PubSpeak Posts

PubSpeak: Total Recall

PubSpeak: Total Recall

My column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online focuses on the Wendy Doniger book controversy. Here is the url to it:   http://businessworld.in/news/economy/total-recall/1266222/page-1.html   . ) 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose On 11 February, Penguin Books India reached a compromise drawn up in a Delhi Court that insisted it cease the publication and sale of American Indologist, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in India within six months. Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samitri had filed a civil suit against the publishers to withdraw from circulation all copies. Given that Batra had filed the case four years ago and it was still subjudice, the news of this compromise spread like wildfire. Later that day, Doniger issued a press statement “I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit. They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”Wendy Doniger

PBI logoPenguin Books India released a statement on 14 February stating “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can…. The settlement reached this week brings to a close a four year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. We have published, in succession, hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of the title. International editions of the book remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it.”

What followed the announcement perhaps was only a natural outcome given the speed at which social media helps communicate information. There was public outrage at this development— newspapers, print, digital, and, of course, social media forums. A number of commentators, journalists, and even Penguin authors wrote passionately against Penguin Book India’s decision to destroy the book. Arundhati Roy in an open letter spoke of her distress and said “You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least”. Nilanjana Roy, author and member of PEN Delhi wrote on censorship and how to remain free; Jakob de Roover in an outstanding essay “Untangling the Knot” discussed the complexities of governance, judiciary and free speech; journalist Salil Tripathi commented perceptively on the issue on many platforms ; Stephen Alter wrote, “Both as a writer and as a reader, I am deeply offended that anyone should dictate what I may read or write”; Penguin author and essayist, Amit Chaudhuri reiterated that “It’s important that the law protect all texts”; and Antara Dev Sen, Editor, The Little Magazine, wrote that the Indian Penal Code “Section 295A targets ‘deliberate and malicious acts (which include speech, writings or signs) intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. In an age of identity politics and hurt sentiments, this has been used frequently by politically motivated people to stifle free speech. But back in 1957, the Supreme Court had ruled that only when there is a ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings’ is it an offence under this law. Higher courts in India have consistently ruled in favour of freedom of speech and have protected books and people hauled to court under this law.”

In fact, two Penguin authors, Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma, asked for their contracts to be terminated. Another Penguin author, Arshia Sattar (who has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara from Sanskrit to English) expressed her dismay at the “complete capitulation” of the firm and how her “pride and that faith has been shaken…of being with a publishing house that protected its people and the books they wrote”.

A counter legal initiative perhaps was expected. According to the website, Legally India, advocate Lawrence Liang, part of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, has issued a 30-paragraph legal notice to Penguin India, claiming that the publisher has violated freedom of speech laws and readers’ rights by agreeing to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’. The notice sent on behalf of Liang’s clients, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarthi Sethi, argues that because Penguin has agreed to withdraw the book from India and destroy all copies, after a legal dispute with a religious group, it has “effectively acknowledged that it is no longer interested in exercising” its ownership in the work and should surrender its copyright to the Indian public. Sengupta is a Delhi-based artist and writer, while Sethi is an anthropologist with a “deep interest in Hindu philosophy”, according to the legal notice. Both are “avid bibliophiles” and were apparently “delighted” when Penguin published Doniger’s book, “and as people who have closely followed the scholarly contributions of the said author they regard this book to be a significant contribution to the study of Hinduism. They consider Ms Doniger’s translations of Indian classical texts and her work on various facets of Hinduism from morality in the Mahabharata to the erotic history of Hinduism as an inspiration for their own intellectual pursuits.”

At the recent Globalocal event (German Book Office, New Delhi’s annual B2B conference on publishing), a regional language publisher wondered if it was possible for any other publisher to option this book and publish it, after all it has not been legally banned in this territory. Echoing this sentiment, Shamnad Basheer, IPR lawyer, writing in Spicy IP, reflected upon the pros and cons of compulsory licensing, and whether it was possible if a publisher decides to stop publication, one could apply for a compulsory license.

Globally Penguin has been in the news related to their peripheral businesses and their merger with Random House. In 2012, Pearson PLC (of which Penguin Books India is a part of) acquired the self-publishing firm, Author Solutions, for $116 million. But in 2013, this deal soured as a number of disgruntled authors filed lawsuits against Author Solutions for its poor service. In the landmark case pertaining to ebooks and agency pricing, in April 2012, the US Department of Justice sued Apple and five publishers, including Penguin, for conspiring to raise prices and restrain competition. This was done after Amazon filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, Penguin was obliged to pay $75 million. George Packer observes in the New Yorker, “an enormous sum in a business that has always struggled to maintain respectable profit margins”. On 1 July 2013, the global merger between Penguin Books and Random House was announced. It was a strategic alliance, forged as a response to the growing presence of Amazon in the publishing industry. The formation of Penguin Random House (PRH) has created a group that has 25 per cent of the market share. A merger comes at a cost of resources that have to be taken into account for the new firm to begin work on a strong footing.

In Oct 2013, Penguin Random House announced the completion of its purchase of Ananda Publishers Private Limited’s minority stake in Penguin Books India. It plans to invest Rs 55 crore or $8.6 million for this stake buy. As banker-turned-author Ravi Subramanian, with whom in June 2013 Penguin Books India signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) wrote on his blog with respect to Doniger’s case, “publishing is a business”. For any firm, particularly in publishing, this is a lot of money being moved around its balance sheets.  Naturally the ripple effect of these financial adjustments will be felt even in the local markets—it is like conducting business in a global village where in the context of a globally contacted world, the minimum consumption that people desire is also influenced by what is going on elsewhere.

