Under my byline

Reading change

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 4 October 2008

Q&A: Mike Bryan

Mike Bryan is a year into his job as Penguin India’s CEO and president. His arrival in 2007 coincided with the first Penguin Annual Lecture in India, by globalisation guru Thomas L Friedman. On October 13, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten will speak on the “dark side” of globalisation in the second lecture in the series — and also launch his book, called What Next? Surviving the Twenty-first Century, on the same topic. We spoke with Bryan, who has an international sales-and-marketing background, about Penguin’s prospects.

Where did the idea of this lecture series come from?

I have to say it wasn’t my idea. [It was] Penguin worldwide CEO [John Makinson]’s idea that we should do something that was really interesting that should have some sort of relevance to the world today. It so happens that the two people, two great thinkers of the world that we chose so far [are] social and economic commentators, but I think in future we may also have great fiction authors and great thinkers in those fields as well.

Why just one lecture a year?

[We] didn’t want to devalue it in any way, we wanted to make sure it was a really important event… I think one a year is sort of perfect; this is the special lecture.

Have you made any significant changes at Penguin India in your year at its head?

We’ve had some cultural changes… I don’t know if this is true in Indian industry as a whole, but traditionally, departments have worked separately and not together. It probably is a slightly boring thing, but we’re about to go completely open plan in this building — and that’s to get that communication going, [make sure] that ideas don’t hit some synaptic stop, they actually get spread out within the company. And I think one of the biggest things I’ve done since I got here is to make sure that synapses are firing within the organisation.

[Change takes time], although you get some very, very quick wins, because ideas tend to start and go through to fruition a lot quicker. We’re going to be publishing a book next year probably, called The 90-day Rule and that suggests that if you don’t get a good idea sorted and commissioned and put to bed within 90 days then it’s never going to work — and my experience is that that’s true.

Is India relatively slow, in terms of the time it takes here to bring out a book?

Actually no it’s not, it’s very quick. The idea date to publication date is far quicker than it is in the rest of the world. If you’re coming out with a new book with a publisher in the UK or US it can be a year to two years before the publication date, whereas here in India it’s quite often a lot shorter than that, which is an incredible thing. So India’s not slower, it’s a lot more nimble than the publishing is in other countries.

Why is that — skills, topics, low quality?

I think the publishing industry as we see it now is relatively young within India. Penguin’s been here 20 years and other publishers less so. And it’s been that necessity to grow the business that has enabled that sort of system to work, whereas in the [US] systems have gone a bit more solid.

What do you see as your chief growth areas?

We are particularly strong in those non-fiction titles that talk about world issues, economic issues, business, management. You’ve got entrepreneurs like Subroto Bagchi, [whose] Go Kiss the World has been an enormous bestseller for us this year — in hardcover. Probably the biggest book for us this year will be Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India [out in November].

The children’s area… we’re putting a lot more investment into it. We’ve noticed that in India, series books for kids really, really work. Harry Potter is an obvious example, but we do a series of Percy Jackson [the Olympians] which are phenomenal bestsellers, and indeed Eoin Colfer [Artemis Fowl] are massive. And what we’re trying to encourage are writers here in India.

How?

At the commissioning stage we’re talking to our authors and saying “That’s an idea, but maybe that’s just one book. How can we put that through into a series, where they’re going to build up a loyalty and readership within kids?” We’ve got a series coming out next year called the Swapanlok Club, which is based in Bombay and it’s modern times and these kids in funky Bollywood city — various worlds, various levels of society. And then another great series which should start next year will be based around Akbar’s court in Agra. India has a wealth of mythology and history which can be used in that sense.

How important are non-fiction and children’s books to your bottom-line, compared with your traditional strength of fiction?

Good-quality business management non-fiction is probably something in the region of 25 per cent. I think it’s stronger than in many places around the world [but] it’s fairly typical in Asia, it has to be said. Children’s at the moment is about 10 per cent of what we do… So which one of those will exponentially go forward I’m not quite sure yet.

I think children’s will grow more than that 25 per cent [the sales growth rate of Penguin India as a whole] in terms of its importance to us, and [in] narrative non-fiction, which is very strong for us now, the rate is probably likely to level out a bit.

Are Penguin worldwide titles selling better in India now?

Yes, [Thomas Friedman’s] Hot, Flat, and Crowded we’ve sold 20,000 copies in a couple of weeks, which is pretty impressive. We’ve got Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which I think is a fascinating book coming out in November which we will be doing a lot of copies of — that’s about the story of success and it’s looking at either entrepreneurs or sportsmen or IT, software tycoons and working out what it is about them that makes them so successful — which I think is just the sort of book India loves. And of course we have the fantastic James Bond [sequel by Sebastian Faulks].

Are you worried about competition from other foreign publishers now in India?

No, I don’t think so. I think competition in any business is good. It makes you better, it makes you think of more things, it creates those ideas.

But given that the Indian English-language publishing market is not so huge…

Well, it’s not that huge yet, but it is expanding exponentially, as we said. Our sales are going to go up 25 per cent per year; other publishers’ will be going up at similar sort of increases. The number of bookshops within India is expanding and the size of those bookshops is also expanding, you know. People go to malls, all those shopping centres, now they’ve got big bookshops to go to, which has traditionally not been the case around India.

Have you thought of setting up training or vocational courses? You must be facing a talent crunch within publishing.

I have an involvement with the CII publishing cell, and one of the things we are very keen on is training and whether we can get colleges to have publishing, production, editorial courses, because I think it’s really necessary. There have been some wins — there is a college in Delhi that is actually running a publishing course. Certainly it’s interesting that the University of London have been out here to Delhi trying to whip up business for their [publishing] courses in London, at which there are a number of Indian students.

How long do you see yourself staying here?

Well, I don’t know really. It could be quite a number of years. My wife and I are enjoying it very much, and in fact we’re definitely talking about whether in our retirement, which is some way off, we actually spend the English summer in Britain and English winter in India, which would be the most perfect thing. We’re making lots of friends in Delhi. It’s a long way to the beach, but there’s lots of sand around, so that’s okay.

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