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Contemporary Indian Literature, Workshop, Presentation 1

Presentation by researcher Rob Francis, Publishing Consultant at the London workshop.

A paper given at the workshop on Contemporary Indian Literature in English for the Indian Market at the Open University, Camden Town, London, 25th-26th June 2007

Introduction

India has a powerful and exciting book industry already. Rough estimates put the size as Rs7000 crore in 2003, and so allowing for growth, the present market is worth around Rs8500 crore or £1bn, i.e. £1 for each citizen p.a. (compared with £50 in the UK), perhaps one book purchased each year on average. These figures also show the potential for growth.

The present state of the book business in India may be analysed through the well-known framework of a SWOT analysis: a summary of the strengths and weaknesses seen in the Indian book business, together with the opportunities for a successful business and the threats that it faces. This framework was first devised by Andrews in the 1970s. The Indian book business is thus compared with similar industries in other countries. The analysis shows the possible directions in which the industry might grow, and the obstacles which it will need to address in order to achieve its aims. I have tried to identify actions that could be taken to improve the chances of future success. The overall analysis is shown below and then analysed in more detail.

Strengths

Weaknesses

  • Scale, breadth
  • Experience
  • World class production facilities
  • English language
  • Economic growth
  • Young population
  • Well-educated elite
  • Cultural richness
  • Historical lack of investment
  • Lack of industry knowledge
  • Tension between FIP and API
  • Multiplicity of languages
  • Poor national infrastructure
  • Government control of state school publishing
  • Poorly-educated mass population

Threats

Opportunities

  • Lack of skills
  • Government
  • Economic downturn
  • Piracy
  • Competition from Europe/US/China
  • Other media
  • Consumer & student demand for books
  • Opening up of state school market
  • Export
  • Niche publishing
  • Growth for support business

Strengths

India has a centuries-old history of successful and effective publishing and bookselling. It now has a scale and breadth which is unique: it consists of thousands of publishers, and thousands of bookshops – likely to be the largest numbers of each in the world. India publishes over 70,000 new titles each year, an output which is only beaten by UK and USA in the English language (though only 20% are published in English). It publishes in all genres, in over 25 languages across the whole country, though publishing tends to be centred on Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata – probably over 50%.

Indian publishers and booksellers therefore now have many years of experience; they were not forced to learn the book business from scratch as the Russians have done since ‘independence’, or the Chinese since their change in economic strategy; nor have they struggled with state control to the extent that Egyptian publishers and booksellers have had to do. In addition to the successful indigenous publishers, foreign educational publishers, especially UK publishers, have had subsidiaries or joint venture companies in India for many decades. More recently, all the main trade publishers (Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, Hodder) have established joint ventures in India. All these initiatives have introduced finance, employment, training and good practice into the publishing industry. This has not been the case for bookselling, as yet.

Indian publishers are now serviced by one of the most modern and technologically-advanced book production services in the world. This service industry has quickly become a global supplier to publishers across the world, but especially Europe. Investment has been heavy but competition is fierce and prices have remained very keen as a result. Costs for Indian publishers are therefore low by global standards, while production standards have improved radically.

Thus the industry has many infrastructural advantages over its large national competitors (e.g. China, Russia, USA, UK etc). In addition, it is functioning in a society which also has many advantages. While the English language is not one of the official Indian languages, it is the lingua franca, and the main language of private school education, and of higher education. It is often the language in which Indian novelists and poets choose to express themselves and therefore opt for publication in English. Thus 20% of the new book output (by ISBN) is in English, and because of the long print runs for schoolbooks, the total value of the English language business is likely to be around half the total. The result is that India is starting to compete directly with the main US and UK publishers in college textbooks, monographs and literary works on a global basis.

The recent burst of economic growth (together with some societal changes) has created a slice of Indian society which is well-educated. These people are well-informed on book matters, have good disposable income and are purchasing books on a regular basis for themselves and their children. A recent survey of global reading habits (NOP World) showed that Indians spend more time reading than any other nationality– twice as much as Britons (including magazines and newspapers). Further, India has quickly become a world leader in high-techindustries and can provide leading edge IT and communications to the publishing and bookselling industries.

India has a young population, which is hungry for education, and when fully literate will provide a ready market for relevant new literature. If they have a positive experience of reading at school, then they will continue to treat reading as a leisure pursuit, and not just a vehicle for acquiring new knowledge.

India has over 1600 languages and dialects in addition to the 22 official languages, a heady mix of religions and every possible type of geographical habitat – and all this is the largest democracy in the world. This cultural richness provides India with a unique and unending source of material for its literary output. India is an open society, with a free press and a history of debate and tolerance of other faiths and beliefs. There is already excellent coverage of books in the media.

Weaknesses

With these infrastructural and economic and social strengths, India should be well set for future growth in the book business. But there are many weaknesses too.

