Jaya Posts

15 years of Hachette In India and the state of the market: a Q&A with Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India

A few weeks ago, I happened to email Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India, with a bunch of questions about the status of Indian publishing and trends. My head was buzzing with a few questions. As always, Thomas Abraham replied. We discussed the replies over email and here is the final version.

1. What has changed in the last year? How have reading appetites grown? Has the pandemic had an impact?

— The pandemic had a severe impact in 2020 with the lockdown and book sales being stopped.

Subsequently in the years following, sales have grown for most publishers and in spades. Certainly, one or two trends have caught fire here, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that reading itself has grown. There is a big difference between the books market growing and reading habit growing. I still believe we’re a far cry from the latter in terms of what it should be (or so I think…. what it was in the 50s-70s, but there are reasons for that). But it all depends on how you choose to map it. The market has been buoyed up by a particular trend (I’m not knocking it but clearly indicating it as aberrant) and certain sorts of generic product has exploded. All of this is fantastic and is a part of much needed growth (in terms of capitalization of the market) but whether leisure reading has grown is I believe another deeper question. And the true measure of that would be if all (or at least a lot of leisure) categories grew—that would then demonstrate an appetite for all round reading. To give you an example of what I’m talking about—if the children’s segment has grown by 30% on the back of generic product like ABC or 123 books that can’t really be equated with children reading more; any more than Harry Potter spiking growth rates can be taken as children returning to reading as a habit (if other all round sales don’t also grow). Sure, it is hoped that these spikes are first steps towards what lies ahead in terms of the reading habit growing, but right now happy as I am with sales results, I believe it’s too early to start celebrating the return of reading.

2. Is print still dominating at 90% or will it ease soon?

–yes, it’s about that much, as a rough ballpark… maybe slightly more even. Other formats have spurts but have not been able to dislodge print. Certainly digital (ebooks) have not caught on enough to be anything more than a 5% to 7% contributor. Audio is the new kid back in town (I say back because the format had one big spike in 2005-08 with CDs) and let’s see how that pans out with the current digital formats and streaming platforms.

3. Did ebooks have the resounding success during the lockdown as many claim it did? Where does the popularity of ebooks rest now?

— I personally don’t think so and would be happy to see any concrete data that contradicts my impression which is based on our own sales data (and we’re the No 1 ebook publisher in the world) and a few other publishers who’ve shared the same experience. Certainly, the months of lockdown saw eBook sales doubling because print book sales were not allowed. But in terms of market impact, that doubling over 2-4 months meant nothing if it didn’t change the existing modes of reading subsequently. And that it was a temporary blip was reflected in subsequent sales contribution of eBooks which went up slightly to the 7% -9% level in 2020 (where print fell by over 20% due to 3-4 months of zero sales) and then subsequently settled back to the 5%-7% level it was earlier.

4. Based on this claim, is it fair to assume that digital is making inroads in the print publishing industry?

–To me no, at least not in the past few years if you mean in terms of either sales or even replacing the basic reading vehicles for fiction, and narrative nonfiction. The jury is out on the potential of audiobooks, and yes it seems that this could see more robust uptick than ebooks. But certainly,  digital has impacted print publishing in many segments like reference or visual publishing or travel guides where it’s virtually replaced the print models there. So, it’s inevitable that with the growth of technology and current rate of advancement in AI etc the digital side will have some impact (coupled with other trends like paper scarcity and paper prices), but I don’t think even the medium term will see that big transformational changeover just yet.

5.With the increasing adoption of UPI, don’t you think it is possible that in the near future, the publishing industry will have to view new ways of accessing customers? Digital payments mean cash payments before the transaction is completed. There is no need to wait 3 to 4 months for consignments to be either paid for or returned in a damaged condition.