Similarly, with the Doniger case, Penguin Books India has probably taken an informed business decision, based upon a global strategy when it signed this deal on 11 February, in order to preserve a healthy English-language publishing market in India.

Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Books India, in a guest blog post in 2012 during the Banned Books week, had this to say: “Injunctions make things costly, time consuming, and take our energies away from the work we are really meant to do. And so we try and avoid them as much as possible. Apart from the fact that we don’t fight hard enough for them, I wonder whether it means we impose a kind of self-censorship on ourselves.”

Ironically this latest controversy broke exactly twenty-five years after the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for his ‘Satanic Verses’ published by Penguin. At the time, his publishers stood by him and did not pulp the book. The fact is publishing is a business that is built upon the creative energies and emotions of people. India is also a functioning democracy. Freedom of speech is the right of every citizen. With the General Elections less than a hundred days away, the need for openness, frank conversations without any inhibitions, and certainly not a capitulation to any ideological position is imperative.

Scholar-journalist and historian Mukul Kesavan points out that that selling books is not like selling any other commodity. Publishers have moral responsibility and a publisher voluntarily agreeing to withdraw a book has previously been challenged with the case of James Laine’s book on Shivaji in 2007. Oxford University Press voluntarily agreed to withdraw the book. An FIR was issued against the publisher and printer of the book in Pune (one charge, under Section 153 A, was ‘inciting class hatred’) and the printer was actually arrested. When the case (‘Manzar Sayeed Khan vs State Of Maharashtra, 2007’) came up before the Supreme Court, however, the government of Maharashtra’s case against the author and the publisher of the book was found to be wanting. So, there is a precedent by the Supreme Court to rule in favour of free speech.

Nevertheless, the Wendy Doniger book controversy raises a bunch of issues pertaining to the publishing industry. Questions about legislation and the freedom of speech, what are the ethics involved in publishing, do readers and authors have a right that they can exercise, what does it mean for licensing, do possibilities exist in a mixed environment of digital and print publishing such as do readers have a choice?

Finally does this self-censorship by a publishing firm mean an inadvertent promotion for self-publishing, encouraging authors to be responsible for their books completely? Interestingly in a space of less than six weeks I have heard John Makinson, CEO, Penguin Random House and Jon Fine, Director, Author & Publishing Relations, Amazon talk about their publishing businesses and both have stressed upon the importance of discoverability of an author. This controversy could not have come at a better time for Doniger and even Penguin. They have achieved the Streisand effect whereby in an attempt to censor a piece of information, it has had the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely. It has achieved what no PR could have—a boost in sales.

21 Feb 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 

“Keeping The Word”, PubSpeak, Dec 2013

“Keeping The Word”, PubSpeak, Dec 2013

( PubSpeak in December 2013 is about trust deficit. It has been published originally in BusinessWorld online. Here is the url: http://www.businessworld.in/news/books/columns/keeping-the-word/1175440/page-1.html I am also c&p the text below. 4 Dec 2013
PubSpeak, Jaya

Publishing industry too has its share of tales where people have not honoured their word or fulfilled contracts. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose writes of ways to prevent these

Some time ago, I received a message on Facebook from a distraught illustrator. The illustrator had been commissioned by a prominent publishing house to create paintings for a book cover design of a forthcoming young adult novel. The cover had been through three draft designs and had been approved by everyone including the author. At the final stage, some design changes were asked for. The illustrator was not happy. Nevertheless, in complete faith, the illustrator decided to submit high resolution files of the altered paintings since the project was nearing completion. But the relationship came apart (and legal recourse had to be taken to) because the art director of the publishing house refused to honour the contract, withholding part of the payment due on the grounds that the design had been created inhouse. But there is barely any difference other than the shade of colour and the size of the images if you compare the designs submitted by the illustrator with those that were done inhouse. Since then, the first illustrator has refused to work with the publisher.

Twenty years after the publication of ‘A Suitable Boy’, fans of Vikram Seth were waiting in anticipation for the sequel – A Suitable Girl. Unfortunately Seth did not deliver the manuscript in time to Hamish Hamilton. Soon after the merger of Penguin Books and Random House was official in July 2013, this book was one of the earliest casualties. The author was asked by the publishers to return the $1.7 million advance for a two-book deal, including the paperback rights of ‘A Suitable Boy’, bought off Orion publishing. According to media reports the new group — Penguin Random House — is expected to cut costs as it tries to compete better with new forms of publishing and competition from online rivals such as Amazon. Fortunately for the author, his original publisher Orion, stepped in and is committed to publishing A Suitable Girl in Autumn 2016.

Disturbing Trend
The world of publishing is full of such stories — some tamer than others. People yearning to be published, some having been published, some selling better than others, some getting noticed critically more than the others, many satisfied with what they have achieved, yet there is a constant subterranean rumble of unpleasant anecdotes. Many of the stories, often open knowledge to ‘those in the know’, deal with plagiarism, contracts not being honoured, copyright violations, disappointment about advances, dissatisfaction about contracts drawn or negotiations about rights hitting nasty patches, sales and marketing executives not fulfilling orders, bookstores not adequately stocked, at times even missing titles that have been shortlisted for literary prizes.A popular topic of conversation is the efficiency of vendor management systems and authors stealing ideas from each other. The stories are about professional relationships being affected, relationships that are forged, nurtured and sustained by humans. These, in turn, affect the commissioning potential of editors and the formation and evolution of lists and imprints, the emergence of new ideas and creative collaborations and more importantly the growth of the business of publishing.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “publish” is defined as “prepare and issue (a book, journal or piece of music) for public sale. Print in a book or journal so as to make generally known.” A “publisher” is a company or person that prepares and issues books, journals, or music for sale. In traditional forms of publishing, that is, the printed form, specialist knowledge of the processes involved including sales, marketing and distribution was essential. Many of the books published were and are inevitably born out of a conversation (or a “gentleman’s agreement”) that a commissioning editor has with the author (or the content creator, as the ‘author’ could even be another publisher or an organisation, and not necessarily an individual). It is after a series of negotiations based on trust that the business details of the arrangement are thrashed out and subsequently enshrined in a written and signed contract. These are then preserved and referred to for the time that the firm has the license to publish the book(s).

