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Boom time: A time of phenomenal growth for English and regional language publishing.
Boom time: A time of phenomenal growth for English and regional language publishing.

URVASHI BUTALIA

Publishing in India, whether it is in English, the regional languages or translations, is on a growth curve like never before. The multinationals are here in force but the independent publishers are thriving too. A look at the prospects ahead…

In many other countries, multinational publishing has meant the death of indigenous publishers. Not so here.

Indian book publishing makes news these days. There isn’t a literary festival across the world that doesn’t feature Indian writers, and there probably isn’t a five star hotel in Indian metros that hasn’t seen a book launch or two (or even three!) India is a strong presence at many international book fairs such as Tokyo, Beijing, South Africa (where, two years ago it formed the largest international presence), Gothenberg, Abu Dhabi, Frankfurt (where it has been the Guest of Honour twice in 20 years) and now, coming up in April 2009, the London Book Fair where it will be the focus country.

None of this is surprising. India’s achievements in publishing are formidable by any standards. As a country it is unique in the world of publishing for being the only one to publish in as many as 22 languages. It’s widely recognised in the world as a leader in English language publishing — a legacy of its colonial past that India has turned to its advantage — and is the third largest English language publisher in the world (after the U.S. and the U.K).

All-round growth

English isn’t the only marker of success. Publishing in the Indian languages is well set to grow. Languages such as Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali, Hindi, Marathi already have much larger markets than English — at the annual Chennai book fair there are over 400 publishers who participate regularly, and many others fill the columns of the waiting list. The story is the same in Bengal, and in many other parts of the country. Indeed, if the National Readership Survey is to be believed, the growing market for newspapers and magazines in India is not in English but in the Indian languages. There is no reason why this should not be the same for books — signs of this are already evident in the growing number of translations between Indian languages.

The “opening up” of the economy has had its impact on publishing too — whereas earlier foreign companies were bound by a 49 per cent shareholding cap, today there’s no such thing. The coming in of the “big guns” has also meant other changes: salaries have increased, the publisher’s “advance” — a payment made in lieu of yet-to-be-earned royalties — has made its appearance, as have literary agents. As a result, smaller, indigenous publishers have had to struggle to keep hold of their staff and their writers.

None of this is surprising. As with any other business, the world of publishing too is skewed in favour of the large publisher, and within that, the more powerful publishers of the West.

What’s different though is what’s happening at the smaller level in India. In many other countries, multinational publishing has meant the death of indigenous publishers. Not so here. A look at the last two decades — also the period in which joint ventures were set up — reveals the growth of a vibrant, exciting, new sector of Indian publishing, the independent publisher. One doesn’t even have to search for names, they’re everywhere: Blaft, Phantomville, Yoda, Navayana, Kalachuvadu, New Horizon, Tara, Leftword, Tulika, Daanish, Rainbow, Social Science Press, The Little Magazine, Tara Research Press, Full Circle, Mosaic, Mapin, Seagull, Women Unlimited, Stree, Vani, Yatra, Rajkamal, Zubaan… and the list goes on. And they’re in different languages, and different cities.

More, the independents have experimented in ways that are completely new and innovative — for example, teaming up with larger publishers to do books under a joint imprint, drawing on the collective strengths of both. Rather than put their somewhat unequal muscle and economic power against the biggies, the independents have chosen to find ways of working with them, and with each other, that allow both to preserve their identities and to gain an edge. So Ravi Dayal has partnered with Penguin, as has Zubaan, Mapin has partnered with HarperCollins, Yatra and Penguin publish jointly in Hindi, and Seagull Books now helps to take books published by smaller publishers to a wider audience abroad.

And then there are the women — not only are publishing houses full of women editors, but in many places the feminisation of publishing has meant that women are in decision making positions, often heading their houses and leading them to their assured place in the sun.

Off-shoots

A lesser known fact about India and Indian publishing is the exponential increase in the provision of print services from India. Thousands of people are employed in large organisations, especially in Chennai and Delhi, in typesetting, processing, editing and providing all manner of print services.

While these are exciting developments, there’s still a long way to go. Estimates about the number of books published annually vary, but a figure of 70,000 to 80,000 titles is generally agreed upon. The number of active publishers is usually fixed at between 16,000 to 17,000, and these figures encompass the largest companies — who may do as many as 300-400 titles a year — and the smallest, one person operations — who may produce only two or three titles a year. According to estimates prepared by publishing bodies such as the Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Associations in India and the Federation of Indian Publishers, as well as a study of the Indian book market conducted by the British Publishers Association (2007) the value of the Indian book market is generally put at Rs. 10,000 crores (approx 1,514 billion Euros). A little over a third of this — approximately Rs. 3500 crores (530.6 million Euros) — comprises educational books, with the higher education market being slightly smaller, at Rs. 2500 crores (379 million Euros), the two together making up about 60 per cent of the total market. Both markets are expected to grow exponentially, the more so because of the country’s young population, and the high value put on education by virtually everyone.

But while the educational market occupies the bulk, the last few decades have seen the growth of a vibrant, dynamic and innovative group of independent publishers who, in the early 1980s, began to focus on developing a market for general, or “trade” books. Today, this sector, earlier considered a sort of “inferior” cousin to the world of educational books (not surprising in a country coming out of a long history of colonial rule), is considered the fastest growing, with a growth rate estimated to be somewhere between 10 to 30 per cent.

Although statistics on publishing are hard to come by in India — many of the systems that are in place in more “developed” countries are not yet in place here — indications are that the trade books sector now covers between 30 to 40 per cent of the total book market in India. Science, technology and medicine is another area where Indian publishers can hold their own worldwide, with their books now making a name for themselves not only nationally (where the number of science courses at universities and research institutes ensure a continuing market for them), but also in the international arena.

Long way to go

But, impressive as all this may well be, it’s very small beer when compared with the output of books in the more “developed” parts of the world. For example, the world’s largest publisher — a giant in the field of legal, medical, and scientific books — Thomson, employs 32,000 people and has a budget of 5,000 million Euros (interestingly, 88 per cent of their books are e-books). They’re closely followed by the Pearson group, which includes Penguin, and then Bertelsmann (4,400 million Euros), who own Random, and on their heels come the Dutch group Reed Elsevier (4,200 million Euros) and Walter Kluwer (also Dutch, 3,400 million Euros) who’ve recently sold their educational books to Pearson. These figures make India’s output seem paltry indeed. And with the global market for books being valued at 70,000 million Euros, we have an even longer way to go.

There’s hope though. In the last few years the number of bookshops has gone up considerably — the expansion of retail hasn’t left books behind. And no matter that there’s concern in the current situation that “footfalls” are reducing in number, there’s also hope that things will stabilise and people will find their way back to bookshops. More, publishers see hope in the fact that as the GDP per capita increases, per capita book title output will also increase — this is a common pattern all over the world, and there is no reason why India should be an exception.


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