What’s up with the printed book? Where is it headed?

Printed books are seeing a dramatic resurgence. And the Indian print industry is ready to seize the opportunity.

17 May 2024 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma

The 2024 edition of the New Delhi World Book Fair, held on 10-18 February reported an average of 100,000 visitors daily. There were over 2,000 exhibitors at the show

Printed books are back in business. The evidence is all around us. In the last couple of months, especially, we have seen books, trade books, being published and promoted at numerous literary festivals across the country. More books are being published in India than ever, and the readership numbers are also on the rise.

For example, the 2024 edition of the New Delhi World Book Fair, held on 10-18 February reported an average of 100,000 visitors daily. There were over 2,000 exhibitors at the show, indicating a rise in the number of publishers.

This is a dramatic shift from the days not so long ago when the printed book was written off as almost obsolete. So, what changed? What’s happening in the market?
For one thing, don’t expect to find a bestselling title running up to 100,000 copies. While publishers are uneasy about divulging the number, the grapevine is that a bestseller in India means 3,000 to 5,000 copies.

Writing on X (formerly Twitter) on 7 March, Ananth Padmanabhan of HarperCollins wrote, “We saw a detailed market report yesterday and contrary to popular belief (not the publisher’s, we know) Indians are reading more fiction than ever before and the market for fiction grew 20% year on year.

He added that non-fiction continues to be the largest segment. He said also grew healthily. In double digits. Self-help is the biggest segment in adult books. “The market grew in double digits. We are selling more books than last year, and a lot more books than say, five years ago. Online shopping and physical retail shopping are now 50:50. Parents are buying truckloads of books for their kids! Which is fab,” he wrote.

One easy answer is the prevalence of new technology. With digital printing, volume is no longer a concern. Thus, it is more cost-effective to print fewer copies of different titles than printing a higher volume of one title. It saves on warehousing costs, and with digital one can also print on demand.

On 29 November 2023, PrintWeek and Bindwel hosted the India Book Mission at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi to deliberate on how publishers and printers can come together to increase book consumption in India, understand ways to make books more affordable, and evolve the country to be one among the top two book print exporters in the world.
Pallippuram Sajith, managing director of Impel Services (Bindwel-Stelda group), said, “We started the India Book Mission to support the publishing industry in India. We created this community a decade ago to develop the business and support the book market. The main objective for us was to create connections around the publishers, the book printers and the main stakeholders around the book world. For Bindwel, our main target is to develop and bring to market the best technology to create super high-quality books cost-efficiently.”

Neeraj Jain, managing director at Scholastic India, while addressing a gathering during the India Book Mission in Delhi said, “The India Book Market Report 2022 pegs Rs 98,920-crore for the print book market by 2024-25. It was Rs 30,660-crore ten years ago.”
Also, India has the largest population in the 5-25 age group – 500 million. In 2019-2020, India’s school-going population was 265 million.    

He said as a result, there is an attempt to create a world-class publishing infrastructure in India through heavy investments. This includes upgrading the infrastructure both in the large volume (offset) as well as low volumes (print on demand). Jain pointed out that “book printers in India are equipped and delivering the quality as required by the global standards.” Later, he shared with the delegates how large printers in India are adhering to all the certification guidelines for quality, environmental and social audits.
The book ecosystem in India
While in India, Kai Buentemeyer, the director of Bindwel-Stelda visited several Indian book print firms and publishers. His first reaction? “Coming back to India after 15 years, the first thing that struck me was the speed of development,” he says while talking to PrintWeek.

He adds, “The printing operations I saw in India are at the top level, perhaps better than mid-level places in Europe and America. I saw operations where nothing was in the wrong place. Also, what’s remarkable about India is the variety. So, you have top-of-the-line operations here, and you have simple operations. Back home, I would only find a much narrower limited range.”