–Unfortunately, no, that would be a seamless model if eBooks were like 60% of your business. As long as the current models of distribution and retail remain (remember international publishers themselves can’t retail by law) that pace will improve but not change fully. UPI finally is just another transactional mode—we’ve had cards and bank transfers for decades, so any enabling change would have happened by now. What you’re talking of can flow if one is selling direct to end customers with little or no via-media channels. That also probably will happen but is some time away.

6. Post-pandemic restrictions easing, do you think there will be changes in the traditional business models of publishing?  (Have publishing models have experienced a shift with the pandemic?  Are publishers reviewing their lists differently? Are backlists taking priority? What is it that publishers seek in their frontlists? Has the very concept of a planning a new book changed?)

— Yes and no. Certainly there were many learnings in 2020, and the importance of fiscal responsibility was evident—whether in the nature of book acquisitions or the management of the cash cycle.

The fact that traditional backlist sales went up so much was a great consolation to those with strong backlists. But the frontlists falling off by so much as an average should concern everyone. And we’re not talking of a 5% fall off. We’re talking of the monitored market seeing over 90% of frontlist sell less than 1000 copies across the industry. And that’s a trend that began before COVID.

Frontlist will remain key because one can’t stop investing in frontlist if you want a backlist in the future. And herein lies the rub. There is definitely a new market reality that clearly tells one that many old assumptions are wrong, and we’ve seen that demonstrated not just with the failure of ‘big ticket’ books but with publishing companies going down or unable to continue without a distress bail-out sale.

But the bounce back the overall market has seen has buoyed up most publishers and the recent brick-and-mortar rebound is a welcome sign. The worry is that the fundamental frameworks of trade distribution and retail are still fairly archaic and we know that old bad habits die hard (irresponsible returns, purchasing discounts instead of books, and delayed payments). So, will the sales forecast be twigged to make the book P&L work rather than assessing known benchmarks and market reality? Will the rash expansions of rushing into high priced malls to open loads of new stores be thought out more carefully? Yes, publishing and bookselling are both hunch and passion based businesses and the business is about swings and roundabouts. But equally can one forget that barely over a decade ago there were about 5-7 national chains where there’s one today and a couple of regional multi-outlet stores.  

7. Many other sectors that depend on publishing, such as film/tv/audio and digital platforms, see publishers/authors as content creators or as storytellers. Do you think this will impact the manner in which publishers commission stories or sign up authors?

— I think yes. Of late post the OTT explosion, we’ve seen a rise in page-to-screen Rights sales industrywide and audiobooks seem to be the next ticket-to-ride right now. While publishing is and will remain book based, it is still an all-round content industry. Of late, we’ve seen a movement towards carving out rights piecemeal by agents or authors. This mirrors the early attempts when eBooks began to try and separate those rights. So, at Hachette India we’re clear that’s a deal breaker. I see no reason why a Publisher should be viewed as just a print vehicle. There are self-publishing platforms for that sort of solution. So either it’s the whole publishing Rights agreement (with all subsidiary rights) or none.

8. Will publishers be a little more careful regarding their ROI on an author?

— I hope so. It’s my belief that in India we’ve pursued the loss leader for too long and for no reason other than turnover (or sometimes hypothetical award potential) rather than the quality of the book or by looking at the segment. A sustainable business is measured by profit and that top-down movement of a clear path to profit must be visible (I believe) in a 3-year cycle. Remember the adage ‘turnover is vanity and profit sanity’.  For too long have indiscriminate advances, illogical trade discounts and the slowest cash cycle in the world been a characteristic of Indian trade publishing. The pandemic did show us it could be otherwise; and we’re seeing of late that even the tech and start-up companies are having to establish a clear road map to profit with pressure from promoters.

9. Hachette India has a fabulous backbone of domestic authors, such as the amazing Roopa Pai and Rana Safvi but  you tend to place your bets more on new and contemporary voices. Some of the best stories I have read are from your new authors. Why invest in new voices when others shy away from it?

