Helping India Read in Many Languages

Helping India Read in Many Languages

Publishing in India is a challenging business – poor distribution, low readership and a dearth of quality content plague this industry. Adding to that, finding good writers, especially, in the regional language space, is difficult. “The whole area is poorly organised. However, all these challenges also offer great opportunities, if we can sustain ourselves long enough,” says Badri Seshadri, founder of Chennai-based New Horizons Media (NHM) – a regional language publisher.

According to Seshadri, in Tamil – which is its main market now – not a single large, innovative, ‘great name’ publisher exists. “They have all been a family-owned small time operation. Sure, they have served the community well. But, they have all remained there and have hardly gone on to become a great publishing company like there are across the world,” he says. That is the target NHM has set for itself – of building a top-notch publishing company on par with its global counterparts. “The opportunity is tremendous. Making it happen is the challenge,” adds Seshadri.

“The opportunity in regional language publishing is tremendous. Making it happen is the challenge”

The genesis

NHM was founded in 2004 by Seshadri along with K. Satyanarayan and R. Ananthkumar. Before founding the venture, Seshadri and Satyanarayan co-founded cricketing portal Cricinfo and when it got acquired by Wisden in 2003, the two started looking at new ventures they could get involved in. “We examined several possibilities and zeroed in on regional language publishing,” explains Seshadri.

Among the key factors that pushed the duo in this direction was the widening gap between English and Indian languages in terms of available content, which would seriously impact the large percentage of population that cannot read and understand English. Secondly, this gap would hinder India’s growth as a developed nation. “Knowledge is not like mobile phones, where you simply install towers all around and sell low cost handsets and immediately the nation is connected. Here, you have to inculcate the reading habits and make good quality and easily readable content available to the population,” Seshadri points out.

Learning from the past

The stint with Cricinfo taught the co-founders an important lesson about managing money while at business. When Wisdon made an offer to buy them out, they had little choice as they had to clear debt. “If we had managed our finances a lot better right through 2000 and 2001, things might have been very different,” reminisces Seshadri. But, the experience has helped understand the nitty-gritties of handling a business successfully.

From Cricinfo to NHM, the segments Seshadri has opted to work in seem unrelated. But, he believes that though they are different businesses, the key factor is that he is personally a consumer of the products in both the businesses. “This helps me in constantly tweaking the product to make it suit the needs of the prospective customers,” he adds. Preferring a hands-on approach at NHM, he has tried his hand at everything, from managing corporate relationships to writing books, editing books, sales and marketing of books and has even spent days at book fairs to get a better understanding of what the customer looks for.

Focus ahead

Considering the dearth of good authors, NHM focuses more on the titles than authors. And in just four years, the company has published over 1,100 titles across three languages and is currently putting out 30 new titles every month, both non-fiction and fiction. NHM, which publishes books and audio books in Tamil, English and Malayalam, is the leading Tamil publisher in terms of the number of new titles published and also sales, both by volume and value.

There are not many branded authors currently and marketing space that comes free is a big problem, with even reviewing space not easily available. NHM has not opted for advertising in leading newspapers and magazines since they are not commercially viable. “Only some English publishers have been successful in generating national publicity through controversies!” says Seshadri.

Therefore, the company’s strategy is to ensure that books of interest are created first; followed by garnering the widest display possible, going beyond bookshops. “We have our books available at nearly 2,500 outlets across Tamil Nadu, a lot of them are corner stores, restaurants, textile shops etc.,” explains Seshadri. The third strategy is to go widely to schools and reach out to the students. NHM is also targeting Sri Lanka which is a major market for Tamil books.

Subsequently, NHM intends to expand to other regional languages. It already experimented with Malayalam, but, that experience was less than satisfactory. “We need to do some more things in Tamil first, to turn it into a cash generating machine. At that point, it will be easy for us to make forays into other Indian languages,” admits Seshadri.

To help with its future plans, NHM got venture capital funding from Mumbai-based Emergic Venture Capital and Mauritius-based Beacon India Private Equity Fund. The investments have been used as working capital and to fuel growth.

E-books, the future?

“We have great hopes on e-books. At this time, the e-book market is zero. But, we expect this market to explode in two years’ time,” says Seshadri. He expects Android powered tablet personal computers priced lower than Rs 5,000 to flood the Indian market that will in turn popularise e-books.

“With my background, I have a very good understanding of the Internet phenomenon and how one can build a brand online. I hope to put that to good use when the e-books take off,” he adds. And Seshadri expects e-book readers to be first-timers, those “who have never bought a printed book in their lives.” That will require the creation of a new set of books, perhaps multi-media books. “We may do e-only books to cater to this market,” says Seshadri.

NHM has registered a rate of growth of 30-40 per cent over the previous year. With a clear vision for the future, NHM continues to strengthen the base in the present through content creation, better distribution and expansion of markets.