Are books as we know them on their last legs?

Some think so. But the evidence is not convincing.

24 Jul 2013 | By Ramu Ramanathan

At the Welbound Open House in Thiruvananthapuram on 20 July which saw 30 book print CEOs and publishers, two facts resonated. India is the biggest gainer and the healthiest growth in the book binding space, globally. And the fact is, books continue to be produced books has been gaining currency in the past few months.  This was something that was told to PrintWeek India by Mukesh Taneja of Kailash Paper in Ranchi; in as much as G S Charavarthi of Vikranth Publishers in Vijaywada.

The rapidly changing scenario in book production for long as well as short runs has made it a necessicity for the printers to evolve and cater to the new demands of end users. This information is known to everyone  - buyer and seller. The bottom line: If there's anything left for book print firms to do, it's to attempt to add value by controlling soft costs and better order fulfilments.

Some like Mandar Ugar of Vikram Printers in Pune have initiated a publishing wing called WordSmith Publications four years ago. Ugar says, they are reaping the fruits now. He does not have dramatic claims, just 200 titles which he distributes in the K-12 space in Maharashtra and Gujarat. WordsSmith with its model of creating content and a teacher faculty dedicated to the creation of such content is an exception to the rule. 

Trends so far offer little basis to expect a change in the fundamentals of the book printing profession.

One assertion underlying much of the last-legs thinking is that today's book print firms need to be multiskilled or they may, risk becoming obsolete. One example of a fully "networked print firm" is Repro India. The Mumbai-based firm was in the news in 2011, when it partnered with Macmillan Publishing, and took on a much more specialised new role. Its third quarter results have been healthy. The company's Q3 net profit was up 32% at Rs 11 crore versus Rs 8.3 crore, year-on-year, YoY. On 22 July, their stock notched a record high of Rs 163.91.

Other firms like S Chand are aiming for similar scale. 2.5 crore books in a year. One is using automation to handle book production. Other is nifty alliances that hold in good stead. The result is a methodically built credibility that cannot be created by other means. That is why so many of India's top book print firms; from Manipal to Thomson are run by professionals and processes.

In all this many book print firms who don;t have the above scale, have started to specialise. They include book print firms like Avantika in New Delhi and Sahaya in Mumbai, both of whom, are headed by print specialists who worked their way up the ladder of the traditional print companies. Now both operations are run as small but aggressive startups whose production capabilities have reached international level. Certainly both M N Pandey of Avantika and E Fernando of Sahaya can be considered game-changers, too, even if they're not part of a Rs 300-cr big company.

This is not to say that all of print is high pedigree and premium. A lot of medium-sized enterprises have entered the ranks. The press in Thiruvanathapuram which we visited produced is one of the biggest in Kerala. Armed with a raft of sheetfed presses and coldset lines, it has a combination of Wohlenbergs, Welbounds and Baumer on which it produces textbooks for Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. 

The uniqueness of the book print industry is that skilled practitioners have mastered one crucial skill: producing books at low costs. A book in India continues to cost the lowest in the world. This continues to boggle many experts. As it boggled Subhashis Ganguli of Pearson during his Q&A session in the Open House. Ganguli pointed out each stage of the book process is linked with the others. Sawing the skill set apart means each job will be done worse. Therefore he said, every book print firm must have 3d P&L instead of charging per 1,000 books.

It's a fair point.

Another point is, those who predict a massive change in printed books also proceed from the idea that everyone sees everything on social networks. The critical new role for printed books, they believe, consists of sorting out what on those networks is reliable.

In such times, one must mention this conversation with Nitin Binding Work in Mumbai, who has the biggest army for book binding in India. The head of this firm still talks of galleys and manual binding processes. He is perhaps one of the busiest binders in the country. 

And so, lots of lessons to learn. Even as the rest of the world talks of the book's new and unfamiliar transformation, the Open House and its print delegates are a clear indication that we need to to provide a framework for understanding the unorganised, unvetted, and incredibly exciting space that our books inhabit. We cannot ignore the diversity that is India.

The fact that Welbound and Henkel host such an Open House on a regular basis is good. There is terrific value in curating standards, and becoming more valuable as a forum to share ideas and a platform for new voices.

A final note. Not everyone in India has an access to books. The vast majority of the population - as PrintWeek India has stated elsewhere - still expects our book print industry to create a coherent, realistic vision whereby books can be consumed by all our people.

When every print firm is working as an independent node, this vision could be lost. When corporations and institutions like Welbound and Henkel come together, then a network could be created; and there can be an additional value to the books we produce. 
(Welbound's Kishore Kumar (r) demystifies PUR for Ganesh Sivam of 1st Print)