Books are very popular in India: Ananth Padmanabhan of HarperCollins
In an exclusive interview with Dibyajyoti Sarma, Ananth Padmanabhan, chief executive officer, HarperCollins Publishers, talks about the impact of the pandemic on publishing, the struggles and opportunities, and the road ahead
22 Feb 2022 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma
Dibyajyoti Sarma (DS): Congratulations on being named the Tata Literature Live! Publisher of the Year. What, according to you, makes HarperCollins, the publisher of the year?
Ananth Padmanabhan (AP): We are delighted to have been named Publisher of the Year 2021 at Tata Lit Live!. This is our fourth award in the last six years. First, I’m grateful to all our authors who trusted us with their work, and secondly, the entire team — editorial, sales and marketing — all of whom worked entirely remotely to publish some of the finest books in the country.
This is what won us the award. This award speaks a lot about the passion and commitment with which we publish books at HarperCollins.
DS: The past 18 months have been tough. How badly has the Indian book market been dented?
AP: Yes, indeed. These last 18 months have been quite challenging on all fronts, especially the health and safety of everyone involved in the entire value chain. Booksellers and independent retailers have been impacted as a consequence of closures. Many independent publishers have had a tough time too.
Equally, eCommerce has meant that buying books has become convenient, and therefore, sales are higher than pre-pandemic levels. The market has already begun to bounce back and I think we are looking at a vibrant market soon.
DS: What was the situation at HarperCollins?
AP: We were impacted significantly when books were declared non-essentials. There were zero sales for almost 75 days in 2020. During the first lockdown in March 2020, even online bookstores had removed the buy button. Bookstores were closed as well. Online deliveries started progressively during the unlock period.
Slowly bookstores began to offer home deliveries, and then stores started to open up. During that period, we were the only publishers to start with eBooks first, while most other publishers had suspended all publishing. Thankfully, that period is behind us. Since then, we have been focused on continuing to publish, as also learn and leverage digital mediums for marketing and sales.
The centrepiece of the HarperCollins India office — a 1915 Heidelberg letterpress
DS: The situation is improving, isn’t it?
AP: Sales are now higher than pre-pandemic levels, driven by some good publishing. We have so many number one category bestsellers and an extensive range of children’s books. Across the board, book sales are now better than 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Sales of eBooks and audiobooks have also doubled during this period.
DS: Apart from Covid-19 related challenges, the industry has been severely impacted by price hikes due to substrate hike plus a substantial hike in other input costs. Did this impact you?
AP: Yes, of course. Input costs have risen astronomically and this is going to impact selling prices and indeed profitability. The government has to take cognisance of the fact that while almost all aspects of the publishing process, including author royalties have a GST impact, the finished book itself is devoid of GST. This impacts publishers ability to invest and grow in the market.
DS: Digital print capacity is growing. Are you thinking of going completely with digital printing, where you print against demand? A lot of publishers are coming out with the warehousing model. Your views on the future of digital publishing?
AP: It will remain a hybrid model. We have to do both. HarperCollins in India, besides being a publishing company, also has collaborative partnerships with over 15 publishers around the world, whose books we import and sell in India. We will need a warehousing infrastructure as well.
Alongside, we work with printers in India to be able to work on a robust POD model, so that we can optimise inventory. I think we will see a lot more of that in the future as we leverage digital printing and move as much printing as possible closer to the market. Publishers have to think about ways to reduce shipping books across the world (both by air and sea).
DS: You have spoken about integrating Artificial Intelligence in the process to improve efficacy. What is the status?
AP: At this point of time, we are focussed on learning from and optimising the needs of the market and the customer.
DS: Has the pandemic led you to any innovation in the way books are made (for instance audiobooks/non-fiction seeing a pick up)?
AP: We have done various things. The most important of them would be migrating to a blended learning platform for the Collins Learning education business. In trade publishing, the process of both publishing and marketing has had to take on a digital-first model. We are now also producing all our audiobooks.
DS: The pandemic also impacted the supply chain. Now, we are hearing bookshops complain that books are not easy to access if they aren’t in Delhi. Your opinion?
AP: As a publisher with a large catalogue, we have always worked towards having a wider selection of books closest to the customers – distributor or wholesaler, and eCommerce warehouses. Supply chain was disrupted as a consequence of the pandemic but even during that time, we have been working with our distributors to ensure that books are available to all booksellers.
We also have a warehouse in North India that is equipped to ship any number of books within 24 hours to any bookstore in India.
DS: Also, we seem to be publishing more books than ever. On the contrary, would it help everyone if publishers published fewer books, and marketed them well?
AP: I have always said that there can never be enough books. Readers need a continuous selection of good books across genres. And it goes without saying that we need to market our books well.
DS: Before the pandemic, India was one of the growing markers for books. During the pandemic, reports suggested that even non-readers are picking up the reading habit. How much did this new trend translate into sales?
AP: India continues to be a growing market. At this point, book sales are higher than pre-Covid levels. Sales of children’s books are growing rapidly too. I think the most important reason for this is that people have had a forced stay at home and therefore, have had more time. Plus, there is the convenience of online shopping. Publishers and booksellers now have an opportunity to capitalise on this trend — market books well, and keep the momentum going.
