Indian publishing is always in the news. It could be a mega litfest or a bestselling author whom the intelligentsia sneers at; it could be a book sought to be banned, an author who gives up writing unable to thwart the right wing loonies at his door, or even the biggest book fair in the Third World, in New Delhi, which ended on February 22.

No transparency

Yet, much of the book industry in India is make-believe and hype. Publishers operate behind a wall of secrecy and books are mostly sold by generating buzz and rumours started from various literary salons, as well as manipulated buy-backs by writers more keen on fame than on money.

Unlike in any other industry, no official statistics of sales are released, and no one including the author himself knows how many copies were sold, and how many printed. This, despite there being a system of royalty reports amongst English-language publishers.

Occasionally random figures are put out and an author is immediately proclaimed a bestseller and taken around the country like a long-lost saviour. In fact, 90 percent of the books published do not sell significant numbers, but that is the universal industry average. But unlike in the West, here no one knows how much the market is worth. We don’t even know what the actual sales of a Chetan Bhagat or, for that matter, a Lee Child, are.

Enter Nielsen

Of course, the global research agency Nielsen now runs its famous Bookscan service in India too, collecting data from bookshops to identify both the number of books sold – and the value they generate – every week, and the top 500 books in terms of numbers sold. Sales are recorded immediately in the Nielsen database. This information is shared with publishers, who pay for the data, but people at large do not get to see it.

The fuzziness is set to change now with the biggest ever national book and publishing survey to be undertaken in India by Nielson. The survey will look at the print book market size, demographics of book buyers, book buying behaviour, apart from pricing and other factors, according to Vikrant Mathur, associate director and Clive Herbert, head of publisher services, Nielsen. The study will last over six months and is due by the end of 2015.

Who are the bestsellers?

Nielson currently puts out a bestseller list for general consumption. Based on point-of-sales data and not figures whispered by publishers, this list is an eye-opener in the sense that there is often a book or two which emerges as the dark horse. The latest HT-Nielsen top ten list has only three entries from global publishing biggies: Penguin Random House, and HarperCollins.

Relatively lesser known publishers often rule the roost in terms of taste, another indication that it is impossible to pin down the reading habits of Indians. English literary novels, celebrated in fests and salons throughout the country, sell the least. This week one of the top ten publishers is The Yogoda Satsang Society of India, with the predictable title: The Autiobiography of a Yogi (No. 5 among non-fiction top-sellers).

The real picture

India is not considered a book-reading nation, magazines and newspapers being more to its liking. That has changed a bit with romance novels beginning to sell well. But no trend can be pinned down since in this year’s World Book Fair, books related to the 2014 elections registered brisk sales, according to reports. However, 2014 was believed to be a flat year for trade book sales (excluding academic books), after three successive years of 25 per cent growth.

Publishers, however point out that the Nielsen figures may be far from accurate. Nielson has only 40 retailers who have signed up with them (chains are counted as one) which may not be enough for a full picture. This does include Flipkart, who account for a significant chunk of nationwide sales.

A senior executive of Roli Books says that the Nielsen figure should be multiplied at least by four to get some idea of total book sales. What is important now is that with this first and unique national survey we can get an idea about the size of the market apart from some actual numbers. This in turn will put an end to speculation and claims by publishers. It is important that the shroud of secrecy is lifted from Indian publishing.