Wednesday, January 14, 2015


‘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!