Numbers and Letters

The possibilities and pitfalls before India’s publishing industry

The National Library in Kolkata maintains the Indian National Bibliography, which, as per the Delivery of Books Act, is supposed to receive a copy of every book published in India. SAMUEL BOURNE/ALINARI/GETTY IMAGES
01 April, 2016

AT INTERNATIONAL BOOK FAIRS, At international book fairs, which I have attended for the last seven years, experts show off their national book markets in elaborate presentations with colourful graphs and pie charts. I stare in wonderment. Not because the numbers are exceptional, but because they exist in the first place. By contrast, any presentation on the Indian book market is a collection of qualitative descriptions, anecdotal observations, experts’ views, information from newspapers, and whispered rumours. Indian publishers don’t rely on hard market data to make business decisions, because almost none exists. Instead, they fall back on an elaborate network of informers, which primarily consists of retailers and distributors, and in-house marketing and sales teams.

New entrants to the publishing scene in India are often baffled by the complicated industry. But even as publishers are transitioning to exploring digital spaces, the demand for print books continues to grow in India, and e-books have failed to take off as predicted. While the number of titles published each year has been rising, in the last three to four years, English-language trade publishers in India have not sold e-books worth more than 2 percent of their total sales revenue. The print-versus-e-book debate has almost died down in the book industry, replaced by the realisation that print and digital formats are likely to coexist and in the future lead to a hybrid publishing model that taps the strengths of both.

“The India Book Market Report,” released in October 2015 by the global market research firm Nielsen, is the first study in recent times to quantify Indian publishing. According to the report, India’s print book market—which grew at a rate of 20.4 percent, compounded annually between 2012 and 2015—is estimated to be worth R26,060 crore. The last known comprehensive industry report was “The Survey of Indian Book Industry,” published in 1976 by the Delhi think tank the National Council for Applied Economic Research. With the release of Nielsen’s report, the industry has new figures of its worth to replace the oft-quoted but unverifiable ones—R14,000-crore growing at a rate of 15 percent, compouned annually. Various official bodies, including the Federation of Indian Publishers, have used these very numbers over the last few years. The release of Nielsen’s report provides us with an opportune moment to take stock of the industry as a whole.

The report affirms previous claims by industry bodies that India is the sixth-largest book market in the world, and currently the second largest for books in English, behind the United States. Demographic trends support the high growth rate of the industry. The adult literacy level in the country, now at 74 percent, is projected to hit 90 percent in 2020, and this is expected to continue feeding demand for books. Additionally, the government’s expenditure on education and educational resources boosts the demand for books even further. Youth and children constitute a strong readership base. The National Youth Readership Survey 2009 showed that one third of the country’s people are between the ages of 13 and 35, and 25 percent of them—83 million—are book readers. Of these, 53 percent live in rural areas and 58 percent are either at or below matriculation level. Curriculum-based reading and reading to gain professional skills dominates youth readership patterns. Nielsen’s survey among urban consumers shows that they buy more educational books than trade books. The educational books sector, which forms 70 percent of the book market in India, is the bulwark for the publishing industry.

The release of “The India Book Market Report” has spurred global interest in the country’s book publishing industry. While the report touches upon many dimensions of the sector and presents data from primary and secondary sources, describing the state of India’s huge and fragmented book market will need a few more such efforts. Since no central agency compiles publishing data, much remains out of the sight of those attempting to study the composite industry. In truth, the sector is a clutch of many industries, each with its own set of determinants, growth patterns and levels of informality. But there is also a common ground for the industry’s many parts—one that policy, standards and good governance can help strengthen.

Nielsen was commissioned to compile market statistics for the book industry in India by two rival industry bodies: the Association of Publishers in India, or API, which represents foreign publishers with offices in India, and the Federation of Indian Publishers, or FIP, which is recognised by the government of India as the official industry body of private publishers in the country. The study has received mixed responses from publishers in India, with many expressing concerns regarding the accuracy of the projections from the consumer survey, and the fact that a large segment of the industry—publishing in Indian languages—is unrepresented in it.

