Publishing ecosystem: current challenges and opportunities

Sukumar Das shares his views on how the publishing ecosystem
has changed over the years and what are the trends ahead.

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In the beginning was the Word, says the Bible, and the Word was with God & the Word was God. Nada Brahma, a Sanskrit expression with roots in Vedic spirituality, means sound is God or that sound is the source of all creation!
Sound or words being, patently and at a more terrestrial level, the fountainhead of all that makes up publishing leads to a reckoning of the linkage of publishing to all that is manifest! The term publishing ecosystem could theoretically stretch to include all that we know and all that is.
We are however here concerned with some of the recent changes & challenges to the Indian publishing industry, how these are or may be addressed, and opportunities & future prospects of the industry.

Changes, challenges & opportunities…

  1. Easy self-publishing as e-books have arrived & here to stay, leading to democratisation of content. Publishers are not necessarily lone deciders of who or what should be published any more.
  2.  Physical books are no longer the only means of delivering or consuming content. There are websites, apps, podcasts, audio books, ebooks, video, social media etc, and the technology to make consumption through these various media a seamless experience, even of different parts of the same book through different media.
  3.  Online retailers (Amazon, Flipkart etc) have secured a lion’s share of the p-book market, of over 55% (and Amazon would have about an 80% share of this 55%)! Flipkart has better reach in tier 2 & 3 towns where books with lower price points work better.
    So conventional bookstores are getting squeezed but they have adopted creative ways to stay relevant and even thrive by initiatives like tying up with Swiggy, Dunzo types for home delivery of books, personal connect with customers through Whatsapp messages, sale through websites, school, college & corporate exhibitions etc. Many bookstores have also registered with Amazon as sellers!
  4. English Trade publishers aren’t at all effective in catering to the needs (which are burgeoning) of smaller cities/towns since all big, conventional trade distributors are capital cities’ centric. Big chain retail bookstores, like Crossword, have stepped up to take the slack, opening bookstores in cities like Kanpur, Ranchi, Nagpur, Patna, Nasik etc.
  5.  Travel retail segment for books is seeing an upsurge with the return of travel post-pandemic and the privatisation of airports. Private airport owners realise the importance of books to travellers and invite bookstores to set-up and many international retailers too include books when they enter India under the CTN (confectionary, tobacco & news) format common at airports.
  6. Efforts to develop non-traditional channels to retail p-books by publishers (in supermarkets, hypermarkets, convenience stores, coffee shops etc) hasn’t seen much success with scant interest from store staff and replenishments & reverse logistics a huge challenge for publishers.
  7.  Piracy and IP infringement is a huge challenge and it is estimated that trade publishers lose over 20% of their overall revenue on account of this! And street-side purveyors of pirated books are now selling through online e-commerce marketplaces! And circulation of popular books on whatsapp, telegram etc is another big challenge! Publishers Federation/associations could lobby GOI to legislate (& implement) that all sellers of p-books must have GST registration and geo-location verifiable godowns and online retailers could be necessitated to allow only relevant publisher passed (through the publishers federation/ association) resellers to curb piracy. And the publishers groups could initiate industry tie-up with tech companies for blockchain backed anti-piracy protection to restrain electronic infringement.
  8.  From a time when almost all trade publishing houses were doing their own warehousing & distribution, publishers have realized that it’s hardly their core competence and most have 3rd party warehousing/distribution now. This also enables easier regional stocking possibilities (improving turnaround times including for region specific titles) as also POD (print-on-demand) facility since some stockists can be/ are printers too.
  9. Trade publishers in India who routinely report double digit revenue growth are getting seriously constrained in terms of profit margins and marketing budgets with bulk of such revenue growth a result of increased book prices resulting from increased input costs (paper & human resources).

Sales & marketing…

Publishers have moved away from author tours and grand launch events which were commonplace till a decade back! And bookstores and airport retail now come with a stiff price tag for publisher initiated in-store marketing initiatives! Publishers now engage marketing agencies like MarketMyBook for specific titles by key authors, or the authors themselves engage the agency. The publishers are more focused now on digital marketing avenues and the authors in general invest much more of their time & money in promoting the book.
Book pages have taken a beating in most conventional media spaces and social media is emerging as a primary promotional tool. There is a boom in books/author related podcast & YouTube channels and platforms like Ted Talks, Josh Talks etc provide authors opportunities with new audiences. Bloggers and other social influencer recommendations are powerful promoters of books.

Book fairs, litfests & awards…

There are over 75 literary festivals and 30 plus book awards apart from hundreds of book fairs in India (which are all consumer fairs focused on the reader, unlike almost all the renowned international book fairs which are all B2B fairs) annually which help significantly in taking up the drop in discoverability of books and author interaction opportunities mentioned above. But there is a crying need to build up an extensive public library culture!

The statistics…

Notwithstanding the above, India is the second largest English language print publisher in the world and the fifth largest overall, all languages included, with a current annual market value of around 9 billion USD. The market is estimated to be growing at over 19% annually. India has a fifth of the worlds’ 15-19 year olds with a school enrollment ratio of almost 100% at primary, about 92% at upper primary, 80% at secondary and 54% at higher secondary school levels! And these enrollment ratios are expected to further rise steadily with the aggressive Govt policies, programs (like the RTE Act, National Book Promotion policy etc) and the egalitarian new NEP and will indeed influence higher education enrollments favorably too, adding to growth in this area anticipated from other Govt. initiatives.

Sukumar Das

All these are indicative of continued growth in educational and higher education/academic publishing in India but will indeed have a salutary effect on growth in trade publishing from increasing number of readers from increased literacy & general interest levels. General trade books’ sales in India currently, for example, is at a woeful ? 2700 Crore out of a total print books market of over ? 72,000 Crores annually: that’s less than 4% of the market! The aim & expectation should be to push this percentage to a more robust figure. But trade publishing will be challenged to even retain this 4% share, except if they grow by at least by the overall market growth rate of 19% annually, though the literacy and education push by the Govt (the budget for education is expected to grow to 6% of India’s GDP over the next few years, from the current about 3%, for example) and the new NEP should result not just in better literacy and education levels, but help in creating a nation of more general readers.

All things considered however, there is no gainsaying the projections of India becoming number one in the world in terms of publishing revenues, and this should be aimed for well before the 100 year timestone of 2047! (P M Sukumar is a publishing veteran of 23 years standing having started out as head of sales & marketing at Penguin India, for over 6 years, and being MD of Dorling Kindersley for 2 of those years concurrently. He then helmed HarperCollins India as CEO for 10 years and was thereafter India Consultant to the London Book Fair for 5 years before taking up his current, similar assignment with BOLOGNABOOKPLUS, the General Trade Publishing fair alongside the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. He was elected President of the Association of Publishers in India twice, in 2011 & 2012).

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