Buentemeyer affirms that the printed book is going to be with us. For a host of reasons. First, he says, smartphones are not an alternative to reading, as the most popular medium on a smartphone is video. So, we will need books as a mode of information gathering to understand the complex society. “And if we lose reading, we lose much more than the book. It is not a matter of transferring this to a reading device,” he explains. As far as reading devices are concerned, Buentemeyer said, Kindle, for example, has failed to make a dent in the sale of physical books.  

Therefore, Buentemeyer argues, printed books are going to be with us forever. “It is economical. Its ecological footprint is very good. “I often use schoolbooks as an example. If you look at a classroom subject, like English, you supply a class with books. And you give them assignments to either read in the book or write on a piece of paper. This has far less carbon footprint than if you give them computers and ask them to go to the internet to find their homework,” he explains.

Coming to the manufacturing of the humble book, have we over-engineered it? Have we overcomplicated the process? Or is it the dynamics of market forces? Why is so much emphasis being laid on how to produce the book today? Buentemeyer says as a general rule, we focus on developing productivity by building a new piece of equipment that does one unit operation much faster than the preceding generation of machines did. And such machines are expensive. “For more than 50 years, this has taken place against the backdrop of the world population. Under these circumstances, gaining productivity by increasing volume was a viable strategy. But, in the future, this strategy will not work,” he says.

Buentemeyer sees it coming in the future. “We are running out of population growth. Now, engineers will have to learn to increase productivity without increasing volume. We will then begin to see a more highly automated and more harmoniously flowing production process for the entire book.”

The Amar Chitra Katha journey
Preeti Vyas, president and CEO of Amar Chitra Katha, highlighted the journey of the iconic comic brand, how ACK has grown to 500 titles in multiple languages and the huge transformation in children’s books and the importance of printed books. What emerged during her presentation at the Print Business Outlook 2024 conference was the huge transformation in children’s books and comics over the years. Vyas highlighted readership trends and the importance of printed books.

Most importantly, Vyas negated the view that children don’t like to read these days. “It’s a misconception that in today’s time, children do not read. In fact, with the benefits of reading coming to the fore with scientific research, more and more parents should encourage reading habits in their children.”

Amar Chitra Katha has more than 500 titles and prints about three-and-half million copies every year, while it has multiple other channels to distribute its titles. And it is growing at the rate of 25-30% in the last couple of years. Vyas says almost 80% of the company’s revenue comes from its core readership.

“We are strong both in the entertainment as well as the education space,” Vyas says, “I always tell the team that we can never become so serious that the entertainment guys find us boring, and we can never become so crazy and fun that the education industry thinks of us as frivolous. We need to balance both. So there has to be a certain depth and a gravitas. At the same time, it has to be fun.”

Vyas adds that ComicCon has been a wonderful platform for the company. It attends five ComicCons in India – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. In July, ACK also went to San Diego ComicCon.

‘We were perhaps one of the few or maybe the only Indian company to really take up a large booth at an international ComiCon and present there. It was a great experience,” Vyas says. “We have a lot of engagement with the visitors at ComicCons.”

ACK publishes fiction and non-fiction pieces, including history, mythology, and folktales. In Tinkle, it also covers a lot of contemporary issues. “We have been publishing at a never-before pace,” Vyas says. “In the 1970s and 1980s, we used to publish one title a month, of about 32 pages. So, roughly 400 pages a year. By comparison, last year, we published 2,000 new pages. Of course, technology has enabled a lot of it to happen faster, but as a team, we are obsessively passionate about the fact that we have to connect with today’s generation. Otherwise, we will end up becoming a nostalgia brand.”

Star Copies: Printing two million copies digitally
The fact remains that there is a demand for printed books, and this demand is met by digital printing. An example is Pune-based Star Copier, which reportedly prints two million copies digitally. According to Dinesh Gada of Star Copier, the key is strategic investment and planning. As the name suggests, the company started as a photocopy business. 

“Then we heard from the market that there is a demand for printed material. We decided that even if we can capture a fraction of the market, it will be a good business for us,” Gada says.

