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Pandemic and publishing: Time to turn the page

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on May 13, 2021

Physical touch: The reading community is heavily dependent on bookstores in India   -  ISTOCK.COM

With the sale of physical books dropping in pandemic-induced lockdowns, publishing houses are looking at ways to keep their businesses rolling

* Publishers report that while the quantum of publication has not fallen since the pandemic, they have had to hold back new titles and have been reeling under falling sales

* A survey found that more people were buying books through online platforms

* ‘Everything posed a challenge before a book on its way to the reader’

* Audiobooks are gaining traction in these anxious times

* The lockdowns meant the postponement or cancellation of launches and festivals, which were a busy platform for book publicity till early 2020

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Selling books used to be quite a fun-filled ritual at the Bookland Store in north Delhi’s university area. Students would browse around the shelves for all that they needed. Over plates of steaming momos, bought from a stall near the bookstore, they discussed textbooks and novels — and a lot more —with the owner.

But that seems like another age, says Anil Rastogi. “The number of customers at my store has come down by 90 per cent. No one shops at leisure anymore; they come with a list, and then leave as soon as we give them the books on it,” says Rastogi, whose shop has been catering to students for 45 years. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to be the same ever again.”

Bookstores across India have closed down since the spread of the novel coronavirus in 2020. Several old and iconic stores, citing lack of sales and footfall, have shut shop, too. Stores that are open have hardly any customers. And the plight of the stores is reflected in the state of the publishing industry. A lockdown and curfew meant shut stores, which in turn implied a sharp dip in the revenues of publishing houses. The publishers are not sharing figures — not yet, in any case — but stress that they have been going through troubled times.

“Book sales in India slowed down considerably as the national lockdown in 2020 led to brick-and-mortar bookshops staying closed for a long period and e-commerce sellers being allowed to only sell ‘essential’ items,” says Teesta Guha Sarkar, head of editorial at Pan Macmillan. “Sadly, and perhaps tellingly, books did not fall under that category in our country, until very recently.”

How does that affect India’s publishers? Publishers who were dependent on brick-and-mortar stores saw a fall of above 20 per cent in sales, says Rita Jagoorie, general manager of Hachette Books.

Navigating the pandemic

The ’90s saw a boom, with the opening of new publishing houses, and the expansion of old ones. Smaller outfits came up, too, and many feared that they might have been badly hit by the pandemic. Trisha De Niyogi, director and chief operating officer at independent publishing house Niyogi Books, however, says that contrary to what they had thought, the publisher managed to do almost as well as it did in pre-pandemic times, thanks to digital support.

“We managed well. In the first lockdown, we used our social media to keep in touch with our readers, and saw a surge in the sales of e-books as well. When books could be shipped, we saw a rise in sales of physical copies online as well. We had a lot of collaborations with independent bookstores. We also sold some movie rights and translation rights,” she says.

The bigger establishments are looking at change, too. Publishers report that while the quantum of publication has not fallen since the pandemic, they have had to hold back new titles and have been reeling under falling sales.

“The sale of new books plummeted, though the exceptions were the highly visible celebrity-driven books (such as those written by actor Priyanka Chopra and podcaster Jay Shetty),” says Akriti Tyagi, the marketing head at HarperCollins. “We also saw a large number of bookshops and distributors being shut, resulting in a further drop in sales. In the case of large publishing houses that have a very large backlist, there was some respite as their old titles and bestsellers started selling again.”

Other problems include logistical ones, such as mass absenteeism at warehouses, printing presses working at 50 per cent capacity, regional lockdowns, transport restrictions and red zones, Tyagi says. “Everything posed a challenge before a book on its way to the reader.”

The lockdowns meant the postponement or cancellation of launches and festivals, which were a busy platform for book publicity till early 2020. Though the publishers say that there has hardly been any publicity of books in the last 14 months or so, readers were happy to see a half-page advertisement for books in newspapers recently. But Jagoorie adds, “There’s very little space left for coverage of books with print and digital platforms shutting down or downsizing.”

Going Digital

In many parts of the world, online sales have shown an increase, with people downloading books at a time when closed bookstores imply fewer physical books. The Indian story, however, is different, says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Westland. The reading community is heavily dependent on bookstores in India, he adds.

“Unlike in some other parts of the world, staying home hasn’t necessarily meant more book buying in India. Since more people tend to read books rather than e-books [in India], store closures and lockdowns have definitely affected visibility and sales,” he says.

But like most sectors, publishing is focusing on digital, too — with books being made available online for sale. Marketing moved into the digital space in 2020, says Jagoorie of Hachette. “Marketing of books has now turned online as well — with virtual author events and virtual book fairs,” she says.

