Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.
The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.
Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.
Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)
Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.
This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.
On 24 March 2020 invoking the Disaster Management Act (2005) the first phase of the lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. “Disaster Management” is considered to be a part of the Concurrent List under “social security and social insurance”. With the announcement all but the most essential economic activity halted nationwide. Only 4 hours’ notice was provided, insufficient time to plan operations.
Demand and supply existed but all cash cycles dried up — because bookstores were not operating. Brick-and-mortar stores had to close while online platforms focused on delivering only essential goods and books were not on the list. Priyanka Malhotra says “When Full Circle reopened in mid-May, there was a great demand for books. Mid-June, supply lines are still fragile, so getting more books regularly is uncertain. Well-stocked warehouses are outside city limits and are finding it difficult to service book orders to bookstores. We are mostly relying on existing stocks.”
In future, the #WFH culture will remain particularly for editors, curation of lists, smaller print runs, the significance of newsletters will increase, exploring subscription models for funding publishers in the absence of government subsidies and establishment of an exclusive online book retailing platform such as bookshop.org. Introducing paywalls for book events as the lockdown has proven customers are willing to pay for good content. Distributors and retailers will take less stock on consignment. Cost cutting measures will include slashing travel as a phone call is equally productive, advances to authors will fall, streamlining of operations with leaner teams especially sales teams as focused digital marketing is effective, With the redefining of schools and universities due to strict codes of physical distancing and cancellation of book fairs, publishers will have to explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content.
In such a scenario the importance of libraries will grow urgently. Libraries benefit local communities at an affordable price point. They are accessed by readers of all ages, abilities and socio-economic classes for independent scholarship, research and intellectual stimulation. The nation too benefits with a literate population ensuring skilled labour and a valuable contribution to the economy. By focusing upon libraries as the nodal centre of development in rehabilitation and reconstruction of a nation especially in the wake of a disaster, the government helps provide “social security and social insurance”. Libraries can be equipped without straining the limited resources available for reconstruction of a fragile society by all stakeholders collaborating. As a disaster management expert said to me, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
After a disaster, the society is fragile. It has limited resources available for rehabilitation and reconstruction. To emerge from this pandemic in working condition, it would advisable for publishers to use resources prudently. It is a brave new world. It calls for new ways of thinking.
Given this context, the Economic Times, Sunday Edition published the business feature I wrote on the effect of the pandemic on the publishing sector in India. Here is the original link on the Economic Times website.
As the first phase of the sudden lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 24, the timing was particularly unfortunate for the books publishing industry. End-March is a critical time in the book publishing industry.
End-March is a critical time in the book year cycle. It is when accounts are settled between distributors, retailers and publishers, enabling businesses to commence the new financial year with requisite cash equity. Institutional and library sales are fulfilled. The demand for school textbooks is at its peak. But with the lockdown, there was a severe disruption in the production cycle — printing presses, paper mills, warehouses and bookshops stopped functioning. Nor were there online sales as books are not defined as essential commodities.
“Publishing in India is estimated to be worth $8 billion in annual revenues,” says Vikrant Mathur, director, Nielsen India. “Trade publishing has seen four months of near-zero sales which straightaway knocks one’s revenues off by at least 25-30%,” says Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India.
Profit protection became key. Firms either reduced salaries or laid off employees, and unaffordable rentals forced closures of offices and bookshops. Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, says, “After three months of almost zero print sales, and low ebook sales, we decided to move out of our office space.”
In mid-May, bookshops and online portals resumed selling books. Bookstores delivered parcels using India Post, Zomato, and Swiggy. Sales of children’s books exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 30% more than pre-Covid sales. Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India, says, “The ecosystem of children’s books and content comprises mainly of parents, educators and children. While print is traditionally preferred, it has to be recognised that content of any sort has to be format-agnostic. Whether it’s digital solutions for parents and children, helping educators through professional development or providing curated, age-appropriate books for children, being agile and nimble is key.”
Publishers announced curated digital content for schools engaged in remote learning. Scholastic Learn at Home, Collins Digital Home Learning, DK’s Stay Home Hub and StoryWeaver’s Readalong** were among such initiatives. Paywalls were introduced for creative writing workshops and were fully subscribed. Academic publishers noted an increase in inquiries from universities regarding bundle subscriptions.
To remain relevant with readers, there was an explosion of hashtags and promotions on the internet: #ReadInstead, #BraveNewWorld, #Reset, #MacmillanReadingSpace, #PenguinPicks, #KaroNaCharcha and #MissedCallDoKahaaniSuno. Book launches and lit fests went digital, with viewers across time zones. Brands like JLF ( Jaipur Literature Festival) got a viewership of over 700,000 worldwide*, while Rajpal & Sons got a viewership of over 300,000 — both hosted an equal number of events (50+) in the same time frame.
According to Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, “India’s reading consumption patterns during the lockdown consisted of ‘bucket list reads’ of classics, voluminous works and series fiction; self-help and mind-body-spirit lists.” Publishers launched frontlists (new and current titles) as ebooks , deeming that preferable to tying up cash in inventory. Interesting experiments by editors have involved crowd-sourcing new ebooks, usually kickstarted with an opening by a literary star. Vikas Rakheja, MD, Manjul Publishing, says, “We have seen a 300-400% growth in sales of our ebooks in April-June, over the same period last year, in both English and Indian regional languages, on Amazon Kindle and other online sales portals.”
Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says their titles saw greater time spent on ebooks during the lockdown. Audiobooks also sold. Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, Storytel India, says, “Globally there was doubling of intake. In India, it accelerated exposure to audiobooks.”
But India is firmly a print book market. So it will take some time for patterns to change. Kapil Kapoor, MD of Roli Books and owner of CMYK bookstore in Delhi, says, “In Unlock 1, we have not yet seen a significant spike in the demand for books. For now, sales figures hover around 40–50% of pre-Covid-19 days, largely driven by online sales — an accurate reflection of consumer preference of wanting home delivery and not venturing out to markets due to a fear factor, which is understandable.” A concern is book piracy will increase in direct proportion to economic stress in households.
As for lasting trends, work from home culture will continue, particularly for editors. Experimentation with curated lists, smaller print runs and subscription models will be seen. Some publishing firms, imprints, bookstores, retailers and distributors may go out of business. Increasingly, finance and legal will join sales departments to ensure “correct” decisions are made. Cost-cutting measures may include slashing travel, relying more on digital tools for efficiency, such as negotiating book rights online, employing leaner sales teams and expanding business horizons beyond the Anglo-American book market, without travelling. New platforms capitalising on professional expertise and fostering creative synergies have emerged on social media, like Publishers’ Exchange, an initiative by language publishers across India, Mother Tongue Twisters, Roli Pulse, Independent Bookshops Association of India and Publishers Without Borders. With the redefining of schools and universities, publishers will explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content. Could book events go behind a paywall? Perhaps libraries will regain significance?
As the industry negotiates this disruption, it’s clear that it will take a lot of ingenuity to emerge largely unscathed on the other side. Everyone is hoping for a happy ending to this particular saga.
* At the time of writing the article, this figure of 700,000+ held true for JLF. But on the day of publication of the article, the number has far exceeded one million.
** Storyweaver’s Readalong are multilingual audio-visual storybooks.
I recently contributed to How to Get Published in Indiaedited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.
Here is the essay I wrote:
AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher. My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi. These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.
In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.
To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!
The Daryaganj Sunday Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.
From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.
In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.
By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.
Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.
As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses.
The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting!