Publishing Next: India

September 19, 2011

Last week I attended the Publishing Next conference in Goa, India. I’m extremely lucky that this is the third year in a row that I’ve been in India for book-related conversations, and it’s fascinating to follow the changes occurring at regular intervals. Huge thanks to Leonard Fernandes and everyone at Cinnamon Teal for putting the event together, and to the British Council for making the trip possible.

I spoke on the opening panel—Where Are Digital Books Headed?—and while I was primarily there to learn, here’s the rough sketch of my contribution. It focussed on what’s happening in the UK and the US, now and in some possible futures, and observations about India follow.

  • The growth of ebooks in the UK and US
    • 5 years ago, nobody believed this was possible.
    • Now, it’s accepted, growing fast, and part of every reasonably-sized publisher’s strategy.
    • Ebooks are driven by ecommerce: first one, then the other.
    • This fundamentally changes the structure of organisations and the industry.
  • Changes in bookselling
    • Amazon, as distributor, bookseller and sole controller of the Kindle ecosystem, holds a huge amount of power in the UK. In the US, this is somewhat mediated by the presence of Barnes & Noble and the Nook.
    • This is a concern, and requires a response. The fact B&N has a toehold at all is in large part down to the actions of publishers.
    • Analytics are key to understanding the new market: whoever controls ebooks holds the advantage.
    • Analytics are also key to understanding reading. This understanding can produce new insights and products, cf Kindle Singles.
  • Changes in reading
    • Concerns about ebooks are often misunderstood or misrepresented (this is the “temporal not physical” shtick).
    • Social reading is a way of returning the affordances of the physical book to ebooks, and analytics to publishers.
    • So-called “enhanced” e-books have applications in Education and Childrens’ books, but they also introduce a dangerous platform-dependence, and betray a lack of confidence in text.
    • A fundamental change in our relationship with the book—as authority, as discrete object, as form of attention—is underway.
    • The next battle concerns libraries and subscription/streaming services. (I have another post brewing on this subject.)

This is all very America/Eurocentric, and as I said, and said then, I wanted to learn about India. So here are a couple of things that I found particularly interesting.

I’ve been tracking the growth of ecommerce in India for a while because, as I note above, it’s a necessary precursor to ebooks. Ebooks are online, therefore you need to have a sizable market of people willing to buy online before anything is going to happen. In India, there have been several reasons and/or arguments why this hasn’t been happening. The main two were that local, mostly independent, booksellers commanded great loyalty through handselling, personal relationships, and personal discounting; and the Indian web wasn’t secure or developed enough for ecommerce: in short, people wouldn’t (and probably shouldn’t) hand over their credit card details.

Two years ago, I was told of all these objections, but also heard about a start-up called Flipkart which was trying online bookselling anyway. Despite an innovative business model that included cash-on-delivery to circumvent the main problem with online payments, the one person who’d heard of them didn’t give them a chance. Last year, most people in publishing had heard of them, but still didn’t give them a chance. This year, when I asked the audience to raise their hands if they used Flipkart, everyone did. Without exception.

One figure quoted was that in in 2010, Flipkart sold as many books as Crossword, the largest bricks-and-mortar book chain in India, and is growing faster. There are many caveats to this: Crossword is still not very big on a national scale, dwarfed by the number of independents; we’re talking trade publishing, not the vast academic/educational market; and dotcom figures are routinely over-inflated (thanks to Vinutha Mallya for that).

Nevertheless: underlying these changes in the business is the fundamental change in attitude that is occurring. Once ecommerce is possible, books are slowly abstracted from physical bookshops, laying the groundwork for ebooks. We’ve seen it happen—and not just to books, but to groceries and a vast range of other goods—in the West. Loyalty and handselling, it would appear, are easily and overwhelmingly trumped by choice and convenience. In a developing country, this inflection point is a huge deal.

But ebooks in India also present a very different opportunity to ebooks in the West. As K. Satyanarayan of New Horizon Media explained to me, books in India now are still only published at the same per capita rate as they were in US in the 1950s, but they are growing fast. “An explosion” is about to occur, thanks to ebooks, but it will be in addition to, not at the expense of, printed books.

Satyanarayan was one of the founders of CricInfo, the world’s largest cricket website (no small deal in cricket-insane India), which was sold to Wisden, and then to ESPN. After the sale, India’s CricInfo partners were looking around for a new business, and saw the lack of quality content—particularly non-fiction and business books—in Indian languages. So in 2004, they founded New Horizons and started publishing in Tamil, which has 65 million native speakers in South India, Sri Lanka, and worldwide. They expanded quickly, not least through an innovative distribution strategy that included selling through every kind of local retail space from saree shops to roadside stalls (“books hanging alongside the shampoo sachets”, as one attendee put it), with fast-moving sales and stock teams moving through every town and village at least twice a month.

But with a digital background, New Horizons had its eye on ebooks from the start, and all of its content is already in digital formats, and ready to go. The biggest barrier to digital books in India is access to digital devices, and over the next five years, the government of Tamil Nadu, India’s seventh largest state and 90% Tamil-speaking, will distribute 7 million laptops to schoolchildren aged 15-16, and college students in Government schools. This market, which will be replicated all over the subcontinent, will be additional to, not in competition with, the still-growing print market.

The over-whelming takeaway from this trip was that fact, together with/enhanced by the growth of ecommerce and the acceptance of ebooks in Indian publishing. As ever: exciting times are ahead.

It’s always worth bearing in mind that India is a country of 1.2 billion people, almost 20% of the world’s population, speaking 22 official languages, several hundred “mother tongues” and thousands of dialects. It is often better comprehended as a couple of Europes (but, you know, different) than as a single country. Many of these Indias are also stunning beautiful, culturally fascinating, and hospitable, and it is a privilege to be a guest there. But while looking to the future of literature always requires an understanding of local customs and culture, the broad strokes hold everywhere.


… And here are some more Indian-born digital things you should check out; all, not coincidentally, in the childrens’ market:

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