The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 21, 2003
Lead Article

HE publishing industry in India is worth Rs 6,000 crore and is the third largest in the world. Business is also booming. But why aren’t writers being paid what they deserve and why aren’t the prices of books falling?

BOOKS continue to be big business, the world-at-the-touch-of-a-mere-mouse mesmerisation of multi-media notwithstanding. Black and white still sells and how! Whether it is textbooks or general interest publications, the English language publishing industry today seems to have a lot going for it. As literacy increases, the demand for textbooks and other academic volumes continues to rise. As for fiction, world over the Asian subcontinent is definitely ' in'— whether it's Vikram Seth's hefty advance for his autobiography or Bangladeshi born UK-based Booker nominated Monica Ali, writing in English has well nigh exploded today. Mega bookstores like the Oxford Book Shops in Calcutta and Mumbai, Crossword Mumbai, Landmark in Delhi and Bangalore, compete with the famous US-based Barnes and Noble book chain, providing the customer with not just a book but the 'whole reading experience.' There's light and space, softly piped music and the rich smell of freshly brewed coffee to go with the rows and rows of print and paper.


With international publishing houses beating expectations on the street, where do their Indian counterparts stand? "Look around yourself and you'll get the answer", says Ravi Dayal of Ravi Dayal Publishers, adding, "with the proliferation of books and publishing houses, it’s obvious they are surviving and making money." And indeed several large international publishers like Penguin, Harper Collins, Macmillan and Picador have set up shop in India in the last 10 to 15 years. Besides other traditional heavyweights that include Oxford University Press, Orient Longman and indigenous publishing houses like Rupa and Jaico, a number of smaller niche publishing houses have come up as well. The Indian publishing scene today is populated with small, independent publishers, each with a distinctive profile and a separate specialisation. Kali for Women, for instance, was founded by two women Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia 18 years ago. Beginning out of a garage, it is today a profitable publishing house. So also Katha, an extraordinary non-profit organisation, that has begun to salvage the lost classics of vernacular India, translating them into English with flair and publishing them in beautiful editions. These and others like Tulika (academic and children's books), Stree (women's books), Ravi Dayal, India Ink, Srishti, Minerva, English Edition, Permanent Black (trade and academic books) are all becoming well-known.

With a market size that's estimated at Rs 6,000 crore (including books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals and academic journals), India actually ranks third in the world in its number of English publications per year, after the USA and UK. Publishers agree that the potential in this industry is tremendous. As Urvashi Butalia, founder of Kali for Women, analyses," I think the Indian publishing industry is in an exciting phase right now. The earlier profile, which was that 80 per cent of the books published were textbooks and these were the bread and butter books, is changing somewhat, That is to say while textbooks still remain the profit earners, many publishers are also beginning to turn to producing books for the general reader. This is what explains the success of publishers like Penguin and Harper Collins, who produce books for general readers, or books that are known as trade books. J.S. Sethi, who began by book distribution and now runs the publishing firm of English Edition, concurs, "The potential for publishing is very good. English Edition brings out two to three titles a week. As far as publishing houses that publish textbooks go, they have a captive market and are minting money". S.C Sethi of Jaico Publications also echoes these bullish sentiments, "We are doing extremely well and we are one of the biggest distributors of British and American publications in India."

Despite all the good cheer, however, volumes are quite literally abysmally low. Given the almost 20-million-strong English-speaking and reading public, print runs of commercially successful books could be as low as 1000 copies. What are the reasons for this paradox? "Book buyers are few," says Sethi. "The electronic media doesn't bother about books."

"It’s because prices are way too high," says T.S. Shanbagh of Mumbai's Strand Book Store, that old world cramped but comfortable bookstore that's irresistible to every aficionado. Quoting Tagore's Gitanjali: Where knowledge is free/..Into that heaven of freedom, my father / Let my country awake, Shanbagh puts the blame for low volumes and high prices on high margins and inefficient distribution, "The cost of a book may be as much as 10 times the cost of production, the reader often pays for the overheads of five administrations." Publishers in India today, he feels, also do not bother developing local talent, they often reprint international books, and in essence lack that "some little idealism, which is so necessary to this trade." It is this lack of commitment, of concrete investment in the product, the book and its author, that seems overwhelmingly to explain the problem of low volumes. Promotional budgets are low, and marketing professionals almost non-existent. "Whereas bestsellers’ authors abroad have a publisher’s dedicated marketing team to promote a book and make sure the backlist stays in print, a publisher here may have one person who has sold biscuits or toothpaste for the last so many years and is now told to sell books", points out bestselling novelist Shobhaa De. Agrees adman Alyque Padamsee, whose autobiography A Double Life was published by Penguin, "Marketing of books in India is zero and what the book industry needs desperately is professional marketing of books."

