“Rather than resisting new technology, explore avenues to gain”
says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Westland Publications, who is an expert in managing change. Taking a family-run business through two corporate takeovers, adjusting to new systems, processes and cultures, and ensuring the team was aligned to the new changes has made what Westland is today.
Westland Publications Ltd. is an Amazon subsidiary and one of the largest English language publishers in India. Their list of titles includes popular and literary fiction, food and cooking, spirituality and self-help, biographies, health and wellness, history, general reference, travel and a host of other subjects. Here, Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Westland Publications, shares more about the journey of Westland and the road ahead. Excerpts.
AABP: Share the journey from Affiliated East West Press to Westland Publications Ltd.
Gautam: Affiliated East West Press was incorporated in 1962 and its first office was based in New Delhi. The company was founded by an American by the name of Dallas Tenbroeck. The 1960s were a period of rapid growth in higher education with the setting up of premier institutions like the IITs. During this period, the US government subsidised reprinting of textbooks in India under their PL480 scheme. The company was expressly set up to take advantage of this program, licensing textbooks from D. Van Nostrand, a reputed academic publisher based in Princeton. It initially focussed on getting these textbooks adopted by institutions and the process of contacting academicians and professors led to a local publishing program that included books by well-known scientists such as Professor CN. Rao (a Bharat Ratna awardee) and Professor LS Srinath (former Director of IIT Madras).
When Tenbroeck decided to return to the US, he transferred ownership to my father KS Padmanabhan, who became the managing director, and to Kamal Malik, who took over the publisher function.
As the US scheme started winding down in the 1970s, and due to ownership changes at Van Nostand, the company had to look for fresh business opportunities and thus entered the space of import and distribution of academic books from the US and the UK.
The Chennai office was opened in 1975 mainly to facilitate imports through the city’s sea port, but it also became the centre of operations, as my father chose to move there. Publishing continued to be centred in New Delhi under Malik.
A brief foray into retailing led to further diversification into trade book distribution when Rupa and Co approached us to be their South India stockists, not only for their own publications but also for the UK publishers they represented, like Collins and Pan Macmillan.
E-books are still at a nascent stage, contributing between 5 and 10 per cent of revenue for publishers. However, e-book sales received quite a boost during the recent lockdown and it will be interesting to see if this leads to a further shift towards e-reading.
The 1980s saw the company opening branches in Bangalore and Hyderabad to further strengthen their trade distribution, and the partnership with Rupa flourished till the turn of the century.
The 1990s brought further changes with the business being divided amicably between the two families—the Padmanabhans and the Maliks—on a geographical basis. The southern business of trade and academic distribution was taken over by a new entity controlled by the Padmanabhan family and christened East West Books (Madras) Pvt Ltd, while the Maliks retained academic publishing and distribution under the old name of Affiliated East West Press Pvt. Ltd.
The 1990s saw the beginnings of a trade publishing program under the Manas imprint. We published first-time writers as well as translations of established writers, and the list included Gopal Gandhi, Zai Whitaker, Mahesh Dattani, Paul Zacharia, Sundar Ramaswami, Ambai and Harisankar Parsai, among others. We also set up a journal, The Indian Review of Books, whose distinguished panel of reviewers included Shashi Tharoor, Shashi Deshpande, Shobha De, Pankaj Mishra and many others.
In 1994, we were approached by Hemu Ramaiah, founder of the Landmark bookstores, India’s first modern book retail chain, to explore a tie-up to import books from those US publishers who were poorly served in this market. We set up a joint venture called Westland, which proved quite successful in opening up the market for US publishers.
The turn of the century saw Rupa and Co going their own way as they decided to open their own offices in South India. Also, we exited academic distribution to focus on trade books. With the expansion of open-market imports from the US and the UK, we opened branches in Mumbai and Delhi, thus becoming a national distributor. At its peak in the early 2000s, our distribution business was second only to IBD in terms of size.
2005 was another significant year, with the Landmark chain being acquired by Trent, the retail arm of the Tata group. Naturally, all existing joint ventures also came under scrutiny. Trent chose to invest in Westland, and as its infrastructure was run by East West, they chose to acquire us as well. The two companies (East West and Westland) were thus merged to create a new entity, Westland Ltd.