— Thank you… yes we’ve got some great talent including Roopa and Rana. We do have a good mix of established big brand and the new voice. Don’t forget we also publish Sachin Tendulkar, Viswanathan Anand, Subroto Bagchi, and most recently Indra Nooyi on the non fiction side. Plus there’s Anuradha Roy and Manjula Padmanabhan who are huge names on the literary side. But yes we’re proud of the fact that our list actively scouts for new talent. That was one of our stated publishing objectives when we began local publishing as a full programme a decade or so ago –across both Adult and Children’s programmes; and it remains in place today. Of course one wants the mega sellers… and we’re grateful we have JK Rowling, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Stieg Larsson etc. And its great planning their next release. But equally there is as much if not more of a rush in creating something from scratch that was not big before. We’ve done that with a few across both our imported and local lists –Keigo Higashino, The Last lecture, A Man called Ove, GovindaThe Art of Thinking clearly, Roopa Pai all of which were built locally and weren’t bestsellers earlier or elsewhere that flowed down here.

Though today all our local publishing divisions are both list-and division profitable (and these are two distinct things), we won’t forget that our journey was a rough one for the first few years and we had to reboot midway. We began with a big focus on commercial publishing and gave that up because it just didn’t work when looked at as a sustainable list—for us. There were aberrant sellers yes, but commercial list building in India is fundamentally a low-priced game and that’s not a segment we can operate in at all. From FSC sustainable paper, to overheads we were not meant for the sub-Rs 250 price categories. We changed tack but retaining our aim to look for new voices and publish in genres like sff, historical fiction, crime, humour. The reason we continue to invest in it is because in its own way that has paid dividends, and we publish successfully within our framework because we’re really P&L driven.

10. How challenging is it to introduce new authors/storytellers — domestic and international– into the book market? What does it take to make their book sales happen? Do authors have other opportunities to earn a living based on their books? For instance, appearances, speaker circuit etc? Or are publishers not concerned with those spin offs?

— It is very difficult in a market that is not primarily a reader’s market like the UK or Australia. And as mentioned earlier, if you look at the average frontlist numbers today they are far from reassuring. What breaks out is bigger than ever before, but the average has slumped far lower, and that’s a matter of concern (going back to the point about growing reading as a habit). There’s a lot more publishing happening, and both shelf-space and shelf-lives therefore have dropped considerably. A new book today has roughly 4-5 months to work; or the odds are that by then it’s done. Publicity and marketing can provide a tail wind on release but finally it is word-of-mouth that makes a book a bestseller.

11. What are the major trends in publishing that you see in vogue today? Are translations really as big as they are made out to be or are they a miniscule proportion of the 4% of trade literature? Do you think these will change in the near future as the boundaries between other storytelling formats and traditional publishing elide?

— The Booktok storm is the biggest trend of 2022 and we’re also a major beneficiary of that alongside other publishers. So even without Tiktok here, the Booktok picks from the west make their way here through other social platforms and the romance genre has seen the biggest uptick with some truly staggering numbers.

Translations have always been a staple of lists here from the 90s—they were a fair percentage in terms of title count when I was at OUP in the late 90s, at Penguin 15 years ago and it’s been the same in the subsequent periods too. So its not quite the new phenomenon it’s made out to be. There has been a steady tickover from the epics, mythology, and literary staples like Tagore, Premchand and Manto, and the odd buzzy book that stands out. In sales terms a few years ago Ghachar Ghochar emerged as a one-off big seller.  We’ve had some amazing translations that made award shortlists and wins from Walls of Delhi, The Man Who Learnt to Fly But Could Not Land. Watch out this year for Sin, The Boar Hunt,

The Helicopters are Down The Chariot of Wisdom, The Starved, Kallo, Maran Swasta Hot Aahe  and Menstrual Coupe to name a few.

