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Saturday, October 24, 2020

World Book Day: Reading in the time of corona

How the Indian publishing industry is coping with the crisis after the pandemic.

Written by Nawaid Anjum | Updated: April 26, 2020 9:44:29 am
bookstores, publishing houses, coronavirus, lockdown affecting publishing houses, publishing houses coronavirus, lockdown, indian express, indian express news Some of the major areas within publishing that have been hit hard are printing, sales and distribution; all printers are closed, bookshops shut, and truckloads of books are stuck in transit. (Express Archive)

“There has been a virtual standstill on production, sales and distribution of books,” says Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins India. As the publishing industry in India reels under the impact of the lockdown in the wake of COVID-19, its present seems precarious and future, like many other industries, uncertain. “The impact in the short run is going to be significant,” says Padmanabhan.

India, according to a 2016 PrintWeek report, is the world’s seventh largest book publishing country, home to more than 16,000 publishers. Publishing more than 80,000 new titles in 24 different languages, it is also the world’s third largest book market. When it comes to English-language publishing, which comprises academic and trade publishers, India boasts of being the third largest in the world. With the lockdown throwing life out of gear, the publishing industry stares at a short-term disruption that’s bound to have a long-term impact.

The Cascading Effect

On May 3, India will have been locked down for six weeks. During this time, there was no commercial activity across the country. It was the same for trade publishers in India. “For publishers, this has had a cascading effect, as it depends on a chain of services and operations, in which each link is critical. Without typesetters, designers, paper dealers, printers, binders, distributors, booksellers, courier and postal services, and transporters, no books can be produced. Many of these service providers hire migrant workers; if their labour has dispersed, it will be difficult for them to get them back,” says Ritu Menon, Publisher, Kali for Women.

Some of the major areas within publishing that have been hit hard are printing, sales and distribution; all printers are closed, bookshops shut, and truckloads of books are stuck in transit. Rahul Srivastava, managing director, Simon & Schuster India, says that there have been no sales even from online bookstores since books fall in the non-essential category. Outlining the impact of the lockdown, Menon says that six weeks of no sale means no revenues. “No revenues means no liquidity. No liquidity means no, or few, new books. No liquidity also means layoffs and job losses — across the board,” she says.

It has already started happening. On April 2, Macmillan became the first among the Big Five American publishers to announce austerity measures — layoffs, salary cuts and freeze on hiring — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scholastic, too, took similar measures. After the layoffs, Macmillan also shuttered its Thomas Dunne imprint. Menon says other bigger publishers in the developed markets are retrenching their staff, too. Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says that publishers around the globe are looking at their budgets and checking their finances to ensure they are in okay health. In the UK, the government has extended its furlough/wage-subsidy programme under Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme until the end of June, which is likely to help publishers, too. Menon says even the governments of Canada, Turkey, Australia and South Africa have offered modest bailout packages to publishers, “recognising that they qualify as vulnerable in a force majeur situation”.

But in India, no such help is likely to come from the government any time soon, feel publishers and distributors. Baldev Varma, regional manager of India Book Distributors (IBD), says that Federation of Indian Publishers — the representative body of publishers in English, Hindi and other regional languages across India that represents more than 80 percent of the publishing industry — have written to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister to support the industry, but there has been no response so far. “There is no clarity on the kind of help from the government. The question is who should the government help — publishers, printers or booksellers? It will be difficult for the government to penetrate the system” says Varma.

Unusual Times

For many publishers, the resumption of the sale of offline books after the lockdown remains a concern. “While the scare of COVID looms over us, and social distancing is a norm today, physical book buying will remain a concern over the days to come,” says Trisha De Niyogi of Niyogi Books. Padmanabhan, who sees bookstores as part of the cultural fabric of our society, says that the publishing industry as a whole has to think about the ways to help bookstores kickstart again when the lockdown opens. “We are keeping our new list ready for market release as and when the situation permits. We are hoping that the lockdown will be lifted in a staggered manner which will allow bookstores to open for business soon. While we may devise strategies to counter the impact of the lockdown, in these dynamic times, it would depend on the consumers’ psyche on whether and when they start to visit offline stores to purchase books,” says Nandan Jha, senior vice-president, product & sales, PRHI.

Some booksellers say it would have been better if the bookstores were allowed to open as people in the difficult times do tend to turn to literature and arts. Afsar Baig of Midland Bookstores in Delhi says he has been getting calls from readers in Delhi and Gururgam for home delivery of books. But he can’t deliver. “I had approached the Delhi government for the permission to exempt the store from the lockdown since I was getting queries from readers. But there was no word on this from the government,” says Baig, who intends to offer 25 per cent discount on books once the lockdown lifts. For many years, he has been offering 20 per cent on every title, which is the reason behind the store’s vast and varied clientele. For distributors and booksellers on platforms like Amazon and Flipkart, the lockdown has been nothing but a nightmare. As publishers have begun to sell ebooks from their own e-book store, their role has diminished, leading to less revenue. Yatindra Chaturvedi, a bookseller (Scribble Graphito) on Amazon, says this has made distributors redundant.