For many authors/illustrators this is a smooth process and continues to be so. From the moment authors are signed on, they begin to be a little more aware of their rights, wanting clarity on the royalty statements, visibility and easy availability of the book in all formats and kinds of stores. Publishers too want professionalism from the content creator and other collaborators on the project. Similarly bookstore owners/online retailers/customers want quick fulfillment of their orders. Readers want satisfaction from the books that they read.

So, What Next?
Every October, publishers from around the world flock to the publishers’ mecca, the Frankfurt Book Fair, for a week of intense conversations and meetings. This time the news emerging from the Frankfurt was about the most innovative and viable method of connecting books with readers, these were mostly reserved for the digital domain. Some examples of digital-only imprints are HarperCollins India’sHarper21; Italy’s RCS Libri’s Rizzoli Lab, dedicated to experiments in digital; Indireads presenting modern South Asian literature in digital friendly formats.; HarperCollins established HarperTeen Impulse; Random House launched Loveswept, Hydra, Alibi, and Flirt; Harlequin has Carina Press and Bloomsbury has Bloomsbury Spark.

Another tactic is to create blogs on publishers’ websites where most host curators prefer to focus only on their books and authors. The Melville House publishing house’s blog has to be one of the richest in its generosity of sharing accounts, stories and opinions related to books and not necessarily confined to its own lists.

Today, with social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, content creators (authors, illustrators) can have conversations directly with other publishing professionals. A democratisation of the system that is challenging established business models of publishing. A notable result has been the rapidity with which self-publishing has become an attractive proposition — primarily because the author is in control of producing his book in all formats, can track the distribution and sales and is responsible for the promotion of the book. With the number of authors opting for this form of publishing it is no surprise that even traditional publishers are offering self-publishing services as an option.

Through this wonderful burst of creative energy and proliferation of platforms for publishing, two facts stand out. First, these innovations are obvious responses to the changing environment of publishing. Second, given how complex the book market is becoming, with new channels of news dissemination and distribution, publishers are being innovative in accessing readers and customers. But these new business models of outreach will only be successful if publishing professionals do not keep their word and the growing “trust deficit” in the publishing eco-system is not addressed immediately.

Stuart Diamond writing in his bestseller ‘Getting More’ says “Trust is a feeling of security that the other person will protect you. …The major component of trust is honesty—being straight with people. Trust does not mean that both sides agree with each other, or are always pleasant to each other. …Trust is something that develops slowly, over time. It is an emotional commitment to one another based on mutual respect, ethics, and good feeling. …lack of trust has a cost.”

These challenges exist in all industries but it is slightly different for publishing which relies upon human relationships and creativity for growing the business organically. For it to be a sustainable business model, there has to be bedrock of trust among all stakeholders, irrespective of the format they choose to publish in.

The writer is an international publishing consultant and columnist

@JBhattacharji

“Permit To Read” Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news, PubSpeak, Sept 2013

“Permit To Read” Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news, PubSpeak, Sept 2013

( My monthly column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online has been published. Here is the original http://www.businessworld.in/news/economy/permit-to-read/1072156/page-1.html. This time it is on permission to read.)

PubSpeak, Jaya

I heard a lovely story (and true) from Aditi Maheshwari, publisher, Vani Prakashan. (Vani Prakashan have been publishing in Hindi for 55 years.) They participate in book fairs around the country. One of the biggest events for Vani Prakashan is to set up a large stall at the Patna book fair, with a long walk between the entry and exit points. At one of these events, Aditi noticed a married couple browse through their stalls. The wife paused when she spotted the Hindi translation of Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja. She nudged her husband and said, “I have heard about this book. I read a review in a women’s magazine. Could you please buy it for me?” The husband looked appalled and said, “No. I will not. This is a book I will not allow in the house. If you buy it and read it, I will throw you out of the house.” And then he pulled his wife away.

She followed him as she was used to. Aditi saw this exchange. She quickly picked up a copy of the book, slipped it into a paper envelope, rolled it up in a catalogue and asked a colleague to slip it into the wife’s hand as they were exiting out of the stall. A few weeks later Aditi received a few lines scribbled on a postcard from the woman. She said, “Thank you for the book. My life has changed after reading it. I did not realise that if anyone touches my body without my consent can be construed as rape, even if it is my husband demanding his ‘right’ at night. Could you please send me the author’s address? I would like to write to her as well.”

Aditi did. A couple of months later the publisher received an ecstatic phone call from Taslima Nasreen telling her about the beautiful note of 20-25 lines that had been sent to her by the wife in Bihar. The book had stuck a chord. (And it must have with many more. Since the Hindi translation was published in 1996, Vani Prakashan has sold over 5,00,000 copies of Lajja reasonably priced at Rs 150. The other Taslima Nasreen titles that they have published have also had equally extraordinary print runs.)

