint of India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, has stood its ground for two decades. Its founder Urvashi Butalia is known for her feminist writings and her vision is reflected in the books they choose to publish. “The purpose of being feminist publishers is getting women’s voices out there,” she says. They publish new voices from the margins and stories that touch. Their Name Place Animal Thing, written by debut writer and bureaucrat Daribha Lyndem and published in 2021, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize. Butalia says that they have published stories from the northeast long before it became “sexy”.

Butalia is widely known for her 1998 work The Other Side of Silence that brings together oral narratives of women during the partition. When the publisher started out, they were the only ones publishing feminist voices. But today every publisher has a female voice writing a feminist story, she says. “There are enough Dalit writings, writings from Kashmir, writings by young people who have grown up in states with violence there and it is exciting to see the courage to write something like that,” she adds.

With over four decades of experience in publishing, Butalia has seen the ups and downs of the industry and says they are here to stay even though the challenges for Indian publishers today might weigh them down at times.

She has written her yet-to-be-published book on the life of a transgender friend of hers and is currently taking a break before she finalises it. Earlier, Zubaan sold e-books to the major e-commerce players but now they have launched their own e-bookshop on their website in 2020 as the demand for e-books soared during the pandemic. Zubaan has also sold the rights of three books to OTT platforms.

According to her, the strength of Indian publishing houses is that they have the independence to publish on a variety of topics and issues as the decision-making lies with them. Butalia says that the youngsters today are interested in reading diverse voices and that’s what makes an Indian publishing house relevant.
She shares that the Prabha Khaitan Foundation of Kolkata has made a three-year deal with Zubaan to fund the translation of Zubaan’s content into Indian languages so as to reach a wider reader base. “We have enough money to bring out 16-18 translations in a year. When you are independent, you think of innovative ideas and put them into action,” she smiles.

Though India has seen prominent Indian publishing houses emerge and grow, Butalia says governmental policies need to be better.
“We have enough rules and regulations to make things difficult. There are export restrictions. There is no GST on books but on publishing houses. But if we have survived at a time when nobody was looking at books (during the pandemic), I think the future is not dark, though not totally bright altogether. Practically speaking, even if Zubaan closes down at some point, you cannot undo the 45 years of work. Our books will remain and circulate, and the readers will always read them,” she says.

Chitwan Mittal, founder, AdiDev Press

‘Our storytelling has to change with understanding of pedagogy’

It was only two years ago that Chitwan Mittal founded AdiDev Press, the children’s publishing house bringing out stories from South Asia for young readers. The venture has been named after the author and educationist’s two children Aditya and Dev. As a voracious reader, Mittal says she was always curious to find storybooks that told stories of Indian culture but there were few or none when she was growing up. “My grandmother and mother were both storytellers and I grew up listening to fascinating stories. Even when I was pursuing higher education in London, I would search bookstores for picture books on children. There were western stories like Oliver Twist but almost no books that showed South Asian culture and its people. I missed seeing characters like myself and my land, references to our culture in those stories. That is where we are trying to fill the gap,” she says. All their authors are new voices bringing in new stories from the country, a strength they possess over international publishing houses.

Based in Singapore, Mittal feels that she needs to introduce stories from her motherland to her children and so do other parents living abroad. AdiDev Press has published books on Indian saints to introduce them and their message to children through simple stories. Each bilingual book comes with a QR code so that the reader can read the correct pronunciation of the verse in a simple manner.

Mittal feels that in the last decade, children’s publishing has evolved and new and young publishers have emerged that are telling diverse stories from India instead of retelling western classics. She shares that starting a new publishing house from scratch in the middle of the pandemic was not easy but technology has helped a great deal in connecting readers, authors, illustrators and new talent in general. “Books become known to customers even before they reach bookstands, that is the power of social media,” she says. Their first titles have been released this year and several more are in the works. The publishing house also plans to provide downloadable teaching and learning materials for all their books.

What Mittal feels is that children’s literature cannot be the same as it was a couple of decades ago as the children and young adults are far more intelligent with the exposure to technology today. “Being didactic is the lowest level of teaching. Our storytelling has to change and evolve along with the understanding of pedagogy. Children today appreciate something relatable and something that inspires them instead of lecturing them,” she adds.

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