So, the company started offering print-on-demand services using pre-owned machines. But it failed to achieve the target because the machines failed to deliver. So, it decided to invest in a brand-new machine. As a result, it could print two to three lakh copies without any breakdown. It helped build confidence and slowly, the company invested in a slew of digital presses.  

So, the first lesson is to invest in technology. “Capex is higher in a new machine. But it offers a better output. So, in the long run, it’s an investment that makes sense,” Gada says. At the same time, the company also decided to have a post-press setup to complement its fleet of presses. According to Gada, One of the reasons was to protect the privacy of its clients’ content. Third, the company invested in a customised ERP, tailor-made to the needs of the team so that the production could run smoothly.

The company’s growth story started during the Covid lockdown when Gada saw an opportunity. He says, “We realised that with the schools closed and students studying online, there was a need for physical study material, as there was no study material available online. So, we contacted the local coaching classes. They said the student attendance has come down from 1,000 to 250 because they cannot attend the classes. So, I offered to print the study materials as books, each book running up to 400-500 pages. They agreed. We took special permission from the authorities and delivered the books to 30-40 coaching classes.”

The relationship that Star Copier built during COVID-19 still continues. Recently, the company invested in a colour inkjet press, because the coaching classes now want parts of their content to be highlighted in colour, and the company couldn’t do it in its existing machines. In the new machine, Star prints 1 million pages a day. Now, the plan is to invest in a black and white inkjet machine, because there is ten times more demand for black and white than colour.

Quarterfold Printabilities: Selling abroad
At the other end, Mumbai-based Quarterfold Printabilities has built a robust production facility to capture the export market. This won PrintWeek’s Export Company of the Year Award in 2023. Nilesh Dhankani, founder and CEO of Quarterfold Printabilities (QFP) explains how the company achieved it.

“There were some tenders from Africa, from Mozambique and Tanzania. We also invested in machines, including a double-web 32-page machine. Plus, Indian publishers pitched in some parts of the business. As far as this export award is concerned, it was purely on export. We did not realise it until we delivered around 600 to 700 containers. So, we were excited to win the award. There was a lot of hard work, a lot of marketing strategies, and a lot of new people in marketing,” he says.

700 containers are huge. It points to a grand scale of products. Plus, the company’s outreach, and managing the supply chain. Dhankani credits it to the production team. “We probably have the best production team in India. The people who are with us have 10 to 20 years of experience in the industry. They have their way of doing things. I have given them the freedom to run the production side of the business so that I could focus my energy on marketing. The production team expanded themselves and hired new people from all over India. They are all happy to work with the brand. I am lucky to have such a team,” he says.

Dhankani has also hired younger people between the ages of 19 and 25 in sales support and marketing so that he can impart his own experience and groom them.  So, what does he look for in a young employee? “Someone who is not hurrying to go home,” he explains. “You want someone who wants to sit and learn and be a part of the success.”  
For the first couple of years, Quarterfold Printabilities used to outsource a lot of its requirements. Dhankani says, “It was the need of the moment. We started by offering print management, which is an international concept. But it doesn’t work in India. You are labelled as a broker or an agent since you don’t have a printing press. Plus there were quality issues. So, we decided to try it ourselves. Now, we have 18 towers and three book factories.”

And is still excited about travelling the world and getting business.  “I get a kick out of cracking new deals and exploring new countries. Last year we did South America, Mexico, Argentina and Puerto Rico. It’s fun. But, of course, all these take a toll. Now, my team is slowly taking over.

Now the company is looking to capture the domestic market. He says, “Typically the export market is an eight-month season. And we have 18 web towers. So, we need orders for the next four months for capacity utilisation. That’s why we are focusing on the domestic market. And fortunately, domestic marketing is picking up. We have good hope from the domestic market.”

Dhankani says one key to success is to delegate the work. “I have noticed in some big companies the owner gets involved in all key decisions. For me, I don’t get involved in production or logistics. We have people and they deliver.”