What should the publishing industry do differently?

By 02 Feb 2022

The publishing industry, especially trade publishing, has seen its fair share of ups and downs since March 2020. First, we saw the exclusion of the books as essential items as the country went into lockdown. Then, with the brick- and-mortal bookstores still closed, we saw a healthy rise of sales through eCommerce sites. There were even reports that reading habits among people saw a significant rise during the lockdown. As the lockdown lifted, even the brick-and-mortal stores did brisk business in the second half of 2021.

(l-r) Parth Phiroze Mehrotra and Yuvraj Malik

However, with the threat of Covid still looming over us, and the third wave of the virus imminent, we asked the publishing fraternity — What does the book publishing industry in India need to do differently in 2022?

In a post-Covid world, online book retail has become even more dominant than before. But, according to Parth Phiroze Mehrotra, editor-in-chief, Juggernaut Books, online shopping doesn’t promote book discovery in the same way as browsing in a bookstore does. You type the name of a known book or author in the Amazon search bar, and you can’t find what you don’t know you are looking for.

Mehrotra says this makes marketing critical. “Even when commissioning a book, we need to think about how will we market the book, how will we talk about this book to newspapers, TV, and event organisers, in a way that makes it interesting to them and their consumers,” he asks.

The second point Mehrotra mentions is the competition from other medias. “We are living in an age where OTT platforms are competing more aggressively for people’s time and attention. We need to commission and publish books that make people want to read them for entertainment, not just books that are “worthy”, but also books that are a pleasure to read for a layman,” he adds.

According to Himanjali Sankar, editorial director, Simon & Schuster India, the book publishing industry does need to rethink and discover newer ways of being – have more diversity in the workplace so that it leads to changes in the way we think and produce books. “If editors, marketing and sales teams could be recruited from outside the same tired pool that we always tap into, the industry would be reenergised and reflect the moment we are living in with greater authenticity and relevance,” she says.

Piyush Kumar, director, Prabhat Prakashan, says publishing in India needs to grow rapidly if we have to become a superpower. He suggests four areas of improvement — first, spreading reading habits; second, more bookshops at malls, railway stations and airports; third, better content and fourth, more and better publishers.

Senior consultant Sridhar Balan says, the pandemic seems to have forced a change on publishing in ways that could not be foreseen. This change, once embraced, cannot be jettisoned. He gives an example: A leading trade publisher has adopted the ‘sub and pub’ model for books that it considers will only have a ‘niche’ market. Such books are put on short-term digitals (STDs) and are only published as eBooks. The print edition on print-on-demand (POD) only happens if there is a subscription.


(l-r) Himanjali Sankar, Piyush Kumar and Sridhar Balan

“Instead of progress, we seem to have regressed, says Balan, “In my book, Off the Shelf – On Books, Book People and Places (2019), I had said that Dean Mahomed’s Travels in India, Ireland and England was published by subscription. He was lucky, his benefactor George Baker had a huge extended family. Mahomed’s book was published in 1794, making him the first Indian author in English.”

In another example, Balan says, another leading publisher embraced change so much so that her publishing eschewed print and went completely digital. She gave books that could be read on your laptop, palmtop, iPad, eReader, mobile phone and even your wrist watch. All this proved to be counter-productive and she has now reverted back to a combination of print and the eBook.

Thus, Balan suggests the following for publishers to keep their heads above water.

  1. Publishing needs to be a combination of both print and digital; let consumers have a choice. This is, unless a specific market demands only eBooks such as medical reference publishing.
  2. Publishers need to be far more proactive with authors. It’s a relationship that’s built on trust and respect and one that will yield dividends in the long-run. Do not look at authors as investment in mutual funds — as short-term dividends.
  3. Publishers need to do a lot more on promotion. Once the book is out, it’s like a baby that has to be nurtured. Just like one can’t deny parenthood, the book is a joint responsibility of both the author and the publisher. The author has entrusted the publisher with the book and this trust cannot be betrayed regardless of how many books are being published every year.
  4. Promotion cannot be routine. It has to be inventive and innovative. Not only social media platforms need to be tapped aggressively, but also the sales force needs to be trained on the salient features of the book. Simple distribution of the advance information sheet is not enough.
  5.  Publishers need to look at self-published authors, too, and offer contracts to promising books. Some years ago, the country head of a leading trade publisher was transferred to the headquarters of the parent company to precisely look after such a division.
  6. The relationship between the publisher and the author can develop only if communication channels are kept open. The author must hear from the publisher and vice versa. It’s a partnership and both have to keep an eye on the ball (or book).
  7.  “In short, the new publishing model is simply a case of doing all the basics right. The publishing industry seems to have drifted away from this,” Balan concludes.

NBT’s mentorship scheme

Recently, the PM-Yuva Mentorship Scheme organised an all-India contest inviting book proposals on the theme of India’s National Movement in 22 official languages and English by the Ministry of Education, with National Book Trust, India as Implementing Agency. More than 16,000 book proposals were received on themes such as national movement of India, unsung heroes, role of unknown places, and women leaders. Total 75 authors were named winners.

Yuvraj Malik, director, National Book Trust, India, says, “The PM-YUVA Scheme seeks to become a groundbreaking platform, since it is not only promoting young authors, also promoting the idea of learning and documenting the trials and tribulations of the country as a whole while it was trying to come out of the yoke of British colonialism. Since the ambassadors of such discoveries are going to be young authors, some of them as young as 15 years old, the possibility of its long-term impact can hardly be overemphasised.”

Malik added that the proper understanding and perspectives about the multilingual fabric of the country among young authors can provide them a much better understanding of the complex reality of India and the multi-dimensional angles that make up the cultural and literary heritage of the country.

“It is indeed a matter of privilege for National Book Trust to be entrusted with this project of national significance of nurturing a young generation of thought leaders as part of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav programmes to commemorate 75 years of India’s independence,” Malik concludes. 

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