India File

Publishing in the time of a pandemic

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on July 28, 2020 Published on July 27, 2020

Covid-19 has hit book publishing in unimaginable ways, forcing publishers, writers and readers to alter their behaviour. Jinoy Jose P tries to read the mind of the market

On any given day in Irinjalakuda, a small town in central Kerala famous for its art and culture, Current Books would be a cultural hub. Writers and readers would throng the store, owned by Kerala’s largest publisher DC Books, to buy and discuss books, and to network. But these days, the popular store is deserted. A printed notice is pasted on the door. Discounts up to 30-40 per cent, it reads, also asking customers to observe ‘social distancing’.

“These are pandemic times. So obviously, sales are down,” says a salesman at the store. “Despite the discounts, people hesitate to buy owing to fear of contracting the coronavirus,” he says.

Current Books is not alone. The pandemic has impacted publishing houses deeply, affecting revenues, sales, commissioning of new books and launches. “The pandemic and the lockdowns have forced book stores to stay closed. In some areas, some stores have even shut shop,” says Ravi Deecee, publisher and CEO, DC Books, one of the largest publishers in Malayalam. DC also owns Current Books store.

Book publishers expect the pandemic to impact writing and publishing in myriad ways. “Just as any wide-impact event has altered the cultural and social fabric of life and work and art throughout the course of history, so too will Covid,” says Meru Gokhale, Publisher, Penguin Press and Penguin Random House India, India’s largest English language publisher by revenue.

The crisis unfolds

Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India, says that from March 15 the publisher has had “zero sales” in all categories, since books are not an essential category. “That state has continued even though reopening was allowed, because of borders being sealed between States, and logistics issues that need to stabilise. Warehouses are working at less than half strength from the reverse migration, and it is hoped that by July or later we will see normalisation,” says Abraham.

According to Rahul Srivastava, MD, Simon & Schuster India, sales are severely impacted with the lockdowns and as a result book stores are returning books to reduce their inventories and payables. The heat is being felt in vernacular publishing as well. Siddharthan M, sales head of Mathrubhumi Books, in Kerala, says the leading publisher saw sales fall during the lockdown though things got better later.

For publishers such as Sage India, which brings out academic books as well, the lockdown has halted sales. Aarti David, Director, Publishing at Sage India, says the fact that academic institutions had to be suddenly shut down due to the pandemic triggered a fall in the sales of books to them. But Sage’s focus on digital products has helped cushion the crisis. “As the pandemic hit, we took a call to release the digital version of our new releases first.”

Digital contract

With colleges and other educational institutions moving towards online classes and academic grants and funds being squeezed, the sales of print will take a hit, going forward, observes KR Shyam Sundar, a faculty at XLRI Jamshedpur. Author of over a dozen books, academic and general works, Sundar says e-books will see a fillip now, given that classes are moving online. But at the same time books will get slimmer and the content will become more diluted as readability becomes an issue in the social media world. This trend will increase in the post-Covid scenario.

According to Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, a publishing consultant closely tracking India’s publishing industry, publishing firms seem to be reviewing their challenges.

What are the immediate and long-term plans? On the commissioning front, it’s business as usual for now. Abraham says commissioning of books goes on as before, perhaps “tempered a bit by the new reality and a consciousness that there will be a backlog and huge clutter with some understandably lower frontlist (publishing argot for new books) orders”. Sage’s David says they have been able to connect with existing as well as new authors throughout the lockdown.

“It has been a bit more demanding, but quite doable,” she says. According to her, publishers were more efficient during this difficult time. “We opted for a digital contract signing solution.”

David says this expedited the whole process that took minimum 10-12 days locally and more than a month for outstation/overseas contracts to return to the office, in the print version. This is swifter, easy to use and secure too. The teams have been busy communicating effectively through email/phone and video conferencing tools.

Have launches taken a hit? Sage’s David says they have shifted focus to engage with their authors to host “meaningful and thought-provoking” webinars each week. “We have also hosted virtual launch events for a few new releases such as Gay Bombay by Parmesh Shahani and It’s Logical by Kaustubh Dhargalkar.”

Hachette’s Abraham says that since end-March, they have put together online events for authors to engage with readers in collaboration with various platforms and book stores, including Momspresso, Kitab Khana, Oxford Bookstores and Gurgaon Moms, in addition to sessions on their social media channels.

The e-book bandwagon

Can e-books be the saviour during Covid? Abraham says they are too small in India to make a difference. During the lockdown, they, understandably, saw a surge. Hachette, for instance, had an 87 per cent growth. But e-books as a category is not yet significant, so that won’t help in terms of revenue substitution enough to keep a company going, he adds.

Deecee says the publisher has seen a 300-400 per cent jump in the sales of digital books. DC has also found that the lockdown has increased people’s interest in reading. This has prompted the company to innovate on delivery solutions. “We have partnered with app-based delivery companies such as Zomato and Swiggy to deliver our books,” says Deecee.

Srivastava also says e-books have helped the industry keep busy but the financial model is not viable for future growth.

David of Sage India says for academic publishing, e-book and digital offerings surely proved to be the elixir. But she adds that we should also not lose sight of the fact that a very large percentage of our population does not have access to the internet and electricity, and the internet penetration rate of our country is still at 50 per cent. “Therefore, for a vast majority, print is still the only feasible option.” Bhattacharji Rose says it needs at least 6-8 months for it to become evident that e-books in trade (general books) publishing is here to stay. “Meanwhile, in academic publishing, digital sales are good.”

