backlist Posts

Interview with Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India on publishing Enid Blyton’s books

For some time now I have been seeing some wonderful new editions of Enid Blyton’s books published by Hachette India. Sometimes collections of short stories that I did not even know existed. Sometimes rejacketed versions of old faithfuls. At other times newly put together anthologies of extracts from Enid Blyton’s books or well-known children’s writers selecting their favourite extracts. And then there are the recipe books appealing to the adults who are nostalgic about the delightful eats Blyton mentions in her books while at the same time catering to the young readers who are fascinated by popular cooking programmes on television. Finally, there are examples of Enid Blyton’s stories being used to create grammar books for school children in the subcontinent.

Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India kindly agreed to a Q&A on publishing Enid Blyton’s books.

Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India

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  1. How did the tie-up with Enid Blyton’s literary estate and Hachette happen? 

There is no tie-up. Hachette is the estate now, having bought up the rights in March 2016. So Hachette now owns the copyright to all of Blyton’s work, except I think Noddy, because that was pre-sold by the estate earlier. Just like rights to the adventure series are pre-contracted to PanMacmillan… so those will remain in place for contract validity. How it began is from our history. We were Blyton’s first publishers in the 1930s and have published her continuously since then.

2. Is the contract meant only for the revival of the backlist? 

No it’s for whatever we want to do. As mentioned, we own the copyrights from the signing of the agreement with the estate where we are the new copyright holders in an outright buy out.

New copyright answered below would depend on what the authors chose—one-time fee or royalties and assignment or transfer. I don’t know that offhand, but the copyright page of any of the new books will state that.

3. Some of the more popular series such as Secret Seven are being expanded with modern storytellers. Why? 

That’s common for most very successful brands, not just Blyton. From Bourne to Bond, to Asterix, to Sidney Sheldon, Margaret Mitchell, Jane Eyre…further extensions through sequels, prequels, and line extensions have always been there. And it’s not just Secret Seven, Malory Towers has extensions too. The Naughtiest Girl and Malory Towers had them over 15 years ago. As to why—simply to contemporize it for current readers…reflecting today’s realities and cultural milieu. So Malory Towers now has an Indian writer with an Indian girl student joining the school. And no this was not done for India—this is to mirror British society which is much more multi-cultural today.

4. Who holds the copyright for these new stories? The commissioned author or the literary estate? What have been the immediate impact of this collaboration between Enid Blyton and Hachette? 

This will be the choice of the new writers—they could opt for one-off copyright sale, or royalties. (So it may vary and I’m not sure, but a look at the copyright page will tell you)

5. a. Enid Blyton’s stories are representative of the age she wrote in. So her references to “Golliwog” or her sexist representation of gendered activities would not be appreciated in contemporary times. Yet she has made a surprise comeback with many appreciating her books.

Perhaps because too much has been made of that bit is my belief. Almost every single English reading adult has grown up on these tales, and they haven’t turned out racists. This comes up from time to time, but is definitely not true when blanketed together like that. Let’s take them one by one.

There is certainly no sexism in her books… seen in the context of today they may not be stridently feminist (Anne being a homebody, is equally complemented by George being the main heroine of the Famous Five series; and the school series all have strong protagonists). Yes, there are stereotypes which existed in that time (of roles boys and girls play) and are there in most books of the era whether adult or children—from Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie. The racism question arose because of the golliwog toy in Noddy being analyzed in that context, which has since in the wave of political correctness been removed as I understand it, but certainly there is no derogatory text anywhere that can be called racist. Our current Hindi mass market cinema is far more racist, misogynist and xenophobic. Coming to xenophobia — hardly any of the books have foreigners, and if they appear as villains (Adventurous Four, the Adventure, the Secret Series) that is because of the setting and character; and inevitably there are balancing good characters from the same country. And statistically there are obviously more British baddies. Snobbery is shown as a clear negative in most of her didactic books, and those snobs always get their come-uppance.

