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Scholastic India Session on reading, Times of India LitFest, New Delhi ( 26 Nov 2017)

On Sunday 26 November 2017, I moderated the ‘SCHOLASTIC INDIA SESSION’, a conversation on young adult fiction with Shantanu Duttagupta, Scholastic India and Arti Sonthalia at the Times of India LitFest, Delhi (#TLFDelhi). The conversation began with Arti Sonthalia introducing her fabulous chapter book, Hungry to Read.  The story revolves around a reading competition in Grade 3 with the aim of inculcating the love of reading amongst the students. The prize of a night stay in school to use the telescope to watch the night sky is what every student dreams of! The delicious way in which Arti makes it more than a dull story about a competition. Read it!

Using Hungry to Read as a springboard, the conversation expanded to reading levels, tools for measuring reading such as lexile and numbers at the back of books, reading for young adults, reading as a lifelong skill particularly in this information age where content is the oil of twenty-first century!

Watch the conversation:

28 November 2017 

An Interview with Publisher Michael Bhaskar on the Power of Curation

My interview with Michael Bhaskar, co-founder, Canelo was published in literary website Bookwitty on 24 January 2017. I am c&p the text below. ) 

Michael Bhaskar, co-founder and publishing director at Canelo, is known for being at the cutting edge of digital and traditional forms. Very active on Twitter with his perceptive comments on publishing, Bhaskar’s first book was the prize-winning monograph, The Content Machine. In his second book, Curation, he puts forth forceful arguments about the merits of curating content, especially to add value to businesses. His research focuses on the way digital technology is transforming the business and cultural context for publishing and other industries.

Bhaskar has been a British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur, a Frankfurt Book Fair Fellow and is currently a Visiting Researcher at the Oxford Brookes International Centre for Publishing.

Following are edited excerpts of an interview with Bhaskar:

Is there only one definition of “curation” as borrowed from art circles or after your research would you have a modern definition for the term?

Curation is interesting as the word, in English at least, has evolved. It came from the Latin ‘curare’ which meant to be take care of but eventually morphed into putting on and looking after museum and art gallery exhibitions. Then something interesting happened: about twenty years ago, with the web starting to become mainstream, the word curation suddenly started being applied to all kinds of things. Now we use it all over the place. The definition I use, and the definition I think most people intuitively understand, is that curation means ‘selecting and arranging to add value’. That, for me, is the modern understanding of the term.

How does curation, primarily a social skill, convert into financial capital?

I wouldn’t say curation is a social skill… for me it’s also about expertise, understanding, talent. The reason it’s so valuable today is that we are overloaded in so many contexts. Supply more just doesn’t work as a strategy. For example, just releasing another song or a book won’t work without some curation to make sure it finds its audience. Whenever you have a saturated market then, curation becomes invaluable to making sure it carries on functioning.

It is said content is the oil of the 21st century. How do you monetize curatorial abilities? The evidence in your book shows how companies, particularly Netflix, have benefitted tremendously but how can individuals?

There is no easy answer to this. I like to say that curation itself isn’t a business model but is baked into a business model. So Netflix wouldn’t work without curation, but it doesn’t get paid for it; it gets paid or providing people with the things to watch. The curation is kind of folded into the business model. The same is true if, for example, you run a shop. You get paid when people buy something, but the better curated your shop the more likely that is.

How is curation applicable to publishing? Are curatorial skills and the ability to discover dependent on the medium like digital or print matter?

We have far too many books in the world – one million new English language titles released every year. So publishers should be (and are) defined by what they say no to, by the choices that they make, by the careful, considered and highly curated nature of their lists. To me it’s this curatorial element that is central to publishing of all kinds and is only becoming more important.

With human behavioural patterns on the Internet changing rapidly and in the process transforming various social media platforms, the arguments about big data vs small data are gaining momentum. In this scenario how can the concept of curation be still important?

I actually think curation spans big and small data, human selections and automated systems: curation for me is broad and diffuse rather than narrow. So if you look at any of the systems and arguments you mention, they tend to come down to ways of selecting and arranging information, media and even people in various ways. Curation is at the heart of it! Almost every decision and project in digital media has the concept of curation at the heart of it – just look for example at the discussion of Facebook and the US election.

