“In India hardbacks are perceived as expensive but it works for the right title”


says Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India in an exclusive interview with All About Book Publishing. India is the only country where Harry Potter 8 (Cursed Child) has outsold Harry Potter 7 (Deathly Hallows) on launch. At over 250,000 copies (and at Rs 899) this is now the largest selling hardback of all time for launch year across categories.

Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette IndiaHachette UK is more a conglomerate of many stellar publishers and legendary imprints. With John Murray being founded in the 1750s, it is also the oldest trade publisher in the world. Hachette India is part of the Hachette UK group which comprise many companies like The Hodder group, Quercus, Headline, Orion, Constable & Robinson, Chambers, Nicholas Brealey, to name a few.

AABP: How is Hachette different from other trade publishers, especially in the Indian context?

Thomas: In India we are relatively young—not yet ten years old; and our local publishing is even younger. Trade publishing has a fairly similar spread across leading publishers, and so nobody can really claim to be that different. It’s more in the emphasis one has for the list one builds within a broad commonality. When we set up, we decided we would begin with two clear publishing divisions—Adult & Business and a smaller Children’s division. Together the two divisions do about 50-60 books a year in a tight programme that has as two clear priorities — the discovery of new voices, and publishing profitability. I’m pleased that both objectives have been achieved.

Because of our strategy, as much as 80% of our local list focuses on new writers. Within our stated objective we have a broad approach; so we have bestsellers, award winners and marquee names alike in our stable with Subroto Bagchi, Anuradha Roy, Manjula Padmanabhan, Krishna Udayasankar, Ritu Dalmia, Sachin Tendulkar, Malala, Roopa Pai to name a few. We perhaps have the best food & drink range across group and local publishing alike; and also the most cutting edge offerings in the crime and thriller genre. As a clear and conscious choice, with just one or two exceptions, we do not publish in the sub Rs 200 low-priced segments. Our emphasis leans toward non-fiction but we do mirror our group strategies and have a full spread across genres from translation, literary fiction, crossover/general fiction, commercial fiction, as well as business, biography and health & fitness. We’ve been shortlisted for every major Indian prize and many overseas prizes (including the Man Booker), and have won the DSC prize, the crossword prize, the Hindu Young world prize. Not bad going for a very young publishing programme… and we’ve only just begun.

AABP: What are the USPs of the Hachette Group?

Thomas: Our biggest strength is also our biggest challenge—range. We have an incredible depth of titles that is unrivalled across publishing. Across the various companies and imprints you can see that the range is incredible, but getting that into the limited spread that characterizes Indian bookstores is a big challenge. The plus is of course that we are perfectly suited to all formats of bookselling combining bestseller as well as long tail. So whether you’re an online giant, a chain store, a regional multi-store player, children’s bookstore or literary indie, we will have something for you.

AABP: What kinds of books sell more in India? Why?

Thomas: India’s market is limiting itself and there just isn’t enough diversity in the spread of books which is worrying. While bestsellers are essential of course and are what drive revenues and capitalize markets; stability and sustainability I believe comes from a readership that also sustains a steady midlist across categories. In a market health check both boxes have to tick. Today we have fads that last just a couple of years (whether it’s vampires, or ‘sick lit’, or campus romance) and books that are fuelled by media or global trends. I’m not knocking these… they are essential; but our long term own market cannot be sustained by a handful of low priced sellers that perhaps won’t even provide a return on the square foot occupied. These sell because they are on-trend. The larger worrying trend is that the midlist has fallen off drastically, and this does not augur well. We need a diverse readership.

AABP: In a price conscious market, Hachette has demonstrated surprising success with hardbacks. In your opinion, which genres sells in hardback and why?

Thomas: We give a lot of thought to the form and package, and how to leverage the best market advantage. It’s not so much about fixed genres that work as hardbacks as the title’s positioning being a combination of premium and having buzz. A hardback is for those who value first editions, editions they want to keep or for the general market when the book is an absolute must have. In both cases it is fundamentally a value proposition. Yes in India hardbacks will be perceived as expensive, but it is a mistake not to explore that format for the right title. Yes there are certain genres that probably won’t sell in hardback at all—campus romance, mytho-histories and other similar mass market reads that have low price as their primary sales driver.

However even within that framework we’ve pioneered the short A-format hardback here which is relatively inexpensive but still feels collectible. We published The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli in this format and it’s gone on to sell over 1 lakh copies. At Rs 350 we’ve not needed to paperback it, yet. We’ve published at least ten other such titles in the A-hardback format.