It’s not as though there are not issues or problems… but they are issue of the time they were written in and do not I believe have any sort of impact—given the millions across the world who have grown up on her books. In fact, her books are very strong on the whole ‘moral values’ of the time—almost to the point of ‘preachiness’—which may be one reason they are so popular in India. Honesty, integrity, loyalty, bravery, courage—a veritable textbook of moral values. No matter that some of them like ‘British pluck’ may be outmoded. But what makes her still relevant and in demand is that she is one of the greatest storytellers in the world with an amazingly prolific output and makes children happy.

5 b. Have the Enid Blyton books been edited for a newer audience? If so what are the principles governing the editing of Enid Blyton’s backlist? 

Yes, or updated rather. Plotlines have not been interfered with; and Blyton is fairly timeless. Her stories stay universal because there isn’t too much datable about them. she doesn’t for instance name brands in her detailing. Cars for instance may be described as a “big black car, with a powerful engine” not a Rolls or Morris which would immediately date it. so what has been tweaked is very archaic usage—pinafore for uniform tunics, pullover for jumper etc. In fact the reverse happened when the Famous Five were experimented with…in almost a classic coke vs New Coke backlash the new text was not welcomed; and the old one was reinstated.

6. Do you have cultural sensitivity readers for Enid Blyton’s stories before releasing them? Do different markets have different teams supervising the release or is there a specific team overseeing the global release of Enid Blyton books and product lines?  

A mix of both—it’s primarily central in the Blyton Estate team based at Hachette UK, and we are asked for input when needed. And we create new product for our markets. In India we’ve begun a new non-fiction stream for instance. Essentially the legacy is continued as classic children’s fare with not much being done to change existing stories. New stories are done factoring in multi-cultural societies of today. And the continuations of her series—there are new secret seven, wishing chair, and Malory Towers stories in contemporary settings which are much more multi-cultural… the latest one even written by Narinder Dhami and featuring an Indian character.

7. Some of the new and fascinating array of collateral from this tie-up have been the cookery books and the English comprehension and grammar books. Why and how did Hachette decide to diversify the Enid Blyton portfolio? How have readers’ responded to the new range of books?

The grammar, vocabulary and other educational collateral was our idea and exists only in India. I felt that since we owned the brand and the fact that Blyton was one of the best teachers of English you could have…it would be remiss of us not to publish a breakaway stream of non-fiction using the texts. The series were just released last year. It’s early days, and this series will require school channel distribution not just trade, so we’ll know in a couple of years how they fare.

8. Do Enid Blyton’s imaginative stories translate well into other languages? If so, which are the languages that are most receptive to her books?  

Because the storylines and plots are so good, they certainly would translate well just on those terms. Yes, the amazing use of English language which is the other great part, would be lost. Yes, she’s been translated into over 90- languages. So they are all over including Sinhala.

9. Will Hachette ever republish Enid Blyton’s autobiography The Story of My Life

Not on current schedules which is in the first instance republishing all her fiction output. The non-fiction and memoirs will follow.

10. Indians enjoy reading Enid Blyton’s stories. But ever since the revivial of her backlists, has there been a noticeable surge in sales? Also is it possible to discern whether the newly commissioned stories are preferred to the original Enid Blyton stories or does that not matter? 

Enid Blyton has always been a huge seller. The famous Five sell over half a million copies every year, of which India’s share is about 35%… so while that is fantastic, it should also correct the erroneous impression that she sells predominantly in India. The newly commissioned stories join the others so get similar sales, but the original canon still sells just that bit more.

The UK is a very front list market (meaning new books), so while she sells very well (her sales there are still higher than sales in India) she may not rank in the current top five children’s authors for instance. But even recently in a UK poll, she was voted as the most popular children’s author of all time beating Roald Dahl and JK Rowling.

India is still a throwback market, relying on traditional favourites and backlist (older books) is very strong. And Enid Blyton here is still in the top three after recent bestsellers Geronimo Stilton and Jeff Kinney. And this is over 70 years after these books were published.

For context it must be understood that the core and basic readership in the UK or USA is very wide, unlike India where it is minuscule. We also react to the top trends in the world, so Harry Potter, twilight, Hunger games, wimpy kid will make it big here too. But the next level or a wider range of books gets very little exposure—whether they be international books or home grown books.