DS: What is your strategy to deal with the disruption in eCommerce after Cloudtail, as there’s a lot of dependency there.
AP: Cloudtail is a marketplace seller which sells books. Publishers are already selling books through other marketplace sellers, including Cloudtail.
DS: What is the right mix of eDistribution and retail business. Your expectations and how the future business will shape up post-Covid?
AP: A permanent impact of the pandemic is that consumer behaviour has changed and customers will shop on online platforms. It offers both convenience like home delivery and competitive pricing. This is a norm around the world. Having said that, between 20-25% of shopping is still through offline stores.
In a post-Covid world, I think, we will see a 65-35 split between purchase through eCommerce and physical stores. Publishers and booksellers will have to work together closely to build back business in physical stores. Book sales will grow manifold when we have a really good book retail ecosystem that will aid discoverability, especially for children’s books. In that age group, kids need access to good bookstores where they can see, touch and read books – be mesmerised by the joy of books.
DS: What is the bestseller definition going to be now, as earlier it was more on large print runs and flooding the retail?
AP: Bestsellers will always remain books that most people have bought.
DS: How about your education business (Collins India)? In the last few years, and especially due to Covid offline has completely shifted to online classes. Future is uncertain. Where would the next few years lead?
AP: I don’t believe the future is uncertain. We have more than 300-million children who need high quality education, especially foundational education. This pandemic and resultant school closure has had a debilitating impact on learning for this age group, and we will need a really good policy and support from the government to make sure we play catch-up. While there has been emphasis on the integration of digital learning and edtech, it is a fact that more than 70% of children do not have access to digital learning.
The jury is still out on the real impact edtech is making in a diverse population as India. We need the following — good policy initiatives that can ensure learning never stops; evaluation and assessment criteria that focusses on core concepts rather than rote learning; high-quality teacher training to ensure teachers/educators are as fluent in digital teaching; low-cost digital connectivity in all schools; learning aids and infrastructure to include those with special learning needs. And finally, an education budget that is imaginative and ambitious, so that we can make Indian children the brightest in the world. We have an opportunity to showcase India as the education Mecca of the world.
DS: Major challenges in both trade and education business and where are you seeing the growth?
AP: In the post-pandemic scenario, there are two distinct aspects. One, we do not have enough bookstores in India. Considering the size of our country, and considering the potential readership over the next 10-20 years, we will need at least 5,000 bookstores. There are probably more than 5,000 bookstores selling educational books (which make up 85-90% of the publishing industry in India), between school, academic, legal, medical, and indeed stationery stores that also sell children’s activity books. But India needs bookshops — between chains and independents — to sell trade and general books.
For comparison, the UK probably has about 1,000 bookshops for a population of 68-69 million. Imagine our country, all the major airports, all the major train stations, the main cities and the satellite cities. And within our metropolitan cities too, there really aren’t enough bookshops to cater to readers. Two, in the education publishing sector, the government has an education policy, and a new curriculum is on the anvil. Having said that investment into education has to be doubled, we need bigger schools, a much better digital infrastructure, and a robust and ambitious training and development policy for teachers and educators.
DS: What kinds of books does India love to read? Your view as a publisher?
AP: Facts have always outsold fiction. Non-fiction is by far the largest category, and within that self-help. Non-fiction will include categories such as narrative non-fiction, self-help, mind body spirit, biographies and memoirs, lifestyle and celebrity non-fiction, politics and current affairs, business and management.
These are some of the highest selling genres within non-fiction. These are English language buying patterns. Currently, I think, we have 55% non-fiction, 25% fiction and 20% children’s books. I also find it very fascinating that as a country, we publish the most books about ourselves. This country publishes hundreds of new books every year with India in the title.
DS: How do we make the printed book more popular in India?
AP: Books are very popular, but not purchased in as many numbers as we would like them to be. India in fact has a very high percentage of purchase reluctance. Not all of them who use English as a first language seek entertainment from the written word. The idea of reading a book is still daunting for many. We have to make some changes fundamentally – which is to introduce books to children right from the word go, and make books a bigger part of daily life. Instead of offering them a device to keep them engaged while having breakfast, read them a book, and so on.
This does not apply just to English language publishing. The more kids touch, feel, read and see books around them from an early age, the more books become part of their thought process. We have an opportunity to create 250 million readers in India (and that is just one fourth of the population). The government can play an active role too, by creating free libraries in every major district with access to thousands of books in all languages. India has a population that is young, and equally that is ageing, and both these spectrums of readers need access to books.
DS: What are the most profound changes the pandemic has brought upon the book publishing industry? Do you think some of these changes will be permanent? If yes, what would be those?
AP: We have become digital-first and that will remain. With almost two years of minimal physical interaction, both within the companies and with our customers and consumers, a high-quality digital engagement is what has determined success and sustainability of the business. We have learnt a lot of lessons, and I think we will continue to learn a lot as customers teach us more about their evolving behaviour of discovery and purchase.
DS: Publishers moving away from deploying single-use plastics; no-no to lamination and MetPET for book covers?
AP: Is a very good move. Publishers have to become environment conscious and make changes across the entire production and supply chain process.