In order to access women readers women’s presses were established. Some of the better known names worldwide are Virago, Kali for Women, Zubaan, Women Unlimited, Persephone Books, Spinifex Press, Modjaji Books, and The Feminist Press. When these publishing houses first began — inevitably all of them were established after 1970 — they were not considered too seriously by their peers in publishing. The notion of creating a distinct list for women was unheard of, but a publishing house dedicated to creating books for women, by women and with women readers in mind was inconceivable.

The Game Changers
Slowly over a period of time it became obvious that this was a strong and healthy market segment. After about two to three decades mainstream publishing houses recognising the potential announced their own imprints dedicated to women or began collaborations. In India, Zubaan entered into a co-publishing agreement with Penguin Books. But as Urvashi Butalia, publisher, Zubaan (and co-founder, Kali for Women), said in an interview in April 2013: “Around the time Kali for Women came to be, there were very many feminist presses globally, with Virago being the most prominent. There are now only a handful; most of them have either scaled back or shut shop, and part of the reason has to do with feminism going ‘mainstream’.

There is a moment in Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s Oleander Girl when Korobi advises her hostess in America, Seema Mitra, how to flee New York and return to India, in time to have her baby in Calcutta. “Flee” because her husband consumed completely by his addiction to gambling is being unreasonable and unable to look after her. Korobi assists the young, heavily-pregnant Seema to hatch a plan to leave New York City for India without the husband even getting a whiff of it. The plan is ridiculously simple and Seema escapes easily.  Oleander Girl has been published in India by Penguin Books India, but Divakaruni has been writing for many years, with many “mainstream” publishing houses, around the world, some of her books have been adapted into films — notably, the Mistress of Spices had Aishwarya Rai acting in it. The strength of Divakaruni’s writing lies in the finely etched women characters that populate her stories. Her retelling of the Mahabharata from the perspective of Draupadi in The Palace of Illusions continues to sell extraordinarily well. In India alone the sales in hardback and paperback have crossed 25,000 copies (probably is higher). It is said that the commercial success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey can be attributed predominantly to the word-of-mouth recommendation by women readers who initially read the book on their electronic devices, reading in “secret” albeit in public spaces say, while commuting since the book cover was not visible. So, they were able to read, share and discuss erotic fiction without being condemned for the act of reading, let alone the genre. This anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a growing market amongst women readers.

The format in which it is delivered is immaterial, but it is the accessibility of it that is crucial when connecting with women readers. It could be in printed volumes, easy to handle slim volumes of large texts, creating audio books that are delivered via electronic mediums including fixed landlines and mobile phones, getting books to many book clubs that exist and meet regularly, selling books via newspaper vendors (as Harlequin is exploring in Kerala), and definitely marking the books at price points that are affordable for women, even if it means exploring a membership with the publisher or paying in installments for the books.

Many women now have expendable income especially those who are entering the workforce, young and single whereas the priority for many married women continues to be the family. But the fact is many do read and want to read. A significant fact since it affects the bottomline of publishing too. News about publishing is generally dominated by articles on digital and print conversations, self-publishing, emerging markets, language publishing, children’s and YA literature, new forms of electronic readers, the collapse of brick-and-mortar bookstores – all very relevant aspects of publishing but slowly the conversations about women readers as a distinct market is no longer centre stage.

Society Versus The Individual
Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news. It still upsets people. Akshay Pathak, writer, wrote in an article last month, “My mother was the only person in the family who had read some books. But she was married into a family where reading books was forcefully discouraged. And so gradually she stopped. Had to.” It is still not uncommon for women who are reading at home to hear, “Why are you lolling? Isn’t there any work to be done?”

Muneeza Shamsie, literary journalist, in her contribution to Fifty Shades of Feminism writes “… the last word belongs to my mother. [Jahanara Habibullah] In her last years, to try and cope with my father’s terminal illness, she began her very first book, a memoir. She was 84 when it was published as an English translation and later in the original Urdu. In 2003, after she died, I found stacks of Urdu classics – often written by her kinsmen – tucked away in the lower bookshelves. To me, my mother’s tenacity, her love for a literature and language that neither her husband nor her children could read, embody the suppressed voices of women. But my mother’s tale is one of triumph. On the last night of her life, she rang my paternal aunt Tazeen and said “All these years I was turned into a housewife and made useless! I should have been a writer!” Such a self-revelation, at 86, a few hours before dying! By her bedside table sat Kamila’s novels and my anthologies – a far cry from secretarial college where success depended on reproducing accurately someone else’s words.” Pink Poster, Asmita

There is a fabulous poster created during the women’s movement in India by an NGO, Asmita. It shows a woman dressed in a sari sitting in a chair, with her feet up and reading a book. The television is on and she has a couple of books open and scattered on the floor besides her. Basically she is looking very relaxed and is obviously in her own private space — a dream for many. But as William St. Clair says in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “Women’s reading, at any rate women’s reading of the upper-income groups, the commonplace books suggest, was by no means limited to writings regarded as suitable for women.” A fact that holds true two centuries later.

11 Sept 2013
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist

@JBhattacharji

On “discoverability” in publishing. (PubSpeak, BusinessWorld, Aug 2013)

On “discoverability” in publishing. (PubSpeak, BusinessWorld, Aug 2013)

PubSpeak, Jaya

( My monthly column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online. July 2013 is on “discoverability”. Here is the link to the orignial url http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/publishers-search-tools-to-find-readers/r1013160.37528/page/0 )

Publishers’ Search Tools To Find Readers

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose on why it is the discovery of a book that ultimately matters for the business of publishing

How does a reader ‘discover’ an author/book? Today digital technology is rapidly becoming a unifying factor in the coming together of print and electronic forms of publishing. It is also responsible for the “discoverability” of a book. Traditional forms of discovery – curation in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, word-of-mouth recommendations, libraries, second hand bookstores, gifts, book reviews in newspapers and magazines and book clubs continue to be significant. Literary prizes too are important.