Historically, Indian publishers and booksellers (including joint ventures) have tended to invest insufficiently in infrastructure. Book prices in India are low by global standards, and the market is often seen to be a ‘volume’ market, i.e. it is necessary to sell many thousands of copies of a title in order to obtain an acceptable return. ‘Best practice’ was measured by the bookseller next door, rather than Barnes & Noble in San Francisco. India is quickly gaining in self-confidence, but needs to overcome this reluctance to invest for the future.

The book business is dominated by family companies and these are reluctant to divulge any more information regarding their businesses than is necessary. The result is that India has a fast-growing and vital book industry which has verylittle knowledge of itself. There are few statistics available and this hampers the advance of the industry. It limits the ability of the industry to communicate with government and other bodies. It restricts industry’s ability to identify and tackle key industry issues. I think it is essential that the Indian book industry looks to the future and starts to map its book business in a rigorous and robust manner (while maintaining confidentiality on individual business figures of course). Brazil would be an excellent model to follow on this issue: the Brazil Book Chamber commissions a group of academics to prepare an annual report for the Chamber. They obtain the required statistical information from member companies on a confidential basis and then collate the information into a useful and robust report on an annual basis.

Allied to the knowledge issue is the rivalry between the wholly indigenous publishing industry and the (part) foreign-owned publisher group. The former is represented by the FIP and the latter by the API. While the historical difference in stance is perhaps understandable, future tension between the two parties will continue to dilute the effectiveness of both bodies. A single representative body is needed to lobby on behalf of all publishers in terms of trade, copyright protection, tax, training and other issues. The industry needs to look forwards rather than backwards.

Turning to factors external to the book trade, the multiplicity of languagesmay be seen as a disadvantage as well as a fertile source of cultural material. Publishers in single-language countries such as Russia, Egypt and Brazil know that they only need to prepare one edition of any new title and can print accordingly. An Indian publisher looking for true national coverage needs to consider the publication of several major language translations, with the extra cost and work that this involves. Looking into the future, it is likely that government subsidy will be required to ensure that each minor language group is provided with the necessary educational, and literary, book and other material that is required for its survival as a working language.

As is the case for many industries, the poor national infrastructure is a severe constraint on industry growth. Perhaps this is the reason why there is no national book wholesaler/distributor covering the whole country. Bureaucracy, individual state taxation, poor roads, poor postal system and other problems mean that it is very difficult to do business outside one’s own state. Government needs to tackle urgently these issues and provide a transparent, low-taxed, well-connected environment in which business can grow and compete with those countries which have already taken such measures.

Most countries in a similar economic position to India rely on a strong schoolbook industry to form a backbone of the book business. This provides the industry with a set of educational publishers who have a reasonably secure and predictable business, who may then choose to leaven their overall business by adding in a trade business, which tends to follow the economic cycle more closely. In India,government control of state school publishing has eliminated a major potential source of revenue for the educational publishers. From government’s point of view, the policy has probably worked well: nearly all children in state schools are provided with their basic book needs free, or at very low cost. But as Indian parents’ future aspirations for their children start to match those in East Asia, they will demand a much-improved state school system and world-class educational materials too. This constraint to business should be gradually removed so that Indian educational publishers provide such materials. Brazil and Mexico offer excellent models for how government and industry can work together to ensure the requirements are met. In both countries (Brazil at primary level, and Mexico at middle school level) the Ministry of Education purchases books from publishers at very low net cost, and then provides these textbooks free to the children in the state schools. The schools thus have a choice; textbook standards are high due to the competitive market; government is buying cheap; the children receive good books free.

A more dynamic educational publishing industry would feed into a more effective book publishing business in general. In addition, if supply were to be localised, then more bookshops would become viable and would provide increased outlets to trade publishers as well as educational publishers.

Finally, a poorly-educated mass population will be unable to compete with the likes of Malaysia and Thailand let alone China. Government needs to invest heavily in state school and higher education and to encourage further private investment in schools and universities.

Threats

Looking to future problems, these will come from within the industry and from the coming economic and business environment in India.

The Indian book industry needs to ensure that any future lack of skills is tackled quickly and effectively. Any country growing at the rate at which India is at present is bound to suffer from a lack of resources, especially human ones. Publishing and bookselling will not be seen to be preferred career routes and so great care should be taken to ensure that those who do choose books as a career are well educated, well trained and well compensated. Other media jobs are likely to have a greater appeal otherwise. Publishing is a business which revolves around people: authors, editors, salespeople; they need to be the best possible, and satisfied in their work.

Government interference is a constant threat in most countries but especially in India which is undergoing such rapid economic and social change. The book industry wants an environment in which it is left alone to get on with what it knows best: publishing and selling books. The industry needs to avoid the imposition of VAT on books, it needs low corporate taxation, export subsidy and a good legal system and the continuation of a free press. It does not need state educational publishing, restrictions on foreign ownership of publishing and bookselling business or queues of trucks at state borders. As stated already, industry needs to speak with a single voice in order to be heard.

