The publishing industry in Southasia as a whole, and India in particular, has never seen better times. There has been an astounding increase in the number of titles originating from and being produced in the region, in addition to large-scale investment in retail, fresher marketing tools and increasing standards of book production. The Indian scenario is particularly unique. With a whopping 550 million people below the age of 30, and with a significant and consumerist middle class, book sales in the country could well surpass all expectations.
That said, there is hardly any reliable source of data on the market. The entry of Nielsen Bookscan last October goes some way towards filling this gap, but the group is currently only providing data from a few major bookstore chains in India, which is arguably not representative. In addition, there are numerous associations, representing an estimated 19,000 publishers, although no single association has more than 1000 members. This indicates a vibrant yet scattered industry.
Through the end of 2007, the total number of publishers registered with the India office of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) agency was 12,375. However, given the fact that many publishers still do not register ISBNs for their books, this number is merely indicative at best. It is further estimated by the various associations that a total of 90,000 titles are produced every year, while the potential growth is pegged at an optimistic 30 percent per year. The complexities notwithstanding, publishers have been trying new and innovative ways to tap into this huge market. For instance, a country that had only a handful of authors writing in English a few decades ago, today boasts a book launch almost every day of the year; in addition, new literary awards are regularly being unveiled, and there has been a recent proliferation of literary festivals.
Amidst this excitement, one still finds a fractured infrastructure that presents a huge challenge and a consequent opportunity for the industry. First, there is the challenge of finding interested and trained professionals. Publishing was, and in many ways still is, a family-owned and family-run business, which means that many people in the profession were literally born into publishing. Others claim they sort of ended up there by chance. Certainly, there are passionate editors and marketing professionals who have given up well-paid jobs to work with books, not to forget the entrepreneurs who have carved out niches to run successful publishing ventures. But by and large, recruitment into the industry continues to be a relatively unplanned, erratic process. When publishers aim for expansion and recruitment, there seems to be a clear lack of both talent and professional training.
This is an area that the Frankfurt Book Fair, through their local office (which this writer represents) is now trying to address. Earlier this year, in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, we launched the country’s first publishers’ training programme. There are also plans for training programmes for existing professionals at senior and middle management levels, as well as a course for freshers in the coming future.
While there is clearly no dearth of brilliant writing coming out of the Subcontinent, one of the main concerns voiced today is the need for better editors, equipped with adequate training. Rajeevan Karal of Cambridge University Press has suggested that there are two primary reasons for this situation. ‘First, the syllabus for English at the school and university levels does not aim to develop editorial skills among learners,’ he says. ‘Second, the publishing industry has not made efforts to communicate their needs to academia. So, most editors hired by publishing houses learn the business on the job. Unlike a few other professions, though, editors in publishing houses are there by choice. The very fact that most of them spend their entire career in the industry speaks of this fact.’ In the ‘by choice’ argument, Karal seems to be referring to the low salaries in the profession. Saugata Mukherjee, former editor of HarperCollins India, concurs: ‘I can tell you I am grossly underpaid! Besides, I don’t think there is any industry standard, really.’
With new technologies coming into the sector, there is also a pressing need to train editors to adapt. ‘An editor’s job is becoming more and more challenging day by day, because of the digital revolution,’ Karal says. ‘The new modes of delivery of content have thrown newer challenges to the editors, who are now, besides linguistic competence, required to understand the potentials of the new technologies to deliver content to the end user in the most preferred ways, and get authors to develop content that can make the best use of them.’
Still, while the need remains significant, the Indian publishing industry has clearly managed to nurture editorial talent. This is evident from the accolades that Indian writing in English has been receiving the world over. ‘Being an editor in India is hugely satisfying, though not monetarily,’ Mukherjee says, ‘because of the growing market and because there is scope for taking publishing decisions which can spark off trends. In India, some editors are adventurous, and the industry gives them the scope for that.’ This opportunity to commission offbeat books that can set trends in new writing makes the field particularly interesting.
More broadly, the ‘intellectual’ infrastructure is less of a problem than the physical infrastructure. India’s book business remains dominated by significant gaps in distribution, retail and marketing. Beyond the country’s staggering size, even second-tier towns continue to lack adequate access to books. It is estimated that organised retail accounts for a mere seven percent of book sales, with the rest coming from the unorganised sector, which includes channels such as supermarkets, university bookstores, textbook stores, railway-station stalls, door-to-door sales agents, footpath sales, etc. There has certainly been an upsurge in shelf space for books, at least in the major metropolitan areas, while online retail outfits such as Flipkart and InfiBeam have belied earlier predictions to become serious players in the business in India. Flipkart in particular claims to have four million titles readily available to its six million visitors and 500,000 registered users; its book sales have reached 750,000 in just over two years of its existence, with half of its buyers returning to make additional purchases.