AABP: Tell us something about the national records Hachette made in hardback publishing?

Thomas: We’re delighted that India is the only country where Harry Potter 8 (Cursed Child) has outsold Harry Potter 7 (Deathly Hallows which also I had the privilege of selling while I was at Penguin) on launch. At over 250,000 copies (and at Rs 899) this is now the largest selling hardback of all time for launch year across categories, and also the largest selling children’s hardback, as well as the largest selling fiction hardback. On the adult side (as well as for the non-fiction category) Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My Way (230,000 copies) and Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs hold the top two slots for launch year. Sachin of course also holds the record as the largest selling Indian hardback author of all time.

I would like to make a note that the largest selling hardback title of all time is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret which has sold 750,000 copies over ten years; but in its release year it sold less than 50,000 copies.

AABP: What next big release can the readers expect from Hachette?

Thomas: We have a whole spate of big books. John Grisham has returned to form with rave reviews in The Whistler. JK Rowling is back with the first of her new movie series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Stephenie Meyer is back with a thriller titled The Chemist. Nicholas Sparks has a new release with Two by Two. On the local publishing side we’ve just released a spectacular deluxe collectible Style of India which traces the evolution of style from Harappa down to the designers of today. Krishna Udaysankar has penned a cryptological thriller (codes, riddles, conspiracies) Immortal featuring Ashwathama in today’s world. And watch out for The Sultan of Delhi a racy read that is a sort of Jeffrey-Archer-meets-The-Godfather-meets-Wasseypur. Next year we have Sell from Subroto Bagchi, and inspirational memoirs from space hero Rakesh Sharma and world champion Viswanathan Anand. Also on cards is the children’s edition of Sachin Tendulkar’s blockbuster autobiography that will be an inspirational adaptation. Vivek Menon will follow up his Mammals book with the definitive book on national parks; Roopa Pai will be back with a book on life skills; and we have two fabulous history books—for adults and children each.

AABP: Your take on key issues confronting publishing in India…?

Thomas: Where trade publishing is concerned, I think we, the books community are not taking two things seriously enough. One the rate at which bookstores have been shutting – and I’m not saying this from an online vs brick & mortar debate. I believe there is room for both, and online discounting is but a medium term irritant. It is imperative that physical bookstores survive as essential spaces that serve a societal and cultural function as well as a business one. Second in terms of building readership – this is critical now as we lose potential readers to diversions from other media, mainly social. The books community is just not doing enough in terms of building this. It needs a 10-year view perhaps, but if we don’t start now, we’re going to find readership dwindling (never a good sign for a nation’s health) and that is bound to have an effect on what gets written and what gets published.

AABP: What is your view on taxation of books?

Thomas: As always I speak from the trade perspective, and let me clarify this is my personal view. There are a couple of others who think the same way, but yes we are in a complete minority. I personally believe the time has come for books to be taxed to both streamline accounting as well as gain serious recognition as an industry that is twice the size of Bollywood; and not a perennial cottage industry looking for a handout. We get no real govt support in IPR protection and other key issues because the govt thinks it has done its bit by granting us tax free status. The paying of taxes will also force accounting into the open (reducing if not eliminating the whole underhand ‘parchi’ business that is widely prevalent) and will actually give the industry the upfront data it needs—something we’ve not had in over a hundred years.

This is not to say books should become expensive for students who can’t afford them. I believe books should not be an umbrella category as the three strands—school, college & Higher Ed including STM; and trade are very different. So the books that need to get cheaper are core text books, and those can be exempted from tax. Much like all movies are taxable with a few being tax free, I see no reason why trade books which begin as entertainment should be tax free. Today we are competing with film, TV and social media as infotainment, and I see no reason why Harry Potter the movie should be taxed while the book should not. True there are cultural dimensions to books and today’s novel is tomorrow’s text, but then tomorrow is the point at which it should be tax free. Likewise there will be non-core textbooks that are reference reading and serve vital educational reference needs. Those can have different support systems—they can also can be subsidized via govt education depts. the way ELBS used to do, being recognized and classified as educational. For the rest, market forces will drive pricing. I do believe that books should have a lower rate of tax in the range of the lower slabs being envisaged, and that 5% or so increase is not going to cripple consumer purchasing ability.