P. Sainath, journalist and author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought, explains that publishing houses need to step out of the "cocktail circuit book launch at India International Centre, Delhi, with 40 people in attendance" and reach out in other ways. Bhawna Somaaya, film journalist and author of books like Amitabh Bacchan The Legend published by Macmillan India, Salaam Bollywood by Spantach and Lancer, UK, elaborates in the same vein, describing her efforts to market her books in the absence of any from her publishers. "For a creative person to be involved in the process of publishing is a huge responsibility and liability."

Other problems include those of piracy, as evidenced by the plethora of cheap photocopied bestsellers available at the traffic lights, that cause the publishing industry an annual loss of Rs 350-400 crore. The problem that was sporadic about 10 years back has acquired epidemic proportions now. "It is not just fiction but educational books like NCERT textbooks of the Central Board of Secondary Education and Andhra Pradesh Textbook Corporation's books for school kids, that have begun to have their pirated editions," said N. Subrahmanyam, Managing-Director of Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Ltd in a recent interview. The amending of the Indian Copyright Act in 1986 , has helped and police raids and prosecutions have been carried out on unauthorised translations and photocopying operations. Piracy has also affected export markets, as S.C. Sethi of Jaico adds, " Indian textbooks are pirated in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well."

In the ultimate analysis, problems of piracy and production costs aside, Indian publishing continues to remain a poor cousin of the West, despite being placed in the most-populous marketplace. Book promotions may cost money but, as has been illustrated so successfully internationally, they make even more money. Here is where stepping out of the traditional promotional model of exhibiting at book fairs, small-scale book launches and making calls to editors to review books can make a difference.

Witness the marketing miracles of Oprah's Book Cub where talk show host Oprah Winfrey discusses her recommended books as well the carefully orchestrated, perfectly executed Harry Potter campaign and it’s obvious that good marketing can truly sell volumes and volumes.


“I find myself completely put off and resist writing another book...” — Shobhaa De

Shobhaa De
Shobhaa De

Do you feel books in India are overpriced?

Books in India are not very expensive. In fact, foreign buyers who come here often buy beautifully illustrated coffee table books here because they are priced comparatively cheaply and make great gifts.

Why don't people buy more books then?

The average college student will pay Rs 200 for the Stardust annual issue but will resent paying the same amount for a work of fiction.

What do you think explains the huge sales of the latest Harry Potter, priced at Rs795?

Reading Harry Potter is a me-too phenomenon, wanting to be part of a cultural community.

As far as publishing goes, what has been your expectation of the technical and production standards of Indian publishing?

I have largely dealt with the best publishers, David (Davidar) and Kartika (of Penguin India) and I really can't complain as I received good editing and good feedback at every stage.

What about marketing?

Marketing leaves a lot to be desired. Publishers are just about waking up to the potential market and their marketing is just not good enough—it is restricted to calling a few editor friends to cover the book launch and interviewing the author.

Publishers say they don't earn high enough margins to spend on book promotions. Do you think the book publishing industry is doing well?

They all seem to be doing extremely well, it's a prosperous trade, and they receive fat increments and have good lifestyles.

Does this lack of marketing and promotional budgets limit volumes?

Investing in and increasing book sales is a win-win situation for the author as well as the publishing house. Yet publishers don't invest in their authors. There is smugness, a feeling of doing a favor to an author by publishing their work.

Many authors complain that they have to personally fund book launches? What’s been your experience?

Well, I have never had to fund my book launches, though I do know of authors who have had to subsidise theirs. Yet, authors today have to do their own marketing. I have had to ad lib at book launches where I haven't had a single advance copy of the book because of a lack of distribution. I find myself completely put off and resist writing another book because I don't have the energy or desire to go into a marketing overdrive myself.



What the publishers say

What are the present trends in Indian publishing?

Renuka Chatterjee: Managing Editor, Roli Books

THERE has been an upsurge in fiction since the early nineties, especially in the last five to six years. When Penguin and Harper Collins started local publishing operations, it became possible for Indian writers to get published without having to find a publisher abroad. Subsequently, other publishers like India Ink have come up. This opened up the field for writers. Because of Vikram Seth, going on to Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri etc, Indian writing has begun to attract serious attention from publishers in the UK and USA.

Renuka  Chatterjee
Renuka Chatterjee

This has encouraged writers but the notions of huge advances and Booker Prizes is misleading. It’s still only a handful of writers who can strike that lucky! Indian fiction writing has been primarily literary and revolves either around family sagas or social and political issues. Now, Indian writers are keen to branch into other genres like thrillers, sci-fi, romances and humour. Perhaps in the next five years, someone will come up with a really good detective novel or a really funny book. Politics, current affairs, biographies have always been steady sellers. We're a politically-minded country, so there is always an interest in this. Food is another interest so there are lots of cookery books in the market.