11. Are any film / TV adaptations of Enid Blyton’s stories to be expected soon? If so which ones are the most likely to be created first? 

Yes, there are a couple in the pipeline though I don’t have details. From the 1940s, every decade has seen a movie or TV series made of the main series. Next year will see Malory Towers from the BBC.

12. How significant is the audiobook market for Enid Blyton’s books? 

Not very significant. The audiobook revolution was in the adult market. I’m not aware of the children’s segment audio. There the experimentation is in book and sound formats. very few standalone audiobooks that I know of.

20 Dec 2019

World Book Fair, 6-14 January 2018

Ever since the World Book Fair moved to January instead of the second week of February there has been a tremendous growth in the number of visitors. Year-on-year there are long queues of people waiting patiently to enter the enter the fair grounds at Pragati Maidan. This year the fair was held in only a small area of the exhibition grounds as much of Pragati Maidan has been demolished. It will be a few years before the new buildings are built. Meanwhile the publishers were placed in some halls and tents. The visitors to the fair walked alongside workers in hard hats and enormous Caterpillar diggers shovelling earth to create mountains taller than the exhibition halls. There were potholes in the roads and a general mess everywhere. Yet it did not seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm to buy books. As in previous years there were buyers trailing suitcases on wheels to pack in the books they would buy. In fact a senior publisher I met during the fair said that the shift to January has been a boon for them as their sales grow better and better with every year.

The World Book Fair is organised by the National Book Trust. It began in the early 1970s when it was a bi-annual affair before being made an annual feature. It began with the intention of making books accessible and popularising reading. Over the years it has slowly acquired some characteristics of a trade fair with its specific B2B meetings, a Rights Table, panel discussions, an increasing number of international visitors etc. This year the guest of honour was the European Union. The business collaborations that happen unexpectedly at the fair are incredible. Such as this of third-generation publisher Raphael Israel. An Indian Jew who met his Palestinian clients at the fair couple of years. It is now one of the happiest business relationships! 

Yet at the heart of it the book fair remains a B2C fair with visitors coming from around the country to buy books. In India there are bookshops but not enough to cater to the vast multi-lingual population. The presence of online retailers over the past few years has helped foster the reading habit among many especially in tier-2 and tier-3 towns. This was a sentiment expressed by many publishers participating in the fair. This time there were definitely larger number of customers many of whom were browsing through the shelves to discover more for themselves. While browsing online is convenient and helpful, algorithm driven searches do not necessarily help in discovering a variety of books for the readers. This is where the display cases at fairs and bookshops help tremendously.

There were visitors of all ages and even people using walking sticks or in wheel chairs braving the potholes and dust swirling around. It did help greatly that the winter break of schools had been extended due to the excessive chill. So families came to spend their day at the book fair, browsing, buying and having a picnic. Surprisingly the crowds came even during the designated business hours so that by the afternoon it was impossible to walk through the crush of people. Over the weekends the crowds were incredible. Publishers of children’s and young adult literature were delighted with the response. Sales were unprecedented for many whereas others managed to break even. Comments such as this were often overheard: Child telling parent “Don’t say you will buy the book online. Buy it now!” Sales of the trade and academic publishers were brisk as well but some reported poorer sales than last year citing the poor location as the major reason for lack of visitors. The Hindi publishers were satisfied with the response with some saying that the usual growth of sales of 15-20% which is commensurate with the growth of their publishing y-o-y was evident. Interestingly enough this year there was a significant presence of self-publishers. Sadly though this year there was a very low turnout of Indian regional language publishers. Curiously enough the stalls of the few who participated such as the Bengali, Marathi and Urdu publishers, their signboards were written in Hindi!

This was the first time that audio books made their presence felt. For example, the Swedish firm Storytel is partnering with publishers in Hindi, English and Marathi. An audio tower had been placed in the stall of Hindi publishers, Rajkamal Prakashan, where 60 audio books could be sampled. Apart from this there was evidence of newcomers who had put up stalls showcasing their storytelling websites/apps/storycards that had a digital audio version too. These were individual efforts. It was also rumoured that other bigger players could be expected to make an entrance into the Indian publishing ecosystem. Perhaps they will announce their presence at the next world book fair, January 2019?

