Under my byline

Not content with books

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 22 June 2008

Making sense of change in the Indian publishing industry, by meeting the people at the forefront

Big things are happening in the little world of publishing. And for once, India is at the forefront of change along with the rest of the (publishing) world.

Publishers are just beginning to adapt to a changing business environment. The Internet, e-commerce, globalisation, opportunities in outsourcing and offshoring and education — not to mention bigger disposable incomes — promise to raise the industry worldwide out of the doldrums of slow growth.

One of the few ways to track change in this tightly networked, yet highly fragmented, industry is to keep an eye on people movement, in particular the changing profile of the people at the top. Most recently in India, Pearson Education, a subsidiary of global publishing giant Pearson (which also owns Penguin) lost its long-time head Subroto Mozumdar to Pearson UK. In his place came Vivek Govil — an IIM grad who’s worked in ad agency Lintas, spent 15 years with Gillette, and headed sales at the Oberoi hotels group.

In late 2006, Sage, a leading academic publisher, became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sage UK. As a consequence, its India founder, part-owner and head since 1981 Tejeshwar Singh (who died last year) was replaced by Vivek Mehra — who like Govil had no conventional publishing experience, but has degrees in marketing and engineering and has worked at Calvin Klein and in online education.

In other instances, old hands have left large and successful publishers to join startups. Thomas Abraham, recently head of Penguin India, shifted to Hachette India, a brand-new subsidiary of the European publishing giant Hachette Livre. And V K Karthika, a respected editorial chieftain, lately of Penguin, now heads HarperCollins India’s publishing programme.

CONTENT, NOT BOOKS

“I create content,” says Pearson’s Govil, and “content delivery can happen through a book, mobile phone, TV channel…” Such talk is still novel within publishing but, as Govil points out, Pearson’s content is mainly in the education sphere. “My guess,” he says, “is that a consumer publisher is slower to change… Education is changing so much that you have to change with it.” So his products range from textbooks to “school management systems” and software — and beyond.

Pearson’s bestselling book is a marketing text co-authored by Philip Kotler. Recently Spice Telecom approached them to “give us snippets” from it, as Govil says. If you subscribe to this forthcoming service, “Every morning on your phone you’ll get a 140-character excerpt from Kotler.” This is new territory, so “How many people will buy Kotler on the phone at Rs 30 per month, and how many will pay Rs 550 for the full Kotler — I don’t know.” Nevertheless, despite “all of this Brave New World,” says Govil, “I think books are going to remain 70-80 per cent of our market.”

Sage was once a purely academic publisher, of monographs, essays and journals. Now, “We’re stepping on the gas, changing gear,” says Vivek Mehra: “We’re very aggressively into core textbooks” for higher education, and down-shifting from master’s and doctoral to undergraduate-level material — meaning, a much bigger market.

OFFSHORING, OUTSOURCING

“We have a new division called Publishing Services,” says Mehra. “Its main task is to ensure that [Sage’s] US and UK operations are supported.” More and more of Sage’s global pre-press work (editing, typesetting, proofreading) happens in India. This is highly lucrative. “Sage itself has such a large requirement and we’ve not been able to fully do justice to that,” says Mehra. So he’s not actively promoting those services to other overseas publishers. “If there’s such a large captive market why would I look outside?”

“Pearson does an incredible amount of offshoring into India,” says Govil. “A majority of pre-press work is outsourced to India. A very large proportion of our software is developed in India.” But unlike Sage, Pearson India itself does not do very much of this work. “That’s a matter of philosophy,” says Govil.

Academic journals are also big business for Sage, because they have a regular and high-paying subscriber base. “For the first time we are bidding [against other publishers] in the international market for journals,” says Mehra. From 20 journals a year ago, Sage India now has 32.

Sage, like Pearson, finds that its core business of books is prospering “We’ve roughly doubled our sales in 2008,” Mehra says, yet the revenue share of its publishing services operations has shrunk. “The world thought that knowing my background the thrust would be on that area,” he says, but “We are recognised for our content as academic publishers and that’s not going to change.”

“THE BASKET ITSELF IS GROWING”

“The market is actually growing, and it’s still not growing fast enough,” says Hachette’s Abraham, who has been described as a “hardcore” marketing man. “The base of readership is widening for big brands. [The industry] is coming rather late into professionalisation and commercialisation, and,” he adds, “that’s generally interpreted as a bad word.”

But not by HarperCollins’s Karthika, despite her editorial, not marketing, background. Her company has slowly built up its local publishing programme, although it is keeping a low profile until existing contracts with Rupa (its former partner), for example, expire.

Yet even she is expansive: “English readership is growing, retail is growing, the distribution network is growing,” she says, and “surplus cash is so much more in the middle classes.” With help from their new partner India Today, HarperCollins hopes to penetrate the untapped market in smaller cities, “certainly for the Sidney Sheldons and Agatha Christies”.

“Our biggest problem is that in every other segment the prices have shot up,” says Abraham. “Books have not changed from the Rs 250-290 price point in the last decade. There’s no logic or data to back this absurd notion.” But Karthika says, “Thankfully it’s changing. If you want quality you can’t drop the price.”

Sage, like others, is eyeing the promising “serious non-fiction” segment. Such books mean bookstore rather than institutional sales, and the time is now ripe. “The amount of retail space we’ve added in the last three years!” marvels Mehra, adding that “Books are the second most purchased item on any website, after travel services.”

Books, once the jealously guarded domain of editors and intellectuals, are rapidly becoming commodities, content, and publishers’ management profile (with very few exceptions) is changing to suit the trend. Readers should be grateful — a bigger market means that even small, old-fashioned publishers will have room to grow.

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