Publishers on Publishing: Inside India’s Book Business

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Edited by Nitasha Devasar
Extracts from the Preface of the book.

Books on India’s publishing industry are few and far between. Ironic for an industry considered both vibrant and with growth potential, in a country that sees its future as a knowledge economy.

This one is both experiential and experimental. It evolved from a continual engagement, within the community, on the need for a volume on Indian publishing, and an increasing realization of the lack of a wider understanding of the role of publishing in today’s information overloaded, digital world. This got me thinking of all that I, as a publisher, would want to showcase, in a book on publishing in India and once I had that down, the book just took on a life of its own. On top of the list were insider views and the representation of a wide spectrum of publishing voices that were usually separated by time and space. The idea was to get individual views and experiences and not a macro sweep of the industry; to cover old ground anew as well as current and emerging trends; and get as many different sorts of publishing and allied activities within its ambit, as possible. The challenge was not just how to do this quickly, accessibly, and in a non-partisan manner but also a more fundamental one to be found in how we publishers view ourselves.

The Indian market for publishing is quite fragmented and that has over the last 70 years created both challenges and opportunities. As a result, many publishing universes coexist and rarely come together. English language publishers see themselves as distinct from those of Indian Languages and the latter return the favour. Within the English universe too, local players and multinational ones are separated by size, scale and often perspective. There are niche players, independents, family businesses, and more recently the tech. innovators and disrupters, challenging traditional publishing in varying ways. The allied industries, printing and publishing services, the professional editors and designers, literary agencies and fairs and festivals, all tend to stay in separate if overlapping cocoons.

As any insider knows, there is rarely one or even a few views on the industry and publishers are yet to find a cohesive voice on the external challenges that impact publishing. How then could we coherently capture the diverse insights and divergent views, that have kept the industry growing at a healthy 20% yearly, in spite of adverse external conditions?

As outreach is vital, I hit on the conversation format as a way to get individuals to share their journeys and views. The response was overwhelming and almost all we asked gave in generously. In a few months, we had interviews and essays from 60 publishing professionals with formidable collective experience. In the process we captured a multiplicity of views and perspectives. There were both overlaps and contradictions which have been maintained, based as they are on the experiences of people who are insiders in this industry, by either profession or birth or both. My role as editor has therefore been one of encompassing and then continually restructuring and reorganizing, rather than gate keeper and style police. Still the end product is quite close to what I envisioned at the start.

The volume is by no means comprehensive and was not intended to be so. My own experience is with English language publishing and that shows in the overwhelming focus of the volume and the way in which Indian Language publishing has been approached. Educational publishing, especially school, is well represented and there is a strong coverage of enduring and newer trends and challenges in Indian publishing. Several topics not conventionally clubbed with publishing, like publishing services and supply chains, teaching of publishing and publisher associations, literary festivals and library movements, literary agents, self-publishing and digital innovations, government policies and India in the global context, all can be found within these covers.

There were some topics on which we had multiple feeds and others that contributors were reluctant to cover. This is perhaps a sign of the times we live in more than anything intrinsic to Indian publishing. What is interesting is that the gaps tell their own story.

The last few years have been tough ones for publishers of all hues. The bulk, 94 per cent according to the Nielsen report*, of India’s publishing (at least in English) is educational and hence dependent on government policies on and funding of education, both school and higher education and research. Add to this the digital revolution, the proliferation of mobile connectivity and fading reading habits and you get an industry struggling to sustain itself. Coming together to face common challenges, lobby government agencies and advocate the importance of the industry for education, entertainment, well-being and nation building, is more important today than ever before.

This book is about publishers talking to their own fraternity and to their readers, authors and communities, at a time when the industry faces more challenges and disruptions than ever before but remains optimistic and buoyant nevertheless. It brings together various pieces of the Indian publishing puzzle to create a picture, admittedly partial, of the what, why and how of India’s book business. In the process it raises questions, highlights yawning gaps and calls out for more action both by publishers themselves as also by other players in the knowledge ecosystem that publishing is part of.

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