Nandan Jha, SVP, Product & Sales, Penguin Random House India, says while India is a predominantly print book market, the publisher has made sure that the new titles launched in digital format are relevant, timely and anticipated, giving readers the option to choose e-books.

The Coronavirus by Swapneil Parikh, Maherra Desai and Dr Rajesh Parikh, was a timely release when there was a need for comprehensive, credible and authentic information on the virus.”

State must help

Publishers expect the government to take measures to help the industry. Abraham says the government can do many things here. Start with recognising that books are essential (if not critical) products, particularly during lockdowns. A recognition of the importance of indie (independent) book stores would be next, he says. Proper laws and safeguards against piracy would be a third (for instance, insisting on every marketplace vendor going through some degree of scrutiny and having a GST registration).

Srivastava wants the government to support book stores and encourage library spending, which will help book sales. Gaurav Sabharwal, Director, Prakash Books India, says the government should help with liquidity issues, ensuring smaller publishers survive these tough times. Bhattacharji Rose believes it would help if the government recognised the creative economy as a critical component of the national economy.

The new normal

Online learning or distance learning will no longer be optional but a way of life, observes David. Those who are open to change will fare better, she says. Bhattacharji Rose says publishers may explore the subscription model as has been done successfully by some indies (independent publishers) in the UK.

“There will be less of a requirement to hold on to inventory, so print on demand will become more the norm but it will depend a lot on origination costs being negotiated and brought at par with offset printing,” she argues.

According to Kanishka Gupta, author and founder of Writer’s Side, a leading literary agency in South Asia, mainstream publishing has always been a “high-prestige, low-profitability industry where many of the financial decisions and practices make absolutely no sense”. What the pandemic is going to do is permanently upend the existing publishing models and lead to large-scale disruptions.

“With many book stores shut or operating in a limited capacity; literary festivals getting cancelled or moving online, literary prizes downscaling, books sections in media rapidly shrinking, it will get even harder to promote new writing, whether it is literary, commercial or anything in-between,” says Gupta.

Bhattacharji Rose says book fairs may return as vastly different spaces. “New avatars of book fairs will probably be a reduced presence of firms with more and more reliance on digital technology to set up on-the-spot digital meetings, using AR to sell new books by imagining design layouts without having to carry dummies, etc.”

Bhattacharji Rose says paywalls will become a reality. E-books and audio books will grow but it depends entirely on the quality of translators and voice actors that can be sourced locally to be cost-effective. Also, e-readers will need to support all Indian language scripts. Smartphones will adapt to be inclusive of scripts and faster RAMs so as to enable learning and reading at efficient price points. Srivastava of S&S says the publisher will reduce the number of international book releases for the next few months and concentrate on fewer books.

“Expenses will be rationalised, in particular travel expenses.” Gradually, online sales are getting back on track and e-book sales have more than doubled. It is a different matter that actual e-book sales are not significant, and this may be the case for a while.

Yet, says Sabharwal of Prakash Books, “This trend will stay for some time so there will be a realignment of sales activities. We are working very closely with all online delivery platforms to ensure availability and make up for lost offline sales. We are also investing significantly in online marketing.”

Reading future

But for literary agents like Gupta of Writers Side, the lockdown period has been “very good” since editors had more time to read and acquire than ever before. “It has perhaps been the best period of my agenting career if you look at the range of books I managed to represent and successfully place,” beams Gupta.

Interestingly, a survey by consultancy Nielsen Book India on the Impact of Covid-19 on India’s book consumers (done during May14-June 7) shows two-thirds of book readers say they read more books now, against the pre-lockdown periods. Earlier, they read or listened to audio books for an average of nine hours a week, against 16 hours a week since lockdown. The survey has also found that readers now want to buy online first, followed by physical stores and then home delivery.

That said, Shyam Sundar of XLRI sees a deeper trend. In the modern age, information has outwitted and outshone Ideas. The former is available in plenty with Google and other sources. But the latter lies with books.

Hence the decline in reading and in publishing, says Shyam Sundar. “Further, the argumentative Indian is missing. Ideas were, and are, power. Now information is and will be power. Technology and management dominate education and serious and higher-order sciences are declining in terms of importance and interest. This explains the tendencies we see today.”

Business of books

Publishing is a low-margin business. Writers, barring the celebrities, often earn a pittance from the sales of their books. But for Nielsen Books and a few other entities and individual consultants, not many track the publishing industry from a business perspective. Nielsen estimates the Indian book market to be worth $6.7 billion. India has the third-largest English language market in the world. Vernacular publishing is also thriving, contributing to nearly half of the total sales. Publishing has many branches: textbooks for schools and colleges, academic journals, trade (general books like novels and such) and children’s books.

E-books comprise 4-5 per cent of the total sales in India even now. This is because of the relatively low levels of digital technology penetration. But this is a growing pie. More people are buying e-readers now and the availability of mobile apps that can read digital books is helping the market. Still, the segment is too small to make a significant contribution to overall sales.

Covid-19 may not change the whole game, but it has triggered some introspection. The focus has now been shifted online. Sales, launches, commissioning, and similar activities have moved online and publishers have realised the potential of using technology to optimise costs. The advent of self-publishing and marketing via social media and online sellers are also forcing the industry to be more democratic in its approach towards incentivising writers. The presence of MNCs like Amazon (which owns the publisher Westland) will also disrupt the current scenario in myriad ways considering that the online giants owns Kindle, the popular e-reader, and has the network muscle to market its products.

 

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Published on July 27, 2020
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