Children’s books: it’s not a child’s play!

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Bookstores and book expos are full of beautiful children’s books, all clamouring for attention. It’s easy to miss that a lot of brain and sweat has gone into the crafting of a perfect children’s book. Varsha Verma and Shweta Khurana talk to children’s book publishers in India to know the nuances of the ‘little’ industry.

Currently, the Indian book market is the sixth-largest in the world (valued at $3.9 billion, according to Nielsen) and the second-largest in terms of English-language market (after the U.S.). “There are about 10,000 active publishers in the country who provide both English and Indian language books. There is a new crop of emerging writers appearing and that’s a good sign because readers get a variety of content to read,” says Shobha Vishwanath of Karadi Tales.

“Indian publishing is all about children’s books as it holds a major share of the market. This is because every young parent wants a book in his child’s hands. Thus, the industry is rapidly growing. The quality of illustrations has drastically improved, though there is definitely a foreign touch to the artwork that is happening in India. A deliberate effort is made to add some life skills to every story that a child reads,” adds Nidhi Kundra of Edu Hub Publishing Company.

“We have good content, good illustrations coupled with good printing. The industry has really grown and currently a lot of international publishers are buying rights from India,” adds Sandeep Kaushik, CEO & publisher, Macaw Books.

Indian vs foreign books

Manasi Subramaniam, commissioning editor and rights manager, HarperCollins Publishers India, says that children trade publishing is the largest growing market in India. “But, the market is largely dominated by foreign books,” she adds.

Similar views were expressed by Mudit Mohini of Vishv Books, who says that the number of Indian authors is quite less and the majority of children’s books available in India are by foreign authors.

So, is our children’s book publishing industry at par with its foreign counterparts? “We are a country that grew up on stories, so it comes naturally for us. We have some outstanding talent in our country. We have, over the last twenty years, worked with both Indian and International authors and illustrators. We choose who to work with purely based on the story. The only aspect that we could better ourselves is in marketing and packaging the products. There are heavy costs involved and hence we need to be cautious on what we spend on,” cautions Shobha.

While, Manasi adds, “The content produced in India is very strong and there are so many independent publishers like Tara Books, Duckbill, Scholastic, Puffin, Tulika Publishers that are doing a good job. At HarperCollins, we have both Indian and foreign authors. One of our books Did I mention I love You has rights for 11 different territories.”

Nidhi also shares that Indian illustrations have also come up and are at par with international ones. “Some publishers cater to Indian audience only, while a few cater to international audience. Some publishers cater to both Indian and foreign audiences. Hence, illustrations are designed to appeal to the target audience,” she says.

However, Sandeep feels that Indian publishers need an improvement in our systems to avoid fire fighting and focus should be on creativity. “Our maximum time should be focussed on creativity which adds value to the learning system,” he adds.

Main attributes of a children’s book

“I like the idea that we are creating readers of tomorrow. It gives me an immense sense of responsibility.” Manasi Subramaniam, HarperCollins“A children’s book should be age appropriate (choice of words, word count) and friendly. It should be easy to read and understand, besides being interesting and offering some value. Most importantly, it should be light reading. The presentation of the book is very important. Children remember by sight, more so in wordless books. Think from the perspective of children. Make characters cool so that reading becomes a pleasure activity,” shares Mudit. She also adds that it is not important to segregate books on the basis of age. A book that appeals to a 5-year-old might also appeal to a 7-year-old. So let a child pick up what he likes and then move to the next level.

Sandeep puts it simply as, “A perfect package is the result of the combination of ageappropriate subject and content, which deals with language complexity expertly, good illustrations and a great cover. The story should be interesting and the young reader should be able to derive meaningful value.”

Similar views were expressed by Nidhi who says that there should be some value in a children’s book and that it should not be boring. “A child should be able to read and understand it himself. The illustrations and words should be in sync with their cognitive abilities,” she adds.

Talking about the attributes of a children’s book, Shobha shares that the story should appeal to the readers and illustrations should strike a chord with them.

For Manasi, first, it should be a good book. Second, is it a book I would want to read? And third, is there a market for the book? “If it is a book I can’t put down, then it is definitely what I want to publish,” she adds. Talking about illustrations, Manasi shares that their relevance increases with increase in age group. She particularly recommends wordless picture books for age group till 7 years.

Manuscript’s appeal: voice, characterisation or plot?

“It is unlikely that the digital space will ever replace the print book. I can see them existing side by side.” Shobha Vishwanath Karadi Tales“For ages 7 and above, plot is very important, while for ages 5-7, characterisation is important. And for ages 3-5, voice is the most important aspect of the manuscript,” defines Mudit clearly. For Shobha, storyline and writing style matter; while, for Manasi, plot comes first, style and voice later.

But, for Nidhi, voice of the manuscript is most important: “It should be a kind of read aloud, and that which instantly spurs imagination,” she says.

The Language divide

By far, English seems to be the most preferred language for children’s books. “We have over 100 titles in English and several picture books, audio-books and DVDs of stories in Tamil and Hindi.

Karadi Tales has sold rights of several of our titles and has translated books into French, Japanese, Chinese and so forth. We have also bought rights to some outstanding books and translated them into Indian languages,” shares Shobha.

Mudit shares that all language books have their market. “Hindi section also does well but availability is a problem.”

Even, Sandeep adds that regional languages are evolving. “NGOs are publishing in multiple languages and some of the new publishers are also going into regional publishing. Book released in 7-8 languages simultaneously has become a norm. Once you have a good distribution network, it makes a lot of sense,” he shares. As per Sandeep, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam are the top 4 regional languages in India. Macaw Books has a rights catalogue of 5000 titles, of which 600 are published in India “These titles have been translated worldwide in 22 languages, and 6 Indian languages. We are diversifying into Hindi books as we see a great demand. We are also looking at translating our books in 6-7 regional languages,” he adds.