The book industry must work to wipe out book piracy, which destroys at least one quarter of the potential revenues. Authors are being denied their rightful income which provides a disincentive for new writers to spend the necessary time and effort in writing new books. The present legal system is insufficient for authors and publishers to take effective action against culprits even when the evidence is clear. Again, industry needs to work with government to take action where necessary. Local authors and publishers are under threat just as much as foreign published materials.

Clearly, any economic downturn would provide a major threat to future industry growth. It is hoped that a floating exchange rate will negate the chance of a sudden devaluation which has caused havoc in the industry in past years. The industry needs to be prepared to live through a period when disposable income of the ‘middle classes’ might be severely cut, or their priorities temporarily shifted elsewhere. The book industry needs to invest for the long term.

Competition from elsewhere will become stronger. Global media players are in a position to move the sourcing of editorial and production facilities in a matter of months. India will need to have a flexible and talented resource base which can respond quickly to industry requirements. It will need to market itself in a clear and effective manner. It will need to match ‘best practice’ on a global basis and if possible become a global leader in book publishing.

Lastly, as in the rest of the world, other media will be competing ever more strongly for the disposable income which we see growing so fast. Film, TV, computer games etc are expert at marketing their wares. Publishers and booksellers in Europe and the US have learnt a huge amount in recent years about how to market books, both in general and specific titles and authors. Book sales have grown in real terms even under such threat. The Indian book trade has made good efforts in recent years, but will need to invest more, and think smarter, in order to compete with these other leisure activities over the coming years.

Opportunities

Indian publishing and bookselling is in an excellent position to grow its business in the future if the issues described above are tackled with vigour. The opportunities for them are great, not only in India, but on the global stage too.

Publishers and booksellers should benefit from the fast-increasing demand from consumers in the trade market and students in the school and college market. Providing that publishers put out titles that can tap into the needs of the customers, price them correctly in order to maximise sales, and market them efficiently so that the target market has the necessary information, then an increasingly robust and competitive book market will thrive. Bookshops need to ensure that their premises offer a suitably attractive place for the whole family to browse and spend time.

Educational publishers need to lobby government to gradually open up the state school market, so that children have access to materials of suitable quality and interest. Not only school textbooks would be required: supplementary materials could also be purchased in larger quantities, thus providing new markets for children’s literature, adult literature, atlases, dictionaries etc.

Export is already an important part of Indian book business, especially as most publishers are selling into high-price markets from a low-cost base. The stranglehold that UK and US publishers have had over English language publishing is predicted to loosen as the skill set of ELT and publishing in general becomes globalised (Graddol 2006). This provides an excellent opportunity for Indian authors, publishers and production service suppliers.

As well as mainstream trade publishing, the sheer scale and depth of the book market in India is already providing opportunities for niche publishing which just do not exist in smaller and less well-developed markets. Poetry, women’s studies and development issues are already being published into by small presses in India and this trend is likely to grow. This provides the industry with a good balance of skills and interests and ensures a dynamic nature to the book business which can only be beneficial. The continuing growth of internet use in India will enhance the ability of such small presses to reach their well-defined target markets. The barriers to entry into publishing are almost non-existent, thanks to technology – the key to success is the link with the customer.

In addition to the book publishing and bookselling activities for the future, it is certain that the support businesses will also grow fast, as they can offer their services to the global market. Typesetting, page make-up and printing have seen very fast growth in India and as long as quality standards are maintained, investment in the latest technology continues and prices remain competitive, this sector should see continued success. This must be a major benefit to Indian publishers. Michael Porter has described how linked groups of related industries can grow in tandem and provide competitive advantage to nations (Porter 1998).

Conclusion

It is likely that in time, consolidation of the publishing and bookselling industries will be seen in India as has happened elsewhere. The economies of scale that flow from such acquisitions ensure that the successful company can continue to invest in new products and new systems, and can better survive the economic downturns which are bound to occur from time to time. Any remaining vertical integration is likely to disappear, as companies choose to focus on their target segment: publishing, bookselling or print. Unless government interferes, a further increase in foreign ownership will take place. Joint ventures are usually medium-term vehicles for both parties, and tend to move towards 100 per cent ownership over time. European countries and the US have become used to the fact that large parts of their publishing industry are owned by a media group based in another country and this is becoming true in Asia and Latin America too. The important objective for India would be to ensure that its book industry is healthy, flexible, well-trained, well-resourced and providing answers to the needs of an increasingly demanding customer base.

Bibliography

Bhattacharji, J, Publishing in English, FIP, 2006, Delhi
Francis, R, Book Market Profile: India, The Publishers Association, 2003, London
Graddol, D, English Next, The British Council, 2006, London
Porter, M, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Macmillan, 1998, London