School book publishing– Calling for an imaginative turnaround

Sesh Seshadri shares his fifty years’ experience in the school book publishing industry, articulating nostalgia in the educational publishing field, recording the current practices and addressing future opportunities.

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I got into book selling as an intern before joining formal publishing fifty years ago, just because my family only knew books. My grandfather was the librarian at Adyar Library set up by Dr Annie Besant while my father was Head of Publicity (now known as Marketing) and served for 25 years at Oxford University Press and my wife Maya was looking after retail selling at the Bangalore showroom at Oxford University Press.

But my tryst with publishing started much earlier. I was often called by my Headmaster who was the author of a mathematics series, and all he would ask me to give his handwritten manuscript to my father.

In the mid-seventies I was drawn into formal publishing and was pushed to join Oxford University Press, due to the sudden illness of my father (who had to avail voluntary retirement) and the loss of the family income. In a way, it is a very proud moment for my father, since his relieving letter was from Girish Karnad. I, however, wanted to qualify as a cricket umpire and resisted the suggestion to join publishing. Looking back, I am very pleased and proud that I got into this noble profession. “Noble” was the term frequently used back then.

India’s position and role in the industry…

The contribution of the Indian publishing industry to economic growth – GDP and employment – is admirable. Indian publishing is the key enabler in for education, continuous learning and recreation. It is also a promoter of Indian culture, values and excellence.

Among the developing countries, India has the second-largest publishing infrastructure, second only to China. The size of the total publishing market is projected to reach INR 800 billion by 2024 from INR 500 billion in 2019. In terms of revenue, publishing is one of the largest media-related industries in India, larger than print media (newspapers and magazines), digital media (social media, apps, online streaming, music, and games), filmed entertainment (movies), and radio and music.

Considering the key stakeholders in the publishing industry, India is dominated by educational book publishing with a small share of trade book publishing. There are c. 250 million K-12 students and more than 35 million higher education students in the country. These students rely primarily on books as the medium for learning. Thus, the Indian publishing industry is an integral part of the Indian education system.

The industry plays a vital role in shaping the future of India. Key educational improvement targets and initiatives of the government, creation of a knowledge society, and global dissemination of Indian culture and heritage present how the publishing industry and the government can support one another to achieve these targets. The government is one of the biggest publishers of textbooks in India.

New Education Policy 2020 (NEP)…

One of the biggest opportunities for the Indian publishing industry derives from the National Education Policy (NEP). The shift would lead to new curriculum and publishing of associated teaching-learning material where the publishing industry will have to provide textbooks and supplementary resources that enable parents, students and teachers to adapt to the new curriculum.

Moreover, the publishing industry can also collaborate with the government and private organizations to offer diverse content in multiple languages at various price points, and to enable greater access and affordability for end-users. It can support publications of textbooks in regional languages to align with NEP.

Aspirational curriculum and pedagogy in schools…

The National Education Policy 2020 aspires to make learning “Holistic, Integrated, Inclusive, Enjoyable, and Engaging.” The significant change is in the restructuring of school curriculum and pedagogy in a new four-stage design termed 5+3+3+4: Foundational (3 years of preschool + Grades 1-2), Preparatory (Grades 3-5), Middle (Grades 6-8), and High school (Grades 9-12 in two phases). The pedagogical structure of school education will be reconfigured to make it responsive and relevant to the developmental needs and interests of learners at different stages of their development, corresponding to the age ranges of 3-8, 8-11, 11-14, and 14-18 years, respectively.

The overall thrust of curriculum and pedagogy reform across all stages will be to move the education system towards real understanding and learning how to learn – and away from the current culture of rote learning.

During my school days, the medium of instruction was mostly the local Indian language. I went through a Tamil-medium education all the way from Class 1 to Class 8 and then moved on to English medium for Classes 9 – 11. Those who follow the NEP will observe that this concept is coming back on paper. It will be interesting to see how this is going to be implemented. To say the British imposed English language in India and forced us to learn English is not a correct statement. Education in the mother tongue was there for many years post independence. We, Indians and Indian policy makers, made English compulsory and also changed the medium of instruction to English. We need to be conscious and accept the argument that many Indian languages will vanish if this trend continues.

Role of Educational Technology (EdTech)…

Though there is a paradigm shift towards the adoption of digital media, print books currently dominate (90%) the publishing landscape in India. However, e-books and audio books are expected to be critical growth drivers and have a promising future in the industry.

The EdTech community is investing heavily and very soon we will experience the effectiveness of their national strategies and the relevance of curriculum opportunities. Fortunately, EdTech provides the tools to ensure that young people have meaningful and engaging experiences within real-world contexts. This ensures that high level strategies and expectations are met through innovation and creativity.

EdTech in India is classified under five headers: Test Preparation, Certification, K-12, Skill Development and Enterprise Solution. The test preparation market in India is fragmented due to the presence of several global and regional players. The growing competition in the market is compelling inorganic growth strategies such as M&As to remain competitive in the market. Tutoring is one of the fast-growing businesses.

Online certifications in the digital education market across India is estimated to reach about USD 460 million, with a 38 percent compound annual growth rate from 2016.The growing business landscape has widened the skill gap among employees, which is why the demand for reskilling courses is picking up. A good example is the new job opportunity, a Drone Pilot. India’s skills market will double this decade, from USD 180 billion in 2020 to USD 313 billion in 2030, while creating five million incremental jobs and impacting 429 million learners.

The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) facilitates initiatives that can potentially have a multiplier effect as opposed to being an actual operator in this space. NSDC strives to scale up efforts necessary to achieve the objective of skilling / up-skilling 150 million people. 247 sectors are being offered under this plan.