Nevertheless, the report will help those global players eyeing the Indian market to make better sense of the complexities of the country’s publishing scene.

The study is also expected to help publishers make their pitch for securing industry status from the union ministry of commerce and industry. That plea was articulated loudly after 2001, when, on the initiative of Sushma Swaraj, then the minister for information and broadcasting, the motion picture industry in India was accorded official industry status. The move was purportedly meant to free Bollywood from the clutches of the underworld by making it easier for producers to avail of finance and credit facilities from banks. It was Swaraj’s ministry that made the proposal to the ministry of commerce and industry. Publishers have been waiting for over three decades for a similar move to come from the union ministry of human resource development, which, through the autonomous National Book Trust, or NBT, is responsible for developing and promoting publishing in the country.

Even though Nielsen does not account for every player in the industry, it is the only agency currently tracking sales data in the country. In 2010, it launched a service in India called BookScan, which tracks about 30 to 40 percent of Indian publishing, mostly within the trade book market—that is, general-interest fiction and non-fiction books. Retailers need to agree to participate and report data to Nielsen. Booksellers who work on manual systems or who do not follow a standardised billing system cannot be tracked. For “The India Book Market Report,” Nielsen supplemented the BookScan data with results from interviews and online surveys of over 100 industry stakeholders, as well as a survey of 2,000 urban consumers.

Other data sources that could have helped keep track of book production are unreliable. One of these sources is the Indian National Bibliography, which purportedly keeps a record of all titles published each year.

The National Library in Kolkata, which maintains the Indian National Bibliography, is supposed to receive a copy of every book published in India, as per the Delivery of Books Act of 1954. However, the Act has not been enforced in spirit, and many newer publishers are not even aware of it. As a result, many new titles do not make their way to the National Bibliography. The ministry of culture will soon propose a new law, the Deposit of Books, Newspapers and Electronic Publications in Libraries Bill 2016, to replace the Delivery of Books Act. The proposed law, if it comes into effect, would make the failure to deposit books more strictly punishable. The bill brings electronic books within its scope, which will help keep a record of e-book production in the country.

The International Standard Book Number is a 13-digit global standard number that encodes a country prefix, publisher prefix and a unique number for each title. This helps the industry’s supply chain to trace the journey of each copy of a particular title, from the publisher’s warehouse to its purchase. In India, ISBNs are issued free of charge by the Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency for ISBN, hosted at the ministry of human resources development. The agency claims to have issued ISBNs to 19,000 publishers since it was introduced in the country, in 1985. That figure has not been updated in at least the last four years, although many more publishers have set up shop during this time. The ISBN system could have been a good source for keeping track of the total number of publishers in the country. The Nielsen report states that India has only 9,037 active publishers, a figure based on the ISBNs issued in the last three to four years. But this appears to be a faulty interpretation of the data because it likely eliminates those publishers who haven’t used up the ISBNs issued to them prior to this time. Also, the ISBN system has not been fully adopted by publishers in India, most notably by those working in Indian languages.

The process of applying for an ISBN is fraught with challenges for many publishers, especially those based outside Delhi, where the issuing agency is located. Delays of up to three months in receiving ISBNs and difficulties in following up on applications have been common grievances. Also, the agency appears to be severely short-staffed. Only two people handle the requisitions for ISBNs even though the demand for them is growing given the increase in the number of books being published. The agency was to launch an internet-based system for issuing the numbers before the end of 2015, but nothing has come of that so far.

Because of the cumbersome application process, some publishers decide to publish without an ISBN. At the same time, a lack of awareness about their necessity, and the manual systems used at many points of purchase, have meant that many publishers—especially smaller ones and those publishing in Indian languages whose books circulate within limited areas—remain outside the ambit of the ISBN. Until the government and industry come together to capture data, the full picture of India’s publishing sector, starting with the basics, such as the number of publishers and titles, will remain elusive.