Chinaman
Caroline Newbury, VP Marketing and Publicity, Random House Publishers India explains the link well with reference to their author, Shehan Karunatilaka winning the DSC prize worth $50,000 in 2012 for his book Chinaman. “Any prize which supports both new and established writers is to be praised but the DSC Prize is a special case for its specific promotion of writing about South Asia,” says Newbury. “Since its DSC Prize win we have reprinted Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman and its prize-winning credentials definitely help bring it to a wider readership in India and beyond.”

Yet it is the popular modes of discovering a book including online reading communities like Goodreads and Riffles; advertisement banners in e-mails and on websites; automatic recommendations on online retail sites like Amazon, Flipkart; conversations and status updates in social media spaces such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest; following literary curators; bloggers; and even movie adaptations of a book.

50 Writers
Two books that I read recently – 50 Writers, 50 books: The Best of Indian Fiction and Reading New India: Post-millennial Indian Fiction in English, apart from being thought-provoking commentaries on literature, are a good way of discovering authors. The first is an anthology of essays discussing books from Indian fiction, across languages and the second a critique with a synopsis of the stories of predominantly commercial fiction. The texts complement each other well, but for a reader they are valuable for discovering fiction hitherto they have unheard of, especially since the fiction discussed is recommended by academics, authors, critics and literary tastemakers.
reading-new-india-post-millennial-indian-fiction-in-english

It is important to delineate the thin line between discoverability and promotion of a book. Discoverability would depend largely upon the gravitas of the book, the whispers that are heard about a book in various contexts. But promotions would be the marketing blitzkrieg created by the publishing houses. These could include the predictable book launches, panel discussions, and author tours, interviews in the prominent newspapers and participating in literary festivals. Now add to that list partnerships with coffee chains. Authors too are beginning to hire PR firms and consultants to strategise and create a media buzz for their books.

Last week two publishing professionals – Jonathan Galassi, head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/farrar-straus-giroux-jonathan-galassi-on-hothouse.html) and Anakana Schofield, debut novelist ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/25/anakana-schofield-how-to-write ) – raised the fundamental question about the meteoric rise in the number of writers, but where are the readers? It seems that for the first time in publishing, there are more writers than readers. It should be considered as a happy trend. More to publish, more to sell. But are there any takers? Or more importantly, how do you discover a book you want to read so that you will buy?

On 1 July 2013 Penguin and Random House announced that their merger had been approved. From 2014, the merged entity Penguin Random House is expected to be publishing 15,000 titles a year. Assuming these are all new titles of the front list, it will be a formidable stable of authors. But at the rate of publishing 41 books a day will only make it tougher to locate a title.

And if this is the scenario in English-language trade publishing how does the rest of publishing fare? Some of the other categories to be considered would be trade lists in other languages, translations, children’s literature, non-fiction, and of course academic publishing. All kinds of authors are struggling to be heard/ read.

And this conundrum of discovering an author or a relevant text extends beyond trade publishing to academic publishing too. Last week The Bookseller, a publishing industry daily, announced that “Google is to bring a textbook sale and rental service to the Google Play store this August in time for the Back to School season. The company announced it had partnered with academic publishers Pearson, Wiley, Macmillan, McGraw Hill and Cengage Google Play will offer textbook rentals and sales for up to an 80 per cent discount, the company has said, which is the same claim Amazon makes for its Kindle textbook rentals.”

This is similar to the CourseSmart model provides eTextbooks and digital course materials. It was founded in 2007 by publishers in higher education including Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group (Macmillan) and John Wiley & Sons. According to research firm Outsell Inc Online products accounted for 27 per cent of the $12.4 billion spent on textbooks for secondary schools and colleges in the US last year. Publishers like Pearson Plc and McGraw-Hill Education are also creating online versions of their texts, often loaded with interactive features, and selling students access codes that expire at semester’s end.

These alternative methods of discovering an author may be worth exploring. It is probably “easier” to experiment with dedicated platforms for textbooks where the selling price of a title is exorbitant. So, offering short-term licences (“access codes”) to academics and students to review, rent and (in moderation) print relevant pages creates a wider community of users.

Plus, it is increasingly becoming an important alternative source of revenue generation for publishing firms, although reservations exist about the adoption of a digital format by students, indications are that students prefer books. Whereas for trade publishers investing in platforms will be economically unviable unless you are Penguin and create Book Country. But for most others it will be an expensive proposition unless they opt for digital catalogues. Hence an online, interactive, cross-publisher catalogue service that supplements or replaces traditional hard-copy publisher catalogues like Edelweiss, whose tag line is “Finding your next favourite book is a lot easier”. As marketing executives say books are a low-cost product so media copies are distributed but it is the discovery of a book that ultimately matters for the business of publishing.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist
@JBhattacharji

National Book Promotion Policy: Where Are We? ( Nov 2011)

National Book Promotion Policy: Where Are We? ( Nov 2011)

PubSpeak, Jaya

( My comments on the Indian Government’s National Book Promotion Policy. This is from my column, PubSpeak, in BusinessWorld, 18 Nov 2011. The original url is: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/national-book-promotion-policy-where-are-we/r361073.37487/page/0 )

The Indian government’s National Book Promotion Policy enshrines a number of good ideas that are bound to have a positive impact on the publishing industry

