Illustration by Arindam Mukherjee
Illustration by Arindam Mukherjee | ThePrint
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New Delhi: “I’ve heard that people aren’t getting book deals unless they have a certain number of followers on Twitter or Instagram,” Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, the 37-year-old Penguin favourite who has at least eight books to her credit, tells us over the phone. She says it matter of factly, with no underlying scoff at the social-media-run-state-of-affairs today.

“Someone has to sell your book, and it’s not going to be publishers alone, because they bring out hundreds of books a year, so the only really dedicated person on your marketing team is you.” 

A look at the numbers explains why publishers might be trying to play safe in their choices of who to publish. According to Meghna Pant, author of How to Get Published in India, only 2 per cent of books sell more than 10,000 copies, and on an average 95 per cent of books published sell less than 2,000 copies. The numbers are abysmal, even for an industry that has always suffered from low margins. 

On 20 November at 5pm, literary fiction makes an appearance at number 11 on Amazon’s online best seller list with The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. If you’re looking for a more contemporary piece of reading, then there’s The Girl in Room 105 by Chetan Bhagat at number 17. Everything else is a self-help book, non-fiction political commentary, children’s literature, or standardised testing manual. 

“The fiction novel as a genre is dying,” rues Madhavan. “I mean, it’s got Netflix, Amazon Prime, music, news, and actual living to compete with.”

Today, the Indian publishing industry is evolving to absorb and emerge from the changing socio-economic environment that informs it. There appears to be consensus across the board that GST has hit small publishers where it hurts, one publisher called the tax a “real monster” for publishing houses with increased production costs. Also, Amazon is squeezing the average bookstore out of business, and celebrity sells.

“Authors need to realise that their work begins after their books get published,” Pant says, pointing to how difficult being noticed in a over-populated and hyper competitive space has become. 

In an age characterised by the seemingly infinite potential of the internet, Indian publishing is learning to make sense of numbers that tell a counter-intuitive truth: That the dream of a Digital India has a while to go.


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Waiting for the e-book chapter to arrive

The first name that pops up when you think of digital publishing in India is Chiki Sarkar, the business-savvy publishing firebrand who left her cushy position at Penguin Random House in 2015 to start her own venture called Juggernaut, for which she raised $2.3 million in the first round of fund-raising alone.

A busy woman on the move, Sarkar doesn’t have time for pleasantries, answering our extensive list of questions via WhatsApp — true to form for someone who loves digital. 

For Juggernaut, poised on the promise of the digital century, the e-book  versions of their top books constitute anywhere between a half to a third of its total sales. Kindle, on the other hand, hovers between 2-10 per cent.

Sarkar says e-books allowed them to tap into subcategories that they didn’t initially expect to do well online — for example, parenting books.

“Two of our biggest sellers are e-books of our print titles,” she says. “For instance, How the BJP Wins by Prashant Jha is perhaps our biggest seller.

“But the long tail (large number of products that sell in small quantities) is our digital originals — short stories and short non-fiction.”

Penguin was quick to follow suit and in 2018 launched Penguin Petit — short reads of about 50 pages each, “designed for ease of reading across digital devices”. “With this, we were able to foray into the world of accessible short-form reading, making it easier for people on the move to read anywhere, anytime,” Penguin’s senior VP of digital marketing, Niti Kumar tells ThePrint. 

In 2016, Amazon’s head of devices David Limp welcomed India’s literary digital revolution, claiming the Kindle had seen a growth of 200 per cent in the country India — the highest among their biggest markets. But today, most Indian publishing houses, whether niche or big, might have gotten on to the e-book bandwagon, but the jury is still out on how lucrative the digital side of publishing really is. 

“E-books are now part of the ecosystem as a given — it is taken for granted that all print books will also be made available as e-books, but they currently bring in a very small margin of the revenue”, Arpita Das, founder and editor of alternative publishing house Yoda Press, tells ThePrint. “For us it’s not even 10%. For others perhaps, in the region of 15-20%.” 

For Yoda, a lot of their financial liquidity comes from their partnership with Academic publisher Sage. Juggernaut, too, considers print to be a “safety net” and has kept 30% of their business model as print — the only part of their business to date that has broken even. 

Veteran publisher and feminist activist Urvashi Butalia is far more critical. “The digital revolution has really been a bit of a damp squib as far as I’m concerned. E-books didn’t turn out to be that wonderful thing that they were cracked up to be,” the founder of feminist publishing house Zubaan Books tells ThePrint.

Flipkart sensed that the e-book market was a cheque that couldn’t yet be cashed in India, prompting them to withdraw selling them entirely in 2015. At the time, their statement implied that they were unwilling to wait for the Indian market and mindset to play tech-catch up. “The Indian book market is overwhelmingly dominated by physical books and this is a market that is growing at a fast clip,” the company explained.

Now, four years later, and Digital India continues to remain standing at the threshold of tradition and technology. Disparities in class, language, region and connectivity make predicting demographic trends difficult, and the same skepticism appears to be missing from larger players. Publishing giant Bloomsbury for example, that has witnessed a steady compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23 per cent over the last 5-6 years, believes it’s too early to write off the e-book phenomenon which they feel is growing steadily. 