Key publishing companies/imprints in the Hachette Group:

1. The Hodder group: Hodder & Stoughton was set up in the 1870s and best known for the yellowbacks that were the rage from the 30s to the 50s. Top selling authors: John Grisham, Stephen King, John le Carre, Jeffrey Deaver, Steve Berry, Jodi Picoult, Jasper Fforde, Erich Segal, James Clavell. Sceptre is the core literary imprint which boasts writers such as David Mitchell, Thomas Keneally. India’s largest seller is now The Art of Thinking Clearly and Hodder is also the publisher of New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt (Google Chairman) and Leading by Alex Ferguson; and Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My way.

2. John Murray (part of the Hodder Group as sales): Oldest English language trade publisher in the world (founded 1760s), the imprint that signed up Jane Austen and Lord Byron and published Darwin’s Origin of the Species. More literary. (strong ‘India’ list for the UK frontlined of course by Amitav Ghosh).

3. Quercus (part of the Hodder Group): best known for Stieg Larsson and the Millennium books.

4. The Headline group: Strong commercial publishing: Top sellers Alex Rutherford’s Moghul series, Hilary Clinton, Jack Welch, Martina Cole, James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Steve Martini, Penny Vincenzi, Jill Mansell, Victoria Hislop etc. Key imprints are Headline, and Business Plus (the only UK general publisher to have a dedicated business imprint). Also a very strong sports list. For India top brands are Lavanya Sankaran and the Empire of the Moghul series

5. The Orion group: Best known here for Malala, Robert Ludlum and Harlan Coben, but they also have a strong literary line. (They published the Vikram Seth novels, and also other Indian writers like Siddharth Shanghvi, Sarita Madanna in the UK).

Orion, Phoenix, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Cassell and Everyman classics are the key imprints. Gollancz, the world’s best known sci-fi imprint with the masterworks series (Philip K Dick etc) is also part of the Orion group.

6. The Little, Brown group: Key Imprints include Abacus (non-fiction Eric Hobsbawm etc), Virago (women’s writing/issues), Orbit (fantasy), Atom (YA fantasy), Little-Brown and Sphere. In 2007 Piatkus was acquired by Little-Brown. Top sellers include Patricia Cornwell, Alexander McCall Smith, Mitch Albom, Mark Billingham (India: Shantaram, Ed Luce, Tipping Point, Steve Jobs etc). Now the publishers of JK Rowling and the recent record setting Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.

7. Constable & Robinson: Recently acquired by Little Brown… wide range best known for the mammoth anthology series.

8. HachetteChildren’s group: Best known in India as publishers of Enid Blyton and Asterix. But in the UK they’re as well known for Horrid Henry, Rainbow Magic, Robert Muchamore (Cherub series), Tiara Club, Beast Quest, Gladiator Boy and a range of illustrated colour books for children from imprints like Wayland, Watts, Orchard and Hodder Children’s books.

9. The Octopus group: Illustrated/visual publishing with imprints like Hamlyn, Mitchell Beazley, Philips’ Atlases, Conran, Gaia, Bounty, Miller’s etc that have perennial Indian favourites like the Tell Me…series and the Godsfield Bible series (Yoga, chakra etc). A huge lifestyle section under Hamlyn boasts some of the best food & drink books in the segment

10. The Chambers Harrap Group: Chambers reference and dictionaries need no introduction to anybody in India.

11. The Hodder Education Group: The group company that deals with school and college texts. The classic surgery text ‘Bailey & Love’ is their best known text published under the Edward Arnold imprint. (The life sciences list has now been sold to Taylor & Francis.) They also have a consumer/trade division that publishes the best language reference in the ‘Teach Yourself’ imprint/series.

12. Nicholas Brealey: Just acquired

13. Black Dog & Leventhal: Just acquired

14. Hachette Book Group USA plus US agencies like Time-Life and Marvel Inc which has the world famous range of Avengers, X-Men, Spiderman, Thor and Iron man. HBG-US has also just bought the Perseus Group which they will represent from 2017.

15. Hachette companies from rest of the world: Like Australia, Ireland who have publishing programmes

16. Hachette India: their own local publishing: where they have bestsellers like Subroto Bagchi, literary award winners like Anuradha Roy (Crossword award winner, and Booker Longlisted 2015) and Nayomi Munaweera; and commercial hits like Govinda Kaurava and Kurukshetra. They have the top selling children’s titles the Children’s Yearbook & Infopedia as well as The Gita for Children. They have also managed the publication of Sachin Tendulkar and Malala in Indian languages.

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