But last year saw a big surge of excitement from Tomb of Sand and that has single handedly cornered over 40% of the monitored (translations) market. The translations share of Nielsen’s monitored trade market was in the 4 cr ballpark of which roughly 1.82 cr was Tomb of Sand alone. Yes, there’s a lot more buzz than ever before (it was also remarkable that every title of the JCB shortlist last year was a work in translation) but again in sales terms the average hasn’t really moved the needle that much. This is not to say that the potential isn’t there. It’s still a relatively unexplored area, and that is definitely going to go up—statistically by title count first. But the patterns of sales remain the same as for English (aberrant seller break out, midlist numbers being flat).

24 March 2023

Ravi Subramanian presents a crime thriller series at HarperCollins India

Ravi Subramanian presents a new series with HarperCollins India focused on #crimethrillers. According to the information I received, these are “all stand-alone novels – gripping, pacy and often spine-chilling from the house of Ravi Subramanian”. The two Mansi Babbar titles are new in the market, while the Jigs Ashar ones are republications.

HCI recently announced a launch of thriller series with Ashwin Sanghi, but those are his own stories. HCI have fair experience of collaborating with commercially successful writers such as Ravinder Singh to curate and establish niche imprints. This institutional knowledge and experience will be in their favour as a new form of business in publishing — relying upon the combination of brand recall of certain authors and their expertise in storytelling. Last but not least, this genre of storytelling is also one of the most lucrative in terms of conversion into films/web series and other OTT platforms. So the ROI on the investment of creating such a niche within an established publishing firm, is a good business strategy for the future. It is a fine example of the convergence of print and digital.

Good luck to this new venture!

Farah Ahamed’s “Period Matters”& International Women’s Day 2023

On International Women’s Day, it is worth reflecting upon this statistic. According to UNICEF’s 2019 Menstrual Hygiene report, 1.8 billion people Menstruation globally and millions of those are unable to exercise their right to good menstrual health and dignity due to discriminatory norms, cultural taboos, poverty and lack of access to basic amenities. Adolescent girls often face stigma and social exclusion during menstruation, resulting in school absenteeism and frequent dropouts. Women with lower literacy levels face additional chronic nutritional deficiencies and health problems. Cumulatively, these practices have far-reaching negative consequences on the lives of girls and women as they restrict their mobility, freedom, choices, affect attendance and participation in school and community life, compromise their safety and cause stress and anxiety.

To put that figure of 1.8 billion in perspective, it is more than the current population of India of 1.4 billion and the approx. 400m in the European Union. Given that this is a 2019 statistic, more menstruating girls have probably been added than those dropping off due to menopause as many countries have younger populations than greying elders. Yet, the topic of menstruation is a taboo topic. Human rights lawyer and writer Farah Ahamed asserts that menstrual dignity is a basic human right.

It is also peculiar that this large chunk of the global population is ignored when it comes to discussing women’s health and designing programmes specific to their needs. Years ago, Dabur launched a campaign promoting its bestselling product Pudin Hara (pearls and liquid) as being an effective cure for period pains. Pudin Hara is an ayurvedic extract from mint leaves. It is usually used for indigestion and other tummy ailments. Unfortunately, the campaign was an utter flop since women’s health especially pertaining to sexual health is taboo. But the fact remains that it is an extremely effective remedy to easing dysmenorrhea. It is definitely preferable to taking allopathic painkillers.

Given that this is the information age, big data and digital technology rules our lives, it is perhaps worth reflecting on this detail shared by Alnoor Bhimani in his essay, “Digitisizing Menstruation: Algorithms for Cleansing Bodies”, included in Period Matters, published by Pan Macmillan India . He is the Professor of Management Accounting and the Director of the South Asia Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The global market for all digital technology-based products and services focused on women’s health could be worth $60 million by 2027. Although South Asia comprises about a quarter of the world’s female population, at present, ‘femtech’ investments in the region amount to only about 1 per cent. Of 1,323 femtech companies globally in 2021, only 41 were in South Asia. Perhaps this is because less than 10 per cent of individuals in low-income countries can access the Internet, and of the 3.5 billion people without Internet access in the world, South Asian citizens are among the least well served. A further explanation may be that women in developing nations are 34 per cent less likely to have access to the Internet, compared to men. Nevertheless, women who can access digital technologies are increasingly using period tracker apps (PTAs), making them part of a fast-growing femtech product market.