The lack of trust between the publishing sector’s public (“bureaucratic”) and private (“profit-motive”) representatives has been detrimental to the growth of the sector, creating a rift that has impacted policy formulation.

The industry’s many agencies—the NBT, which represents the government’s interests; the Federation of Publishers and Booksellers of India, which represents the interests of distributors and booksellers; the FIP; and the API—function like rivals, independent of each other, and rarely converge on an issue. The presence of many representative groups, sometimes working at cross purposes, reduces the collective bargaining power of publishers. The industry federations are also considerably distanced from the situations faced by publishers outside Delhi.

Further, the media outreach of the publishing industry is particularly poor. The federations, and even a large section of publishers, don’t proactively engage with journalists. None of the federations spoke out during the recent attacks on writers’ freedom of speech and expression, or during the period when writers returned state and central academy awards. A notable exception was the FIP, which came out in support of the beleaguered Tamil writer Perumal Murugan when some groups aggressively called for a ban on his novel Madhurobagan. This support, however, was possible only because the author’s publisher stridently campaigned on his behalf.

The rise of online retailers such as Flipkart and Snapdeal has boosted sales for Indian publishers, although these companies’ aggressive pricing tactics often cause customers to believe that books in brick-and- mortar stores are overpriced. SUBHASH SHARMA/ZUMA PRESS/CORBIS

Author management is another neglected area in the publishing sector. New writers, especially, often complain that contracts prove daunting to them, and that they are unable to negotiate terms. The complexity of the publishing industry, along with other factors such as global protocols and copyright laws, influences the often-baffling terms of author contracts. Most authors are unaware of all the dimensions involved in the process of producing and marketing a book, and are thus unable to negotiate contracts. There are just a handful of professional literary agents in the country, and almost all of them work for the growing tribe of English-language writers. A few groups representing authors’ interests do exist, such as the India wing of the global organisation the Alliance of Independent Authors, but none of them are big enough to negotiate with publishers. The Authors Guild of India, once a representative body of authors in the country, which continues to be recognised by the government as such, has fallen off the map. New authors trying to get a break are attracted to self-publishing to get around the challenge of finding publishers, and a few take it up with entrepreneurial zeal. Although this is not a new phenomenon—several Indian-language writers are self-published—the technology-enabled tools for self-publishing are making it much easier for new writers to launch their work and thereby potentially be discovered by traditional publishers.

The reading public’s perception of the publishing industry is fashioned by the books and authors featured in the mass media, and what is seen on the shelves of bookstores—that is, trade books. The media pays very little attention to the huge market for educational books, which include textbooks and course books, as well as academic, scholarly and reference books. Out of the 9,037 publishers identified in the Nielsen report, 8,107 publish books for schools, colleges and higher educational institutions. Only 930 are trade publishers.

As per Nielsen’s report, the schoolbooks market in 2013–14 was worth R18,600 crore, and the market for books for higher education was valued at R5,600 crore in the same period. The trade books market was valued at R1,860 crore, a figure which would no doubt be higher if publishers not covered by BookScan, especially those who publish books in Indian languages, were added to the count. But educational publishing would still make for a large portion of the entire book market.

The National Council for Education Research and Technology, an autonomous organisation under the ministry of human resource development, is the single largest publisher in the country. The publishing programmes undertaken through the NCERT and other institutions, such as the NBT, the Sahitya Akademi and the publications division, along with the more than 400 agencies that publish in the public sector, make the government of India the largest publishing agency in the country. The textbooks produced by the central and state governments’ school boards dominate the schoolbooks segment in the country. Private publishers have more room in the higher-education books segment.

However, not all books available in the country are produced locally or originate in India. Among books in English available in India, many are imported, while others are licensed editions, produced by Indian publishers after acquiring rights from the foreign publishers to print these titles in India or South Asia. Many publishers rely on a combination of these three methods to build their businesses. Most imported educational books deal with the areas of science, technology and medicine. Among trade books, fiction and children’s books are popular genres for import. Recent data on exports and imports of books suggests that India is a major exporter of books, mainly educational ones, to 150 countries. Book imports rose in value at a compound annual growth rate of 18.9 percent between 2010 and 2015, while general exports grew at a rate of 10.3 percent over the same period.

