“Sale of audio books & e-books will continue to grow”

says Hemali Sodhi, Founder, A Suitable Agency, in conversation with All About Book Publishing.

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Being one of the first publicists in Indian publishing was an interesting and unique experience – it gave me the opportunity to learn and implement so many new marketing ideas and strategies, contribute to building brand value and understand changing readership, and of course, work with some of the finest writers from around the world. It’s been a fantastic journey and learning curve, and one I enjoyed immensely,” says Hemali Sodhi, who started as a publicist in Penguin India in the 90s, and left in 2018, after over two decades after heading marketing, communications and brand strategy and being publisher of the children’s and YA list – (one of the fastest growing segments) – for 5 years. Today, she is the Founder of A Suitable Agency, a literary and brand consulting agency, and advisor to the Kerala Literature Festival, one of the largest festivals in the subcontinent.

Here, she shares her views on the status of trade books during pandemic and the road to recovery.

Status of trade books during the pandemic …

“This past year has been an extraordinarily strange and uncertain time, and publishing, like every other industry, has been tested like never before. In terms of some developments that we see: publishers have become more selective about the books they are looking to publish. In response to a variety of circumstances, most publishers have cut back the number of new titles they have published, which are yet to be published. With most bookstores being closed for more than a year, and the shift to online sales, books that depend on discoverability and hand selling by indie bookshops have suffered. From what we see online readers are preferring to buy books that have word of mouth and are perhaps not that open to experimenting with many new voices,” tells Hemali.

“Marketing and publicity have always been very important, but now with reduced print media, combined with an excessive dependence on social media and digital media space, publishers will need to find ways to cut through the clutter and find ways to get books the visibility they need,” she adds.

What sold well in pandemic…

“The bestsellers and what we call the backlist has been selling well in general, and at this point in time it looks like self help/ mind body spirit and ‘comfort reads’ in general have had an uptake. In children’s publishing, the learning and activity segments for the really young children has grown,” replies Hemali.

The challenges in pandemic…

“The most significant is the fact that physical bookstores have been closed or operating under severe restrictions – that has impacted business, as well as livelihoods. One hopes, the next year as more and more people are vaccinated and it becomes safer to venture out, we will see bookstores come back into action. This has of course meant new books that benefit from ‘discovery’ have suffered. Readers tend to buy bestsellers recommended by online retail,” tells Hemali.

“However, from conversations with publishers, it seems that sales have held stable for those publishers with a large backlist. However the going has been much tougher for some independent publishers. Publishers have also been quick to convert to marketing and communications on digital platforms, but given the general digital fatigue setting in, will need to look for newer ways to spread the word,” she adds.

Predictions for the recovery phase…

“I think online bookstores which are contributing to more than 70% of all sales will continue to hold that advantage, but I hope we’ll see an increase in the overall market when bookstores open and we see more conversion on new books. I think we will also continue to see a major increase in the sale of audio books, and ebooks will continue to grow. Having said that we hope publishers also invest in increasing catalog size of audio books,” says Hemali. “This is because there has been a movement to the audio format in general – podcasts have seen an exponential growth, and the rise of Clubhouse and other such platforms show the reader preferring audio as a medium. This may also be linked to screen fatigue.”

“Besides, OTT has had some increasing adaptations from books, and we hope to see this trend grow. This has also been a prolific time for writers working on their projects, and it would be interesting to see if self-publishing models see a rise, since many books will not find traditional publishers,” she adds.

“I think we will also see more books on science, medicine, mental health, general health and well-being. In business and management publishing – this new work from home model will spark off many new book ideas on management and business. Publishing for children will also see the inclusion of early learning and home schooling. And finally, it is going to be the age of the marketer – though the way we see marketing at present may change/ evolve. We may look at more direct marketing, or now that there is more access to readership data, marketing curated by genre or niche. But publicity and marketing is going to be critical in spreading the word on books,” she adds.

On new voices and inclusivity…

“A significant number of books are published on inclusivity every year, and debut voices, and this is across all categories – fiction, non fiction, and children’s. In the last few years, we’ve also seen a significant rise in Indian languages being published in translation, and now literary awards have started including literature in translation alongside books in English. There is a lot of vibrance and diversity in Indian publishing – and Independent publishers like Navayana, Seagull, Zubaan to name a few, have also contributed richly with their excellently curated lists and voices. Publishing has also always reflected the changing cultural and political landscape in the country. Having said that, there is always, always more room for publishing more voices, themes and narratives that challenge the status quo,” tells Hemali.

“At A Suitable Agency, we’re always delighted when we discover an exciting new voice – and in fact around half of the books we represent are debuts,” she adds.

Independent book stores…

“Bookstores, when they open, have to think about making the shopping experience a bit different for their customers, and have to factor in the need for door delivery within their community (some of them are already doing that). Experiential and immersive experiences at bookstores, and curation and hand selling will become even more important and bookstores must enhance their ability to recommend books to their readers based on preferences. I also think spaces where children shop for books have to become innovative and experiential,” says Hemali.

Online book fairs and festivals…

“Festivals play an important part in my opinion – they have vastly helped increase word of mouth for books, and brought together writers and their audiences. These are valuable spaces for the whole community to come together, and bring that sense of palpable excitement to books and reading – this is also why the last decade has seen a tremendous rise in literary festivals (each city seems to have a lit fest, or several). However, the pandemic had brought all these physical events to a crashing halt, and while most festivals admirably changed their course and are bringing the best of writers to digital platforms, I think we must remember that geographies blend in a digital space – and by that I mean everyone can attend every event sitting from their homes. Therefore while a speaker earlier could attend and interact with many different audiences across the country earlier, that changes in a digital space where everyone can attend irrespective of where they’re located, so the need for festival organisers to continually refresh programming becomes even more urgent. Besides, of course, you do greatly miss the charm of a physical space and interacting and discussing books with other readers and publishers over tea or a drink (like at JLF, or the beaches of Calicut which host the Kerala Literature Festival). But I do think festivals have done a great job in keeping the conversations going, and introducing new books and writers to audiences,” opines Hemali.

On genesis of A Suitable Agency…

“I left publishing to take a sabbatical, but I did always know books would be a constant presence in what I do. One of the questions I used to be asked fairly frequently (by a lot of writer friends as well as others in the industry) was whether I’d become a literary agent – and I thought it was an interesting idea, one that would allow me to continue to work with books, but approach it from another direction – representing the interest of the authors, and work with the books and writers we would love to represent. At the same time, we wanted to have an arm at the agency for select consulting projects around brand and communications strategies – something I enjoy doing as well,” tells Hemali.

“Hence A Suitable Agency came into being last year – we now represent a wonderful and growing list of writers whose work we love and admire (among the writers whose new work we represent are KR Meera, Anindita Ghose, Remo Fernandes, Amitava Kumar, Vikas Khanna, Anukrti Upadhyay, Radhika Iyengar, Fiona Fernandes, Riva Razdan, Karthik Shankar, Aloka Prabhakar, Bikram Sharma to name some) – and we’ve had a fantastic response from publishers to our submissions. We have an open submission policy, and do make it a point to read every submission made to us. At A Suitable Agency, nothing gives us more joy than to see a good book published well,” signs off Hemali.

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