A life of illustrations

As reading is steadily on the rise again, there are several Indian publishers looking to make the most of this resurgence. One name that stands out in the Indian publishing industry, simply for the quality of its illustrated books, is Roli Books (Roli). Even as the company expanded its imprints to include fiction and non-fiction writing, its focus on the quality of content has been unwavering. In addition, it boosted its sales efforts for each category and this was a marketing strategy that paid off. “We strongly believe in having limited titles, but selling more copies of each,” explains Pramod Kapoor, who founded Roli in 1978.

The early years

In 1978, Pramod Kapoor thought of starting a publishing business because that was his calling. Besides himself, he ventured into the business with a part time employee – as he calls it 1.5 employees – and focused on publishing textbooks in colour. All textbooks were in black and white those days and his books were a novelty and hence, instantly appreciated. He personally contacted publishers like Oxford, who agreed to outsource the printing work to Roli and promote it in their brand name.

Although textbooks brought in much needed revenue for Roli, Kapoor had his heart and mind set on illustrated books. This was a time when illustrated books of quality were imported and sold at exorbitant prices while locally published books were poorly executed. And this gave Roli an opportunity to establish itself in this category.

In 1980, Kapoor decided to source local content to sell in the foreign markets. It was an image-boosting experience as copies would be sold-out even at the pre-booking stage. As this process generated excess cash flow, Roli ventured into colour newspapers. A designer from London was commissioned to create the layout and a vibrant newspaper was published and circulated from 1985-89. But the advent of colour supplements from established newspapers affected advertising and Kapoor closed this division down and sold it to the Dalmia Group.

“We strongly believe in having limited titles, but selling more copies of each.”

During this time, publishing had taken a backseat. No new titles had been published by Roli in the interim period and only a few titles had been reprinted. It took another two years to re-establish the publishing business.

Times post liberalisation

In 1992, liberalisation opened up newer avenues for publishers and Roli was quick to capitalise on these. Kapoor introduced a new imprint, Lotus, for non-illustrated books for the local market. This was primarily in the non-fiction category. “We brought out co-editions with foreign publishers in 1993. We would do mock-ups and show them to French and German publishers to create an interest. We brought out co-editions in 18 foreign languages,” Kapoor recollects. The company was in this business for 16 to17 years, till 2008, when the recessionary phase forced it to reconsider its options. Though this division had to be sold, it allowed Roli to reinvent itself.

Snap Shot

Roli Books
Founder: Pramod Kapoor
Year: 1978
City: New Delhi
USP: Specialises in producing books of quality in the art and illustrated books segment Revenue target: 25 percent growth year-on-year

Meanwhile, in 2004, the company also acquired IndiaInk, which published fiction. In 2010, Roli entered the retail business with its CMYK stores to sell books. Last year, it opened a bookstore called Half-Price in a mall in New Delhi, where books are sold at half the list-price. The retail division is expected to be one of Roli’s key revenue generating businesses.

One of the focus areas in the future will be children’s books. For a time in between, it took a backseat to other segments but the company will soon re-launch its children’s range.

Feeling the pulse

Kapoor stresses that though the publishing industry is expanding and more players are entering the business, Roli’s greatest strength is its understanding of the ground realities and reader preferences. “We have our own distribution centres, which give us real-time market feedback. We do not rely on others to know what the market wants,” he explains. Every Indian metropolitan city has a centre, which caters to the entire state and the neighbouring states. The retail outlets are an extension of this market reach and will provide greater insights into buying patterns. Roli’s website is also being revamped to enable customers to place direct orders online.

As quality of content has been a standout feature for Roli, it has never let up in this regard. Kapoor believes that the quality is improving and the selection process is much more difficult. Even then, he says, “We reject more manuscripts than we accept.” His logic – it is better to publish only 40 titles and sell 10,000 copies of each than have 200 titles and sell 2,000 copies. “We personally take care of each of our titles. It is difficult to predict what will work and what will not, but we do our best for each of them,” he adds. There has been criticism about the corruption of language, but Kapoor states that a reader’s connect to a book is most important, even more so than language.

Although Kapoor is aware of the threat to printed editions from the digital medium, he does not expect the market to change dramatically over the next 15 to 20 years. “People will still want to possess some books as printed copies even if they read it online,” he clarifies.

In the future

Roli’s sales dipped in 2008-09 due to general recession, but this year, Roli will be closing with a 32 – 33 per cent growth over last year. However, Kapoor accepts that this growth will be difficult to sustain and views the company’s annual growth target to be closer to 20 – 25 per cent. As for the expansion of retail outlets, Kapoor says Roli will add about three to four outlets per year. In a bid to strengthen its art and illustrated books segment, the company will engage in strategic tie-ups with leading international players like Trident Press.

From a management viewpoint, the next in line are also readying themselves to further the brand. Kapoor’s children – Priya and Kapil – post pursuing their studies abroad, have worked with leading publishers internationally before joining Roli. “No doubt they will have plans to realign the business as per the current trends,” says the senior Kapoor. It is only a matter of time.

Shifting sands

Sector brief

The publishing industry’s fortunes are as easy to predict as the direction of a dust storm in a desert. The industry grapples with vagaries including an unpredictable market response as with differing education levels and the diverse culture, making readership sensibilities difficult to anticipate. In addition, reach in Tier-II and Tier-III cities remains poor. The current number of bookstores across the country is grossly inadequate and advertising has proven to be ineffective in drawing more numbers to stores.

Expanding the range of titles, partnerships in distribution, online promotions and intimate events with a focused audience – these are some of the methods used by book publishers to reach out to their readers. 

In this context, Roli’s approach of having its own stores and distribution centres gives it a clear advantage in not only reaching out to its target audience but also knowing what works, in terms of content. Limiting the number of titles but enhancing sales efforts is another move that seems to have helped Roli keep its feet on the ground while running for a photo finish in this already tough industry.

Meera Srikant has been working with publishers and publications since 1993, writing and editing articles, features and stories across topics. She also blogs and writes poems, novels and short stories during leisure. Writing for The Smart CEO since 2010, she is also a classical dancer.

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