Under Trent, we were encouraged to grow the publishing business as they did not see much future growth in distribution, since all the majors like Harper, Penguin and Hachette were already in India, or setting up shop, by that time. Therefore, the next few years saw us focusing on growing the publishing business while winding down distribution. Our early successes included Ashwin Sanghi and Rujuta Diwekar. The big turning point was in 2010 when we acquired the self-published Immortals of Meluha by Amish and the subsequent volumes of the Shiva Trilogy. In this phase of growth, Westland was a significant player in the space of Indian commercial writing.
With the growth of online retail, Trent started refocusing on the priorities for the Landmark chain; owning a publishing business was no longer strategic for them. We were exploring various opportunities when Amazon approached us in 2015, and this led to Westland becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon in early 2017.
Under Amazon, the publishing business has thrived. While consolidating our traditional strength in commercial fiction, we expanded into other genres by launching new imprints like Context (literary fiction & non-fiction), Red Panda (children’s), Eka (Indian language publishing), Westland Sport and, most recently, Westland Business.
AABP: What do you consider your major achievements?
Gautam: I officially joined East West in 1987 but actually started getting involved a lot earlier. What interested me was the shift the company made towards trade books. Major achievements include managing change. Taking a family-run business through two corporate takeovers, adjusting to new systems, processes and cultures, and ensuring the team was aligned to the new changes. Building a 3P distribution business, which at its peak was the second largest in the country, and then growing a trade publishing business from scratch to bring it to where it is now—among the top three local publishing businesses in terms of market share as per Nielsen is perhaps my biggest achievement.
AABP: Your views on content generated in India and readership?
Gautam: Indian publishing, at least in English, is still in the early stages of growth and expansion. There are many genres and subjects that are popular abroad but do not have much traction in India yet. So there is a lot of room to experiment. There is also an urgent need to raise levels of readership in a phase where we are facing growing competition from OTT platforms.
AABP: Language reading has grown over time. What, in your opinion, is the potential of regional languages?
Gautam: Westland is one of the first trade publishers to attempt the transition from being solely an English language to a truly Indian publisher and this is driven by the fact that English is spoken by a mere 10 per cent of the population. We have published in at least 8 Indian languages. Currently we are concentrating our energies on Hindi and two or three other languages until we are able to achieve critical mass. As you know, there are several challenges in making this transition, especially in the area of distribution and the economics of cost vs pricing in these markets. However, all indicators such as newspaper circulation numbers, growth of regional content on OTT platforms and the success of English language films dubbed in Indian languages point towards the potential for Indian language content.
AABP: How do you maintain Diversity and inclusion in Publishing?
Gautam: We publish approximately 125-150 new titles across imprints and publishing has always been welcoming of diversity in the workplace. At Amazon, we have a very robust hiring process that focuses not only on the candidate’s talents but on the cultural fit, premised on the leadership principles of the organization. The process is designed to mitigate any biases and find candidates who can raise the bar on existing standards within the team.
AABP: How has Covid-19 impacted the publishing business?
Gautam: It is certainly a very difficult phase for the industry and there will, sadly, be a few casualties, but I am heartened by the way various businesses, both big and small, are innovating new strategies to reach their customer base. What I see emerging is a model that is a hybrid of both online and offline distribution. There will also be greater cooperation between various stakeholders. Historically, publishing has been a very resilient business and I am optimistic that we will all emerge stronger at the end of this crisis.
AABP: Your views on how we can increase readership and love for reading- starting with children.
Gautam: There has to be a concerted effort to promote reading, not only to children but at the college and university level. Such an effort will require participation not only by publishers but also by the State, and even corporates as part of their CSR efforts. Personally, I’ve been impressed by the way SPIC–MACAY has promoted Indian classical music. Perhaps that’s a model to emulate.
AABP: Your take on e-books?
Gautam: E-books are still at a nascent stage, contributing between 5 and 10 per cent of revenue for publishers. However, e-book sales received quite a boost during the recent lockdown and it will be interesting to see if this leads to a further shift towards e-reading.
AABP: What are the opportunities you foresee moving ahead?
Gautam: I would say that publishers should take an IP approach to publishing and be more participative and proactive in exploiting content in all ways possible. The digital space is not only about formats like e-books and audio books. There are other opportunities emerging like podcasts and OTT content.
AABP: Your advice to the industry.
Gautam: I’ve always believed that change is the only constant. One needs to not fear change but learn to keep making adjustments and innovations to cope with the new normal, as we are doing now. Also, rather than resisting new technology, explore avenues to gain by it. If you don’t, someone else will.