Vivek Ahuja, Director (Publishing), UBS Publishers Distributors Pvt. Ltd

Vivek Ahuja
Vivek Ahuja

The focus today is more on books that are of practical use to the readers, such as self-help books, books on management and personality development, computers—anything that helps the individual grow professionally and intellectually. Fiction has a niche in the readers' mind because it provides relaxation. Today, no one wants to read just for the heck of it; reading needs to benefit the reader—emotionally, professionally or in any other way.

Thomas Abraham, President, Penguin India.

Thomas Abraham
Thomas Abraham

Indian writing in both fiction and non-fiction genres have seen a major surge over the last few years. Apart from the staple sellers from fiction, non-fiction, biographies and reference books, children's books, popular business books and self-help books are the fastest growing.

R.K. Mehra of Rupa & Co

Trends are very positive business is growing.

R.K. Mehra
R.K. Mehra

How many titles ( fiction and non-fiction ) did your publishing house bring out last year or this year?

Renuka: Roli did about 50 titles last year in non-fiction. The fiction list is a new one, and should really get off the ground next year.

Vivek: We publish 100 to 120 new titles in a year. Last year too, we published 100-plus titles. I’d be more selective and publish 10 titles in a year and sell 10,000 copies each rather than publish 100 titles and sell 1,000 copies each.

Thomas: We publish approximately 200 titles.

R.K. Last year, we brought out 267 titles.

The general perception is that writers are shabbily paid. Can a writer, in the Indian scenario, survive on writing?

Renuka: No. Very few writers can survive on their earnings but this is not because writers are shabbily paid. It is because the market (for English writing) is still far from huge. The average print runs are 2,000-3,000 copies. If we sell more than 5,000, we consider that really good. It is just one book in a hundred, that sells anything like 40,000 or 50,000 copies. Contrary to the public perception, publishers do not make huge amounts of money per book. Our profit margins are usually pretty small. Writers don’t realise that the publisher has to give a discount of anything between 45 and 60 per cent to the retailer or bookseller. If a book is priced at Rs 300, we are selling it around Rs 150. And out of that, we have to cover our printing and production costs, authors’ royalties, editorial and other overheads. No one really makes a fortune—neither the publisher nor the author, unless the book really takes off and sells a million copies or we are able to sell rights abroad and get a nice advance. It is better still if the book wins a prize or two.

Vivek: Writing a book is like making a film and the writer is more or less like the Bollywood producer who makes millions if the film is a hit but lands up on the floor if it is a flop. Like in films, it does sometimes happen that a mediocre publication sells like hot cakes and a good one doesn't . How a writer fares in financial terms, in most cases, depends on four "Rs"—right subject, right presentation, right publisher and right distributor.

Thomas: I can only comment on this from our own point of view. We pay our writers by the highest norms prevailing anywhere in the world. Author earnings the world over broadly follow the same pattern/formula in terms of royalties as a percentage of cover prices. In the Indian context, as elsewhere, a writer being able to 'survive' on royalties is a direct function of the sales of his books . Yes, in a price-sensitive market like India, lower prices result in comparatively lower earnings in most genres, except in textbooks where authors gain by the sheer volume.

R.K: No , they are not shabbily paid, rather well paid. Whether a writer can survive on his or her earnings through writing depends on the lifestyle.

Many writers have commented that the publishers don't bother about marketing. Comment .

Renuka: I wouldn’t like to comment on what other publishers are doing but Roli certainly puts emphasis on marketing. A lot of writers have a misplaced notion of what good marketing should be. The most important thing is visibility and availability. It doesn’t depend on big launch parties and gimmickry.

Vivek: The industry is waking up to what sells and is visible in the market. Today, we have journals and magazines that keep us abreast with what is happening in the literary world; we have book reviews in dailies, weeklies ; we have national and international book fairs, and most book shops have a lavish display of the latest publications that they are marketing. The trend, as such, is certainly upwards. The sales figures testify that.

Thomas: Again, not true. A lot of effort (and as much money as is possible) is invested in marketing. It's the vehicles of publicity available to Indian publishers that are limited.

R.K. No, this is not true `85.publishers do as much marketing as possible .

Is it true that only big names, in big cities sell?

Renuka: Yes, it is true that in Delhi, a Hari Kunzru will draw a crowd of 600, a new writer is lucky if he gets 60. The publisher can help to some extent by trying to publicise and promote a new writer as much as he can. After that, it is really up to the readers. It is only when we really have a nation of book lovers, that interest in a new writer will be genuine and widespread enough.

I do imagine there is much more of a genuine readership in Hindi, Bengali etc, than in English.

Vivek: Big names in big cities certainly have an advantage. Firstly, because they are 'big names' and then they are in close contact with the publishing and marketing agencies. The buck certainly doesn't stop here. No matter where the writer lives and is a 'big name' or not, if the subject chosen is of interest and the end product is a masterpiece, it will hit the top.

Thomas: Not at all. It all depends on the book. If it is well written and succeeds in sales terms, it doesn't really matter where the author comes from.

R.K. Yes, this is true to a certain extent.

Interviews by Humra Quraishi