“India is big on tradition…and Hachette has history, lineage, and tradition”
Comments Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India, on celebrating ten years of Hachette in India.
Hachette India has chosen the Hachette journey as their theme — ‘250 years and still travelling….” There are a lot of activity around this, but Hachette is certainly not going to be just resting on laurels of the past. Their tenth year celebrations are spread over 2018-19 and will see some quirky little books published to commemorate the anniversary, but will also see release of books from greats like Anuradha Roy and Manjula Padmanabhan. Here, Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India shares their journey in India and what’s more in store for the book lovers and the industry.
AABP: How has been the Hachette journey in India in the last 10 years?
Thomas: We were actually among the last of the big international houses to start up here. Everybody was already here either as a distribution branch, liaison entity or fully operational publishing company. In fact I left Penguin to found Hachette in India after Penguin had completed its 20th year celebrations. So we are relatively young. The main reason Hachette came in here so late was that despite the fact that its heritage goes back 250 years, it was itself consolidated as a Group relatively recently. It has been an eventful journey, given that the downturn began the year we went operational ten years ago (in 2008). We were lucky to be insulated from that because that was the year the Stephenie Meyer phenomenon began and that carried on for a few years.
We’re glad Arnaud Nourry, our Chairman and David Shelley, the CEO of our UK group to which we belong were able to come down. Arnaud had come here ten years ago to launch us and is now back in our 10th year. Things coming round full circle… at exactly the same venue. We’re delighted that David Shelley who has just taken over this year, felt that India was important enough to make his first ever international trip to.
AABP: Do tell us about your celebratory theme of “250 years and still travelling”.
Thomas: In our tenth year, we decided we would frontline who we were, and a lot of that also comes from what we stand for. To begin with, we didn’t have the advantages a few other houses have of their international publishing brand being synonymous with their UK parent’s primary brand. In the UK, Hachette UK does not publish as Hachette, but with a variety of imprints. But we’ve spent ten years making the name familiar and we’ve succeeded a fair bit by just visually sticker-branding our books as Hachette. The next step is to outline what those brand values are. India is big on tradition… and Hachette has history, lineage, and tradition much more than anybody else in trade publishing. John Murray the Group’s and the world’s oldest trade publisher celebrates 250 years this year, Hodder celebrates 150 years this year, and we the youngest are celebrating our tenth year. And these years have some amazing history—we’re the publishers of Charles Darwin, Lord Byron, Jane Austen, WB Yeats, to name just a few and the ones who virtually invented the thriller mass market with the great yellowjackets of the 1920s.
So we’ve chosen the Hachette journey as our theme — ‘250 years and still travelling…” and while you’ll see a lot of activity around this, but we’re not going to be just resting on laurels of the past. Our tenth year celebrations are spread over 2018-19 and will see some quirky little books published to commemorate the anniversary, but will also see release of books from greats like Anuradha Roy and Manjula Padmanabhan. Children’s bestselling author Roopa Pai, and new books from legends like spaceman Rakesh Sharma, and world champion Viswanathan Anand are also on the cards. We’re also now the publishers of the Limca Book of Records. So there’s a lot happening.
AABP: Please highlight the achievements & defining moments for Hachette India?
Thomas: Hachette India has many firsts to its name. We published the first ever children’s yearbook, the first ever Indian superhero novel (Samit Basu’s Turbulence), the first multibook children’s series (Roopa Pai’s Taranauts Series); the first cover sourced by a design contest (our first book My Friend Sancho); the first to go with an all-Rupee priced list even for imports; first JK Rowling and Harry Potter locally printed here. I’m also told that we were also the first Indian publishing house to accept only agented submissions, and the first to openly discourage book launches.
If we were to pick what we’d like to be remembered for it would indisputably be redefining the hardback space and identifying what niche we fall into for paperbacks. We have four national records in Hardbacks. (The largest selling hardback ever on release with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which also is the largest children’s hardback, the largest hardback sales on release for non-fiction with Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My way at 232,000 copies, beating our own earlier record of Steve Jobs; and Sachin again for the largest hardback sales on release for an Indian author.) We’ve also prided ourselves on the fact that we introduced a lot of new voices.
AABP: What has been your sales growth rate seen in the last 10 years? What is the pattern ahead?
Thomas: It’s been a really satisfying ten years. We’ve quadrupled the business in our ten years which would be the equivalent of 15% growth year on year since we began. There has been a slowdown over the past years from store closures and distributors folding up, and in India we will see some more churn I think before it all stabilizes, but the growth will be there—erratic though it may be in the short run.
AABP: What have been the challenges and the roadblocks faced in the last 10 years?
Thomas: The biggest challenge was the abruptness with which even a growth market can change. I’ve mentioned that when the downturn of 2008 began we were unaffected because Stephenie Meyer was topping 100,000 copies across the whole Twilight series. Subsequently we had our highs and lows (a huge low in 2011 when a major retailer and with them a major distributor went down), and we’ve since run the gamut of distributors and retail shutting down. We’ve seen a slight slowdownin the past few years with the market flattening just a bit… driven I feel from the incredible number of store closures we’ve had in the past five years or so—that’s 176 stores with 810,000 sq ft gone – a big difference for Indian trade publishing.
AABP: What is the importance of India for publishers abroad and in Hachette’s global strategy?