“A child should be able to read and understand it himself. The illustrations and words should be in sync with their cognitive abilities,” Nidhi Kundra Edu Hub Publishing CompanyBut, according to Nidhi most of the Indian languages are struggling for survival. “English, of course, has a good hold in India as it is a global language,” she says. “At Edu Hub, we will be coming up with Hindi story books as there is a great demand for it.”

Average print runs & prices

“The print runs for English editions is 5000 copies, Hindi is 2000 copies while regional language editions have an initial print run of 1000 copies only. The price of our books range between Rs 50 and Rs 200,” tells Sandeep.

As per Manasi, their print runs are higher for books placed in schools. “Else, we do a print run of 3000 for middle grade and 5000 for activity books,” she adds. “Since India is a pricesensitive market, we have to keep our prices competitive. For example, a picture book has an MRP of Rs 75, while a middle grade book is priced less than Rs 199 and a young adult book is priced at Rs 300.”

Mudit shares that the first print run ranges from 500-3000 copies, depending upon the kind of title. They have around 800 titles, of which 100 are in Hindi language.

While, Shobha says, “We do on average 3000 copies of each title and price starts from Rs.175 onwards.” For Nidhi, the average print at Edu Hub is 10,000 while pricing depends on the kind of book, content and paper quality. “Hindi books sell at a cheaper price,” she adds.

What gives publishers the kick?

“I like the idea that we are creating readers of tomorrow. It gives me an immense sense of responsibility,” shares Manasi. Similar views were expressed by Sandeep, who says, “The best thing is that we are shaping the young minds who will be the future of our country. It gives us immense satisfaction when we get emails from parents telling us how much their children loved our books and how the books helped their children learn new things.”

“The best thing is that you have the power to create fantastic and wonderful worlds for children to dwell in and to experience those worlds yourselves,” adds Shobha. Similar views were shared by Mudit, who adds that she becomes a child herself when she reads a children’s book. “It is a magical thing…actually!” she says.

“It is an exhilarating experience. I feel like a child again. Also, it is a continuous challenge to bring something that appeals to children,” adds Nidhi.

Digital vs print

“A perfect package is the result of the combination of age-appropriate subject and content, which deals with language complexity expertly, good illustrations and a great cover.” Sandeep Kaushik Macaw BooksNotwithstanding the feat that digital will take over the print, the two mediums have been going hand in hand for the last couple of years. “It is an important add-on and every publisher, including Edu Hub is going for ebooks. Digital has a very strong role in children’s books,” tells Nidhi.

“There are limited sale of digital books as they require right gadgets and conducive infrastructure,” tells Mudit.

“It is unlikely that the digital space will ever replace the print book. I can see them existing side by side and every publisher today is working to make content available across several platforms. We are no different,” shares Shobha.

Similar views were expressed by Manasi, who say that they too bring out digital editions simultaneously. But, children’s books, according to her, do not translate well in digital; therefore, digital book is unlikely to replace its printed cousin.

Challenges in the value chain

Nidhi says, “Innovation is a huge challenge in children’s books.” While, Shobha adds, “Apart from the usual rising costs of publishing a book and keeping up with technological advancements that seem to change every week, I would say the hardest thing is developing a readership. Children today have so many things to choose from. To cultivate readers in this environment is challenging to say the least – reading is a lifestyle-changing endeavour, hence there are few buyers.

Publishers, parents and schools need to proactively work together and create an opportunity for children to enjoy reading. It’s an ongoing effort.” Manasi shares that perhaps this is the only segment where the person who buys the books is not necessarily reading them. “The purchasing power rests upon parents and teachers. Hence, books have to be packaged in a way that’s appealing to parents while content has to be impressive enough to hook children,” she says. Besides, another challenge Manasi mentions is the marketing of the book.

Talking about the marketing costs, Mudit shares that it is indeed a costly affair and publishers cannot spend money on promoting all books. “Besides, distribution is also a major challenge. There are so many lovely books that are not able to reach the readers because distributors are only looking for discounts, because of which returns are very high,” she says.

Another challenge she mentions is that since volumes are low publishers are not able to invest, research and find good authors. “With the advent of selfpublishing and print-on-demand, some writers do not work with traditional publishing houses.

Also, with rising print costs and other additional expenses associated with publishing and marketing a book, using technology to reach more readers seems like the way forward. In terms of mindset, people are beginning to realise that the younger generation are spending less or no time at all reading. It’s almost like a ‘conscious wake-up call’ and we definitely want to reverse that trend,” adds Shobha.

“Plagiarism and system of circulation of money stress us out. People of the industry should work together and look for solutions to overcome challenges,” adds Sandeep as a matter of fact.

Inculcating reading habit

“Work with children to understand the genre of books they like. Do not force them to read books they have no interest in. Doing so will only make them further dislike reading,” warns Shobha. To this, Nidhi adds a note of caution by saying, “Parents should ensure that the book a child picks has good content as well. He might be attracted to beautiful illustrations, but if the content in the book is not good, the whole battle is lost.”

To encapsulate every view, Manasi says, “I think schools should have a compulsory summer reading programme and should encourage children to read 20 books every term. Also, more libraries are required to enhance readership. Besides, while selecting a book, a child makes a decision; so basically, he reads what he likes.” “Books should be for enjoyment and parents need to encourage their children to read,” concludes Mudit.

“Try something different… be a smart buyer. Efforts need to be made to develop reading habits in children,” concludes Sandeep optimistically.

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