This article Publishers – It’s time to read some Innovation books by Anuradha Goyal, author, and founder of IndiTales.com was first published by the New Indian Express newspaper on September 24, 2020.
Publishing industry is one of the least transparent industries. No one knows what the real size of the industry is, even if you exclude e-books directly published on digital platforms and self-published books that are essentially an author’s game. If you keep aside the textbook sales numbers that are predictable enough, you are aiming in the dark.
Lately, some publishers in the Indian publishing industry has become very visible primarily because of a small constellation of bestselling authors and a galaxy of celebrity authors. The latter comes with the promise of big sales.
Literature festivals created the platforms to bring authors close to their readers. They boomed, with every city, every locality having its own Lit Fest, but they were bitten by the glamour bug too soon. Lit fests became the favorite haunt of fashionistas and the real authors missed the horizon. Has this buzz converted into viable revenue for the publishers and their authors remains a question?
English language publishing dominates the mind space with most big names choosing to write in English – be it a politician, a sportsperson, an actor, or a journalist. Little is spoken about the Indian language publishing, while readership numbers there may be far greater than English language publishing. Gita Press headquartered in Gorakhpur is probably India’s biggest publishing house in India with the widest possible reach and they publish in almost all Indian languages. We know there is a huge readers market in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam, and Gujarati.
The publishing industry once stood for quality. Authors took pride in being published by reputed publishers and readers could trust their judgment. Today, it is a game of click-bait selling. A book is assessed solely on the basis of sales it can generate. Nothing wrong with that, as the industry has to generate revenue for itself and its authors. The problem is readership is not a parameter that they focus on, which may be a small percentage of the numbers sold. For example, most self-help books with catchy titles that promise success or happiness like a one-size-fit-all pill, clock big sales, but people hardly read them, much less use the pill it offers. Marketing muscle is spent on a select few authors.
These cash cows can arm-twist the publishers on their publishing decisions as we saw in a recent controversy.
No one knows the size of the publishing industry. Sales and readership numbers are elusive. Be it the leading publishing houses or small family-run Indian language publishers. Authors give up all rights to their works to the publishers for a small share of revenue generated by their book. The sales numbers are known only to the publisher. The author has no choice but to believe what the publisher shares. There is zero transparency and a nil interest in changing the status quo. The distributor networks are so distributed that collation of numbers leaves ample room for manipulations. This lack of transparency hurts the authors at the micro-level. And it does not help the industry in any way at the macro level.
Bestselling lists trace their numbers to three primary sources. Neilson Bookscandata covers 60-70% of the spectrum but shares data only with subscribers. The next source is neighborhood bookstore, the accuracy of it is anyone’s guess. The third source is Amazon, which is the best one available in the public domain, as they account for substantial sales and each sale is counted instantly.
Book sales moving online is the biggest industry trend. With their deep discounting policies, online portals have effortlessly killed the neighborhood bookstores. As well as brought down the margins for publishers. Algorithms have taken over personalized recommendations from fellow readers. Even when we know that online ratings that feed the algorithms can be easily manipulated by using your influence or money. Like it or not digital platforms are here to stay. Pandemic just gave them another boost.
Digital platforms are more of an opportunity than a challenge if the publishing industry chooses to see them so. E-books account for less than 5% of the overall sales. Which means that most people still prefer to hold a book and read. ‘E-books only’ and audiobooks are emerging as a market segment. Subscription-based reading options are gaining ground as people want to have more choices at hand, or judge the readability for themselves.
The publishing industry needs to innovate and leapfrog by adapting to new technologies and by bringing in transparency. It has to move from being close-fisted with numbers to using data analytics to widen the reach of the industry, to improve the quality of books published. Data can be used effectively to experiment with new genres, new formats, and new mediums. In years of reviewing books, I have seen just one new age publisher experiment with new ideas and succeed at some of them. I wonder if we would ever see a publicly listed publishing house that shares its numbers transparently.
Ironically an industry that publishes authoritative books on so many subjects fails to learn from most of them.
Edited for this online publication.