Thomas: India is a key market for all major English language publishers, and is still a developing market capable of long term growth. But it is not for the faint hearted or those with a five year myopic view. If you want to be in India, you have to be in for the long haul, because you will see ups and downs in its erratic and often disruptive market movements… but what other country has the population of a France being added to the middle class every year. True, those benefits won’t accrue to the book business immediately but they will eventually—as history has shown.
Hachette in particular has a new narrative around diversity and better global outreach, so even from that perspective India is a key market.
AABP: What are the focus areas in publishing for Hachette India?
Thomas: India has fairly wide ranging publishing. The only obvious gaps are in more evolved commercial fiction (capable of higher price points), a strong children’s series that’s home grown, and genre fiction that does well elsewhere—crime fiction and SFF (science fiction and fantasy). But then it has its own unique genres too on the mass market front like mythologicals and campus-romance fiction. We have two divisions divided broadly into ‘Adult & business’ and ‘Children’s & Reference’ which cover all the key focus segments. We have two able and experienced publishers heading these divisions and while the lists have been kept small and tight as part of our strategy (selected curated publishing rather than large unwieldy lists to begin with), we’re delighted that both divisions have been profitable. Our focus areas remain what those a wide-ranging trade publisher should be, and we’re fairly catholic and broad based in our publishing…still supporting new voices, and bestsellers alike, and still staying away from the very low priced segments.
AABP: What are your views on children’s publishing in India and Hachette’s role in the same and how does one cultivate the habit of book reading in this segment?
Thomas: I’ve always believed that in India, the children’s space is key and should be paid a lot of attention.They are after all tomorrow’s adult readers too, quite apart from the larger issues of shaping minds and the future. I’ve also always said that unless the children’s and commercial fiction segments really evolve, (to me both are key markers of reading as a leisure habit), the market itself is not going to evolve.
It is a difficult but thriving segment, and one of the largest contributors for brick & mortar retail all over the country (interestingly a segment online has not yet managed to break into). It is a difficult segment only because it is a non-discerning market for younger readers and is unnecessarily low priced (And therefore where colour or books for younger readers are concerned, the lowest price prevails at the cost of much better books that are slightly more expensive, but would actually be much better for the child, from points of view of key stage development or planned learning outcomes). And because of this, prices can’t go down organically from volumes.
Readership can only be built by catching them young… by having programmes that foster reading like World Book Day, and emphasizing for parents the importance of reading in rounded development, particularly in these days of primarily visual media.
AABP: What is the impact of current scenario of diminishing book stores and online taking over on trade books?
Thomas: Even in the current market …I’m a firm believer that online and brick & mortar can exist together; indeed are needed together. Online is good for current hot sellers, auto / cross-recommendations and making the long tail available. Brick & mortar is for bestsellers and a curated segment wise list that facilitates better discoverability while providing a great browsing experience based on individual store philosophy (yes, I believe bookshops need one). In India neither is fully delivering on what they should do. Both chase bestsellers (which is natural) but with a few exceptions (largely indies) don’t do much else about curation. Waterstones in the UK is a classic case study of a turnaround by configuring different stores differently and curating better. Until that happens we’ll have the perpetual gripes about discounts, cost of rentals, and online deep discounting. Even today in these difficult times, the indies that define themselves well, manage costs well and stock according to their core competency are doing well.
Yes, online can up to a point enhance bestseller sales and provide some cross-recommendations, but they can’t provide that browsing experience; so in the future I hope there will be space once again for the indie who manages costs well and curates books well; and is therefore not affected by any short or medium term deep discounting wars. It’s the chain stores with the high rentals that need to rethink their strategy and reinvent themselves much like Waterstones has done in the west. You need to develop a book culture first and retail culture second if you need to succeed and create that differentiator.
AABP: What is the road ahead and what should the Indian market watch out for?
Thomas: I’m no soothsayer but I do think if the market and the larger industry continues as it does now, we’re in real danger of losing two key things—bibliodiversity and over the years losing readership (I mean reading as a leisure habit beyond just education). These will have repercussions far beyond just publishing and bookselling.
And the key point is we had both of those in the 1970s and even early 80s… thanks to the neighbourhood lending library (as well as the lack of distractions from TV and the net). It is critical that an all fronts (industry, govt, educational institutions, media etc), initiative is launched on rebuilding the readership habit. Only then will the midlist, which is a critical marker of reading health flourish. What after all is the midlist? It’s often made up of new voice, it’s that offbeat book meant to interest a specific segment, that great book by the non superbrand, that experimental novel, that new translation… and so on. Writing those and publishing those presumes a readership there for them… whatever the number anticipated. Remember there are no absolute bestsellers. Bestsellers are mapped by segments…so a 3,000 copy seller in the classics segment would be a great bestseller. But the midlist has a fairly clear definition across segments… it is the median… that critical 1500 copy to 3000 copy seller that has its own defined audience. And that is a very vast spread across segments and categories. Slowly, if that vanishes leaving us with just a smattering of bestsellers in selected genres, and some scattered books that break out, then that will show that the midlist is dying. And that has much larger repercussions… because with that comes the decline of the reading nation. So this is not something that online can be solely blamed for… it is the industry first and foremost, and then all the other stakeholders mentioned above.