Jeff Bezos Posts

Kindle books in Indian languages could be a game changer: What Amazon’s new initiative will mean for publishing in Indian languages

My article on Kindle books being introduced in Indian languages was published in The Mint on 21 Dec 2016. )

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Amazon India has announced that Kindle will launch digital books in five Indian languages—Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. The titles include Ishq Mein Shahar Hona by Ravish Kumar (Hindi), Rajaraja Chozhan by Sa. Na. Kannan (Tamil), Mrutyunjay by Shivaji Sawant (Marathi), Ek Bija Ne Gamta Rahiye by Kaajal Oza Vaidya (Gujarati), Aarachar by K.R. Meera (Malayalam) and Mayapuri by Shivani (Hindi). Kindle devices seventh generation and above will support Indic scripts, enabling readers to access such books.

This is a move that could be a game changer in India. Amazon India has moved methodically to embed itself in Indian publishing. First, it launched Kindle with free lifetime digital access provided by BSNL, but only for English e-books. In November, the acquisition of local publishing firm Westland—known for its commercial fiction best-sellers and translation programme—was completed at reportedly $6.5 million (around Rs44 crore), a small portion of the $5 billion allocated by Jeff Bezos as investment in India. In fact, Seattle-based Amazon Publishing’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, has surpassed all other publishers in the amount of world literature it makes available in the US. This was first highlighted in December 2015 by Chad Post, publisher, Open Letter Books, on his influential website, Three Percent. In October 2015 AmazonCrossing announced it had a $10 million budget to invest in translations worldwide. It is probably no coincidence that Amazon India vice- president and country manager Amit Agarwal has been inducted into the Bezos core team, which is responsible for its global strategy.

In an email, Post responded to the news, saying: “This seems like a great thing for Indian readers and anyone interested in Indian literature. Amazon’s stated goal is to make as many books available in as many formats to as many people as possible, and this program is a strong move in that direction. Increasing digital access to these books will be huge—it greatly expands the potential audience, and could help AmazonCrossing expand into publishing Indian writers in translation. AmazonCrossing published 60 works translated into English in 2016, which is far more than any other publisher. The majority of these titles are translated from German, French and Spanish, but AmazonCrossing has expanded into doing works from Iceland, Turkish, Chinese and Indonesian, so it makes sense that they would be interested in finding books from these five Indian languages.”

In India, this announcement could not have come at a more opportune moment. With demonetization, Indians who prefer dealing in cash are perforce moving to digital payments. Also, by July 2017, it will be mandatory for all handsets manufactured, stored, sold and distributed in India to support the inputting of text in English, Hindi and at least one more official Indian language, and support reading of text in all these languages, thus making it feasible to read books other than English on the Kindle app too.

Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu, welcomed the decision: “We hope it will increase our revenue from e-books which is pretty low now. Tamilians are spread all over the world. It is near impossible to reach hard copies to them. So this will boost the chances for them to read Tamil books of their choice.” Best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi called it an “outstanding initiative by Amazon India. It’s about time that vernacular writing moved out from the confines of paperback. It will also enable out-of-print books to be made available now.” Another best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, said this will address the inadequate distribution and marketing of Indian language books, for the much larger market is the one in Indian languages. “I am personally committed to this and am very happy that of the 3.5 million copies that have been sold of my books, a good 500,000 of them are in Indian languages.” Others remarked upon the best global practices it would bring to local publishing.

Well-known Hindi lexicographer Arvind Kumar says it will influence reading patterns by encouraging cross-pollination of literature across cultures by “opening new avenues for translation of two-way Hindi to English and other Indian languages which are being introduced on Kindle, and from many non-English languages like French and German or, say, Latin American into Hindi”. Mini Krishnan, OUP, too endorsed it, saying readership in the Indian languages is healthy, so “a highly portable personal library will surely do well”.

21 December 2016 

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

Literati – Of books and launches ( 5 April 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 4 April 2015) and will be in print ( 5 April 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-columns/literati-of-books-and-launches/article7067754.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

Last week I attended a book launch at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. A small distinguished

(L-R) Mrs Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament, HE Pranab Mukherjee, President of India and Mrs Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha

(L-R) Mrs Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament, HE Pranab Mukherjee, President of India and Mrs Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha

audience gathered in the Yellow Drawing Room to witness the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, launch former and first woman Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar’s Indian Parliamentary Democracy: Speaker’s Perspective in the presence of the current Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, and senior-most Parliamentarian, L. K. Advani. This volume — published by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi — contains selected speeches delivered by Kumar at various multilateral conferences and during bilateral visits to several nations in India and abroad during her tenure. It was a book launch that ran with precision, partially due to protocol but also in a large measure due to professionalism of the politicians. These people have known each other for decades, yet made the effort to spend some time reading the book, offering their personal perspective on the importance of speeches to negotiate issues of government policy and to strengthen Indian diplomacy. Listening to the frank conversation made a ‘dry’ book about the efficacy of parliamentary diplomacy as an evolving medium of communication among nations seem worth reading. It was an effective launch as it interested the audience in the book and was not just another occasion for a photo-opportunity.

