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India: Profiting by managing a propensity for chaos

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Innovative management techniques and entrepreneurial business models are essential if you want to thrive in Indian publishing. Industry leaders and participants of Globalocal – the first conference to bring together foreign and Indian publishers – as well as the Publishing Management Training Course (24 – 28 June, Ahmedabad) give their insights into the biggest challenges and how they can be overcome.

By Arun Wolf


Arun Wolf works as a documentary filmmaker in India (lonewolf media) and is also an editor at Tara Books, an innovative independent publishing house. His background lies in journalism and he has a keen interest in the intersections between culture and politics.

The Indian publishing industry is gigantic, and takes on different forms depending on where one is in touch with it – just like in the story of the blind men and the elephant…

India is both exciting and confounding. It’s a country of glorious opportunity and crippling inefficiency, of rapid economic growth and terrible inequality. A place where contradictions sit, sometimes frustratingly and often happily, side by side. Any publisher who has worked in India over a period of time knows that this holds as true for publishing as it does for other industries and aspects of life. Universal solutions that have emerged from elsewhere can hardly ever be successfully applied here. Unique context-driven management approaches and innovative business models are essential in order to succeed in India . In this ancient, enormous, and diverse country, the only real constant today is the swiftness of change.

It would be nearly impossible, or at least severely daunting, to attempt to quantify book publishing, a large and disorganised sector that is composed mostly of privately owned family-run enterprises. But the FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce) has tried, and their estimates peg the annual turnover of the Indian publishing industry in 2012 at 1,000 billion Indian rupees and the growth rate at 30 per cent. This makes India the third largest English-language publisher in the world and seventh largest worldwide, when all languages are counted.

India’s publishing boom

One thing is clear – Indian publishing is on the ascendancy. It’s an industry that is evolving at blinding speeds, as a result of a growing population of young people who are increasingly educated and literate, as well as the rising income of an affluent urban market. “In India a lot of the sequential evolutions that have happened in America over the last 60 to 70 years have been telescoped into the last 10 or 12 years. Today, all media, including book publishing, are developing in parallel. Book publishing has expanded dramatically, both in the English language and in the regional languages,” said Raghav Bahl, founder of TV18, one of the largest Indian broadcasting companies, in a recent interview with Publishing Perspectives.

So it’s a market of huge opportunity, but it’s also complex and in no way homogenous. Of the 90,000 or so titles that are brought out every year by approximately 19,000 publishers in India, only 50 per cent are in Hindi and English. The remaining half are distributed across about 120 major languages (22 of which are officially recognised). This means that several markets actually coexist, structured and differentiated not only by genre but also by language. Trade publishing is estimated by the FICCI to account for 20 per cent of the industry. The largest sector is by far education, which is dominated by state-owned publishers, although the abundant number of titles that private publishers put out makes them important players in the sector as well. But the lack of access to books and knowledge among a large underprivileged section of society in urban and rural India remains a key issue,

In short, it is an unsaturated market with immense possibility. But it is also riddled with its own peculiar challenges. A lack of professionalism (and availability of properly trained talent), inadequate or undeveloped distribution channels, patchy infrastructure and logistical gaps (the sheer size of the country is a problem), as well as rampant piracy (especially in educational publishing), are some of the difficulties that publishers in India are routinely forced to confront. No matter whether you are a large multinational or a small independent publisher, local know-how is crucial. Indian conditions and consumers are quite unlike those in other parts of the world. They aren’t even the same across India.

Dr H. Anil Kumar is an expert in business information needs, bibliometrics, knowledge management, and emerging technologies and trends. He works as head of the National Information Centre on Management (NICMAN) at the Indian Institute of Management (IIMA) in Ahmedabad, and is the president of Management Libraries Network. Dr Kumar is also one of the initiators of the upcoming management training course “Managing for the future”, aimed at CEOs and publishing professionals from India and abroad organised by the Frankfurt Academy / the German Book Office New Delhi and IIMA

As Dr Anil Kumar – a knowledge management and business information needs expert from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) – says, “The specific needs of the Indian market arise mainly from the diversity of languages, the digital divide, the huge potential due to the youthful demographic profile of India, and the acute need to scale up access to education for the eligible population.” There is need for a new kind of management in publishing – one that is not only open to change, but embraces it. Accordingly, Dr Kumar identifies four key management needs in Indian publishing:

  • 1. professional management practices for this largely family-run industry
  • 2. improved understanding of technology and its role in the development, organisation, and dissemination of content
  • 3. promotion of technology to the forefront of product marketing
  • 4. engagement with the education sector in innovative ways.