It is clear, though, that the demand and supply of books in the Indian market is today somewhat mismatched, with books not reaching all potential buyers. The publishing community is well aware of the problem, and publishers are coming up with innovative ways to tackle it. New models have arisen, for instance, in which a large publishing house, such as Penguin, Rupa & Co or Westland, chooses to distribute both its own books and that of its competitors, or even enters into co-publishing ventures with smaller independent publishers. In the days ahead, there is bound to be greater consolidation and more efficient ways of making the whole supply chain work, as more and more players enter the market. Though some might say this eventually means the slow death or ‘selling out’ of independent publishers, it would seem that this could also lead to symbiotic relationships that could work in the favour of the reader, who get access to all sorts of books and writers who are able to reach a wider readership base.
In this vibrant atmosphere comes the next interesting player: the agent. Until just a few years ago, barely one or two literary agents were operating out of India. Jacaranda, run by Jayapriya Vasudevan and Priya Doraiswamy, was the pioneer in the field. As seen in ‘mature’ markets, agents play a crucial role in identifying, nurturing and exposing new talent in ways that publishers tend to find difficult to do, preoccupied as they are with other matters. Mita Kapur, who runs the ‘literary consultancy’ Siyahi, says, ‘Our agency works at helping our writers hone their manuscripts to a level where acceptance levels with publishers becomes higher and smoother. We have a sense as to which publisher is building up what kind of list, and we work according to that. The quality of writing rises because of that, and publishers also find it easier to work with such books.’
The ‘new’ writer, then, has an interesting arena in which to work. With a growing market in the Subcontinent, the old argument of writing for a foreign readership is losing its logic. Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi, each selling over 50,000 copies in India alone, represent a new breed of writers who are able to defy previous notions of what the market demands. Literary quality apart (defined, in any case, by a handful of critics fighting for the scant space the media permits for reviews), the mood that these authors create lends a new flavour to the scope of English-language publishing in India.
Even larger publishers, including Penguin and HarperCollins, have chosen to take a look at commissioning books in this almost indefinable genre of ‘popular’ writing. As a result, one has seen books such as Johnny Gone Down by Karan Bajaj or the ‘Metro Reads’ series from Penguin India. In this scenario, the new editor also finds a special role. As Chiki Sarkar of Random House points out, ‘Half of my list consists of subjects that I think would make a good book and then finding the writer who might be suitable for it.’ Whether the new reader is following or setting trends is an interesting question, if market forces are defining much of the commissioning that is being done.
Here and abroad
India has been a guest of honour at the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair in both 1986 and 2006, the only country to have been accorded that privilege twice. The passage of these two decades offers an interesting opportunity to examine how Indian publishing has re-positioned itself globally. Whereas reporting (however little) on the business aspects of publishing underlines the activity of larger multinational (read: British and American) publishers in India, international platforms such as the Frankfurt and London Book Fair provide a glimpse into the rise of the Indian multinational.
The presence of an Indian publisher at an international forum is not just limited to the rights to their books being bought and sold in other languages. There is also a larger assertion of what the Indian publisher has to offer to the international publishing community in terms of new ideas and innovative concepts. A classic example would be Tara Books. Gita Wolf, its founder, says, ‘When I first went to the Frankfurt Book Fair, 15 years ago, I was both naive and optimistic. Looking back at what I went with – two ideas for illustrated children’s books and a couple of silk-screened sample pages – I can’t help thinking of the old cliché about fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. And yet, I managed to sell both ideas to a Canadian publisher and with the advance they offered for the books, my newly created publishing house in India took off.’ She continues: ‘So Tara was, in essence, a global publisher before we became a local press.’ Since then, Tara has remained active in the global market, with over 100 rights to the publisher’s 85 titles sold all over the world. In total, Wolf says, 30 percent of Tara’s turnover comes from the sale of rights, and an additional 25 percent from direct sales into other English-speaking markets.
An opposing model has also grown in recent years, of publishers in the Subcontinent purchasing the English-language rights for books written in French, German and other European and African languages. The notable example in this would be Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books from Kolkata. This is a phenomenon almost unheard of in a largely West-centred and West-controlled world of territorial rights in English, where there is a tendency to club together the ‘post-colonial’ world. For example, one commonly sees the rights for all Commonwealth countries being collectively given to a British publisher, often denying the Subcontinent a lot of interesting books, as they never make their way into the market, with Indian publishers unable to acquire rights to them. Whether the path-breaking model of Seagull is sustainable or not remains to be seen but it will certainly lead to shifts in the publishing world.