***

Book promotions are a two-pronged affair. One is a planned strategy to promote a book: an author tour, book launches (preferably with a celebrity launching it), circulating review copies, book trailers on YouTube, interviews and interactions on all media platforms, the author participating in literary festivals, writing articles discussing and describing the writing process threadbare … all in a very short span of time. With the explosion of social media platforms, the variety of ways in which books and authors can be promoted is staggering — podcasts of interviews and literary salons, online book clubs, using photograph-based websites such as Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram to showcase book covers and promote reading experiences.

Tie-ups

According to Publishers Weekly, “HarperCollins is working with Twitter Commerce, the social media platform’s effort to offer ‘native commerce’, or offering firms the ability to send out tweets with buy buttons embedded in them.” The new promotion allowed fans to purchase a hardcover edition of theInsurgent movie tie-in edition at a 35 per cent discount, direct from HarperCollins Publishers US, without leaving the social media site with a buy in-tweet available only on March 23, 2015. Both HarperCollins and Twitter sent out a series of promotional tweets directed at fans talking about the Veronica Roth book series and movie adaptation.

This is similar to a recent partnership between the Hachette Book Group and Gumroad, an e-commerce venture that enables creators to sell content via social media, to promote and sell Hachette titles via Twitter. In August 2014, Amazon ‘buy it now’ buttons were embedded in Washington Post articles about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, assuming impulse buying will propel sales, but these were quickly pulled down after a massive outcry on Twitter (http://mashable.com/2014/08/18/washington-post-amazon-buy-button/). Amazon and Washington Post are both owned by Jeff Bezos. All these publicity efforts by the publishers, authors and vendors are to boost sales.

The Buried GiantA second and crucial component of book promotional activity is the preview critic and book reviewer. A good review is fair and unbiased. For instance, Neil Gaiman’s review in The New York Times of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new and oddly fascinating novel, The Buried Giant, says it is “a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love.” It is a balanced, constructive and informed critique by the superstar of contemporary mythographers of another exceptional storyteller.

With the democratisation of social media platforms too, bloggers (word and video) and online reviewers have made their mark. Many are professional and their opinion is valued tremendously. But there is a tiny core in the online community offering “book reviewing plans” to promote a book, by publishing reviews on specific websites, blogs and online vendors — for a price. Unfortunately these reviews gush hyperboles. The mistake often made is that a paid promotion needs to be positive. This does not sell a book; only honest and constructive engagement with the book does.

4 April 2015

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

( The Hindu asked me to write a short piece about the ongoing price war between Amazon and Hachette. It was published on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/price-fighters/article6365601.ece . I am c&p a longer version of the article published. ) 

Cartoon accompanying the Hindu article On August 10, 2014, Authors United wrote an open letter decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pressure tactics on Hachette to lower ebook prices. The letter — written by thriller writer, Douglas Preston and placed as a two-page ad, costing $ 104,000, and signed by well-known names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Pullman, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver —states, “As writers — most of us not published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” The writers printed Bezos’ e-mail id and asked authors to write to him directly.

This letter came after months of a public spat between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon. No one is privy to the details but it is widely speculated that the fight is about the pricing of books, especially e-books. Authors began to feel the effect of these business negotiations once Amazon stopped processing sales of their books or became extremely slow in fulfilling orders. It even removed an option to pre-order  The Silkworm , by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, prompting the author to respond on Twitter where she encouraged her three million followers to order  The Silkworm from high street stores and independent booksellers. Ironical given that Amazon’s motto is customer satisfaction.

 Amazon defended its actions through a letter released on its website, Readers United (http://www.readersunited.com/), and circulated it to self-published authors using their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. In it, the company said that for a “healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon is asking for all e-books to be priced at $9.99 or less. Misquoting George Orwell’s ironic comment on the popularity of new format of paperbacks in the 1930s, Amazon wrote that even Orwell had suggested collusion among publishers. It released the e-mail id of Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, asking readers to write to him directly to make books affordable since it is good for book culture.

