Spotlight: India has more regional language users than English; Startups try to bridge gap

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New Delhi | September 16, 2018 1:55 AM

A slew of start-ups are looking to bridge this divide by providing platforms for regional language content, be it novels or poetry.

As per a 2017 Google-KPMG report titled, Indian Languages Defining Indian Internet, India will have 536 million users accessing the internet in regional languages by 2021.

When Hyderabad-based Pallav Bajjuri first thought of launching Kahaniya, an online storytelling platform, it was because of his desire to read short-format fiction in Telugu on his smartphone. Having scrounged the internet for contemporary Telugu writing, Bajjuri realised that there was little on offer. “It was quite surprising that there was such great regional fiction available offline, but nothing substantial could be sourced online,” says the 29-year-old. That thought led to the creation of Kahaniya in May 2016. Since then, he has published some of the best writers from across three generations in Telugu. The platform currently supports writing in 11 regional languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, Odia and Punjabi. “We started with Telugu… Now, the focus is on other languages,” he adds. Till now, they have published 1,600 Telugu writers on Kahaniya and have a dedicated readership of 50,000—users can access content via their website, as well as Android app.

Bajjuri is one among the growing breed of online publishers in regional languages that have come up in the past few years in India. With mobile internet users in the country predicted to touch the 314-million mark by 2020, start-ups like Kahaniya will only see an increase in popularity. Kahaniya focuses on content that can be consumed in less than 15 minutes, so most of it is either a short story or poetry. But if a writer wants to publish a novel, that can be done too, by putting it out as chapters. “Ours is a self-service platform, where readers and writers interact with each other. Writers are at liberty to price their books as they wish. The only mandate is that the work should be original,” Bajjuri says. Around one lakh stories have been purchased (stories are either free or priced up to Rs 5; books may be priced up to Rs 150) by readers since Kahaniya’s launch.

These are platforms that are specifically looking to provide contemporary regional writing, including poetry. With Amazon expanding its e-books category to include regional languages—Tamil, Gujarati, Malayalam and Marathi—and reporting exponential sales, it was only a matter of time before other players, too, joined the bandwagon.

As per a 2017 Google-KPMG report titled, Indian Languages Defining Indian Internet, India will have 536 million users accessing the internet in regional languages by 2021. The report highlights that the country has 234 million Indian language users online today, compared to 175 million English users. And companies are cashing in on it. Besides expanding its e-books category to include regional languages, Amazon also recently launched its Hindi app to tap the 100 million customers in India’s rural and small-town markets—the company’s cloud-based voice service Alexa, too, has been integrated with a new skill called Cleo that enables users to teach Alexa the local languages of India.

Even Microsoft is ensuring it doesn’t lose out on Hindi language users. A host of its digital tools are providing Hindi language users innovative ways to interact with a device, as well as access to intelligent technologies.

So it isn’t any wonder that regional language apps like Kahaniya are showing meteoric growth and stirring investor interest—market estimates peg the space to be worth over $1 billion by 2020.

Playing it right
Like Bajjuri, it was a disgruntled reader who started Pratilipi. “I have been a voracious reader since childhood, reading anything that I could get my hands on. Earlier, I used to read a lot of Hindi content, including comics, books and novels, but when I was pursuing engineering, I realised that access to Hindi content online was very difficult. This forced me to start reading English literature, but it also made me frustrated at the lack of access to content in my mother tongue,” says Bengaluru-based Ranjeet Pratap Singh, who launched Pratilipi as a website aimed at bridging the language gap between vernacular languages and English, in March 2015.

“It’s easy for people who understand English, as it is the primary language of communication on any tech-enabled platform. But if I want to read or exchange my views in Hindi or Tamil, there is hardly anything other than a few individual blogs. So we started Pratilipi as a reading and writing platform for Indian languages,” adds the 30-year-old. Pratilipi is a self-publishing platform for authors in all Indian languages—so far, around 3,000 authors have self-published in six Indian languages on it. Around eight million stories are read on Pratilipi (app and website) every month.

