Local publishers need to catch up with technological changes

India has 9,000 publishers in 22 official languages and 1,600, if one were to include dialects. But, the industry has a long way to go

Photo by: Exotica.im/UIG via Getty Images
Photo by: Exotica.im/UIG via Getty Images
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Nitasha Devasar

Publishing in India is at once traditional, caught up in the by lanes of Ansari Road, the Old Delhi books street, and digitally aspirational, in its plush offices in the NCR (National Capital Region). The contributors in this section have weathered many publishing storms and their conversations reveal the inherent contradictions in Indian publishing where old problems and new opportunities can, and often do, coexist. Competition and collaboration between existing and new forces and entities are more visible that ever before. Local publishers are facing the heat and need to catch up with the rapid technological changes in publishing, while multinational publishers look to marry content and technology to move up the value chain.

Publishing services in India are used globally for their cost and quality effectiveness and this sector needs to get its due place in mainstream publishing for its contributions to local employment and to global publishing needs

Asoke Ghosh, chairman and managing director of PHI Learning, talks about the issues plaguing Indian publishing

Where is the Indian publishing industry placed today? How does it compare with other emerging markets?

A. When we visit any book fair like New Delhi World Book Fair or Frankfurt Book Fair, we get to know and can make up our mind as to how publishing is doing. It is heartwarming to see so many publishers participating with thousands of books on different subjects, especially in areas that we have never learned about or studied before. This hugely encourages me to remain in publishing and work cohesively for its prosperity. I am happy to see so many people from all over the world engaged in publishing today.

According to The India Book Market: Understanding the India Book Market report by Nielsen, there are 9,000 publishers in India, with over 21,000 retailers, publishing in 22 official languages and if we include regional dialects, the total is about 1,600. Literacy, in India, is rising rapidly; it surged from 65 per cent in 2001 to 74 per cent in 2011 and is predicted to reach 90 per cent by 2020. With such impressive figures, the industry has a long way to go.

Q. What are the landmarks or milestones in the Indian publishing industry?

A. In my opinion, publication of a large number of books and addition of more and more new players in publishing is the milestone of the industry in India. Most encouraging is the fact that a lot of publishers from abroad are leading Indian publishing now. Due to their involvement in the publishing industry, publishers in India, though facing stiff competition, are also gaining new heights in business with partnerships and collaborations.

Also, in the last 10 years, we have seen an increase in the number of Indian authors, which I consider another milestone in the Indian publishing industry, because many of them are quite popular today for their contribution.

Q. To what extent have the changes in technology, both in production and in marketing, affected the working of Indian publishing?

A. I think the impact of technology is quite high. It has affected every sphere of publishing, including production and marketing. The internet, print-on-demand, digital publishing and e-books are the main drivers of this change. Technology has opened up significant opportunities for self-publishing, wherein the author can publish and promote their work, and also interact with the readers.

Everybody in India, from a publisher or printer to retailer, are striving towards automating their mechanism, right from pre-press to press, and from inventory management and control to the marketing of books online. Technology has given a way to Indian publishers to market their books worldwide but, at the same time, it has stolen the beauty of bookshelves, both of living room and academic libraries. Still, no doubt, the technology has changed the publishing scenario in India, of course favourably, I feel.

Q. What are the enduring challenges of Indian publishing?

A. If you ask me, there are many challenges in publishing such as distribution, substandard content, cost of production, pricing a book at an affordable rate and so on. But, of course, piracy and re-export are few among the other enduring challenges in India. However, we are trying to fight this evil; prevalent in India. Since it is a herculean task which, more than money, involves time, it is difficult to have a complete check on piracy. This brings us to a big question–should we engage ourselves in publishing or pursuing?

Another challenge that I feel is the problem of cut-paste, low quality content. However, with plagiarism software, we can overcome this problem up to certain extent, and decline publication of such content. In India, sometimes people do it unknowingly, due to ignorance, as they believe that anything on the internet is copyright free and is available in public domain, which is not true. So, with the help of our various associations like FIP, API we organise workshops on copyright awareness, which is helping us a lot. Publishers should be aware that publishing of a plagiarized content is the violation of copyright norms, and they may have to face legal action or difficulty in selling their books online.

Another challenge that a publisher is facing today is the long collection cycles and problems related to overdue payments. This is the weakest link in the Indian publishing industry. One sells a book to a distributor and you are really lucky if you get payment within six months; the credit periods have now gone up to one year. In these circumstances, one may find it difficult to startup a new publishing company in India, particularly in the present situation of credit in the market.