 Pietsch replied to all those who wrote to him stating clearly, “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone… More than 80 per cent of the e-books we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower. Those few priced higher — most at $11.99 and $12.99 — are less than half the price of their print versions. Those higher priced e-books will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published. … Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish — hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

Amazon’s shareholders are getting tetchy with the massive losses the company has posted once again. For the current quarter, Amazon forecast that the losses would only grow. It expects a healthy rise in revenue but an operating loss of as much as $810 million, compared with a loss of $25 million in the third quarter of 2013. Losses increased as the firm spent heavily in a bid to expand its business with its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. Bob Kohn has pointed out the monopsony power of Amazon, which has a current market share of 65% of all online book units, digital and print, is not just theoretical; it’s real and formidable. When a company has dominant market power and sells goods for below marginal cost, it is engaging in predatory pricing, a violation of federal antitrust laws.”  There have been articles in USA for the government to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the law prohibits a retailer from wielding its mere size to bully suppliers for discounts. But as Colbert’s experiment of promoting debut author Edan Lepucki’s novel California showed that if readers want, they can procure a book from anywhere. His discussion about it, stemming from his anger for Amazon’s monopolistic practices, propelled California to becoming an NYT bestseller.

In India, commercially-successful author Ashwin Sanghi, drawing parallels between the music industry of 2002 and publishing of today, says, “Books are at an inflection point in 2014; a bit like music was in 2002. Music producers were accustomed to selling CDs whereas Apple wanted to sell singles at 99 cents. The face-off between Amazon and publishers/authors is similar. Publishers wish to charge prices that the industry is accustomed to while Amazon wishes to charge prices that customers will like, thus inducing more customers to buy on Amazon. I think the time has come for Jeff Bezos to sit across the table with publishers. There is no alternative.”

Another author, Rahul Saini writes “I have never supported the idea of monopoly and that is what Amazon is clearly trying to do here. Looking at the argument Amazon is making, it does make sense — buyers are always driven by low prices and heavy discounts (the Indian book market is a perfect example) but I firmly believe that the retailer does not own any right to dictate the pricing of a book. It has to be a mutual consent between the author and the publisher.”

 Popular author Ravinder Singh has his own take. “A publisher has the right to decide the cost of its books (in any format).  If the retailer really wants to bring down the price of the book, he can discount on his margins and should be free to do so. To decide the price tag of a book is a publisher’s (and not retailer’s) prerogative. Having said that, knowingly delaying shipment of titles of a particular publisher (and their authors’) just because it is not accepting the demand, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — readers, authors and publishers. Amazon may be right about the price-demand elasticity of the e-book and in saying that it can certainly bring more readership and thereby more money (offsetting the drop in price). But Hachette has all the right to decline it, even if it means letting go off money. As far as authors are concerned, they would not like to see one particular entity in the entire chain (that has accumulated huge powers), be it a publisher or a retailer, to decide their fate. They want to reach out to as many readers as possible, on time and make the royalties that they deserve.”

 Writing in the Guardian, Kamila Shamsie says, “All writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette — similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles.  Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work. It’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers.

Others disagree. Major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey petitioned Hachette asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage”. This has gathered over 7,600 signatures.

 Publishing is not like selling biscuits or furniture. It isn’t a question of taste and preference but an exercise in social philosophy. Amazon is primarily a tech-company whose dominance in the book industry is unprecedented. There may be some similarities with what happened in the music industry 10 years ago but publishing thrives on editorial tastes, which requires human intervention, not a series of algorithms promoting and recommending books. The book industry relies upon editors who know the business of “discovering” authors and converting them into household names. This public outrage against the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette proves that books are important to the cultural dimension of society.

1 September 2014 

PubSpeak, “Rules Of Publishing: Be On The Move”There has to be serendipity in publishing. It is the smarter way of keeping the ecosystem alive,

PubSpeak, “Rules Of Publishing: Be On The Move”There has to be serendipity in publishing. It is the smarter way of keeping the ecosystem alive,

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose ( The latest edition of my column, PubSpeak, has been uploaded on BusinessWorld online today. The link is http://www.businessworld.in/news/economy/rules-of-publishing-be-on-the-move/1246485/page-1.html. I am also c&p the text below. )

Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone’s ‘The Everything Store’ is about Jeff Bezos and his baby, Amazon. After the book was published, Bezos distanced himself from the book. Significantly his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, gave the book a one-star rating on Amazon saying it contains “numerous factual inaccuracies” and is “full of techniques which stretch the boundaries of non-fiction”. The book is based on a number of interviews that Stone conducted with Bezos, his staff and ex-colleagues to get a sense of the firm. What is very clear after reading the book is that Amazon is significant because it has the advantage of being a first mover, it is a game-changer, certainly for publishing.

