Wednesday, January 14, 2015

INDIAN PUBLISHING—WHERE WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE

‘What got you here won’t get you there’ is a fantastic title of a bestselling book by Marshall Goldsmith and is often used by management experts to crystallise the essence of businesses. The question though that we first need to ask in Indian publishing is—‘Is where we are the place we wanted to be?’ Let’s ask a few more questions to understand that.

So where exactly are we? In the middle of nowhere? Or as the joke goes—we are exactly where we were yesterday but are running much faster to remain there!

2015 began with the news that one of the largest e-commerce platforms will only stock and sell—your guess is as good as mine—bestsellers. Most of the remaining independent and chain stores have anyway been doing just that, or stocking remainders. So the mid-list, which is conventionally the backbone of a publishing organisation is eroding, and eroding fast. Some publishers have already decided to only publish, what else but bestsellers! So are bestsellers the final frontier of publishing? Or is there more to this profession?

Festive seasons come and go but discounts are consistently doled out like Christmas candies and Diwali mithai—from mostly large and multinational publishers to retailers on account of the race for bestsellers and the large import lists that they have to tackle, and from retailers, specifically the e-commerce ones to consumers for greater eyeballs and mouse clicks, and hence, greater valuation. But is the market expanding because of heavy discounts and excessive product landing or is it like treating anaemia with steroids?

Financially, as revenue per square feet of shelf space, are books any competition to Chinese toys or stationery? Maybe, only remaindered books are and that is why more and more shelves in more and more bookstores are filled with them. But as shelf space gets dearer, more from the accountant’s perspective than from the booklover’s, how long will books be able to withstand the onslaught?
Finally, is the age of subtlety really over? And are we in an era of in-your-face engagement and entertainment? Can a book then, with its old-world charm remain relevant?  Or will it, even in its new avatar as an embedded e-book or an app be any competition to cinema, television or internet?

And then, just how did we get here? Indian publishing industry has seen three generational shifts in one generation. From largely independent stores driven market to chain stores to e-commerce and e-books, change has been rapid and hence, stormy. All this was an extension and a part of what was happening to the rest of the economy—real estate was booming; rentals were skyrocketing and a middle class of continental proportions was taking shape bringing with it huge disposable income. So while the publishing industry has grown, it is no match to say, the FMCG or white goods industry with which it has to compete, not just in per square feet of revenue but now, ticket size per click as well.

It looks like it’s time to collectively re-examine our diagnosis and treatment. The system needs a boost of sustainability, even if it has to take a bitter pill, that is, forego some immediate benefits. For, if we really don’t like where we are, we know what not to do to get us out of here!


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Winds of Change at Frankfurt Book Fair

Article written for IANS published in Business Standard, Yahoo News, 
Assam Sentinel and several other media.

"Will you believe me if I said that nothing has changed in the last ten years? It is still about storytelling; we still need to trust each other and look into each other's eyes. We, in publishing though, like to be scared of the future."

The setting seemed perfect - the Frankfurt Book Fair; the Business Club, a paid-for series of workshops at the fair; the speaker, Juergen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair; and the man who asked him about the changes he had witnessed at the fair over the last decade: the most translated living author of our times, Paulo Coelho.

Coelho was quick to respond: "I don't buy your theory. Booksellers are dying. Whether we like it or not, we are walking fast to the digital world."

"Yes, I agree. But Frankfurt Book Fair is now 66 years old and growing every year," Boos countered.
The real experience, though, was somewhere else. The fair didn't feel the same. It was quieter and leaner but definitely not meaner. Many regulars, not just from India but from across the world, were missing - some of them hadn't missed the fair in three decades, not even post 9/11. There was a shift in the profile as well.

India, for one, seemed to have much more representation from technology professionals and book packagers for children than publishers. Both, in a way, are an extension of the business process outsourcing culture and represent a shift down the value chain.

Presentations on how you could convert your native files into 30 different kinds of e-versions like epub and mobi, that too, at a speed of thousands of pages per hour, were attracting not just eyeballs but gray cells too.