Then there are content aggregators who are developing podcasts around regional literature. Hubhopper is one example. With over 2,000 channels, the Delhi-based content aggregator platform, which started in 2015, provides audiobooks by popular authors in languages such as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. The monthly active users of the service number around 5.50 lakh, while the daily active users are around 70,000, with the most popular podcasts being in Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam. “There is huge traction from Bengaluru, followed by Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai. We aim to target new-age consumers who love to multitask while on the go and prefer learning while being entertained,” says Gautam Raj Anand, founder and CEO, Hubhopper, which has been growing 30% month-on-month in terms of subscribers.

For the record, though, regional content on the internet isn’t anything new. It went mainstream, in fact, 10 years back when news and email portal Rediff started offering its services in 22 Indian languages. But what has gained traction now is the fact that platforms like Kahaniya and Pratilipi are focusing exclusively on publishing content in Indian languages—Malayalam, Telugu, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Gujarat, Marathi, to name a few. And most of these platforms are trying to carve out their own exclusive niche. So while Kahaniya focuses on short-format content, others like Bengaluru-based virtual publishing house Valmeeki are catering exclusively to first-time writers and those seeking to self-publish. Then there is Mumbai-based online platform StoryMirror, which—besides publishing e-books and e-magazines—brings out audiobooks in different Indian languages such as Odia, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, etc.

Another player trying to carve out its niche in the space is Momspresso, a user-generated content-sharing platform. Started as an online parenting repository for mothers in 2010, the Gurugram-based platform started publishing Hindi content in January 2017 and, by December, page views for its Hindi content had exceeded that for English. “While there has been a 4X growth in overall traffic in the past 12 months—15 million monthly visits—there has been a 7X growth in Hindi users,” says Vishal Gupta, co-founder and CEO, Momspresso, which now has content in Bengali, Marathi, Telugu and Tamil as well.
The driving force behind these platforms? Their founders who are mostly geeks with a passion for reading, writing and technology. Take the case of 38-year-old Ahmedabad-based entrepreneur Mahendra Sharma, who launched Matrubharti, a vernacular self-publishing platform, in 2015. Having spent 17 years in the IT industry, the idea took shape due to personal reasons. Being fond of writing himself, Sharma wanted to create a one-stop platform for regional writers. “I had been writing poems for a long time, but wasn’t sure where to publish. I was also keen to introduce new writers to readers in the regional space. And that’s how Matrubharti took shape,” says Sharma, who launched Matrubharti at the New Delhi World Book Fair three years ago.

Since then, over 6.8 million reader views have been achieved, with over 3.3 million e-book downloads on the app and website. “Though there are many bloggers and websites run by non-profit organisations and even government literature departments to help the regional community, most of them are poor on technology and user experience. Above all, the writers have no opportunity to monetise from those scattered regional platforms,” points out Sharma. “With initiatives like Matrubharti, we are bringing the best in one place, with the opportunity of networking and recognition,” he adds.

With India’s publishing industry being one of the largest in the world (next only to the US and UK), it’s no surprise that so many start-ups have sprung up in the space. Some seem to have taken a cue from Wattpad, a Canada-based online community for readers and writers to publish new content in different genres. Founded in 2006, Wattpad has the largest Indian audience base—1.5 million—in the world on a self-publishing platform. The reason? It provides language support for around 10 Indian languages.

Bengaluru-based integrated publishing platform Pothi is based on the same model as Wattpad. Started in 2008, Pothi, in fact, is one of the earliest players in the segment in India, publishing both print and e-books (10,000 print and 7,000 e-books have been published till date). “Though the maximum titles are in English, we have a good number of e-books in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Tamil as well,” says Abhaya Agarwal, co-founder, Pothi.

Work in progress
Most of these players are still figuring out ways to help content creators monetise. At Matrubharti, authors sell e-books and earn money through translation and content writing assignments. “We take publishing rights from writers and give them a one-time fee,” Sharma of Matrubharti says. Kahaniya has different contracts with different writers—the platform earns commission on the basis of sale of books. At Pothi, authors earn royalties on book sales.

