Textbook publishers and the pandemic

How has the pandemic changed, or will change the textbook publishing industry? Som Nath Sapru takes stock of the situation

21 Oct 2021 | By PrintWeek Team

Som Nath Sapru

Most textbook publishers, whether school or college, are in acute financial trouble for the last two years — because of restrictions imposed all over the country to contain the pandemic. Now, the publishers are brainstorming ways to reinvent the textbook publishing market.

The worldwide pandemic has changed the way we do business. Today, the mundane activities that schoolchildren took for granted — morning assemblies, preparations for annual day and everyday classes, and above all, daily interaction of schoolchildren during lunch breaks and while coming to or going back home — seem but a distant memory, whereas for the younger generation, it would be perhaps history.

Would there be a return to the pre-March 2019 days? I believe, in the near future, at least, it seems unlikely without another set of government-imposed protocols. The return income pattern of the textbook publishing industry is much more like farmers – one tills and sows and waters throughout the year – but he reaps the harvests once every 12 months.

Most textbooks are printed and marketed between the months of October and January. What used to be that by February, warehouses are packed with several lakhs of books and by March and April, orders used to start pouring in for prescribed textbooks for schools across the country — but all this seems like a history now.

For the last two years, collections have taken a hit, but fixed costs continue with offices, un-dispatched stocks, salaries and other overhead expenses. So, this is the reality of the existing situation in the school and college textbook publishing industry.

Let me say loud and clear that the largest segment within education publishing is kindergarten to class 12, or let’s say, school textbooks, which account for about two thirds of the industry in the country. The rest is occupied by higher education and a tiny specialist segment, where several international publishers operate.

India is the second largest English language publishing market in the world. The focus has remained on English language publishing since English is also the language of higher education and research in our country.

However, there is an equally rich, segmented, Indian language publishing tradition, with Hindi being the largest. Local publishers dominate this segment, although several international players have either started regional language lists or tied-up with local players to access these inaccessible markets via translations in the last few years. Local publishers also form a big part of the English language educational markets, both at the school and the higher education levels, with a strong focus on textbooks and related support materials. At last count, there were approximately 9,000 publishers across the country, producing in the vicinity of at least 90,000 new books across segments and languages.

While the pressure of keeping book prices low is a universal effort in the publishing industry, and everyone in the supply chain wants to pay less but get longer credit terms, the difference in quality, copyright awareness, and educational levels as well as access to digital means has meant several publishing universes can co-exist in our country. This has created both challenges and opportunities at the same time.

The higher education publishing landscape is vast as well as varied in our country, with a large young population in need of books for education and skilling, primary and progressive levels. A large, primarily government funded university and research framework, and there are ever burgeoning private institutions that bridge the gap in technical, medical education. The academic publishing ecosystem mirrors the varied needs of the central, state, and privately funded institutions and research bodies and is consequently uneven across the country. To conclude, let us say all this has resulted in the new opportunities for academic publishing.

The pandemic has impacted publishing houses immensely with the result — revenue sales and even commissioning and fresh book launches have slowed down, or in certain cases gone down the drain. Of course, a few optimistic book publishers expect the pandemic to impact writing in different ways, with visionary growth. Like in the past, any cultural or social upheaval has given a new and more visionary style of writing and recording for the society at large and future generations.

After talking to a cross-section of publishers, including DC Books, Sage India, Kitab Khana, etc, I concluded that all through the nation, some of the states have authorised schools and colleges to reopen on certain conditions and a definite protocol to follow. This has ignited a ray of hope in the publishing industry that they may be in a position to utilise the published materials like textbooks, workbooks, and exercise books, which were stored for almost two academic years. Their warehouses, which were working at less than 40% strength from the reverse migration, and they do hope, by August-September or later, to see near normalisation unless the country is engulfed by a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Undoubtedly, during the pandemic period in certain cases of academic publishing, eBooks and digital offerings definitely proved to be elixir to voracious readers, but a large number of the population do not have the access to internet or android mobile devices or in certain areas, even electricity. So, let us come to the conclusion that a larger majority is still dependent on the printed version of books at any level.

The way Covid-19 is still hovering all over the globe, the government has to take definite initiative to declare publishing, especially school and college textbook publishing, as an essential industry with certain concessions till the pandemic is over from our country.

Publishers are at the cross-roads thinking how to boost their sales of printed books — be it textbooks, academic books or even general books covering various subjects, besides school workbooks, etc. The government has to step in to grant and encourage more library funds in schools and colleges to buy books catering to the entire student community.

What we have seen in the last two years is very little participation of book publishers in book fairs and exhibitions. The presence of more and more digital technology was visible in such fairs and exhibitions. But this digital affair will be limited to urban areas of the country and wherever internet facilities will be accessible in the rural and remote areas of the hill regions. Publishers also need the support of all smartphone manufacturers to have the facility on their smartphones for all Indian regional languages besides Hindi and English. The million-dollar question is who will afford these devices in remote rural areas so that the students over there are not deprived of their rightful opportunity of education, which is a fundamental right as guaranteed by the constitution.

These certain issues are slowing down the process of eBooks for school textbooks and general help books, etc.

Well, besides financial problems, publishers faced several other problems during the lockdown periods and other stringent protocol norms that they had to ask some of their operational team members to work from home, like the editorial staff, senior editors have to have a very close coordination with graphic and designer staff and for their design demands to edit the texts to fit in the design and format of a given textbook or workbook, etc besides that to keep a close watch, in coordination with the production senior staff, on the reproduction of any picture or illustration may it be line drawing or a halftone, colour or black and white – all these works are not possible, without on-spot interaction with the team members and is not practical or even workable, to okay from home or remotely.

On top of it, the publishers have to have a dedicated team of senior and experienced sales team who will maintain close relationship with school or college principals and librarians, besides having face to face meetings, presentations, orientation seminars or may be workshops before they sell a book or a particular title for any class of students – reason being institutional sales are very different from individual sales. Reason being that the books are chosen and prescribed by the school and college principals. All this has to be organised because many of the private schools and even board schools have made slight changes in the textbooks keeping in view online classes and digital adaptations of the books.

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