Most of the people, though in awe, couldn't decipher what to do with that information. That, in a sense, sums up the current state of publishing - how and when to take that giant leap into the unknown digital world and secretly hoping we would be rather sucked in than be forced to jump.
Representing continuity was the German Book Office, Delhi, which carried forward the book fair's tradition of adding value for its clients by organising two guided tours enabling business networking for visitors from South Asia. Also, its director, Prashasti Rastogi, was a part of the Expert Table programme to guide visitors from across the globe on the Indian publishing scenario.
Starting 2015, the famed Hall 8 of the fair, which houses the English speaking world, would be merged with the rest. A case of necessity leading to innovation! Greater proximity would hopefully lead to greater interaction and increased business, not to forget less tired legs!

Expectedly, it also throws new challenges.

The reorganisation would mean that Indian printers will be placed next to the Chinese, a proposition that they found unwelcoming. Apparently, some stiff, if not unreasonable stance by CAPEXIL and NBT, the bodies that facilitate Indian overseas representation, has meant that unlike in 2012-13, publishers registered in India will not share space with the rest of the English-speaking world. Because of the same reason, the state of Indian hall in 2014 was depressing, to say the least. In the interest of Indian publishing specifically, and the publishing world in the larger context, one hopes better negotiations happen for 2015 and beyond. We need to be fighting the challenges together, rather than fighting amongst ourselves.

As Coelho, in the enlightening conversation, summed up: "If we don't adapt, we die and the only way we can survive in publishing is to follow the golden rule: Don't be greedy!"
(26.10.2014 - Shobit Arya is the founder and publisher of Wisdom Tree, an independent Indian publishing organisation. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted on twitter @shobitarya and www.shobitarya.com).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Delhi Book Fair: Hidden literary treasures often lie in smaller stalls

Article written for IANS published by Economic Times, The Times of India and several others.

Books are going to be celebrated yet again. This time at the New Delhi World Book Fair — Feb 25 till March 4, following closely on the heels of the Jaipur Lit Fest (JLF) and the Kolkata Book Fair. The biennial book bonanza organised by the National Book Trust at Pragati Maidan promises to be bigger and better than before. My tip to you all: don't just flock the big stalls.

Literature knows no boundaries and certainly cannot be confined to a few. You will find hundreds of hidden treasures in the smaller stalls. And if you are lucky, you may also run into a knowledgeable and amenable publisher or bookseller there. And if you are still luckier, a meaningful and fulfilling conversation combined with a cup of tea may make your visit to the book fair really special.

When it comes to literary specials, JLF is certainly the top of the pops. Where else would you find globally acclaimed guru Deepak Chopra standing in a half-a-mile-long queue? Where else would you spot India Today group chief Aroon Purie pleading with guards who are blocking the entrance to a hall, "Please let me go in, my daughter is one of the speakers here"? And where else would you see one of India's most well-known filmmakers, Shekhar Kapoor, just lazing in the sun, may be secretly hoping that the world will take notice while hardly anyone does.

For those of you who remember my last year's article "Confessions of a Publisher Who Never Visits Jaipur Lit Fest", you will probably have guessed by now that I stand converted—into a JLF participant.

We launched our book, Whispers in the Classroom, Voices on the Field, edited by Richa Jha, at the fest. I turned a bit of a lyricist and penned a song inspired by this book, making it the first Indian book to have an independent song made for it. And I got to soak in the literary jamboree.

JLF is a fascinating place, so fascinating that at times you don't know what you are doing there. Most of the sessions are engaging, but some have age-old lines like 'Write from your heart' thrown at you. What next? 'Write with your pen'? Or better still, 'Keyboard'? But attending these sessions is an art by itself.

If you want to really sit down and participate in any of the popular ones, you've got to be an early bird, or maybe even an angry bird. It reminds you of the erstwhile British or American visa queues where you even thought of taking packed aloo paranthas along. That may have been just the right idea for an Oprah session. Or as I overheard an angry bird telling her children, 'You got to push your way through; otherwise you will never be able to do anything in life.' Tiger Mom, eh?

Talking about moms, you could actually see them in huge numbers - of all kinds and with all kinds of accompaniments — spouses, kids, parents, friends or just by themselves. In fact, I think almost 65-70 percent of the visitors to JLF were of the fairer sex kinds. Err, I mean the emotionally intellectual kinds.

At first, I felt it was just me—noticing only what I am naturally inclined to notice until I stopped and observed and counted and confirmed. I could see three good-looking women for every ordinary looking man. I am sure, after reading this, some changes in the gender ratio are bound to happen at the next JLF!