Undoubtedly the local book market is growing as there are still many first generation buyers of books in India. Despite the vast variety of books on display it was the backlist of most publishers which was moving rapidly. Pan Macmillan India for instance had a corner dedicated to their Macmillan Classics that were very popular. Interestingly the branded authors such as Enid Blyton, Bear Grylls and J. K. Rowling had entire shelves dedicated to their works. At a time when most authors are jostling for space to be seen and heard, these generous displays by publishers for a single author were a testimony to the significance and influence they wield with readers. Obviously the long tail of backlists are good business. Repro is collaborating with Ingram to offer Print On Demand ( POD) services. These work well for those with significant backlists that need to be kept alive for customers but to avoid excessive warehousing costs and tying up cash in stock, it is best to offer POD services to customers. The demand for  a backlist title of a specific publishing house is fulfilled by vendors who use the marketplaces offered by online retailers. The cost of the title purchased is higher than if it had been part of a print run but this arrangement works favourably for everyone concerned.

While browsing through the bookshelves it was not uncommon to notice readers either standing absorbed in reading or sitting peacefully crosslegged on the floor reading through the books they had shortlisted. What was remarkable was how serenely they sat despite the crowds milling around them. If there were displays on tables as at the DK India stall and the regional language stalls, people were standing and reading calmly.

 

Happily a large number of younger customers thronged the fair and buying. Even though some publishers said that few people haggled for discounts the crowds at the secondhand and remaindered stalls had to be seen. There was such a melee. Books were being sold for as little as 3 for Rs 100! While publishers were not amused at the presence of these remaindered stalls doing brisk business, customers were delighted that for a small amount of money they could buy a pile of books.

All said and done it was a satisfying book fair. Hats off to the National Book Trust team for running it so smoothly and efficiently every year!

 

30 January 2018 

 

 

 

Musings: On the Westland and Amazon partnership in India ( 25 Feb 2016)

westland-332pxOn 11 February 2016 it was announced that Amazon had bought a 26% stake in Westland Publishers for $1.9 m or Rs9.5 crores. ( http://rtn.asia/t-t/17345/amazon-acquires-stake-in-tatas-publishing-unit-westland and Hindu Businessline http://m.thehindubusinessline.com/companies/amazon-picks-up-26-stake-in-tata-publishing-arm-westland-for-rs-95-cr/article8224355.ece ). Under the definitive agreements signed by Trent, Amazon.com NV Investment Holding LLC and Westland, Amazon will have a right to appoint a director on the Board of Westland and also have the option to acquire the remaining 74 per cent of shares at a later date. In a statement, Westland said the investment by Amazon will enable it to expand its international reach and scale their physical and digital book businesses.

With an estimated market segment of INR 10,000 crores, India ranks seventh in overall publishing and third after Amazonthe US and UK in English language publishing. According to a recent FICCI Publishing Sector Report, book publishing in India is growing at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 30 per cent.  With an estimated 600 million adult readers in the country and a growing young reader base (15-25 yrs) of 350 million, the readership in India is expected to continue growing.

This is a significant development in the Indian publishing industry.

Westland Books has a tremendous stable of commercially successful authors, a strategy they have been in investing in steadily in recent years. Some of these are: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Ravi Subramanian, Preeti Shenoy, Anuja Chauhan, Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar, Devdutt Pattanaik, Dheeraj Sinha, Kiran Doshi, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Ashok Banker and Satyajit Das. Their books sell lakhs of units. ( 1 lakh = 100,000) Their pre-order sales are phenomenal too. These writers have a star power and a fan following that has been unprecedented in the publishing history of India but they are also expensive to retain. (See: 4 March 2013. http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/writer-amish-tripathi-wins-record-1-million-advance-for-south-asia-rights-515121  and 19 March 2015, http://scroll.in/article/714606/why-anuja-chauhan-moved-from-harpercollins-after-eight-years-and-three-bestsellers ) The immediate impact on the publishing firm has been to streamline operations, not just in terms of structural readjustments but also exploring alternative channels of revenue, while growing too. Westland is primarily an English-language publishing firm but has an Indian translations programme with its strategic partnership with Yatra Books. In fact in early February, the Oriya translation of Amish Tripathi’s book had been announced.