These are unusual times. Families are holding up at home, trying to stay busy and positive. Milee Ashwarya, publisher, Ebury Publishing and Vintage Publishing, PRHI, says people want to read comforting, reassuring, feel-good books right now. Publishers are sticking to ebooks currently. “We are acquiring new books actively for the future, following upcoming trends and observing what people want to read during this time,” says Ashwarya. Readers, says Padmanabhan, are a close-knit community through shared interests and, especially in times like these, books play an even larger part in keeping the community together.

“All we can really do is hope that readers will turn to books, as they have invariably done, to understand a changing universe that’s starting to feel out of grasp,” says Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, PRHI. Padmanabhan agrees: “Books are what the world will eventually turn to, to understand what happened, whether it is through fiction or non-fiction.”

As the lockdown persists, several publishers, including HarperCollins India, PRHI, Simon & Schuster India, Juggernaut and Niyogi Books, have started releasing the e-books first. The print books will be available at bookstores once the shops open after the lockdown.

The Road Ahead

The lockdown has made publishers across the spectrum to think of newer ways to reach out to and engage the readers, mainly via the digital medium. “The lockdown is teaching us newer things. We are learning to adapt to newer technologies and newer ways of accessing knowledge and books,” says Niyogi. “It has made us re-evaluate new launches and revise our publishing catalogue to suit these challenging times,” says Jha.

Marketing, specifically, has made a course correction. “Before the advent of COVID and the lockdown, we looked at 360-degree promotion and marketing on our books. However, now all our attention has been directed towards driving digital strategies, which is perhaps the most visible area of our actions,” says Niyogi, adding that the best way of scaling up digital presence and outreach is through “innovative content”.

Padmanabhan says HarperCollins India, too, has been focusing its energies on digital channels and social media marketing to keep their audiences engaged and in touch with their authors. So have many others. Niti Kumar, senior V-P, marketing, digital and communications, PRHI, says that since readers in India prefer paper books to digital formats, most of the company’s marketing was placed in physical channels. However, in the aftermath of the lockdown, PRHI has pivoted quickly to increase reader engagement, author interaction and conversations around its books on digital channels. “We have a strong digital marketing presence in place and we’ve used this situation to strengthen it further. Our authors are doing virtual book launches in partnership with our offline retail partners, storytelling sessions with online communities and putting together spin-a-yarns via Penguin TV (IGTV),” says Kumar.

Sriavastava says the key is to keep engaging with the reader. “We are creating few light-hearted videos with #Padhonavirus, our e-book store on Amazon. Authors are doing special videos for the readers and now some exclusive e-book launches will help grow the digital outreach,” he says.

Since India is a predominantly print-driven market, the shift to digital may not mean the same thing. Srivastava says: “We didn’t have a great e-book or audio-book readership. It is challenging to change the habits so soon, although all publishers are doing their best to promote e-books.” Menon says that e-book sales are not significant as most are being offered as free downloads or at heavily discounted rates. “They are not really a substitute for physical books,” she adds.

What the Future Holds

During the lockdown, there were reports of people turning to dystopian fiction and apocalyptic sci-fi. Are the publishers looking for and, at the same time, receiving such submissions now? Most major publishers say that they have received a couple of such submissions, though they are acquiring titles across genres. “It is generally believed that henceforth disaster novels and speculative fiction will get an emphasis in the publishing industry. But, I personally feel, after tidying over this exceptional crisis, humanity will bond with each other more and, hence, contrary to the popular opinion, there may be a spurt in romantic novels,” says Niyogi.

Though most publishers are not focusing on specific genres, Gokhale says there’s a genuine spike in interest in classics, voluminous works and series fiction. “We continue to focus on our extraordinary classics programme, our translations programme, and our eclectic literary fiction list,” she says. “Books are usually acquired and edited several months or years before they are published. But these are, of course, utterly exceptional circumstances. In terms of acquisitions, we are looking to acquire as we always do – a wide range, across fiction and non-fiction,” she says.

The world, says Gokhale, will never be the same again. “Just as any wide-impact event has altered the cultural and social fabric of life and work and art throughout the course of history, so too will COVID-19. We can’t predict these changes, no one can. As publishers, we have always been alert to the fact that we publish into a dynamic world,” she says.

Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan Books, in an interview with Forbes India in 2013, had said: “The one thing that can be said with certainty about the publishing industry in India is that nothing can be said with any certainty.” Butalia may not have intended to be prescient, but the veracity of that statement rings true now more than ever before.

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