Pratilipi, a free-to-download app, does not charge either readers or writers for content published on its platform. “It’s a self-publishing platform and anyone can come and start reading/writing any time. As of now, authors do not make any money directly from Pratilipi,” Singh says.

Since most are self-publishing platforms, there is little or no editorial support on offer. “We do not have any editorial team for content curation or editing,” Singh of Pratilipi says, adding, “We rely heavily on users flagging offensive/copyrighted content, as well as algorithms/technology finding low-quality content. Over time, we intend to invest significantly in technology to improve moderation primarily for checking copyright violations.” The percentage of content that is taken down monthly from Pratilipi (primarily because of users flagging it as offensive/copyrighted) is about 0.1%. At Pothi, if authors want editorial assistance, they can opt for paid editing services, says Agarwal.

At Matrubharti, which has an editorial team, over 30% of the content is rejected due to poor language and sentence formation. “Many are rejected for inappropriate fonts and paragraph alignment too,” asserts Sharma.

While others are still trying to find their feet, Momspresso has successfully created a profitable business model. “We have been growing more than 3X (year-on-year) and are poised to grow in revenue from Rs 15 crore this financial year to Rs 150 crore by 2021,” says Gupta, adding that revenue for them is generated through the growing online ad spends by women-centric brands. “Unlike print, where English publications are more expensive than Hindi, we are able to charge a 40% premium for our Hindi and regional language content. This is an early indicator of the immense opportunity that Hindi and regional languages present,” he adds.

It’s no wonder then that online regional language publishing is also paving the way for regional literature festivals. The fourth edition of Gateway LitFest, the largest platform for writers in Indian languages, was held in February in Mumbai and saw over 17 languages being represented. “Though a number of literary festivals are being held across the country, what remains in focus there is English and, to some extent, Hindi, with no legroom for regional language writers. But we can’t ignore the writings and talent from the hinterland. Gateway LitFest is an attempt to bring them on to the same platform and reinforce national integration through literature,” says festival director Mohan Kakanadan.

Chasing challenges
Despite the springing up of these online regional language platforms, the fact remains that there is still a huge dearth of Indian language content on the Internet. “As per most surveys and reports, less than 0.5% of online content is in Indian languages,” says Singh of Pratilipi. “The main reason is that the first 100 million Indians who started using the internet were people who were most comfortable with English. This meant that the first version of all mainstream products focused on English. It is only now, with the other billion Indians coming on to the internet, that we have started building Indian language-focused platforms,” he adds.

Also, smartphones have become cheaper and data prices have plummeted, accelerating the demand for online content in Indian languages. As per the 2017 Google-KPMG study, adoption of the internet is highest among users of local languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Gujarati, Malayalam, etc—currently, Tamil (at 42%) has the highest internet adoption levels, followed by Hindi (39%) and Kannada (37%). The study estimates that Marathi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu languages will form 30% of the total local language user base in the country by 2021.

But challenges still exist. Kakanadan of Gateway LitFest, who runs the online Malayalam literary magazine Mumbaikaakka, believes the problem is not lack of content, but aggregation. “There is enough matter online in various languages, but the problem is that there is no single space for all languages. Also, there are not enough translations to connect each language. So a good writer in a language will remain unknown to a reader of another language,” he says.

Money is also slow and hard to come by, as revenues that come from the sale of books are not proportionate with the cost of running such platforms. “Our revenue last financial year was Rs 8 lakh and we haven’t been able to break even yet. But for the next six months, we have set up a target of Rs 25 lakh and are looking at creating better monetisation avenues through partnerships. Currently, we earn a commission from authors out of the money they earn on the platform,” says Bajjuri of Kahaniya.

Content creation is another area where publishers are working towards streamlining the process. “While mobile is a great medium for consumption, it isn’t a great one for content creation. So we have to look at platforms that make it easier for new and non-traditional content creators to come into the picture. But there have been many exciting technological developments, like voice input, which will make creation easier in regional languages,” believes Agarwal of Pothi.

It seems only a matter of time before India will have its very own Wattpad.

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