At the time of Independence, the publishing industry in India was dominated by the trading outposts of British companies. The erstwhile Asia Publishing House, set up in 1943 in Bombay, is said to be the first modern Indian publishing house. Soon after 1947, the Indian government put restrictions on foreign investment in publishing, to encourage the growth of the domestic printing and publishing industries. Foreign publishers such as Penguin and Macmillan had to work with local partners to maintain their presence in India. (An exception was made for the Oxford University Press at that time, because it was a department of the University of Oxford.)

Educational institutions were set up at a feverish pace in the first three decades after Independence, but not enough books were available to cater to students. In the 1960s, the erstwhile ministry of education and culture entered into bilateral agreements to make low-cost textbooks for higher education available in India. By the mid 1980s, about 700 British, 1,600 American and 400 Soviet titles were acquired under these bilateral programmes. Several companies in India emerged at this time, to distribute these and other imported books. This seems to have had a lasting impact, creating a dependence on American and British publishers for textbooks. Today, the books that are adopted as textbooks by universities and colleges are made available at special prices in India within three months of their publication in their originating countries. Some are even indigenised with the help of local academics as co-authors, who add India-related sections.

To encourage domestic production of textbooks, the government launched a programme in the 1970s to subsidise the publishing of university-level books. The scheme was implemented through state governments, which set up their own textbook production agencies with substantial financial support—R1 crore per state—from the centre. By the late 1980s, about 6,000 books had been published under the programme, of which one-fourth were translations. The NBT also launched a subsidy scheme in 1970 for university-level books in English and Hindi, as well as a scheme—which continues today—for producing subsidised books in core subjects such as medicine and engineering.

The NCERT, established in 1961 as a central government agency, develops the curriculum framework for the states, which also produce their own textbooks. However, government-produced textbooks are riddled with problems: they are affected not only by substandard production quality, plagiarism, factual errors and delays in printing and distribution, but also by the tendency of each new government to enforce revisions. In October 2015, following its decision to change the syllabus, the Rajasthan government decided to auction 30 million school textbooks as scrap. The books had cost R50 crore to publish, and were estimated to fetch R5 lakh in scrap value. In Gujarat, the government increased textbook prices by 200 percent during the past academic year. In Maharashtra and Kerala, the state governments’ decision to outsource printing has caused protracted delays in making books available to students in the last academic year.

Further, government schemes for the procurement of books for school and government libraries are often subject to corruption. By colluding with procurement officials, opportunist private publishers produce books of questionable quality and get them selected for library purchases. Some publishers base their entire business models on such transactions. To counter this, a few publishers of children’s books in different languages created an advocacy group in 2011 called the Publishers Action Group—Ensuring quality books for children, or Pag-e. The group has brought to the notice of senior officials the lack of transparency in the process of government acquisition of books. Regrettably, few discussions take place in the industry forums on ethical business practices and good governance.

Trade publishing in English took off in the country when Penguin Books India was launched, in 1985. Over the following two decades, professionals with industry experience set up local, independent publishing houses. These included Kali for Women (now split into Zubaan and Women Unlimited), Mapin, Tulika Books and Stree-Samya. Publishing both trade and academic books, these houses focussed on niche subject areas in the humanities and social sciences—ranging from gender studies to visual arts. Their carefully crafted lists, which target eclectic and scholarly readerships, have contributed towards creating diverse and innovative books.

The successful multinational and large trade publishers release at least 200 titles annually. Independent publishers put out between 10 and 20 books a year, and face greater struggles—from printing, to marketing and distributing, to simply staying afloat.

Some notable children’s books publishers, such as Katha, Tulika, Tara, and Ekalavya, came up during the 1990s and thereafter. However, the pioneering Children’s Book Trust, which was established in 1957 by the cartoonist Shankar to publish illustrated books for children, as well the NBT, whose mandate includes producing affordable children’s books, remain significant due to their multilingual lists. Their books are marketed beyond urban centres via book fairs and mobile vans.