8 March 2023

Annie Ernaux podcast, 27 Feb 2023


1 March 2023

The New Delhi World Book Fair, 25 Feb – 5 March 2023

The National Book Trust, India is promoting the New Delhi World Book Fair 2023 on social media in multiple languages. This is the first time in three years that it is being held in person.
Dates: 25 Feb – 5 March 2023
Venue: Pragati Maidan
24 Feb 2023

“The Years”, Annie Ernaux

We reflected on our lives as women. We realized that We’d missed our share of freedom — sexual, creative, or any other kind enjoyed by men. We were as shattrteded by the suicide of Gabrielle Russier as by that of a long lost sister, and were enraged by the guile of Pompidou, who quoted a verse by Eluard that nobody understood to avoid saying what he really thought of the case. The Women’s Liberation Movement had arrived in the provinces. “La Torchon Brule” was on the newsstands. We read “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer, “Sexual Politics” by Kate Millet, “Stifled Creation” by Suzanne Horer and Jeanne Socquet with the mkngled excitement and powerlessness one feels on discovering a truth about oneself in a book. Awakened from conjugal torpor, we sat on the ground beneath a poster that read “A woman without a man is like fish without a bicycle” and went back over our lives. We felt capable of cutting ourselves loose from husband and kids, and writing crudely. Once we were home again, our determination faded. Guilt welled up. We could no longer see how to liberate ourselves, how to go about it, or why we should. We convinced ourselves that our man was neither a phallocrat nor a macho. We were torn between discourses, between those that advocated equal rights for the sexes and attacked patriarchy, and those that promoted everything feminjne: periods, breast-feeding, and the making of leek soup. But for the first time, we envisaged our lives as a march towards freedom, which changes a great many things. A feeling common to women was in its way out, that of natural inferiority.

The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie ( Fitzcarraldo Editions)

24 Feb 2023

“A Man’s Place” Annie Ernaux

One Sunday after church, when I was twelve years old, my father and I walked up the sweeping staircase inside the town hall. We were looking for the public library. I was terribly excited, we’d never been there before. We couldn’t hear anything on the other side of the door. All the same my father pushed it open. It was completely quiet in the room, quieter even than in church. The floorboards creaked and there was a strange, musty smell in the air. Perched behind a high desk barring access to the shelves, two men watched us approach. My father let me say: ‘We’d like to borrow some books.’ One of them immediately asked: ‘What books do you want?’ At home it hadn’t occurred to us that we had to prepare a list and reel of titles as easily as if they had been brands of biscuits. They chose the books for us: “Colomba” for me and a “light” novel by Maupassant for my father. We never went back to the library. My mother must have returned the books, maybe when they were overdue.

A Man’s Place Annie Ernaux , Translator is Tanya Leslie

( I posted this on Facebook on 22 Feb 2023. It resulted in a fascinating conversation with Miguel M. Abrahão. )

24 Feb 2023

“Urdu Bazaar, within the Walled City of Delhi” by Mayank Austen Soofi

On 23 Feb 2023, the well-known Delhi chronicler and photographer, Mayank Austen Soofi, created a fabulous Facebook post about Urdu Bazaar. It is within the Walled City of Delhi. With his permission, I am reposting his text and photographs on my blog. Thank you, Mayank!