Is human touch / intervention important for curation or can it be left to machines and algorithms?

The truth is we need both. There is this tendency in the tech world to think technology will just take over. It won’t. We value that personal, idiosyncratic touch. We want to know about things precisely because they come from an individual. Yet in the age of big data this isn’t enough – to sift through millions of songs or newspaper articles, you need an algorithm. So the future isn’t about one or another but blends of both.

If curation adds value to a business why don’t we see more posts in firms for such a role?

A few reasons: one, because as I mentioned, it’s baked into the business model. So a buyer, or an editor, or a merchandiser, or an information architect, or a holiday planner, or a DJ: all of these roles are curators but we don’t call them that. Secondly I think we are seeing more such roles being created every day – all the big tech companies have been on a hiring binge for people in these roles over the past year.

Isn’t the ability to curate or access curated material exclusively a middle class phenomenon?

Partly. It’s true to say that it impacts on more affluent people more than less. But that doesn’t mean it’s not spreading because it is. Anyone with access to the Internet is experiencing these trends. Yes, there are a lot of people in the world without access – but fewer with every passing year. So while much of this curation is relevant only to the better off, the direct of travel is that is becoming more significant everywhere.

Doesn’t curation of information have inbuilt biases that may in the long term perpetuate prejudices?

It can do, which is why we need a strong distinction between good and bad curation. Good curation is that which breaks us out of prejudices and goes beyond filter bubbles, bad curation just confirms it. We need to become literate about the kinds of curation going on out there and watch for it closely.

You are at the cutting edge of curatorial abilities in publishing. What do you think lies ahead in publishing? Will business models transform?

I’d like to think the work we are doing at Canelo, the digital publisher I co-founded, indicates the direction of travel. We are a digital publisher, but carefully curated; we take the best of the old world of publishing but combine it with an embrace of new technology and methods; we have a completely redrawn contracts for authors, which we think are much fairer. We believe in digital but we also believe in writers and words. It’s this kind of mixing of the old and the new, the tried and tested with the innovative that I think is the future of publishing.

Michael Bhaskar Curation Piatkus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette, 2016. Pb. pp. 354. Rs 499 

24 January 2017 

The Economics Of Electronic Content: If the e-content falters or is under-par, it will not translate into a sustainable business model

The Economics Of Electronic Content: If the e-content falters or is under-par, it will not translate into a sustainable business model


( “PubSpeak” My column on publishing in BusinessWorld online. 22 March 2013)

few weeks ago educational researcher and professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK, Dr Sugata Mitra won the $1 million TED grant for his ‘Hole-In-The-Wall’ project. It basically promotes the concept of school in the cloud (web) relying on the premise that in the absence of supervision or formal teaching students will discover good content, share, discuss and teach others too. It is based on his experiments conducted in 1999 at Kalkaji, an urban slum in New Delhi. Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering the slum, installed an internet-connected PC, and left it there (with a hidden camera filming the area). What they saw was kids from the slum playing around with the computer and in the process learning how to use it and how to go online, and then teaching each other. Such is the nature of technology that children relatively unexposed to the internet and computers were able to operate and learn to work with the technology.

The outcome of the experiment points towards one direction – the need for availability of reliable and relevant content. The importance and demand of good and reliable content in education is evident in the alacrity with which SmartClasses were adopted in India. The vendors, who were keen to sell computer hardware and claim they have “content for KG till 12 Std”, had a strong USP -– make the information electronically available would help their students in learning. According to a proposal letter from a Delhi-based vendor says they offer to set up SmartClasses and a Knowledge Centre and they have done so in over 10,000 schools across India. Recently there has been some information circulating that this large firm responsible for introducing smart classes is floundering since the veracity and quality of the content it offers is questionable. Schools are getting out of these alliances after 2-3 years of getting into the partnerships.

The ‘E’ Landscape
Sure, the market for e-content is growing. However, to get a definite figure for the size of the edu-content market is difficult. Perhaps these numbers and facts will help us imagine the landscape and possibilities in the ‘E’ economics. The literacy rate for the Indian population is 74.02 per cent (2011), up by 9 per cent from the previous decade. Of this 40 per cent of the population is below the age of 30, where 200 million children are under the age of 18 and 69 million of them reside in urban areas. The book market is estimated to be between Rs 10,000-12,000 crore in value with over 18,000 publishers doing business in the country. and you will perhaps even plan on setting up shop for e-content. Moreover, the publishing industry is growing at a rate of 30 per cent as per recent Ficci estimates.

