Formats don’t matter, it’s about taking leisure reading seriously!

–Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India

Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India
Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India

E-books grew at a phenomenal pace to reach 28% to 32% shares of turnover ten years ago, and then fell hard. But the past couple of years have seen a second coming where you don’t have the heady growths of the first few years but there is a steady climb to stable 8-15% share in the pie.

In trade books, the ebooks sales equivalent of print books for most publishers would be between 5% and 10% as an average, that extrapolated to the TCM (adding in self-publishing) would put it at best at Rs 80-120 crore, which is quite small.

For Hachette, it is about 10% of our total sales and almost all our books are available as ebooks in all formats like Kindle, Kobo, Nook, Google and Apple. Worldwide, by the Bookseller Survey, Hachette was No 1 in 2018 despite sales having dropped by 5%.

ebook trends in India…

Though there is no clear data available, we think people in India read ebooks (those who do read ebooks) on whatever phone/tablets they have, as dedicated ebook reading devices in India are relatively low. Mostly people read non-fiction, business etc on ebooks. At Hachette, Issacson’s Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking’s Brief Answers remain our top sellers. We also have quite a few topical bestsellers … largely in the non-fiction space.

Why go for ebooks?

The advantages of ebooks are, of course, portability, and storage—you can carry as many as are possible by your device’s capacity. Also it aids instant look-ups (of meanings, cross references etc). Besides, it’s a great vehicle for self-publishing.

Discoverability of books via the digital medium is good, when it happens in a truly viral manner, but otherwise it’s quite fragmented. The only advantage in such cases is that amplification may reach non-reading markets and hopefully get them interested.

Authors take on digital publishing…

There is of course broad interest by authors, since everybody sees it as a way of being available in foreign markets where the p-book won’t reach, but outside that, I haven’t seen much curiosity.

Challenges in ebooks…

Ebooks do not offer the innate physical form factor—the tactile elements etc are much more comforting in a print book (at least for today’s reader who has been brought up with both). Today’s backlit screens (the e-ink screen has vanished with phones and tablets being the preferred device), which are a health hazard, in terms of them affecting eyesight. Besides, these devices with their plastic and polymer elements must surely be an environmental problem with shelf-lives of less than 5 years.

ebooks pricing…

There is a Digital List Price (DLP) for ebooks, which seeks to be almost at par with the print book’s MRP. It is slightly lower though right now (even after factoring in the VAT) by 10-15%.

On mobile reading…

Increased consumption of content on a mobile should not be confused with reading on a mobile. True readership will be evident when ebooks are bought at DLPs (digital list prices) that are within a 10% or max 20% range of p-book MRPs. Freebies, promotional throwaways at below Rs 50 etc, don’t count. The whole point of the parallel digital channel (for publishers, authors and any serious platform) is eventually readership that can be monetized, and not just remain permanently in a state of ‘promotional sales’.

Digital piracy and Digital Right Management (DRM)…

Digital piracy and DRM are rampant, but they are also at one level easier to police, as instant take-down is possible. Physical book piracy is still a bigger problem in India, especially now as online marketplaces have become safe havens for pirates.

On audio books…

The West is seeing a massive resurgence with sales skyrocketing in audiobooks. Many prefer listening to it on drives or in traffic jams. Personally, I am not a fan (especially where narrative works are concerned) as I tend to read ‘quietly’ with a narrative voice in my head as I read, as I suspect most readers do. I find both readings and/or dramatized versions in conflict with that way of reading. But that may just be me. Also the fact that one has to rewind to go back as against just turning a page back is a major irritant.

Digital focus @ Hachette…

There are two aspects to this—digital publishing and digital marketing. As to the first, almost all books see ebooks and there is a high quality production process in tandem with Hachette Digital (that involves testing for all formats and devices before release). Digital marketing, which encompasses marketing in the digital space for p-books too is now a key part of the publicity division—and deals with social media and platform specific promotions.

On social media marketing…

Social media marketing is evolving with emphasis changing from Twitter to FB to Insta etc, and more happening. But the key remains the TAG… who you’re trying to reach and for what purpose. So it depends on what you publish and who you want to target (both readership and purchasing power/willingness to spend) to what end. If sheer information outflow is your aim, sure one can sit there and post/tweet/bookstagram away and be happy counting ‘engagement’ by response metrics. If you’re targeting sales, it’s a different ball game because a 1000 likes are not yet worth even a 100 copies sold. I feel there’s a lot of blind social media activity for the sake of it. A book by an instapost will have immediate synergy with a social media campaign. On the flip side, if your book is a high concept literary novel in hardback at Rs 699, and the larger demographic out there is a teen audience not willing to spend higher than Rs 150… then that whole effort is fairly pointless.

Print vs ebooks….

ebooks can be made available in whatever format is preferred, though print will remain the dominant strand is what it’s looking like right now. In India for children’s and visual books, the print format is preferred because it is largely a parental decision and there is a ‘pick-up-and-browse-to-decide’ quotient in the decision making. It’s getting readers to take reading seriously as a leisure (and not merely a ‘learning’) activity that is of paramount importance.

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