“Print is going to remain, despite disruptions in the industry”

Says Professor Angus Phillips, Director, Oxford International Centre for Publishing, on his visit to India, in conversation with Varsha Verma.

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Professor Angus Phillips is the Director of the Oxford International Centre for Publishing. He has degrees from Oxford and Warwick universities, and before joining Oxford Brookes he ran a trade and reference list at Oxford University Press. He works as a consultant to the publishing industry and is often invited to speak at international conferences and events. His recent books include Inside Book Publishing (with Giles Clark), The Oxford Handbook of Publishing (with Michael Bhaskar), and Turning the Page. Newly published from Cambridge is the volume, Is this a Book? (with Miha Kova?). He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the premier publishing journal Logos, which recently featured a double issue on Indian publishing, guest edited by Nitasha Devasar.

Here, he shares his views on the publishing industry and more in conversation with Varsha Verma.

On changing trends…

“We’re seeing big changes with the arrival of digital publishing. It has changed the way people read and consume content. But of course the printed book is still with us, as people still enjoy reading books in physical form. And I always say that we go through these convulsions from time to time. So printed book sits alongside other formats like audio and ebook within the book family,” shares Prof Angus.

“And obviously, the process of publishing has gone digital; the way we produce books has changed drastically,” he adds. “Also, there’s a lot of self-publishing happening; so even if you don’t have access to bookstores, as a self-published author, so you can publish your ebook online and attract an audience, and publishers are trying to use that kind of dynamic as well. Some publishers publish a new author in digital form, and hopefully look for an audience and they can play around with the price to attract readers. This is happening more in genre fiction and we can see a high take-up of digital in areas such as romance.”

“Besides, audiobooks are also helping to find new, younger audiences.People listen to podcasts or audiobooks, and some particular narrators do really well in audio for particular kinds of titles. And that’s quite an interesting dynamic for the industry as well,” he adds.

The opportunities and threat…

“In terms of opportunities, but also as a threat,there is Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is being talked about everywhere at the moment. This will undoubtedly facilitate translation into other languages. AI can also write books and people are already publishing books written by AI,” he shares.“AI will read stuff for you as well. I mean, it could read the newspapers for you and then come up with a selection of what you might be interested in as to content. If there a particular Bollywood actor you like, AI could read a story in their voice using AI generated speech. There are endless possibilities. So personalization could be a big opportunity.”

Prof Angus remains optimistic. “Audio is finding new markets for publishers, whether it’s podcasting or audio books, it’s drawing people to content and authors. So, I think that’s quite exciting as we do not know what’s around the corner. But print is still with us. It is interesting to note during the pandemic, digital sales rose as bookshops were closed, but when bookshops reopened, I think people have reengaged with print and wanted to have some thing that is physical. Besides, if we spend our whole working lives on a screen, it’s quite nice to retreat to something that’s a bit different,” he adds.

On bookshops…

“We were seeing over a long period in the UK the decline of bookshops and the number of independents was dropping. But new bookstores are also opening over the last few years, which is good news. In UK, Waterstones was in real financial trouble but now, they are giving more responsibility to each store, in terms of curating the selection of titles, and the kind of recommendations given in store, which is encouraging people to buy books from the store,” shares Prof Angus.

On Oxford International Center for Publishing…

“We teach publishing and journalism at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. We’ve also got a distance learning programme in book publishing,which can be taken from around the world without having to come to Oxford. We are keen to offer a training programme in India, if that is something publishers would support. In Oxford we get students from all over the place – from India and many other countries around the world. We’ve got partners in Europe and Asia as well, and are hoping to develop a partnership in India,” he shares.

On rights selling…

“Rights selling is all about networking and building relationships, and curating what you show to the client, making sure that you’re presenting the right titles. So knowing your potential customer is really important. And then if you’re buying, do research about the publisher, and make sure you know what kind of titles are going to work for your list. Just as you shape your own editorial list, it’s important to think about what’s going to work for the customer. If you’re selling or buying, what kind of things are going to fit into the relevant lists, and then building those long term relationships, will certainly pay off,” he shares.

Another important tip he shares is not to sell too hard on a one particular title, unless you’re really confident about it. “And then always, the follow up is important, making sure that you’re professional about recording what the important notes are from any meeting,” he adds.

On Indian publishing industry…

“India is a big educational market and while sales of trade publishing are quite small as a proportion of the market there are encouraging signs of growth. Post pandemic, it is good to see that people are feeling more confident and there’s some financial stability and opportunity for growth. Indian publishers are doing well and the industry is bound to grow,” concludes Prof Angus.

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