Urdu Bazar is a terrifyingly congested block of human cacophony and traffic tumult. Tolerated only because it hosts a picturesque part of the Walled City (Jama Masjid gate no. 1), and because of its dozens of kebab shacks (Chunnu Chacha Kakori Kebab’s, etc). Not many are aware that these popular eating joints replaced the once-popular institutions that constituted the spine of Delhi’s literary world—the Urdu bookstores and publishers that gave the bazar its name (according to a version). Today, a Walled City bashinda finds it impossible to name even a single of those extinct landmarks. But reader, you won’t be one of those ignorant citizens. Here’s a list of all the disappeared icons:
Azad Kitab Ghar
Central Book Depot
Chaman Book Depot
Deeni Book Depot
Ilmi Kitab Ghar
Kutub Khana Hamidia
Kutub Khana Nazirya
Kutub Khana Rashidia
Lajpat Rai and Sons
Maktaba Akhlaqia
Maktaba Burhan
Maktaba Ishat ul Quran
Maktaba Shah Rah
New Taj Company
Saji Book Depot
Sangam Kitab Ghar
Make no mistake, Urdu Bazar is still left with a few bookshops:
Kutub Khana Anjuman-Taraqqi-e-Urdu
Kutub Khana Azizia
Kutub Khana Rahimiya
Maktaba Jamia Ltd
Markazi Maktaba Islami
Madina Book Depot
Rizwan Book Depot
Indeed, it is the generous gentleman at Maktaba Jamia Ltd who listed out all the extinct bookstores. The unassuming Ali Khusro Zaidi, 68, is the bazar’s longest serving bookstore staffer (see photo). A Sikandrabad native, he has been manning the shop since 1978. “All those bookstores were in existence when I started working in Urdu Bazar.” The man’s Urdu diction is genteel, leisurely paced and melodious. You are tempted to preserve his speaking voice into the mobile phone recorder to replay later on loop. “Urdu ka mahaul waqt ke saath ujadta raha,” he mutters, picking up a receipt booklet.
This afternoon, the bookstore is as quiet as a qabar. A 2023 wall calendar is highlighted with an Allama Iqbal verse:
Sitaaron se aage jahan aur bhi hain
Abhi ishq ke imtihan aur bhi hain.
(More worlds exist beyond the stars,
More love trials still to surpass.)
On enquiring about a framed calligraphy nailed on the shop’s mehrab, Ali Khusro explains “that’s ‘khushamdid,’ meaning welcome.” And this paper scrap with handwritten Urdu on the desk? These are the books ordered for a customer, he says. He reads aloud the list:
“Yehudi ki Ladki
Urdu Shayari Ka Fanni Irtiqa
Urdu Nasra Ka Fanni Irtiqa
Tamasha Ghar
Rasta Band Hain.”
The bookstore, since 1949, stands beside the much-loved Tasty Chicken Corner, formerly Maktaba Akhlaqia.

24 Feb 2023

“Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman” by Charles Dunst

In the week, when it is a year since Russia invaded Ukraine and days after Soros’s controversial remarks about the “democratic revival in India”, here is a book that may be worth reading. It has been endorsed by multiple people, including diplomats, security advisors, think tanks, academics, and journalists. Interesting times we live in when many of us, in our living memory, can remember a freer and a more democratic world. Not this.

Here is the book blurb:

The world is currently experiencing the lowest levels of democracy we have seen in over thirty years. Autocracy is on the rise, and while the cost of autocracy seems evident, it nevertheless remains an attractive option to many.

While leaders like Viktor Orbán disrupt democratic foundations from within, autocrats like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin do so from abroad, eroding democratic institutions and values and imperilling democracies that appear increasingly fragile. There are even those who, disillusioned with the current institutions in place, increasingly think authoritarianism can deliver them a better life than democracy has or could.

They’re wrong. Autocracy is not the solution – better democracy is. But we have to make the case for it. We have to combat institutional rot by learning from one another, and, at times, from our rivals. And we have to get our own houses in order. Only then can we effectively stand up for democratic values around the world and defeat the dictators.

Charles Dunst Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy can prevail in the age of the Strongman, published by Hodder & Stoughton, Hachette India.

20 Feb 2023

Salman Rushdie tweets on 16 Feb 2023

19 Feb 2023

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