It is said that whatever you think of India, the reverse is also true. In this case, the paradox was just a stone's throw away from the Lit Fest. The 'Dainik Bhaskar Pustak Mela' happening in its shadows was an intriguing study in contrasts.

With Hari Om Sharan's bhajans playing in the background, tables full of scattered books, booksellers sitting in the middle and atop the pile of books and posters screaming 'Pick any book for Rs.10' or 'Limited Stock Rs.99', it was a joy to find book-lovers in reasonably good numbers there too. And when I found some of the books published by us there as well, I knew I had done my job as a publisher.

Carrying forward last year's tradition, I must make a confession, which is that I was more at home at the Pustak Mela than at the Lit Fest. May be, I have always secretly dreamed to be that bookseller sitting in the middle of the book pile.

At the New Delhi World Book Fair, if you spot somebody sitting in a similar ambience, do stop by. It will be nice to meet you.

Friday, December 23, 2011

2012 will be game changer for Indian Publishing

IANS/ibnlive.com

Shobit Arya, the founder and publisher of Wisdom Tree on what we can expect from the Indian publishing next year.

Technology is like an object in your rear-view mirror. It is always closer than you think it is. In fact, for us in Indian publishing, it may actually just be ready to jump out of the mirror.

Let me first put this in perspective. Last year around the same time, I was asked by a business magazine to comment on the Indian publishing trends for 2011. I had said then that lack of efficiency in chain stores is bound to diminish gains in medium to long term. The sentiment was not without basis. Over the last year itself, we have seen three of the five biggies getting into extremely choppy waters. Most of them seem to have been caught in the trap of going after margins on paper, running the show mostly from an accountant's perspective.

Books, interestingly, are not like any other FMCG commodity, where data mining could be singularly relied on. This, coupled with the blind race of scaling up, can be a sure recipe for disaster. Hopefully, towards the latter part of 2012, some of these chain stores would have begun to find their feet again.

But during the initial phase of this churning, with most of these show-stoppers in bad shape, we are bound to see new independent stores coming up, though the ones to survive will be those which are completely passion-driven. They will need to remember that it was the romance of having a book shop which got them to begin one in the first place. As long as the fire keeps kindling in their heart, they are safe. Conventional book business in India has never been a money spinner, anyway.

The saving grace among chain stores has been Reliance Time Out, who with their prudent use of technology and a responsive and engaged team led by Deepinder Kampany, Tarun Singh and Jacob Johnson, seem to have got their act together. The rapid expansion bug seems to have caught them too though, which by its very nature is high risk-prone. Fingers need to be crossed on that.

In 2012, as we saw in 2011, fiction's percentage in the overall book sales will continue to increase in conjunction with the rise of paisa-wasool literature. We have seen the Rs.100 chick lit novels (inflation has ensured a price band of Rs.100-150) mushroom and almost every 20-year-old Indian is an aspiring writer today. This will continue in 2012 with smaller towns increasingly shaping the trend, thereby keeping the non-mainstream book wholesalers in business. The beautifully complex dynamics of Indian society ensures that what is looked down upon by one may be aspirational for the other.

This brings me to the other trend which I bet on - consolidation of book e-commerce. The phenomenon continues and we will see a rapid maturing of this zone - a few managing to scale up and most of the others who have just joined the bandwagon without appropriate long-term plans and awareness of the challenges of book e-commerce getting weeded out.

The open secret is that Amazon India is slated to begin operations in 2012 and you can be certain it will change the way books are bought, sold and read in India. But the one with the real ace up its sleeve seems to be Flipkart. They have understood the dynamics of Indian publishing and logistics like nobody else and have the crucial first-mover advantage. It is imperative that they will bring in their own intelligent e-book reader in 2012. Between Amazon and Flipkart, they will definitely negotiate territorial e-book rights with differential pricing with the major international players.

For an Indian reader, it means that an e-book in India will be cheaper than the e-book, say, in the US or the UK, and also cheaper than its Indian printed edition. Indians are known to be among the most intelligent and money-conscious consumers who want to remain updated with new technology and it's anybody's guess how e-books may take off here over a period of time.

2012 may then well be the watershed year for books.