The demand for books is being propelled by India’s 8.8 per cent growth in 2010 and the reading habits of the burgeoning Indian middle class. Publishers forecast India will be the biggest English language book-buying market in the world. Today, it is the third largest after the US and the UK; but ahead of major Asian competitors such as China and Japan. The good news is that India is poised on the cusp of a great educational revolution. Today, if one averages seven textbooks per literate student, the agencies of the Indian government print 1.8 billion books per year. Plus another two billion exercise notebooks. The downside however, is that more than seven million children in India drop out from schools. And all they need is a book. For that to happen, these books have to be created. In India, the government has made a commitment of $7.56 billion every year for a period of five years and has set aside $3.33 billion for 2010-11. Today, the demand drivers for education are based on the fact that it’s a young nation which has a population of 400 million between the age group of 5 to 24. Of this, 220 million attend schools and colleges. The “guesstimate” for the Indian book publishing is US$1.9 billion. Of this, educational books and higher educational books dominate 60 per cent of the market share. Some of the other prominent segments or lists are trade/fiction, business and dictionaries. There are 19,000 publishers in the country. Trade books account for 30 per cent of output by value (at Rs 4,200 crore), of which local publishing makes Rs 700 crore. Trade in English-language publishing-including fiction, non-fiction, and textbooks-is equivalent to Rs 9,800 crore of the total value of Rs 14,000 crore.

These are only some of the statistics that are being bandied about the Indian publishing industry. A publishing eco-system in any territory is vast and complicated. The verticals in it are not as clear as in any other industry, but this unique interdependence between different departments in a publishing firm is also its strength. Editors are dependent upon sales and marketing departments to keep them informed about reading trends in the market and bookstores and if there is any growing demand. Similarly, editors are able to commission and select manuscripts that not only cater to existing demands, but anticipate and predict future trends. In order to allow for such experiments to happen, editors and their publishing houses are dependent upon decisions like the recent Government of India’s draft National Book Promotion policy. Policies, such as these, help in creating and sustaining new markets which in turn, help in the growth of the industry.

For this first article in a series devoted to the publishing industry (domestic and international), its various aspects and the business thereof, I will focus on the National Book Promotion Policy. There are some good ideas enshrined in the policy that are bound to have a positive impact on the industry. For instance, strengthening the library movement; making books available for the differently-abled, women, children and in the rural areas; collecting authentic statistics about books and publishing; promotion of reading habit; fostering a translation programme; offering reasonable postal rates and elimination/reduction of duties and finally, capitalising upon technological changes.

In order to be effective and link publishers with the intended readership, there must be a census of the book industry in India, beginning with who is originating, to who is writing, and who is reading. If this is undertaken first, it will determine everything else. Equally, we need to study what our national institutions such as the National Library, NBT, NCERT, Raja Ram Mohun Roy Foundation, Sahitya Akademi etc. achieved in all these years. Similar initiatives like this have been implemented with a fair degree of success in countries such as Australia, Singapore and Canada. Australia has a grants system at national and state levels and they have proved very beneficial. Writers compete for grants under criteria that do not exclude emerging writers. In India, project grants awarded on merit and timelines (for the author) would greatly assist the development of works and writers.

The Canadian Council is one example of where this has been achieved successfully. I will quote (with permission) an excerpt from an e-mail that I received from Shauna Singh Baldwin. My experience with a great National Book Promotion Policy that works is the Canadian System. The Canada Council is an independent agency that makes grants to writers from tax money. I have served three times on the grant juries for writers, and found them fabulously objective. They have three grants — to emerging, mid-career and advanced writers. The Canada Council administers the Governor General’s prizes (like the Sahitya Akademi) for the past 75 years and having served on that jury in 2008 and read 137 novels submitted by publishers, I can tell you GG award money is hard won. The Canada Council also funds publishers and what is really important as an example to India: translators in other countries. For instance, my novels were published in Dutch by de Geuss in Holland under a grant from the Canada Council. The Canada Council pays for writers’ honorariums at readings – not a lot, but enough to promote the concept of respect for the artist. As you know, if you don’t pay for work, you won’t value it.

It is a combination of various kinds of initiatives that will strengthen the publishing eco-system in India and make it an integral part of the global publishing industry. Different aspects of this industry will be discussed in subsequent articles. – See more at: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/national-book-promotion-policy-where-are-we/r361073.37487/page/0#sthash.eILAfoem.dpuf

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

PubSpeak, Jaya
( My column, “PubSpeak”, for June 2013 is on What constitutes good literature? It is published in BusinessWorld online. The link is: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/good-lit-versus-saleable-lit/r964342.37528/page/0 . It was uploaded on 29 June 2013. )

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit

What is good literature? The fine, complex and well-crafted story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well? The debate is on…

Some of my happiest childhood memories are sitting curled up in a chair and reading. I read and read. I bought books, I was gifted books, I inherited books. My brother and I browsed through encyclopaedias, books on art and museums, read fiction, non-fiction, and anything else in between. Call it by any name, but the pleasure of holding and reading a book was tremendous. In fact one of the canvases I painted was of my brother reading a Leslie Charteris “Saint” novel, borrowed from the library its red jacket visible while he lies on the bed absorbed in reading. We read voraciously. We read whatever came our way. I don’t recall anyone telling us that books were strictly by age or category. We liked a good story. Period.

Today it is different. In June 2013 award-winning German writer, translator and Publisher at Carl Hanser Verlag, Michael Krüger, said in Publishing Perspectives, the daily e-newsletter on publishing, “I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. …Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding.” Publishers are increasingly more careful about commissioning titles and work a great deal on the packaging and promotion of the books. Always with an eye on the market, reaching out to the regular customers and trying to connect with new readers. For instance titles for children are being classified according to age, to make it easier for customers to find authors.