In the enterprise solution space, many international companies operate with most sophisticated software applications, networks especially in CRM, ERP and Supply Chain. The highest percentage of offering in the EdTech space comes from Test Preparation and the lowest from K-12.

New Models…

With the change in customer preferences and socio-economic and technological landscape of India, the publishing industry is innovating new modes of outreach, formats and business structures. New business models including online retail, subscriptions, bundle packages, open-access resources, and self-publishing are emerging in the industry. This provides innovative channels to reach a broader target audience and thereby changing the mode of operations for publishers.

Selling methods…

The purpose of visiting schools is to build relationships and to sell resources. This process has undergone significant changes. Today, you need to get a formal appointment and wait at the reception to meet the School Head.

A new approach to marketing is to leave as many sample books as possible as free copies with the decision makers for their evaluation and adoption. eBook samples are being offered by select publishers. This in effect increases the cost of selling. The industry should carefully review this, by consulting the decision makers and arrive at a more cost-effective way of promotion/marketing.

It must be observed that today the discount levels offered by publishers range from 40% to 65%. This drives the selling price (MRP) of the book very high and the author receives very little royalty since most royalties are now based on net receipts and not on published price. My view is that this model requires immediate change and it is possible to change this. If the industry does not address this on priority, EdTech players will change the game, leaving print book publishers behind. It is possible to go back to the system of offering a 10% discount to educational institutions, reduce the reseller discount thereby reduce the end price to the consumer/student. It will be a win-win for all.

Sales collection…

Collecting money has become such a huge challenge in today’s publishing industry across the School, HigherEd, Trade and Children’s divisions. Earlier, schools would release what is known as an“open book-list” and most neighbourhood bookshops would acquire the list from the school and plan their purchase/stock accordingly. Today, there are exclusive book seller suppliers to a particular school. Publishers are selling direct to schools.

Schools have become commercial establishments, thereby demanding high discounts. Selling books from school campuses is now a growing commercial model, with substantial profits and parents have no choice but to shell out money for book bundles, including stationery and notebooks.

The solution is for publishers to reduce the discount to the bookseller, stop supplying schools direct, and remove supply on credit completely and make book selling a cash and carry model. When the model is cash and carry, accepting unsold books as returns becomes very minimal.

Nationwide disruption to academic schedules

Our educational publishers jumped into action immediately during this ongoing Covid-19 period. Some of them opened their digital platforms for free to all pupils, and some offered a few select chapters that can be utilized during the lockdown period. Having said that most educational publishers had to make serious investments in expanding their capacity and support services. Because only few schools have taught with digital structures so far, teachers, students, parents, and governments (the entire educational system) are facing a challenging situation to use digital offerings for distant and home schooling. Cancellation of exams and automatic pass at the school leaving levels – this is going to have a major impact on the self-confidence of students.

Let us read the data in Table 1 carefully, since this is the age where everyone is encouraged to analyse data before taking decisions. Very few schools have digital infrastructure pan India. The government’s got wind of this and did not rely on internet connectivity; instead, it has launched many direct home television channels for education.

The global worry for implementation of digital delivery now heavily depends on the supply of coal, with increase in power outage and rising energy prices.

Challenges…

Despite the advancements in the country, the publishing industry in India faces a few legal challenges – piracy and copyright issues. To tackle these challenges, India needs a strong regulatory ecosystem for copyrights. Given the business landscape in India, private publishers face significant competition from state publishing houses. On the other hand, regulations or norms related to the use of state-published materials vary across the country, inhibiting the industry from operating as a free market. The State continues to dominate the educational publishing space and my forecast is that this level will increase due to the State’s intervention in content development. This is likely to be more in Indian languages (vernacular).

Concerning the regulatory landscape in India, the publishing industry witnesses a huge impact of GST. In the Indian scenario where a zero-tax slab does not exist, the introduction of 5% GST on books can benefit both the publishing industry and the government.

The number of print publishers grew with the arrival of desktop computers and more so with the arrival of CorelDRAW in the late eighties. This is the period when quality of content commenced its downward journey. Till then most publishers were very strong with their editorial quality, fact checking and copy editing. Educational books in four colours arrived for the first time in India around this time.

On a concluding note…

In conclusion I would like to narrate and record the reality. The village where I was born on the banks of the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu is still with one school with a single teacher and around forty students from the village. Most governments are closing their schools and this is not a good development. Governments need to reconsider this matter.

We all should appreciate that the school is a unifying factor for all communities and let us build this with that one point of agenda, that we are all equals in the classroom.

Education is not the responsibility of only the government. There are many stakeholders and each of us will have to take our individual responsibility to bring in best practices within the education eco-system.

It is imperative for the publishing industry to form new partnerships with the government as well as private entities to successfully serve a population as large as India’s. Simultaneously, the government should also leverage the publishing industry, to not just implement its immediate reforms but also to facilitate the growth of human capital in the long run. As the government has approved a plan to increase public spending on education to 6% of GDP, the publishing industry will play a greater role in directly contributing to economic output and employment, while supporting more than 300 million citizens.

Let us make the narrative “good education is a foundation of a nation.” Publishers should address some of the pointers provided above and clean up the system. Schools should stop being commercial enterprises and stop being a bookseller and focus on education and academic activities. Booksellers should focus on serving parents and students and be efficient on last-mile delivery. While we make money, let us also bring in harmony within the industry and create a win-win opportunity for all. I wish I could write fifty years later about educational publishing then. (If science makes significant improvements to human longevity, this might be possible). In order for science to make that improvement, we need to provide EDUCATION in schools and not be distracted.

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