Spreading the printed word online

Books for those hooked to reading, the smell of ink on paper is near irresistible. The printed word is a window to another world that is far more interesting than the real one.  And the role of a publisher in reaching this world of imagination to the reader is critical. Despite being in the business for years, there is no guarantee that a publisher will pick up the right manuscript every time, or that a rejected one is really not worth publishing – J.K. Rowling’s raging success was almost, a story never told.

“An early indicator of where this would lead is currently being experienced by the magazine industry – the recent iPad application of The Economist magazine is a glimpse into the future,”

Apart from the challenge of identifying and sourcing the right content, the publishing industry also has to distribute it to the right markets and ensure the success of the published work. The Internet and modern technologies have opened up a new window for publishers, providing them with an opportunity to reach out to their target readers in a more personalised and cost-effective manner. They also promise to provide alternatives to printed books – like e-books and audio books – which will change the economics of publishing and distribution. Though this new segment in publishing is in its nascent stages in India, the future of publishing seems poised for innovations of all kinds.

Content is king
The first criterion for any publishing house would inevitably be whether the book is well written and if the story is well told. But beyond that comes several other factors which are personal to the individual publisher.  Hachette India, an international publishing house that distributes its foreign titles in India, started publishing in India to tap the local potential. It hit it right with its first Indian book in 2009, Amit Varma’s My Friend Sancho. The publisher experiments with genres like crossover, murder mystery, superhero and speculative fiction, among others. Nandita Aggarwal, editorial director, Hachette, says, “We look for edgy, smart and commercial fiction that catches the voice of the young.” She is quick to add, “A challenge is the language, which is so garbled that we have to edit submissions extensively.” In India, the concept of literary agents has not picked up and publishers end up doing their selections and corrections themselves.

If Hachette’s forte is urban and edgy literature, Zubaan, an imprint of Kali for Women, the New Delhi-based publisher of books on and by women, finds its strength in being tuned in to a woman’s sensibilities.  Urvashi Butalia, co-founder, Zubaan, says, “Our books have a broad feminist focus – so, for example, we would not publish Mills and Boon romances even though they are widely read by women, nor would we do, say, an autobiography of a right wing fundamentalist woman.” The publisher tries to keep pace with changes in feminism, the women’s movement.

The search for local authors who can match the widespread appeal of their international contemporaries is an ongoing one as Gautam Padmanabhan, chief-executive officer, Westland (New Delhi), says, “We have been strong in literary content, but, we need to find quality content that has mass appeal. This is a segment that is almost completely fed by imports.”

Reaching all-India
Padmanabhan opines that the distribution challenge today, is to reach all potential customers in every corner of the country. “The number of bookstores we have are not enough, given the size of the country. Almost all of North-East India is poorly served,” he says. And the need of the hour is to come up with newer, cost-effective methods of marketing books. “The traditional belief that book prices are too low to support marketing spends needs to be questioned,” says Padmanabhan.

Agrees Aggarwal, “Smaller towns are left out. The orders from there are so small that they get missed out. Even places like Patna, Bhopal do not have good coverage.” Given the rapid growth of tier-II and tier-III cities, it is evident that the Indian publisher is looking at ways to penetrate deeper and reach out to this developing market.

One way of advancing growth in the industry is forming partnerships and tapping in to each others’ strength. For instance, HarperCollins India is a joint venture between The India Today Group and HarperCollins Publishers worldwide, one of the three leading trade publishers in the world. Each expects to capitalise on the other’s strength in distribution and publishing, respectively. Penguin India and Zubaan have a similar tie up (see box).

Growing the medium
While reading may be on the rise, publishers are now looking at a multitude of activities that can help achieve consumer recall. HarperCollins India conducts book readings and events, ATL (above-the-line) and BTL (below-the-line) activities, media interaction, reviews, advertising (online, print and television), promotional campaigns and schemes using props and merchandising at the stores to enhance visibility and sale. “Like any other product, each book needs a set of activities that are unique to it,” says Lipika Bhushan, marketing manager, HarperCollins India.

Aggarwal believes that the online medium is a cost-effective way to promote books. Blogs, social networks, emails add to the visibility of publications.

Zubaan is more conservative and uses the book review route. Smaller, more intimate events with authors, a monthly programme called Words of Women, with women writers at the Habitat Centre (New Delhi) and festivals such as the recent one for writings from the North-East are some of its promotional strategies. “We attend book fairs, and use Facebook and put up stuff on our website; basically, we do whatever we can without spending too much. And, of course, we use our catalogue,” adds Butalia.

Books on the web
The online medium is a quick and easy way to reach the vast majority of the reading population. And with the advent of the Internet has come the era of e-books. The concept of e-books has picked up in the west and is yet to see the same popularity in India. Says Aggarwal, “In the long run, people will switch to reading online. But, there will still be those who take printouts.”

Publishers need to update their skills as e-books become more interactive and contain audio-visual content. “An early indicator of where this would lead is currently being experienced by the magazine industry – the recent iPad application of The Economist magazine is a glimpse into the future,” says Padmanabhan.

Westland currently creates e-book versions of its books and aims to make these available on e-readers like Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Sony E-reader and so on, targeting the non-residential Indian audience. Westland has also tied up with Wink, an e-reader currently being marketed in India.

As Bhushan points out, the publishing industry is highly competitive and the fight for space in stores, in media pages and in the minds and hearts of customers is growing. “One will have to be innovative and think out of the box. This is a product category with the widest product line in comparison to that in any other industry and therefore more challenging.”


Two of a kind

Zubaan has two arrangements with Penguin India, setting a new trend in the industry. The first is to co-publish four titles a year. The idea is to combine their strengths: Penguin’s marketing and distribution with Zubaan’s editorial. The two share costs and profits. While Zubaan decides the books, especially by new writers, Penguin’s brand gives the books wider reach. Penguin has also begun to distribute Zubaan books: fiction and young adult titles. “This has significantly impacted our sales, we can see that good distribution is possible if one has the money and the reach,” says Butalia.

Audio books

Westland believes that India is a potential market for audio books and has tied-up with a Bengaluru based start up, Bookstalk, to launch audio book versions of many of its titles. The first audio book was Women and The Weight Loss Tamasha by Rujuta Diwekar. Perhaps, for the first time an Indian author has read her own work. Also, Kareena Kapoor has voiced her introduction, which appears in the print version