New imprints are being launched especially for young adult literature (it is a booming market segment) – Inked (Penguin Books India), Red Turtle (Rupa Publications), Duckbill (Westland) and Scholastic Nova. The idea is to always have a pulse on the market. Some of the genres that are popular are commercial fiction, children’s literature, non-fiction, self-help, business and then there are new lists appearing – young adult/ tweens, cross-over titles, and speculative fiction.

Jaspreet Gill, a marketing executive who wandered into the industry a year ago, (and the publishing bug has bitten him) says “It is not an industry for the most part driven by Editorial (I thought it was), or the quality of content. The whole trade is driven by sales. The worth of a book is judged by how well it can be sold, or how much the author can spend and how well he can be utilised for marketing. This is also, with all due respect to them. They are smart salesmen, but that is all that they are, selling commodities, not presenting ideas, ideologies, and good literature. I sincerely believe that the reason for success of the authors of commercial fiction is not the quality of their content, but the price of the book, and visibility they are able to get at the retail stores. They are also clever marketers, and know how to sell their products to people.”

Somak Ghoshal, former literary fiction commissioning editor with Penguin Books, acquired some fine literature (Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Anjan Sundaram, Neamat Imam and Shazaf Fatima Haider) says, “Commercial fiction sells. The print runs are staggering. The success of these titles allows the firm to acquire literature that in turn develops the brand of the firm. It is a symbiotic relationship.”

It raises the (eternal) question of what is good literature? What sells? And why? Does good literature equal saleable literature? Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books, Kolkata (with offices in New York and London), offers an explanation “Like everything else, we need to question the ‘market’. After all, it cannot exist in a vacuum. To put it another way: without content — largely implying the labour of the author, the effort of the publisher and all the other players including the vital function that a translator plays — where would the market be? What would it ‘showcase’? What would it sell? And let us make no bones about the fact that ‘content’ is not simply and only about a certain swiftly ‘saleable’ kind of book. It is also about the arts and literature and culture and philosophy and thought that go into making us human. Again if we persist with our interpretation of what the market wants we will end up by not publishing 90 per cent of these subjects. What kind of a future will that be? It is in this context that the market has a responsibility and a proactive role to play. ‘It’ (the market) cannot be lazy about this and merely sit back and expect only the books that make the grade according to ‘its’ standards be accepted! The market has to learn to cater, feed, nurture tastes for literature that do not necessarily extend to the millions . . . always remembering that the first Kafka text only sold 800 copies! If the market had behaved as it does now we would never have had a Franz Kafka! It is in this context that I suggest that the market needs to find you.” Sterling Lord, literary agent to Jack Kerouac, Ken Casey, Gloria Steinem, and Berenstains reports in his memoir Lord of Publishing of Ted Geisel, editor, Random House who published the Berenstain bear stories that he insisted on the story being a page-turner. But it “wasn’t only the story that Ted focused on; he cared about the title page, the type, the paper, every phrase, every word, every rhyme, and every drawing.” The intervention of the editor created a book that would sell and launched a new author into the market. By March 2009, nearly fifty years after publication, The Berenstain Bears Go to School had sold 3,520,554 copies in North America alone.

Of course the notion of what constitutes “good” literature is subjective but it is obviously a challenge that plagues the industry worldwide. Is it literature that is fine, complex, well-crafted and tells a good story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well and caters to the mass market? Can literary tastes even be defined? Eric Hobsbawm says it well in Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, “… much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.” No one really knows. Is it the author that creates a market with their storytelling or does the market create an author? Publishing continues. New authors are discovered. New readers emerge. The cycle continues.

As I file this column, it is announced that Penguin Books India has signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) with Ravi Subramanian, popularly referred to as the John Grisham of banking. This follows close on the heels of Amish Tripathi, of the Shiva trilogy fame, who has inked a deal worth Rs 5 crore (approx $843,000) with Westland for his next series.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist.

An update on my column on cellphones and publishing industry, 23 May 2013

An update on my column on cellphones and publishing industry, 23 May 2013

Earlier in month, I had filed my monthly column “PubSpeak” on the rising significance of mobile phones, particularly for the world of publishing. (http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/05/07/on-cellphones-and-publishing-for-the-future-hear-this-story/) Subsequently a few stories emerged that are worth mentioning here:

a) The strong rumour that prevailed a few days ago — Microsoft’s bid to buy Nook for 1b$ to enter the tablet business. It may have been for now squashed as a rumour, but the fact that it even took off in the first place cannot be ignored. It is the new area to contemplate growth for the company. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeremygreenfield/2013/05/09/commentary-microsoft-to-buy-nook-what-it-could-mean/?et_mid=617062&rid=155561251 and http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/report-microsoft-to-make-bid-for-nook/?et_mid=617062&rid=155561251
b) Spreading literature via cellphone in Africa. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2013/0509/A-novel-idea-for-spreading-literature-in-Africa-The-cellphone?nav=87-frontpage-entryNineItem&et_mid=617062&rid=155561251
c) Wiley has stopped publishing business books in Canada, according to Ellen Roseman. http://www.thestar.com/business/2013/05/22/wiley_stops_publishing_canadian_business_books_roseman.html Canada’s book publishing market is shrinking. It’s facing competition from online retailers and electronic books that you can read on phones, tablets and dedicated e-readers.