Though the lines between the delivery platforms will get increasingly blurred -- books, e-books, applications, films, television and games will witness an interplay never seen before that you can be sure two things will never go out of fashion - content and customers.

(Shobit Arya is the founder and publisher of Wisdom Tree. He can be contacted at wisdomtreeindia.com and shobit.arya@gmail.com)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Indian Publishers Need to Take a Leaf Out of the Young Authors’ Book

Slightly edited version of article for IANS published in The Times of India and various other publications.

The camaraderie is infectious. Their zest and spirit will put the top rugby team to shame. They back one another like there is no tomorrow.

The world though labels them and their writing as irreverent. Irreverent they are, but only about the fact that they are competing for the same space under the arc lights. You guessed it. I am talking about India's brand new generation of pulp fiction writers - chick lit, lad lit et al.

The support these young writers lend to one another goes beyond 'likes' and 'comments' on Facebook. A young first-time author, Faraaz Kazi, launches another debutant novelist Sweta Srivastava Vikram's book in Mumbai while he himself turns to a more established Tuhin Sinha for his own novel. Tuhin incidentally belongs to the bunch which really 'started the fire', along with Chetan Bhagat and Tushar Raheja.

Our young Faraaz then goes on to review another young novelist Aditi Talwar Sodhi's book on an online forum while yet again manages to get an established Anuja Chauhan to do the honours for him in Delhi. And the cycle continues. Sujata Parashar, Amrita Suresh and Sonia Kundra Singh - names like many others that you may not have heard of in the literary circles but who are writing prolifically, and writing with a vengeance - to find not just their place in the sun but their identity too.

These young novelists share an interesting symbiotic relationship with book e-commerce sites like Flipkart, Landmarkonthenet and Infibeam. The sites attract eyeballs thanks to them and the authors don't have to lose their sleep over a Crossword or a Landmark effectively stocking and replenishing their books. A chain store with effective inventory anyways sounds like an oxymoron in modern times. That calls for another extensive article though.

Now, compare it to how publishers in India collaborate (or don't). The only time you would see an inclusive and eclectic bunch of publishers together would be under the aegis of a foreign institution. Reverse discrimination apparently is something we continuously hold close to our hearts. Most of the other times, you would see members of federations and associations playing musical chairs in their respective executive bodies, much like their more infamous Indian sports federation cousins.

Talking about foreign bodies, credit must be given to the German Book Office (GBO), Delhi, for doing exceptional work in Indian publishing. Their recent MoU signed by Jurgen Boos, president of the Frankfurt Book Fair, with the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad to jointly set up a long-term training programme for students interested in publishing is a praiseworthy and welcome step.

These though are challenging and exciting times for the desi publishing industry. It needs the vigour of youth and their enthusiasm to think out of the box and steer it forward. Remaindered books, poor and mismanaged supply chain, lack of fresh talent across fields like sales, promotion and editorial and many other issues need immediate redressal. It is imperative that we get together to face these challenges and make the best use of all the technological advancement before it is too late.

In the meantime, there is no harm in taking some team spirit lessons from our young author friends.

(Shobit Arya is the Founder and Publisher of Wisdom Tree which has recently started a special imprint called Offshoots for young novelists. Some of the authors mentioned in the article are published by Wisdom Tree. Arya serves on the advisory board of GBO (also mentioned in the article)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A PUBLISHER WHO NEVER VISITS THE JAIPUR LIT FEST

If you think the headline of this article is an oxymoron or that I am a soiled-kurta-clad, beedi-smoking glum publisher in his sixties who hardly ventures out of his dark den full of books, let me confess it’s neither. I am fortunately a part of a rare tribe—a young first generation independent publishing entrepreneur—and considering I have survived for almost a decade now, there is a bright chance that I will be able to recount romantic stories to my grandchildren about venturing into a zone that sane men and women mostly avoided like hot fire. And you thought that dynasties meant business only in Indian politics.