Q. What is your take on e-books and other digital platforms? Why do you think local publishers have not taken to these technologies? Does the Indian publishing industry still feel threatened by these trends?

A. Technology goes hand-in-hand with publishing. Wherever there are printed books, there will be e-books too. E-books are the future of publishing. It is quite convenient to market and supply them, and one does not even need to maintain a large inventory. Online publishing is also same; it can be done quickly, in no time.

Real publishers will certainly like to embrace the technological advances and will use them for their benefit. Also, cost is not a major concern for the publishers in our country, as producing an e-book is highly cost effective; it is not at all a costly affair. If you ask me, whether I would like to print 1,000 copies or produce an e-book, immediately my answer would be the e-book!

But, the e-reader is little expensive for a common man in India. In fact, the infrastructure is not yet truly compatible for digital India.

Q. How about online selling? Is this popular with local publishers? How is it used?

A. Online selling is quite popular these days. If we wish to buy something, we immediately go online and buy the item of our choice. It is so easy!

But, the same is not prevalent in case of books, especially for textbooks. If a student is prescribed a book by his/her teacher or institute, he/she still depends fully on the local bookstore for purchase. In digital India, when people prefer online shopping for most of the items, from clothes to all households, then why not for textbooks. I repeat, it is so easy and convenient!

Q. What are your views on the ‘glamourisation’ of publishing with a profusion of lit fests, book fairs, reading events, etc.? Do they at all benefit the publishing industry?

A. Of course, in today’s world the ‘glamourisation’ of any business or industry is must, and so is for publishing, though book fairs are getting less popular now; one of the major reasons of this being online availability of the books. People get to see a book of their choice on publisher’s website and other e-marketing portals in this era of technology. They can even browse content of the book sitting leisurely at home. But still I would say book fairs are a great place to connect with all publishers, and moreover, every company cannot afford to place their books online, especially the small players. Also, if a reader does not have any information about the publication, the author, or the publisher of the book, it will be hard for him/her to browse through to find a book online . . . here comes the role and significance of book fairs. There are many more benefits of such events.

Like book fairs, literature festivals helps publishers to acquire new manuscripts, and even the reader get chance to meet and interact with their favourite authors face-to-face; the author-publisher and author-reader interaction is a delight at these fests. New ideas take birth at such fests . . . I am always in favour of literature festivals. I strongly believe, these events will continue receiving people’s support and will certainly continue to exist.

Q. Another important trend is bigwigs like Amazon coming into publishing. How is it affecting publishers?

A. Amazon is like a monopoly. They want to do everything themselves. But, we are in a trade where we always propagate freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom to publish... where the small and the big–all should exist. Imagine a country where only three or four publishers dominate, then if somebody writes a book, unless the author strongly pursues with the publisher, his/her work will not get to see the light of the day. A publisher plays a role of an educator and one must recall that we are contributing to the growth of education in our country. And do remember, it is a noble profession.

Q. In recent times because of government policies, funding issues, etc., the industry has been beset with problems. Are there enough platforms where publishers can voice their opinions or issues and get a solution? Are publishing associations and industry bodies able to rally to make an impact/ raise their voices?

A. It all depends on the government. As far as the publishers are concerned, we are operating for more than 50 years. In the last 50 years, we have been in regular contact with the government whether in the centre or the state. There are many problems which we are facing and have been discussing with the government from time to time. Sometimes we get a relief but, at times, our suggestions are not accepted.

In my view, the government should create a body to address policy issues related to book publishing because publishing and selling books is a highly specialized business. We are a capital-intensive industry but with low returns. Whether it is a bookseller or a publisher, one is into publishing business because of his/her personal interest in books; of course, with an expectation of better rate of returns. After all, we give employment to a huge mass of population and to run this industry we expect significant gains. A few bureaucrats in the ministries are aware of our contribution and are helpful too.

Q: What is the future of local Indian publishing? Would you agree that in spite of the difficulties of the business, more and more players continue to enter the industry? Why?

A: It is a positive sign that people are interested in publishing and more and more new players are entering into the industry. These new entrants should prepare themselves for the challenges and opportunities too.

The future of publishing is certainly promising. I am optimistic about the future of the industry, and look forward to people and the sector as a whole to do better. If you are into it, shape up your mind to do better, make more money, create more employment, produce worthy books, build a huge audience, maximize your sales and secure positive results.

Let’s join hands to impart quality education to our children!

(This extract has been taken with permission from Publishers on Publishing – Inside India’s Book Business published by All about Book Publishing)

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