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Updated: July 1, 2013 11:36 IST

The blip in the publishing boom

Prashant Jha
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A DIFFERENT BALLGAME: Selling books.
A DIFFERENT BALLGAME: Selling books.

The fundamentals are strong, and the English book industry will continue to grow. But insiders point to a major churning

‘Grim’, ‘lull’, ‘slump’, ‘dark mood’ and ‘negative energy’.

While no one is calling it a ‘crisis’, these are some of the words being used to describe the current state of play in English books-publishing in the country. It may come as a surprise, given the well-documented story of the growth in Indian publishing industry. Only a few months ago, the author, Amish Tripathi, bagged the biggest books-contract in India so far.

But a churning is underway, driven by top level mergers and de-mergers among publishers and a phase of ‘consolidation’; the economics and editorial challenges of mid-list fiction and non-fiction; the closure and reorientation of book stores by big retail chains; and changes in the nature of book-shopping because of the advent of online platforms like Flipkart and now, Amazon, in India.

Many industry insiders The Hindu spoke to wished to remain anonymous.

Is there a slump?

There appear to be two inter-related sets of factors – of distribution and publication –at play.

An editor, who also keeps a close track of sales, in a well-known publishing house says, “Two problems are clear. Big book-stores in multi-retail outlets are either shutting down or reorienting themselves to reduce presence of books. In cities like Mumbai and Chennai, our bread-and-butter comes from such malls where footfall is higher.”

Last week, Reliance Retail decided to shut down its standalone books-music-movies outlets, Time-Out. Crosswords has added toys, stationery and increased its focus on bestsellers and kids’ books. In a piece for the New York Times India Ink blog recently, journalist Jairaj Singh has written of how ‘skyrocketing rents of commercial spaces’ are posing a challenge to the survival of independent book-shops.

The other problem, a books editor adds, is the online world. “E-books are not yet an issue since they constitute a miniscule proportion of the market. But online stores have changed the nature of book-shopping.” Earlier, readers went to book-shops, browsed around, and discovered new titles they may not have known of. Now, they pick the one book- in most cases, the best-seller – directly. This, in turn, has generated pressure on publishers to look for that ‘one best-seller’, at the cost of not being able to pay adequate attention to their mid-list books. Consumers also have become accustomed to growing discounts, which generates greater pressure.

The other big issue is the churning within the publishers.

In the ‘boom’ euphoria a few years ago, many offered huge advances to authors. An editor says, “Let me give you an example. If you give a Rs 10 lakh advance, there is immediate pressure to sell 15,000 copies, which is still a very ambitious target in a market where 5,000 is respectable. Instead, if a publisher had set a more realistic target – of 8,000 copies and Rs 4 lakh as advance – there was a greater chance of making money. The limits of the market need to be recognised.”

A leading literary agent points out that two years ago, a spate of top-level editorial changes had led to a new energy, and a ‘sense of competition’. “The ambitions, the purpose, the drive has dissipated a bit now.”

Publishing is an uneasy world where there is a constant tension between editors and sales and marketing team. The balance, according to some sources, has shifted towards the business arm in recent years which report directly to the CEO and headquarters, in the case of foreign publishers, and not the editor.

Mergers and demergers in some big houses have taken the ‘energy out of publishing to corporate affairs’. “Everyone says they are in a phase of consolidation, which means they had expanded beyond their capacity in the first place. All of this has dampened creativity and the mood. And this industry is largely driven by the mood created by the editors,” says one former head of a publishing company. This is not a time of ‘peak creativity’, sales projections are down, and the investment a publisher is making in a book is subsequently down.

An agent says, “This summer has been particularly bad with no big books, and book deals which took six weeks to process are now taking as long as six months.” A big book-seller adds that books, which are a ‘luxury product’, cannot be divorced from the larger economy. “You are earning less or at least not getting the same salary hikes, spending less, and buying less books, which affects my earnings, the publisher’s earnings, and the author’s advances. This is all inter-linked.”

But despite the temporary slump, if it can be called that, things look more positive when viewed from the prism of a longer time-frame. The growth in the private publishing industry is an undeniable fact, even though there is no empirical study to ascertain its exact worth, scale and fortunes.

Established publishing houses are producing a greater number of books. Newer publishers are emerging and small independent houses, specialising in specific themes, have helped create entire genres. Authors – across categories – are in a better position to see their work in print than they did even five years ago. And while writing may not yet be a full-time career option to sustain oneself, many are now getting respectable royalties.

Arguing that India is one of the few markets which is not saturated and still has a very low per capita book consumption, Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan Books, told Forbes India in a recent interview, “As education grows, as literacy grows, as urbanisation spreads, as incomes increase, the media spreads, the growth in books will also accompany these, although the form of book may well change.”

Anuj Bahri of Bahri & Sons booksellers projects an optimistic view. “The reading public has grown by at least 30 per cent in the last five years. Those who read are still going to libraries; none of the independent book-shops are really shutting down. There is no need to whine as a churning happens in all sectors. The essence is to see selling books as different from selling kabadi or a regular essential product.”

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