How have some critically acclaimed and commercially successful Indian publishers put these principles into practice? What are some of the management approaches and business models that have facilitated innovation and nourished an entrepreneurial spirit? How have they come to grips with the vagaries of the market and the challenging work environments? Read on for examples of how some Indian publishers have negotiated obstacles to realise their goals.

Distribution: Strategic mergers

Sensing the possibilities afforded by the market, all the major multinational publishing houses have already established operations in India, with varying degrees of success. They have looked to make their mark in a market with a growing number of retail chains and a proliferation of e-commerce start-ups. The last few years have also seen an explosion in literary festivals, none better known than the Jaipur Literature Festival, which sees the big names in international publishing rub shoulders with their Indian counterparts. This has meant less room to manoeuvre for Indian publishers in a highly competitive English-language market, but has had little influence on a vibrant and multifaceted Indian-language publishing scene or on educational publishing. The bulk of the annual sales for regional-language publishers comes from less glamorous local consumer fairs. Gita Wolf, director of Tara Books, a highly regarded children’s and art publisher, says “Distribution in the Tamil-language market is largely through informal means. Retail space is limited, and there are many individual booksellers who travel to display their wares at political meetings, cultural events, academic conferences, and increasingly through regional book fairs. The state is also a major buyer through the library system.” Gita Wolf started Tara Books in 1994, an independent publishing house. Over the past 18 years, she has been joined by other writers and creative professionals who were drawn by her vision of bringing a variety of marginalised voices and perspectives to the reader, while continually playing with the form of the book. She has written over 20 award-winning books for children and adults.

Tara Books specialises in handcrafted books and also publishes in regional languages like Tamil. Art prints, like this one from the book Waterlife, are a recent addition to their catalogue.

The merger of Penguin and Random House, which will bring together an unprecedented 250 imprints in the world’s biggest publishing house, represents an unparalleled trend towards concentration and internationalisation. It’s a strategic response by their holding companies, Britain’s Pearson and Germany’s Bertelsmann, to gain negotiating leverage with their largest sales platforms – Amazon, Apple and Google. The real financial clout lies in distribution and retail – both in the physical and digital realms. Penguin Random House, which will be responsible for publishing around one in every four books, is an attempt to address the challenges posed by the new booksellers.

But even outside of global big-player mergers, similar trends towards convergence and symbiotic partnerships have surfaced in India. Industry consolidation and the increasing importance of e-books have forced Indian publishers to rethink their business models, and mergers have been one of the key responses.

Converging expertise

David Davidar is an Indian novelist and publisher. He was the founding editor/publisher of Penguin India, where he edited or published a distinguished line-up of authors. In 2011 he co-founded Aleph Book Company, a literary publishing firm, based in New Delhi, in partnership with Rupa Publications India.

“At the moment digital downloads only form a small percentage of sales. Of course, this will grow as more and more people acquire tablets and begin to get used to reading on a variety of screens. We already use social media extensively to market our books and will continue to devise innovative online marketing strategies,” says David Davidar, founder of Penguin India and former CEO of Penguin International. The “we” he refers to is the Aleph Book Company. Born out of a coming together of Davidar and his team with Rupa and Co, it is one of the best examples of enhanced distribution and marketing capabilities joining forces with editorial acumen. Rupa is one of Indian publishing’s oldest names and its traditional edge has been low-priced mass-market books. This is epitomised by the success of Chetan Bhagat’s recent non-fiction book What Young India Wants, which was priced at under 100 rupees and sold half a million copies on the first day.

“I chose Rupa as my business partner because they know the Indian book market like nobody else does and own the most extensive book distribution set-up in the country,” says David Davidar. “We are also a good fit because, while they are market leaders in commercial fiction, Aleph Book Company focuses exclusively on literary fiction and quality non-fiction.” Aleph aims to publish about 40 books a year. “The right size to focus time and attention on each one.” Large Indian companies like Rupa hold exclusive distribution rights to international titles, and most multinationals survive on the strength of the Indian editions of globally famous titles. “India is the only significant English-language market in the world demonstrating substantial growth. In addition, I believe there are vast subject areas, especially where quality non-fiction is concerned, in which there aren’t enough good books, so there are plenty of opportunities for book publishers,” David Davidar explains.

