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Expelliarmus, piracy!

Richa Mishra | Updated on February 14, 2020 Published on February 13, 2020

Book-keeper: Nigel Newton started Bloomsbury in 1986; it publishes nearly 2,500 titles a year   -  IMAGE COURTESY: BLOOMSBURY

Bloomsbury founder Nigel Newton on surviving book piracy in India, choosing authors and his favourite titles

Publisher Nigel Newton was sniffing the air — metaphorically — ahead of his India visit. For, long before the founder of Bloomsbury landed in Delhi, he was checking on pollution levels in the smoke-filled city.

“For the last three months I have been looking at weather.com,” the 64-year-old chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc says.

Newton has a lot on his platter. It’s not easy heading a publishing house that has produced some of the best-known books of the last three decades or so — and introduced the world to a pantheon of now celebrated authors. And it is certainly not easy battling book piracy, which has a flourishing India market. When the last volume of the Harry Potter series was about to be published, for instance, Bloomsbury had to ensure that pirated versions of the book did not hit the market first.

“It is an ongoing battle. We have to fight rampant piracy,” he tells BLink.

Newton, who was in India to attend literature festivals and meet authors and others, believes that piracy is an issue that needs constant vigil.

And while it is a worldwide phenomenon, it is especially rampant in countries such as India, Taiwan and Bangladesh. For Bloomsbury Publishing India, there is a 25 per cent loss in sales to piracy.

Publishers are also battling the sale of pirated versions of books online. “It is important for creators, authors and publishers to check this. Online readers want the best deal and not pirated books,” Newton says.

India is also a market that publishers are investing in. “India has one of the world’s largest English-speaking populations and an increasing number of highly educated readers of English,” says Bloomsbury Publishing Plc’s annual report and accounts (2019). “The interesting decision for us is to develop our Asian portfolio and ride into the huge market,” Newton adds.

Raised in San Francisco, Newton read English at Cambridge in the UK. In 1986, he started Bloomsbury. The publishing house floated on The London Stock Exchange in 1994 and has grown organically and through acquisitions and partnerships. Bloomsbury publishes almost 2,500 books a year from its offices in the UK, US, India and Australia. Bloomsbury India has been recording a compound annual growth rate of 25 per cent year on year. The academic segment has shown a growth of 54 per cent, trade 35 per cent and digital, 34 per cent.

Just how does Newton — who has published not just JK Rowling, but also Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini and William Dalrymple — choose authors who go on to earn critical as well as popular acclaim?

Newton laughs. “We use a crystal ball or toss a coin,” he says in jest, before doffing his hat to the “best team” of commissioning editors. “They mostly go by their instinct, experience, supreme aesthetic judgement and, of course, lots of luck,” he adds.

But do physical books have a place in this age of e-books and audio books? “We are platform-agnostic,” he stresses. “But obviously our hearts are in creating beautiful paper books. A book is still potentially the first point of access, even compared to other means, for a reader,” he says.

New digital formats, Newton points out, have increased a book’s reach and access to people. ”We have people listening to audio books while commuting to work, exercising in gyms or jogging away. How do you jog and read,” he wonders aloud, and adds, “So this whole digital revolution has gone far in expanding the market not in terms of people buying books but in the way that we can reach people.”

Yet, the hard copy still survives — and flourishes. “Based on what I hear people say, we are in the post-truth age, where information on the internet is not necessarily reliable,” he says. He recalls that he had asked an editor how much of what was published during the day turned out to be true. “And he had replied, about 20 per cent,” Newton says.

“I am sure that is not true but, on the other hand, people write [a book] researching for years, staking their personal reputation. I think it is a question of trust. People make their decisions based on the reputation of the author.”

Industry watchers hold that Bloomsbury has done particularly well because it has a whole array of diverse sections — fiction, non-fiction, academic, children’s books and so on. “Essentially the whole objective is to really grow all these streams into qualitatively high levels and become the publisher of choice and the leading publisher in these streams,” he adds.

If the focus on choice reminds one of a cellar full of wine, it is not surprising, for Newton’s family is in the wine-making business. Just as people have their favourite reds, does he have a particular fondness for any of his authors or titles?

Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age and Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India, he replies. “And the forever favourite novel is The English Patient.”

Published on February 13, 2020
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