There are three points worth considering:

1. Bezos was the first to exploit the potential of the internet and collaborate with start ups with new ideas. For instance, his acquisition of a firm that specialised in digital books, with the .mobi format, resulted in his insistence on making the files uploaded on Kindle to be DRM protected.

2. He knew that sales ranks would be like a drug to authors, so he insisted that it change whenever a new order came in: thus influencing the gradual shift in publishing houses laying more emphasis on marketing and promotional activities than on editing and commissioning. (Whereas it cannot be an either/or situation, it has to be a combination.)

3. Finally Bezos’s famous analogy of comparison that publishing firms are like gazelles and Amazon is a cheetah. This belief was integral to his strategy in agency pricing. He had to persuade publishers to give him the digital files to the books they published. (It required time since many publishers discovered that they did not have the rights to the digital formats from the authors.) He was convinced marking the books at such a low price was rational since there were no printing and warehousing costs involved — a misconception that has come to be associated with the entire system of publishing. But Amazon is able to achieve much of this due to the ‘technological moat’ it has dug for itself, that is, of low margins. It ensures that with the creative vision Bezos and his team have they are able to expand their business into uncharted domains, effectively keeping competition out.

At BookMark, the B2B space for publishing professionals at the Jaipur Literature Festival there were a number of fascinating conversations about the business. Most significantly the resistance in original publishing to digital and the disruption it would cause in the publishing ecosystem was no longer making news. The presence of technology to facilitate, produce and disseminate books is now an accepted norm. It is here to stay. It was interesting to see how the industry was responding to the rapid changes taking place in the environment, necessitating a rapid pace of evolution by adapting and adopting new methods.

Take Penguin Random House CEO John Makinson’s comment at the event, for instance. The coming together of Penguin and Random House was a “strategically delivered merger” since it was the only combination that changed the game, said Makinson. He was confident that the industry would consolidate itself in a bit of time. At a time when the global industry is reeling from the massive presence of Amazon, the formation of Penguin Random House catapults it to the first position with 25 per cent share of the global market. In October 2013, Jüergen Boos, Director, Frankfurt Book Fair, at the opening of the fair, warned that companies like Amazon, Apple and Google were “logistics magicians but are not publishers”. It stands to reason since online recommendations are purchase based and not behavioural. It does not tell you what people want to read since much of the online purchases are for gifts.

There has to be serendipity in publishing. It is the smarter way of keeping the ecosystem alive, creating newer readers and shifting away slightly from being only a writer’s space.

The overwhelming presence of Amazon, Google, and the iBook store of Apple and closer to home, Flipkart, has resulted in the “disturbing dominance of content” as John Makinson put it. It is inevitable that online retail platforms will require large volumes to remain sustainable. They are not discerning and curate content as booksellers are known to do with their stocks. So, it is fairly common to find on these websites second hand, and out-of-print books, or those titles that belong to backlists but are not readily available. In fact, Paul Yamazaki of City Light Booksellers and this year jury member, DSC South Asian Literature prize  is clear that he will retain titles on his shelves that are worth recommending, not necessary that it is the latest title creating waves in the media. City Light Books, is a landmark independent bookstore and publisher that specialises in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. It was established by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin and synonymous with the ‘beatniks’.

Of late, publishers have been a worried lot since their traditional forms of publishing are not giving them the benefits they have been used to; in addition the sales of ebooks have plateaued, falling far short of the forecasts. The reliance on frontlists is making publishers an anxious lot since author brands only work for a limited time and within a given framework. For instance, commercial fiction authors are a brand unto themselves, a specific market who only read the specific author, but do not guarantee sales with every title. Ever since publishing houses were established they relied on a formula of 80:20 where 20 per cent was reserved for experimentation or the mid-lists, to discover and nurture new writers, which sometimes became the bedrock of the future for the firm. This is now happening less and less. Instead it is easier to offer authors a contract once they have proven themselves in the market. Many new voices are being discovered via the self-publishing route and traditional firms recognising the business potential of this are offering self-publishing services. This is in trade publishing. But even in academic publishing, technological advances and the presence of agents such as Apple, Google and Amazon have had an impact. For instance, material in a digital form for classroom and assisted teaching, teacher resource material and even the rent-a-textbook model, like Coursemart, have proved to be successful.