Now, let’s go over the statistics on the electronic part of the content. The O’Reilly Global eBook Market’s (Feb 2013) says the ebook market in India is expected to be less than 1 per cent of the total book market, though this too is expected to grow by 20-25 per cent in the next 2-3 years.

Almost all of the online educational content and digital books are currently in English. According to PrintWeek India “In the last five years, digital printing industry has grown by approximately 21.6 per cent and over the next five years it is expected to expand by 23.6 per cent. There is a growth of 73 per cent in textbook printing in the last five years in India.”

The government of India is leading several initiatives to promote digital literacy and provide access to digital content at school and college levels. National-level missions such as the Rs 4612 crore ($859 million) National Mission on Education through ICT (NME-ICT) have been introduced. The NME-ICT is working in collaboration with other related missions and schemes—National Knowledge Network, Scheme of ICT in Schools, National Translation Mission, and the Vocational Education Mission. The idea behind the initiative, according to a report published in The Hindu (7 January 2009,http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/001200901021501.htm), is to work towards creating personalised and interactive knowledge module for students.

India’s education sector, moreover, is set to increase to Rs 602,410 crore ($109.84 billion) by FY15 due to the expected strong demand for quality education going by a recent report issued by India Ratings, a Fitch Group Company. Indian education sector’s market size in FY12 is estimated to be Rs 341,180 crore and the market for content forms a key chunk of this pie. The sector grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 16.5 per cent during FY05-FY12. The higher education (HE) segment was at 34.04 per cent ($17.02billion) of the total size in FY10 and grew by a CAGR of 18.13 per cent during FY04-FY10.

The Fitch report also said that it has a stable outlook on the Indian education sector which includes both school and higher education. Hence it is not surprising that content service providers and publishers future strategies are based on how to capitalise this sector. For instance, in Jan 2013 it was announced that HarperCollins India would be launching a new educational division in India. Collins India in a press note said the English-language schools textbook market in India currently stood at more that £150m, more than the market size in the UK, and is expected to grow further. Similarly Wiley India launched its Authorship Development Roadshow to get quality content in Bangalore and Chennai.

Now link all this to the demand from thousands of schools for e-content in India, and perhaps you will immediately think of registering a company and learning the ropes of the business to supply content. And competition already exists in the form of the education sector (K-12, higher education and academic) who were the early adopters of e-learning and e-content have company — the trade publishers too have joined the ‘E’ game.

But it’s not just competition that could prove a bugbear to your prospective firm. The vendor should find out if the content he is providing to schools is legitimate and importantly if it is suitable to the recipients.

With the tablet and smartphones boom in India, convergence is inevitable. However offering good content then becomes a prerequisite. As Thomas Abraham, managing director with Gurgaon-based Hachette India says, “Where trade (non academic books, literary fiction, self help, mind, body and spirit lists) books are concerned, 90 per cent of revenues come from the straight text flows of narrative fiction or non-fiction — the printed page moving on to the screen.”

Content Is Still King
One of the five publishing predictions for 2013 made at international publishing conferences at the start of the year is reiteration of the fact that content will be king. This is the future of publishing. If content falters or is under-par, it will not translate into a sustainable business model. It does not matter if the service provider is a trade publisher for fiction and non-fiction books or an education publisher for creating textbooks, everyone has to focus on creating good, reliable and authentic content.

Today there are slight shifts noticed in the nomenclature being used to offer content. Well-established publishing firms whose focus is education prefer to no longer be identified as publishers instead as educational service providers. Others will prefer to use terms like “content management” and “curriculum development”. Trade publishers, whose prime focus in their children’s list is to create fiction and non-fiction, recognising the need for offering reliable and branded content in educational institutions are now expanding their lists to include grammar books, elocution speeches and quiz books written by “branded” names or those who are willing to lend names. Everyone recognises the market and its potential, so it does make strategic sense to tweak existing lists and offer it in any format: print, digital or audio. Or as was said at the ‘If Book Then’ conference, Milan (19 March 2013) “data is the new oil of xxi century”.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist