“Books and reading should be considered as essential”

says Neeraj Jain, President, API and MD, Scholastic, in conversation with Emma House.

As in most countries, bookshops were closed due to being classified as non-essential goods, which has taught us that it’s time to convince the government that books and reading should be considered as essential – to the economy, to learning and to social and mental well-being.

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Neeraj JainNeeraj Jain, MD of Scholastic India has been elected President of the Association of Publishers of India (API), a post he will hold for 2 years. He has also been elected as co-chair of the FICCI Publishing Committee.

Emma House talks to Neeraj about his views on how the Indian publishing industry has learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic and his plans at the helm of API, and on the FICCI publishing committee.

Emma: How do you feel the Indian publishing industry has fared during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Neeraj: All things considered, publishing has fared well through the pandemic (and we aren’t out of it yet!). In the initial phase, publishers were quick to react and have been innovative with products and services to help their customers, such as free resources to help educators and learners. These resources really supported schools and higher education institutions when they most needed help with the transfer to home teaching and learning. Trade publishers have also been doing their part by hosting online author sessions, and storytelling, engaging with both kids and parents. These actions turned out to be a welcome surprise to help the community at large.

Emma House is an international publishing consultant based in the UK. Her previous roles included Deputy CEO of the Publishers Association UK and Head of International Development at the London Book Fair.

As in most countries, bookshops were closed due to being classified as non-essential goods, which has taught us that we have to work harder to convince the government that books and reading should be considered as essential – to the economy, to learning and to social and mental well-being. Unlike other countries, however, there was no opportunity for publishers to engage in direct selling to consumers, due to this being forbidden by legislation. We were very much dependent on the ecommerce players to be able to restart their delivery services.

Currently lots of bookshops are open, but still some remain closed, especially chain ones in the malls where malls remain closed or footfall is low. It also depends on state regulation. As a result of the pandemic, we have now bookshops providing new online delivery services and Amazon and Flipkart are seeing a spike. A lot of publishers have started offering ebooks, but it has been a gradual shift. Because schools are delivering classrooms online, kids are spending a lot of time online, so it’s been creating a balance between online and offline. Audiobooks have started becoming popular which is relatively new to the ecosystem.

Emma: What have been the key lessons learned from the pandemic?

Neeraj: Adaptability is key, no one was really prepared for what happened. So the question in our minds now is ‘how do we adapt?’ We are balancing between offline and online, and we need the offline (physical bookstores) and we must support them in these times to ensure they continue to exist. In educational settings, without doubt, there is more of a shift towards blended learning. Everyone working with educational institutions must understand the new needs and make sure they are met.

As a collective, work is very much in progress to position publishing, books and reading as a key industry. We need to be able to showcase and highlight it as essential.

Emma: How do you think the sector will move forward i.e., what does recovery look like?

Neeraj: We are seeing sales gradually going up from bookshops. It is a defining time for the school market and higher ed so we will see how the buying season pans out. Our sector is moving together, and we have learned how to tackle problems in a more meaningful way. Working closely with stakeholders to strengthen relationships, they see more value in what publishers have to offer.

Emma: What has the API achieved over the last few years?

Neeraj: API represents the breadth of international publishers operating in India, in trade, academic and education and we have been able to achieve a unified approach to the whole industry, not just particular sectors. This has been due to the work of the various committees who have been very active. About 2-3 years back, we were reacting to issues, meaning we were always on the backfoot, but now we are moving from a reactive state to a proactive state, tackling problems from the front foot. We now have a bigger say in matters.

Emma: What are your priorities as president of API?

Neeraj: Firstly, to maintain all the good work that has been achieved over the years and continue to keep everyone united. We want to develop a value proposition about Indian publishing, to be released as API, presenting publishing in a concerted manner to government and stakeholders, widening the lens through which publishing is looked at. We need to open their eyes and demonstrate what publishing does and contributes. What will be key is to show how publishers are working in India and developing products, resources and services for global usage.

Its important for us to align ourselves to the programmes launched by the GOI, like Atmanirbhar Bharat and Make for Global. We have to showcase how we are already working to help the GOI on such initiatives and how we, going forward, make a larger impact on programs like these.

The whole idea here is to change the paradigm through which we show ourselves to the world at large and make sure that we are projecting the contributions of our sector in the right and meaningful way.

Emma: What are the key policies that API is following?

Neeraj: Agendas such as copyright law, piracy and the National Education Policy are really important right now.

Emma: What does the role of co-chair of the FICCI Publishing entail?

Neeraj: We have a chair – Ratnesh Jha (formerly of CUP) of the Burlington Group and two co-chairs – Monica Kandhari Malhotra from MBD and myself. Our role as a committee is very much to create more awareness around publishing and the issues impacting the sector, such as the copyright act, import duties, GST. We are focused on coming up with ideas of events and seminars, sending representations to government and any other ways we can get our messages to government through FICCI.

One of the key things for us is to keep in mind that FICCI can not just help us open a lot of doors but also make us a part of the groups working on various key initiatives of the government.

Emma: What agendas will you take from API to FICCI?

Neeraj: One of our objectives is to broaden the role of the Publishing Committee by trying to expand the role and understanding of what publishers do. We have a small committee to look at the National Education Policy and one looking at changes to the copyright act in order to send meaningful representations to the govt on behalf of the sector. We are keen to explore ways in which we can increase the reading habit in order to create a more educated society – connecting employment, health and social wellbeing to reading. We have recently launched an initiative under FICCI called “roz ek nayi kahani.” The whole idea here is to work towards creating readership which eventually helps all of us in the industry.

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