The expanding publishing market prompted multinational companies such as Scholastic, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins, Springer and Elsevier to set up shop in India in the late 1990s. At that time, foreign companies could not own more than a 49-percent stake in any Indian publishing company. Restrictions on foreign direct investment in book publishing were lifted in the year 2000, after which other top multinational publishing companies followed, such as Hachette, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Bloomsbury and Harlequin. Almost all the multinational publishers in India are now fully owned entities of their parent companies.

The demand for books has risen as the purchasing power of Indian consumers has improved, though reading for education continues to be given far greater emphasis in our culture than reading for pleasure. However, new genres aimed at specific communities among readers—graphic novels, young-adult fiction, fantasy as well as religion, spirituality, new age philosophy and self-help, for example—are doing well here, just as they are globally.

Education- related publishing comprises the lion’s share of the Indian publishing industry; youth reading patterns in particular are dominated by schoolbooks and books for professional development. numbers and letters · books  SUBHENDU SARKAR/LIGHTROCKET/GETTY IMAGES

India’s is a price-sensitive market for books, where impulse purchases are rare. Hence, the primary criterion that a publisher considers while betting on a manuscript is very often its potential to sell in high volumes. Also, the direct costs of publishing, such as those of paper and printing, are rising. Although desktop publishing is now ubiquitous, digital workflows are not yet efficient in small and medium publishers. Transitioning into a multi-format publishing system—to produce both print and electronic books—is made harder due to constant change in technology and a lack of capital to help adapt to these changes.

Even though books comprise less than 1 percent of the total retail market in India, Nielsen’s data suggests that an extraordinary 21,000-plus retailers sell books here. While physical bookstores and online retailers coexist, online bookselling has both helped and hindered publishers. When Flipkart launched in 2007, it worked closely with publishers to enlist books for online selling, which, in turn, improved sales for publishers.

However, the indiscriminate discounting that helped push books onto online retail channels adversely affected the perceived value of books. The discounted prices were often below cost price, and these unrealistic discounts led to the impression among customers that books sold elsewhere were overpriced. The practice of discounting has been kept in check in many countries through fixed book-pricing regulations. For example, Germany allows no discounts on a book for a period of 18 months after its publication. The French Senate approved a so-called “anti-Amazon” law in 2014, prohibiting online booksellers from offering any discounts.

The National Book Promotion Policy of India, the drafting of which began in 2011 and which still remains to be formally adopted, emphasises the benefits of online technologies in improving access to books, but makes no note of the adverse effects of arbitrary discounting practices. This issue merits a discussion that is based on ground realities, taking into account the complexities of book publishing in India.

Far from being a homogenous category, Indian publishing is a composite of publishing industries in many tongues, but very little data is available on the production and sales of books in Indian languages.

Following Independence, the Sahitya Akademi and the NBT boosted the publishing of books—including translations—through multilingual publishing programmes. The most prominent modern and contemporary writers in Indian languages have been published by the Sahitya Akademi, which has so far brought out about 6,000 titles in 24 languages, including English.

A 2004 FIP survey of new titles published in 18 Indian languages in that year revealed that the total pie was split up in a way that together Hindi (26 percent) and English (23 percent) made up nearly half of it. The other top Indian languages in which books were published were Tamil (9 percent), Bengali (7 percent), Marathi (7 percent) and Malayalam (4 percent). These figures only indicate the number of titles published and not per-capita book production. A decade on, observation of these industries reveals a similar composition, even though the actual number of titles has grown in at least some Indian-language publishing markets.

But, unlike for English-language publishing, no distribution services are available for publishers in Indian languages. Almost all of them handle their own distribution, and some larger publishing houses have their own retail outlets. Local book fairs are a major point of sale. The annual Kolkata and Chennai book fairs, organised by the publishers’ associations of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, respectively, help many Bengali and Tamil publishers make nearly half of their annual sales. Privately organised book fairs that travel the hinterland are popular in some states, such as Maharashtra. Fairs organised by the NBT, in big and small cities and towns, also help readers access books in their languages.