Many bookstores — such as Rastogi’s Bookland — are selling online. Publishing houses are attracting eyeballs with catchy slogans and offers. “The more (books), the May-rrier,” says Penguin Random House, listing their recommendations for the month of May.

Says Rachna Kalra, a marketing professional from the publishing sector, “We had to adapt a lot when it came to the marketing of books, as everything moved into the virtual space. We ended up doing webinars, online events, etc. but there is no denying the fact that real events cannot be replaced by the online space.”

Publishers add that social media has greatly helped in spreading the word around. Kalra adds that the thrust is now on small and local dedicated reading communities, instead of “getting lost on the internet by bombarding information” everywhere.

All is not bad news, however. Several publishers reported that online sales increased proportionately to the loss in sales of physical copies, and ended up keeping sales at the same level as before 2020. Says Jagoorie, “We are hoping that this trend continues, and that the pandemic has forced people to migrate online as a second option if not by choice.”

Publishers such as HarperCollins report 70-80 per cent of sales to be driven online post the pandemic. “I believe the share in sales between physical purchases and online used to be roughly 60-40 pre-pandemic, but the ratio is much more disproportionate now with online sellers, mainly Amazon, enjoying a far greater market share,” Guha Sarkar of Macmillan adds.

A study — Impact of COVID-19 on the India Book Consumer — conducted by Nielsen Book India in June-August 2020 found several insightful results. It found that more people were buying books through online platforms than earlier. More than two-thirds of Nielsen’s respondents reported they were reading more books since the lockdown of March 2020.

Both reading and audiobook listening went up, increasing by a substantial seven hours weekly on average to as much as 16 hours total per week. Two of five respondents said they were spending more time with print titles. One in two said they were spending more time reading e-books and listening to audiobooks.

Focus on audiobooks

Clearly, audiobooks are gaining traction in these anxious times. “It could be that audiobooks are becoming more common in India due to a demand for such a format occasioned by the lockdowns, or because audible and other audiobook companies have stepped up efforts in India, or a combination of both,” Guha Sarkar says.

Will there be a great thrust on audiobooks in the near future then? Since physical books are hard to get hold of in times of lockdowns, publishers are zeroing in on this segment. HarperCollins and Penguin have announced an increase in the sale of audiobooks, mirroring the progress made last year. Among Audible’s (Amazon’s audiobook platform) top 100 books in India are Ikigai, Elon Musk, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Sapiens.

Not all books have the potential of becoming audiobooks, according to publishers. Publishers have also been exploring what kind of books adapt better to the new medium, and can work independently, without the need for the written word. Audiobooks that help listeners relax are a good bet. Penguin Random House’s website recommends five audiobooks — including one on “laughter yoga” to listen to when anxiety strikes.

Learning curve: Children’s books gained popularity as the young, not being able to step out, spent more time reading at home   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Publishers are also focusing on children’s literature. India has been most hit by Covid-19, which means that many people — including children — have had to spend extended periods of time at home. With schools shut or classes held online, parents have been seeking to distract their children with books.

“Children’s books emerged as a popular genre in this difficult period, presumably as adults attempted to engage their children inside their homes,” says Padmanabhan.

According to the Nielson study, consumers with children at home up to the age of 8 years were especially likely to change their genre interests with more people buying picture books, activity books and animal stories. Those with children in the age bracket of 9-17 years were interested in buying spy/detective/mystery stories, fantasy or classical novels. Educational books were popular across all ages, as more people attempted to learn new skills or languages while staying at home.

Publishers such as Westland report that books on mental and emotional well-being are becoming more popular. People are also revisiting old titles, reaching out for old familiar books to deal with stress. “It has almost entirely been backlist driven now for some time,” Jagoorie adds.

The magnitude of sales is crucial in keeping the industry afloat, says Guha Sarkar. “The Indian publishing industry works at really low price points when it comes to books as compared to other markets in the West, and higher sale volumes are required for it to be worth publishing and to keep all the costs up.”

Publishing houses agree that the digital world holds promise, and their focus will be on digital books as well as online marketing and sales. “At HarperCollins, we have completely overhauled our digital strategies, with a new website, blog and newsletter to help connect with the readers better, to share exciting updates on our books,” Tyagi says.

The publishers believe that once the pandemic eases, books will be back with a bang. Says Padmanabhan, “A lot of our writers, customers, partners in retail and distribution, not to mention colleagues, have been directly and indirectly affected by the illness and other issues, so it’s the human factor that’s uppermost in our minds at the moment.”

And this, Tyagi holds, is where books come in. “Readers are a close-knit community through shared interests and especially in times like these, books play an even larger part in keeping the community together.”

Payel Majumdar Upreti

Published on May 13, 2021

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