Along with Indian publishers, there is an increasing presence of publishers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at international fairs. This clearly reflects the greater importance being accorded to the rising potential of these markets, but also of the growing courage of publishers in the region to try out new ways of expanding their lists and engaging in tie-ups. Robin Ahsan of Shrabon Prokashani, from Bangladesh, for example, feels that the development of his publishing house in a tough environment such as Bangladesh (given issues of infrastructure and literacy) was possible due to participation in fairs such as the Frankfurt Book Fair.
This internationalisation can be something of a double-edged sword, however. Of the many issues that are currently bringing together the publishing community in India, the issue that has generated one of the most significant responses is the proposed amendments to the country’s copyright law. Though there is a clear divide between people for and against it, publishers almost unanimously oppose the amendment. Thomas Abraham of Hachette India has lamented that this might well be the death-knell for the publishing industry in India.
As proposed, the amendment sanctions parallel imports, which allow the import of multiple editions of books into the Indian market, rendering the whole point of territorial rights a bit useless. ‘If the amendment is passed,’ Abraham says, ‘any book published anywhere in the world could be sold [in India], infringing on an exclusive Indian edition – published or imported.’ He continues: ‘To understand this, one needs to realise that authors own copyright to their works and then assign publishing rights to different territories, so that the book and readers are best served. Vikram Seth, for example, is published in Britain by Hachette, in the US by HarperCollins, in Canada by McArthur and by Penguin in India. Each territory is protected by law to best publish the work. Without this legal shield, any of the four editions could infringe on each other.’
The amendment remains fervently debated, however. Shamnad Basheer, a lawyer focusing on intellectual property (IP) rights and a faculty member at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, offers an opposing view. ‘Leading IP scholars and economists argue that intellectual property rules are essentially anti-competitive and ought to be tolerated only when there is concrete evidence that their benefits outweigh the harm caused by monopoly rents,’ he says. ‘But do we have such countervailing evidence to support a clampdown on parallel imports? Such a restriction is not only likely to harm consumer choice, by leaving access to books in the discretionary hands of a small coterie of publishers; it will also hamper competition and curb the growth of newer and more creative forms of distributorship.’ Basheer notes that, given the advent of e-publishing, ‘it is only a matter of time before the firmly etched principle of territoriality begins to yield. If the amendment spurs this business model revolution, it will be so much the better.’ The amendment has been put on hold for now, but will surely generate significant discussion when next raised.
Meanwhile, publishers in the Subcontinent continue to face mounting problems with piracy, finding this increasingly difficult to tackle. The British Publishers Association, with the support of multinational publishing houses with offices in India, is currently fighting a legal battle to try to contain piracy, but awareness on the issue is relatively low in India. Further, even if controlled within India territory, knockoff books still tend to make their way into Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, stunting the potential of local publishing development throughout the region. Waiting at a traffic signal in any major city of the Subcontinent, one would be amazed at the range of pirated books being offered. Till a few years ago, this would only include international bestsellers such as those by Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer; but today, they include Ramachandra Guha’s historical writings to Jaishree Mishra’s novels. Major crackdowns have been initiated by firms and lawyers fighting against piracy, but the source of these books remains a mystery.
Another major challenge for the publishing industry – though a potentially massive opportunity in the long term – is the advent of relatively easy access to electronic books. Many publishers are already gearing up for this inevitability; last year, for instance, the Bangalore-based digital publisher E C Media International launched its much-awaited Wink e-book reader. Although it has not met with much success to date, it is clearly a path-breaking initiative, with support for 15 Indian languages. In particular, academic publishers have been the frontrunners in adapting to new technologies and offering content on multiple platforms, not only easing access for students and readers but also giving publishers the opportunity to innovate and develop new content.
Such obstacles notwithstanding, one thing is for certain: the publishing industry in India and across the Subcontinent will have to cater to multiple audiences in the coming decades. These will have to include the upwardly mobile middle class, the passionate reader, the new reader and the yet-to-be-‘converted’ reader. With the Internet offering hitherto-untapped territories and readers, the potential is clearly huge. Publishers in the West are already changing course after learning their first lessons, and publishers here in Southasia can now take advantage of that learning. Moreover, with the world looking at innovations coming from this part of the world, the next step is yet to be taken – and it is likely that this is being conceived of on some computer in Delhi, Dhaka or Karachi.
~ Akshay Pathak is the Director of the German Book Office, New Delhi, a joint venture between the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.