Nielsen’s report cites a few figures pertaining to Indian-language publishing, though these are based on a sample of consumer purchases in urban areas rather than on a survey of total titles published. The market survey, which recorded responses of 2,000 consumers, shows that 55 percent of trade books sold are in English; of the remaining 45 percent sold in Indian languages, Hindi had the lion’s share, at 35 percent.

However, the urban consumer sample provides an inaccurate indication of books sold in Indian languages. The survey also found that books in English account for two-thirds of all educational book sales and for 90 percent of professional book sales.

Sales of books in Indian languages got a boost for a few years in the past decade, when Flipkart began wooing publishers. The company offered Indian-language publishers support in getting around challenges such as a lack of metadata (detailed data in digital form about books, used for online cataloguing), an absence of ISBNs, and poor logistics. Publishers were thus able to expand their reach, and some have since gone on to sell books online through multiple platforms.

Many Indian-language publishers began to seriously consider e-books in 2010, when the Kottayam-based company EC Media released the Wink, an e-reader that supported Indic scripts, with an accompanying online store with Indian-language texts. But the initiative was perhaps ahead of its time, and the project didn’t take off. Marketing such a device to readers of Indian languages was not easy then, and neither was curating digital-content libraries. However, with Amazon’s Kindle now preparing to support Indic scripts, the sale of e-books in Indian languages is likely to increase.

Dailyhunt (formerly Newshunt), a popular mobile application in Indian languages, expanded to offer e-books in 2013, after seeing success in offering news media. E-books in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam and English, in that order, top the language-wise breakup of downloads from the Dailyhunt app. The company currently distributes 70,000 titles in ten Indian languages, including Bhojpuri, and more than half of that number of e-books in English.

Along with books written in their original languages, the lists of Indian-language publishers have often featured translations of works from India and around the world. Most Indian translators are drawn to these works out of personal or academic interest; there has been very little support or recognition accorded to literary translators. Now, with rising global interest in translations in English, multinational brands such as Penguin and HarperCollins are investing in them. Some have also spotted the market potential in Indian languages, especially Hindi, and have launched Hindi imprints. On the other hand, successful Indian-language publishers have launched imprints in English—DC Books in Kottayam, Manjul Publishing House in Bhopal, and Mehta Publishers in Pune, to name a few. Further, last year, the prominent academic publisher SAGE India launched the imprint SAGE Bhasha, which publishes social science and business books translated into Hindi and Marathi. It plans to publish original content in Indian languages from 2016 onwards.

Yet much remains to be done. The National Translation Mission, which is mandated by the government to create “knowledge texts” in translation as well as to build translation tools and conduct translator education programmes, found in a survey conducted in 2009 that there was a mismatch between the demand and availability of translated texts in Indian languages. In rural areas, where the medium of educational instruction was the local language, adequate texts were unavailable. The survey pointed to instances when courses had been scrapped for lack of reading materials in the concerned languages.

digital technology and the internet economy will likely drive the future of the publishing industry, in India as elsewhere. This technology has helped publishers distribute their content, and trim their inventories with print-on-demand technology. In the meantime, much needs to be done to structurally improve the Indian publishing industry. Among the things it requires are a better trained workforce, more opportunities for collaboration, sensitive leaders and policymakers, and a cohesive plan for the future. Policies for the industry also require restructuring. While the inflow of foreign capital has helped streamline distribution and sales infrastructure, the changes along the way, especially in book retail, have led to both challenges and opportunities. The questions of what these changes mean for books, readers, and small to medium-sized publishers, as well as how the changes are affecting the creation of and access to books, require closer scrutiny. To aid in that, we need to begin with the basics: a nationwide census of titles, bookshops, readers, writers, publishers and distributors; and continual, extensive study of the publishing sector, of which the Nielsen report, despite its drawbacks, is perhaps the first step.