Rise of independents

Even in an extremely competitive English-language market, there has actually been an increase in the number of successful independent publishers. By and large, smaller independent publishers have been better at identifying subject areas, themes, and constituencies. Perhaps because foreign publishers see Indian publishing more as a market of consumers than producers, much of the cutting-edge content has come from independents. Some of these smaller houses are well established in the domestic market and are increasingly looking to make their presence felt globally, either through distribution arrangements or foreign rights sales.
The biggest challenge that stares small and innovative publishers in the face is distribution. Affordability and pricing are a problem, particularly for the working classes or in rural areas, but even stocking the big retail chains in the Indian mega-cities is often a nightmare. Children’s book publishing, in particular, has for long suffered from a lack of visibility. “Even while fiction and non-fiction titles are given pride of place in Indian bookstores, it’s a different story when it comes to children’s books,” Sayoni Basu, director of the newly launched Duckbill Books, writes in the company blog. “I visited four retail outlets today. Two were chain shops, two were independent bookshops. But in all of them the situation was the same. In one tiny corner, either at the far rear of the shop or somewhere else equally inconspicuous, is a tiny shelf or two, labelled Indian children’s books. Often nearby is a gleaming wall of shiny international children’s books.

Seeking distributive clout

Sayoni Basu currently runs Duckbill, a publishing house for children and young adults. She has worked for way too many years in publishing. She has also been a tea lady, librarian, college teacher, and security guard.

Duckbill was started by Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu, in partnership with Westland, which is owned by the Tata Group. Westland includes EastWest Books and Tranquebar Press and possesses one of the best distribution networks. Moving into a new market with Duckbill, by partnering with two of the best-known names in children’s publishing, was an enticing proposition for them. It is another example of a coming together of commercial reach with creative content. Sayoni Basu sums up the advantages of the partnership succinctly: “We checked out bookshops when we were looking for a partner, and we noticed Westland seemed to be rather well represented. So we figured they were good partners because they seemed to be getting books into shops.”

For publishers looking to be creative and different with their children’s list, another major deterrent is the Indian market’s emphasis on narratives with explicit morals and academic content. “A lot of parents want books with only educational value. Some schools are extremely censorial about content. But we are ostrich-like in ignoring these things. We believe that good stories will eventually win readers,” says Sayoni Basu.

You can read more on the Indian publishing market in our Frankfurt Academy Special Edition “Markets and Trends”. Order now for free here.

Meet Dr Anil Kumar and international publishers at the Publishing Management Training Course in Ahmedabad, India, 24-28 June 2013.

Or contact him at anilkumar@iimahd.ernet.in

Find out more about

The Publishing Management Training Course “Managing for the Future”

The one-week Management Development Programme held at IIM Ahmedabad’s campus is specially designed for CEOs and senior managers within the publishing sector and affiliated industries (keeping in mind their busy schedule). The publishing course also caters to international publishing professionals who want to develop a better understanding of the Indian publishing industry. The course was initiated by the Frankfurt Academy together with its German Book Office New Delhi. Designed and taught by the IIM Ahmedabad faculty and global industry experts, the publishing course looks to combine classroom learning with real-world experience while all along focusing on the publishing industry through specially prepared case studies on the publishing industry.

When: 24  – 28 June 2013

Where: Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) India


Shabnam Srivastava, Manager: Sales and Marketing
German Book Office (GBO) New Delhi
Email: srivastava@newdelhi.gbo.org

Globalocal 2013, which took place just after the Jaipur Literature Festival (28–29 January), is an annual forum for content, where international and Indian participants from publishing and ancillary industries come together to explore possibilities. “This year, it was all about moving on from contemplation to action, from discussing trends to forecasting them. We were focusing on increasing interactions between the regional companies/professionals and their international counterparts,” says organiser Prashati Rastogi, the new director of the German Book Office (GBO) New Delhi. The statements in this article stem mainly from participants of Globalocal.