Among some of the other responses to the changing environment were that established businesses know the only way forward is to recognise that their expertise is limited; collaborations with new ideas or new startups is the only way to keep the business afloat; exploring a subscription service to deliver books/content to users/customers as indicated by the tie-up between Scribd and HarperCollins; looking to create a market beyond English-language readers (since it is a limited market), moving beyond viewing English as a functional, operational and legal language, translating content and creating a base of readers in the mother tongues to increase readership. The fact is that when markets are volatile and competing forces are at play and with 40 per cent of the population online it is not easy to forecast what will happen in the near future, save that a certain amount of realignments will happen through mergers and acquisitions, new systems will evolve and it will be survival of the fittest — big or small, who knows for now!

6 Feb 2014 

Lunch with FT: 52 Classic interviews

Lunch with FT: 52 Classic interviews

Lunch with FT: 52 Classic interviews published by the Financial Times and Penguin Books to celebrate 125 years of the paper. It consists of interviews with legendary people who have had lunch with the FT from 1994. Lunch with the FT was conceived by Max Wilkinson, editor of the Weekend FT. He thought the new interview format would provide a ‘ray of sunshine’ in the paper. The rules were straightforward. The guest/interview would choose the restaurant, and the FT would foot the bill. The interviews were conducted by the FT’s global network of columnists and correspondents.

The book consists of interviews with an international list of Who’s Who — Michael Caine, Angelina Jolie, Jeff Bezos, Mo Ibrahim, George Soros, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Jennifer Paterson, Saif Gaddafi, Angela Merkel, Vaclav Havel, Jacques Attali, Imran Khan and James Watson to name a few. It is the kind of book you dip into, to learn about the human side of a person who happens to be influential in their sphere of work. We tend to put achievers on a pedestal but a freewheeling conversation over a good lunch can make a person reveal aspects of their personality that are otherwise well concealed under their professional demeanour. For instance the conversation with James Watson, the man who discovered DNA, has to be one of the most controversial ones. From the interview, I quote:

” From universal DNA fingerprinting to bizarre manipulations of animal DNA, Watson is prepared to endorse a range of uses for the technology that make make liberals blanch, ‘If everyone’s genetic fingerprint were taken,’ he observes, ‘it would take away from our liberty to commit crime.’
More controversial still, Watson argues that if technology permits it, women should be able to abort homosexual foetuses. ‘Most women want grandchildren and do not say with glee that their son is homosexual,’ he says.
This kind of full frontal assault on political correctness has got Watson into hot water in the past. IT is easy to see how his willingness to discuss the ethical vanishing point of genetics has sometimes obscured a genuinely humanitarian desire to limit human suffering.”

As the interviewer goes on to add, “Watson’s impatience to make genetics practical was heightened by the illness of his son, Rufus, who suffers from autism thought to be epilepsy of the thalamus. It was around the time of his son’s diagnosis in 1986 that Watson was installed as the chief cartographer in charge of mapping the human genome. On the subject of his son, who is now in hospital, the ever-effusive scientist starts to clam up. ‘I do not see the need for immortality. But I do have a sick son in hospital. If we knew enough science we could help him. Fame is irrelevant.’ ”

According to the editor, Lionel Barber some excellent interviews that failed to make the cut. These were Paulo Coelho talking about prostitutes and the Pope with fellow author A.N.Wilson or Roger Waters of Pink Floyd comparing himself to Shakespeare and Woody Guthrie — and ordering a piece of GBP75 piece of gravadlax. To the list I would also add the interview with Robert Silvers, editor, NYRB ( http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/091ba1b6-6576-11e2-a3db-00144feab49a.html#axzz2OfbxeZqs ) that was conducted in Jan 2013. Probably too late to be included in the commemorative volume.

For some more about these lunches read FT columnist Matthew Engel on the 18th anniversary of the lunch: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/930857a0-8d3d-11e1-8b49-00144feab49a.html#axzz2Ol2aaFE8 . In India, the only paper that I know of doing a similar series of interviews is the Hindu.

Verdict: I liked reading this book, probably one of those volumes that will remain in my personal library since it captures a moment in time well. As for instance the interview with a young Jeff Bezos or the conversation with Mo Ibrahim, soon after he had sold his telecom business and was on the verge of setting up the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which awards a $5 million initial payment, and a $200,000 annual payment for life to African heads of state who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents and democratically transfer power to their successors. My only grouse is that there is not a single date printed of when the interview was conducted or published.

2 April 2013