Come a new year and if you are a publisher in the twenty-first century version of the city of Shahajehanabad (mind you, if you are a publisher situated in the mecca of Indian publishing—Ansari Road—you are closer to Shahajehanabad than you are to New Delhi) all you hear as parting phrases are ‘See you in Jaipur then’ or ‘I know you will be busy with Jaipur’ or the likes. Let me reiterate what I have already shared with you; I have never been to the Jaipur lit fest (JLF) and have never had a strong desire to. I find the experience of reading an evocative book more intimate than watching an author perform on a stage and going and shaking hands with him. But I urge you to not get swayed by my opinion. My track-record in such things is pathetic. Last time, when a gorgeous Bollywood superstar launched one of our dear author’s books, she almost gave up on me because of the lack of a post-great-event excitement. It was only when she saw that I was supremely excited in doing naughts and crosses on our flight back did she infer that I am just differently wired.

JLF is a great concept for Indian literature, and everyone associated with it should be commended—the festival directors—Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple; Teamwork Productions and the sponsors DSC. Their efforts have gone a long way in making books and authors fashionable. However, there is a genuine need to make the festival more inclusive. Recently, one of the JLF directors is quoted as having announced that the onus of contacting them and participating in the festival is on independent publishers and authors. I would like to humbly submit that actually, the onus of being accessible and welcoming lies with the powerful and it will only be a positive reflection on JLF’s strength and self-confidence if they were to reach out to the larger Indian publishing world.

Let’s begin with what matters most—the authors. JLF needs to provide a platform to fresh voices and a select number of the deserving and new authors could be made part of some of the panel discussions. It could invite requests on its website with transparent parameters thrown in. Even take informal interviews if you have to! And now let’s talk about what matters even more—the books. Ten best representative books from trade publishers could be invited on a complimentary basis to be delivered straight to the venue. The books can be sold during the last two days. Visitors would be able to get a real and comprehensive flavour of Indian literature and JLF would be able to make the process a self-sustaining one. I would even suggest that like this year’s focus was ‘bhasha’ literature, the 2012’s could well be the Indies— the independent publishers and authors.

I, though, intend to do full justice to my role as a publisher and would be immediately writing to the directors of JLF to facilitate the participation of our authors. Who knows I may be sharing my thoughts with you the same time next year with a headline that says ‘Confessions of a first-time visitor to the Jaipur Literary Festival’. Till that time, keep reading.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Men’s Fiction Rules India

Indian men are reading, and writing for their brethren, and how! Already well-acclaimed across the globe in the genre of literary fiction, Indian men seem to have now taken a fancy for commercial fiction too. Authors like Tuhin Sinha, Ashwin Sanghi and Mukul Deva, have treated subjects like politics, war stories and historical fiction and are up there on the circuit. At the same time, fresh voices like Abhay Narayan Sapru, a Special Forces major with a novel on Kashmir Ops, and Hemant Kumar with his evocatively titled book, Prey by the Ganges, seem to be the names to watch out for.

Interestingly, the rest of the fiction world is largely a women’s market, especially, the UK and Europe. A notable exception is United States, but then the US is such a huge and evolved market that almost everything works there. An out and out women’s book like Eat, Pray, Love is as huge a hit as say, a new John Grisham novel.

Men, worldwide, seem to prefer non-fiction tomes and have a special affinity for biographies. It’s not as if Indian men don’t—the success of Gurcharan Das’s The Difficulty of Being Good or P V Rajgopal’s The British, The Bandits & The Bordermen has largely been possible because of the male readership. What makes Indian men different though, is a variety of factors, demography being an important one. A major chunk of Indian male readership is young and hence hasn’t graduated to the meatier non-fiction titles. Also, being culturally rooted and living in a country where everything is in a constant flux influence the reading preferences of the Indian male reader.

A sucker for good plots like his counterparts across the globe, one valid criticism that the Indian male reader of commercial fiction has to live with for now is his less than connoisseur taste in language. Equally to be blamed would be the Indian publishing industry which is only too happy to pander averagely written works to him, which he laps up, till as long as the plot is engaging enough. That’s where publishers, editors and the newly formed literary agents need to play a more active role. For, if the Indian male writers are to leave their mark on the international commercial fiction scenario, just like their more elitist literary fiction writing cousins did, they need to certainly spruce up their language skills. Who knows, with a more literary and lyrical style, they may also get the women readers hooked on to their suspense/mystery/political thrillers!

Shobit Arya is the publisher of Wisdom Tree and can be contacted at www.wisdomtreeindia.com and shobit.arya@gmail.com. Some of the books mentioned in the article are published by Wisdom Tree.