Amazon too has been in India for a while. It is better known for its online retail store and self-publishing programme, Kindle Direct Programme or KDP. (It has organised very popular KDP roadshows in India too, proving the Amazon brand is well-known locally.) By investing in an Indian publishing firm, Amazon firmly establishes itself into the literary landscape. Plus, evolving in this manner seems to be in keeping with Amazon’s highly successful Seattle-based publishing programme especially translations. In fact it is significant that press release quoted Sarah Jane Gunter, Director, Amazon Publishing and not Jeff Bezos or an Amazon India representative.

The rising significance of translations in publishing worldwide can no longer be ignored. In April 2015, the New York Times published an article Amazon’s translation programme AmazonCrossing as the most successful publishing programme, leaving even the biggest MNCs and specialist independent presses far, far behind. ( 29 April 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/30/arts/international/who-is-the-biggest-publisher-of-foreign-literature-in-the-us.html?_r=0  and Alex Shephard in the New Republic on 19 Oct 2015,” How Amazon quietly became the largest publisher of translated literature” https://newrepublic.com/article/123150/americas-biggest-publisher-literature-translation-amazon  ) . According to Chad Post while doing the calculations for his annual translation database report in December 2015, he realised that AmazonCrossing had the maximum number of titles in the year. It was 75 titles which was three times more than the next publisher. He maintains the wonderful Three Percent blog on the University of Rochester website. ( 6 December 2015, “Translation Database Updates: AmazonCrossing is the Story”  http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=16182#fn14513631225664e866d0983 ) In fact, in Oct 2015, Amazon invested USD $10 m into AmazonCrossing as a commitment over the next five years to increase the number and diversity of its books in translation.

Westland stands to gain twofold – a significant minority provides good financial investment and they will be able to leverage the international area strategically particularly Indian diaspora book market. As an author said to me upon hearing of this announcement, “Now it may be possible for Indian authors to organise book tours abroad.” Whereas Amazon is able to leverage a significant portion of the 600m readership in India with plans to expand in the future. The Indian book market is showing a healthy growth rate across genres. The estimated valuation of Westland with this deal is Rs 38/40 crores – a substantial sum for an Indian publishing firm when its most valuable assets are its authors and backlist. Sarah Gunter too with her experience in children’s literacy programmes will provide expertise into a book market where the estimated readership between ages 15-25 is 350 million. Also, Amazon too, like others in the publishing industry, are exploring omni-channel retailing. Having opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle recently, followed by San Diego and it is speculated that they have another 400 planned in USA, it comes as no surprise when Satabdi Mishra of Walking BookFairs posted on her Facebook wall on 2 February 2016, “Why are Amazon and Snapdeal calling a small independent ‘real’ bookshop for possible collaborations?” Another good reason to invest in a local book publishing programme?

“We are very excited about this investment from Amazon and what it means for Westland, our customers and authors,” said Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland. “Amazon’s roots are in books and they remain a major part of their business – this investment from a company with such deep experience in books, global reach and exciting digital platforms will help us take our Indian authors and their works globally.”

“We are delighted that our investment in Westland will help their authors reach a broader audience worldwide,” said Sarah Jane Gunter, Director of Amazon Publishing. “Our investment in Westland continues Amazon’s commitment to innovating and investing heavily on behalf of customers in India – it’s still very much Day One.”

Amazon too, like others in the publishing industry, are exploring omni-channel retailing. Having opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, followed by San Diego and it is speculated that they have another 400 planned in USA. Hence it comes as no surprise when Satabdi Mishra of Walking BookFairs posted on her Facebook wall on 2 February 2016, “Why are Amazon and Snapdeal calling a small independent ‘real’ bookshop for possible collaborations?”

So far it is a win-win scenario for Westland and Amazon.

25 February 2016