Yogesh Sharma, VP of sales and marketing Bloomsbury, explains that since there is very little incremental costs involved, selling more ebooks means there’s more money to be made, so in the long term they’re the smarter option. He admits that the e-books only contribute to 7-8 per cent of Bloomsbury’s trade publishing revenue, but points to the fact that considering e-books where nowhere about 6-7 years ago, “this is a significant jump”. 


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It’s Amazon’s world and we’re all just living in it 

It’s not just paper that has become digitised, as e-commerce “disruptors” Amazon and Flipkart have transformed the way consumers shop. More than 50 per cent of total book sales are now online, coming at the cost of more than 500 Indian bookshops shutting down in the last 5-7 years in India, as Sharma informs us. 

But publishing houses have actually benefited from escaping traditional distribution routes, blessed with increased accessibility to their books, low production costs, and the boon of convenience for their customers. 

“The fact is that for a small indie like myself, it has meant that my books are available on platforms which offer more or less a level playing field, and I am paid the minute the book is sold. This means, we are a little less squeezed by the stranglehold of the Indian book distributor, something that used to be relentless in the past”, says Das. 

“The credit terms one had to agree to [before] were shockingly unfair…even now they pay us like that — once in 120/150 days. You can imagine what that does for our cash flow”, she explains. 

But Amazon, which started out as an online bookstore in 1994, has its eyes set on the bigger picture in the publishing industry, which was evident with its e-book unit Kindle Direct Publishing all the way back in 2007. 

As the publishing industry reels from the recession, and the market hedges its bets on best-selling authors like Bhagat, celebrities like Twinkle Khanna and PR-friendly politicians like Shashi Tharoor, Amazon’s self-publishing platform has become a blessing for professional as well as amateur authors who can’t get through the door at traditional publishing houses. 

Taru Agrawal, Delhi-based content and marketing professional, had reached out to several publishers with manuscripts of her short-stories and compilation of poetry, but gave up when she was informed by her friends in the industry that those genres are now treated like plague by mainstream publishing houses. After doing a round of research on several self-publishing options like Juggernaut and Pothi, she finally settled on Amazon because of it’s fair pay structure, easy-to-use interface, and its big brand name. 

Pant also notes that publishing on Amazon is becoming an increasingly popular choice as it provides far more transparency than publishing houses can offer, as by being able to track sales, analysing analytics, and control prices, “authors can see what’s happening to the fate of their book”. 

But this fate is often one of relative obscurity, with new, unknown names finding it difficult to build a brand among famous players.

“Authors need to realise that their work begins after their books get published,” Pant explains, while Sharma believes that “you really have to be a bright spark or exceptionally lucky to get noticed at all.”

Money makes money and the art marketing

Today, anyone can get published at the “click of a button” according to Pant, but the real struggle is to actually sell.

For Bloomsbury’s Sharma, the previously physical hierarchy of window space in a bookstore has merely transitioned into a fight for recognition on endless online best-seller lists.

“Everyone is following the same Nielson and Amazon lists, and people’s decisions are essentially being dictated by those,” he says. “Readers will only end up buying what they are able to see, and if the same #1 bestseller window is visible to millions of people, then the big authors just become bigger, while the middle-listers and newer titles are struggling.”

To be ‘seen’ in the publishing world, then, means to put in concentrated efforts at ‘showing’. “We are passionate marketers — we use the full spectrum,” Sarkar says, highlighting her team’s efforts to “very carefully think through press strategy, date by date campaign planning, and in particular, think about placing stories that could go viral”.

For instance, Juggernaut, that swiftly acted on rumors of Abhijit Banerjee potentially winning the Nobel and came up with a plan for the release of his book Good Economics For Hard Times, asked NDTV journalist Sreenivasan Jain to do a video for them interviewing Banerjee. “As it turned out, he won the Nobel and so Jain turned the interview into an official interview.”

“Again for Abhijit’s press schedule, we not only looked at getting an Economic Times, but also a brut,” she tells us.

If it’s not a diverse set of platforms that publishing houses are seeking, then it’s the mediums of messaging themselves that are also changing. Book tours and billboards are slowly making space for subtler plugs on podcast shows, because “it’s simple really,” Yoda’s Das says, “the avid reader is also a good listener, and across age groups”. Juggernaut, known for their experimental marketing strategies, is also  beginning to see signs of podcast growth.

Even Zubaan, that remains largely off-the-radar among the big fish of publishing, channels significant energy into engaging with authors, academics and young readers through events — film screenings, panel discussions, book clubs, social media polls, and author meet and greets.

“Social media has really opened up an avenue for promoting books, so the marginalisation our brand of books sees in the mainstream media, is countered by increasing discussions and exposure on social media,” Butalia says.

But the flipside of these platforms, that enable the democratisation of information, is its direct link to shortened attention spans and the shifting nature of entertainment. “Non-fiction is really having its moment in India because no one is reading for pleasure anymore,” says author Madhavan. “It’s now almost always about feeling a sense of accomplishment, for work, or to engage in debate.”

However, despite the several obstacles, “frighteningly low profit margins”, and the fickle nature of consumer interest, “I like to believe that we all remain in the industry because we only know books, and we love book culture, that is what defines us, makes sense to us,” Das says.


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