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Literary Review

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Shifting gears


India is too diverse a country to be treated as a monolithic entity. The reason why Penguin India has gone for Indian Language publishing, says John Makinson, CEO of Penguin Worldwide.

JOHN MAKINSON: A combination of great ideas and recognition of market needs.

When Penguin India decided to announce its presence in the regional publishing area, there were quite a few raised eyebrows, with many wondering whether they had bitten off more than they could chew. But behind this move is a logical marketing strategy that aims to keep Penguin as a leader in publishing as well as create new opportunities for further growth. Despite the criticism, John Makinson, Chairman and CEO Penguin Group Worldwide, who was recently here to launch the regional titles, feels that this move can only augur well for the company. Excerpts from an e-mail interview.

Over the last decade Penguin has grown into a monolith in the publishing world. Has this expansion been a result of natural market forces or careful strategic planning?

There is a great deal of strategic thinking that goes into everything we do. Recognising market forces is an integral part of strategy. Great ideas, we like to believe, have always been our hallmark, shaping both our publishing and marketing decisions. Allen Lane's founding of Penguin and the paperback revolution illustrates this, as does the founding of Penguin India. Penguin India wasn't built in a day. Its incorporation was a truly visionary move; much scoffed at, at the time. It was felt that there was neither a good writing base to source authors from nor a mature enough market to sustain a trade publishing house. Both were proved wrong. From the seven books we launched with in 1987, today we have a full publishing programme of 200 books a year across virtually every segment of consumer book publishing; and the bestseller bar has been raised from the 2,000 limit to the 10,000 plus in conventional trade channels with blockbusters now crossing 1,00,000. And with non-conventional channels like direct sales, we've created more records with our biggest seller topping the 5,00,000 copy mark.

Worldwide, there has been a recession in the publishing industry with smaller publishers being merged with larger concerns. Has Penguin worldwide also followed this path?

Acquisitions have been a part of our strategy where we feel that certain lists can either supplement or fill the gaps in ours. DK is a case in point. We've never had a visual reference list and DK filled this void. But it wouldn't be true to generalise that smaller publishers are doing badly and hence are being merged with bigger ones. A lot of small publishers have done excellently. There is also no worldwide recession; some segments like the mass market in the U.S. have seen a downturn. And, whichever way you look at it, whether from the point of view of exciting writing, new genres or just sales, publishing was never more exciting.

In India, so far, Penguin has been synonymous with good English fiction. What has prompted you to tap local resources and decide to go into regional publishing? Is this a strategy that you plan to follow in other regions or just in India?

There were three main reasons we decided to get into Indian language publishing. The first is that we had a mature company with a solid base and a proven track record in publishing and selling. Second, we believe that a country like India can't be looked at as a monolithic entity; it is too multicultural and diverse for that. Many Indian languages have a massive readership. Third, there's been a sea change in consumer behaviour with small towns gaining prominence as key markets. It thus made perfect sense to take this initiative. On a global scene, it doesn't make as much sense, for instance, to publish in German or French. But it does make sense to cater to the large Latino market in the U.S. and that's something we're looking at.

Penguin has also recently tied up with Zubaan to distribute their women's list as well as other publications. What do you stand to gain by this move?

The Zubaan-Penguin India tie-up (though limited to four books a year) is an extremely innovative and imaginative move that perhaps may not have been possible in the West. Zubaan, led by Urvashi Butalia (who is a legendary feminist and women's issues publisher), is a small niche publisher that is now developing a general books list but with the same focus. Penguin India and Zubaan thus have collaborative strengths that come together in a completely constructive way, which can only help build each book. Penguin gets to develop a women's list (so important for India today) and Zubaan's authors get much more exposure and sales through the editorial, design, marketing and distribution strengths of Penguin.

Recently, there has been some criticism that Penguin now no longer worries so much about quality but is more focused on quantity. Could you comment on that?

Where Penguin India is concerned, this has been a response — perhaps an instinctive rather than reasoned response — when one hears that lists have grown from 80 books a year five years ago to the current 200 a year. However, closer analysis will show that this is not true. The fact is our lists have grown but so have the segments we publish in. These are completely different from what existed five years ago. A few years ago we launched our children's segment. So that comes in at about 35-40 books. Business is a new thrust area and takes up the same number of slots. Reference is another key area in which we're growing, as is cinema and film studies. So if you look at it by segment, our quantity increases in publishing terms are thus a reflection of our commitment to various growing segments and different kinds of readers. Our editorial quality we believe is the best in the country and each book gets individual attention. Where quality is concerned, we've in fact gone the extra mile investing in design and production values that ensure Indian books can stand alongside international books in any store around the world.

How do you think the publishing industry differs today from what it was say, 20 years ago?

It has come of age in the West and is fast coming of age in emerging markets like India and China. You'll see a far more professional approach where bookselling is concerned. There weren't that many chains 20 years ago and very few authors were brands commanding consumer attention. Having said that, publishing is still (or so we publishers like to believe) just that much different, combining as it does the excitement of consumer marketing while being inherently an intellectual pursuit.

And lastly, given the tremendous publicity that precedes the release of a book, would you agree that today even publishing is media savvy and looks at authors as `marketable commodities' who must at least appear to look good and be `presentable'? Critics feel that now there is lesser and lesser substance to the written word and there are more `one book wonders' being printed in quick succession...

Not true if you mean this as a guiding principle that shapes our publishing. Publishers are definitely more marketing savvy as indeed are authors. Both realise the importance of media and promotions. It is our constant endeavour to build more and more brands. But all of this follows from that basic principle which we believe in: that we have a good book to begin with.

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