And today, 23 May 2013, the Economic Times has a couple of articles pertinent to India.
a) Tablets will continue to attract higher import duty (12%) while mobiles will have the concessional rate of 6%. ( http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/higher-import-duties-on-tablets-to-continue-finance-ministry/articleshow/20216216.cms )
b) An article that says “3G Widens Footprint”

Half of Indian smartphone users have migrated to 3G and their data uptake is steadily rising, says a Nokia Siemens Networks study. Here’s more on 3G usage:

How mobile 3G data use is rising
Average monthly data consumed by a 3G user is 434 MB ( Dec 2012) and 397 MB (June 2012)
Average monthly data consumed by a 2G user is 115 MB ( Dec 2012) and 95 MB (June 2012)

Rs 10 increase in data Arpu (average revenue per user) in Dec 2012 ( up from Rs 45 in June 2012)
25 Petabytes is India’s total data consumption as of Dec 2012. Of this, one-third is consumed over 3G networks. ( 1petabyte equals 1024 tetrabytes)

142% growth in active 3G connections in 2012 over 2011
42% Of total 3G data traffic is consumed by Category A circle users – higher than 35% in metros
92% rise recorded in total data traffic between Dec 2011 and Dec 2012
196% rise recorded by 3G data traffic between Dec 2011 and Dec 2012, bolstered by tariff cut in mid-2012. 2G data traffic increased by 66%

On cellphones and publishing, for the future — “Hear this story”

On cellphones and publishing, for the future — “Hear this story”

My column, “PubSpeak” in BusinessWorld online, May 2013. The link is here: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/hear-this-story/881657.0/page/0

In September 2011 at the PubNext conference, I heard of a bouquet of books being offered in Tamil at a very reasonable price, but on a data card. This is strategic marketing since this highlights the potential for the phone and tablet market. It also coincides with the growth in 3G or mobile broadband connections in India.

Nearly a decade ago, a friend from the phone industry and I experimented with the conversion of a short story into an audio file. We hired a recording studio and voice actors for the dramatisation. After some trial and error we generated a short audio clip, designed to suit the needs of the telephone industry (landline as well as mobile). Listeners could pause the story at any point and resume listening at a later time, an especially convenient feature for women. The business model was good but the experiment was a little before its time. One issue in particular was the general scarcity of good content. Now the time is right. The technology has been available for a while and consumers are able to use these multiple platforms with increased sensitivity and understanding.

With the audio publishing industry growing at a fast pace and the equally rapid increase in the mobile phone broadband user base, there is a lot of potential for the dissemination of content via mobile platforms. And here “content” is defined specifically as the transference of text from the printed matter to the digital platform or conversion to audio files.


In their recently published book, Cellphone Nation, Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron discuss at length (albeit anecdotally) the impact mobile telephony has had on India since it was introduced in 1993. The statistics they rattle off about cellular phones are fascinating. In India there are more than 900 million telephone subscribers, of whom 600 million subscriptions are active, implying there is a phone for every two Indians, from infants to the aged. The authors go on to discuss the different aspects of Indian society, across genders and professions that mobile telephony has brought about changes, often for the better. Their insightful analysis of the effect texting has had on the evolution of languages and script is relevant to the publishing industry’s concerns with digital formats and the need to increase readership. Their evidence shows that rapidity with which languages and scripts are evolving today is the fastest seen since the Bible was translated. This phenomenon can be linked directly to the ease with which people have adopted text messages as a mode of communication. The adaptation to this medium was faster in those languages that used the Roman script. In order to access other language markets like those in India that operated in different non-Roman scripts, cellphone manufacturers and service providers quickly released the Panini Keypad. It enabled people to download software to write in all languages of India on the phone, fast and easily.

According to Shiv Putcha, Principal Analyst, Consumer Services, OVUM Telecom, the number of mobile connections in 2017 is projected to be about 1.35 billion, number of mobile broadband connections to be 351 million and the number of smartphones to be 163 million. These numbers indicate the potential of the technology to get across directly to readers. A small first step has been made in this direction by the announcement made by Harlequin UK in March 2013. They will be using the biNu app on phones (including feature phones) and tablets to deliver 8,700 titles from their stable, especially to the developing markets like Asia, Africa and South America. Tim Cooper, commercial director for Harlequin UK in the publishing industry business magazine, the Bookseller says “We’ve already established our Mills & Boon imprint in India, but it is our aim to make our content available to women across the world.”

biNu is a startup that was launched in early 2012 and is backed by Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s TomorrowVentures. The app’s interface is functional. It is not exciting or sophisticated but the potential to disseminate book-publishing content is easily discernible. According to Mark Shoebridge, VP Marketing, biNU, the app is available in English, Hindi and nearly 40 other languages, and supports over 200 fonts. Currently, news on biNu is available in Bengali, Kannada Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. The app is available through Google Play for Android. It is designed specifically to work on the standard phones (feature phones and low-end Androids) that are used by more than 90 per cent of Indians. This infrastructure is a short step away from making audio books on phones a reality. Jayashree, Co-founder and Director TALK audiobooks says that “audiobooks attract VAT which at 5.5 per cent is not very high. (Books do not attract any tax in India.) If the audiobooks were to be made available for downloads on the phone they will probably attract service tax which is 12.5 per cent. But content on mobile will be the future.”

It will probably take a little more time for this particular market segment in publishing to mature but the indications are there it will happen. Some of the hurdles that will need to be addressed will be getting the copyright permission for using the content, accurate reporting of the usage of content (text and audio) by the telephone and internet service providers, plus working out the ideal price points given that books, especially in the Indian languages are very reasonably priced.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist