publishing trends

Could books become irrelevant in India? Two publishing CEOs answer (and explain their jobs)

The view from the business side of publishing.

What kind of pressures are India’s English language publishers under in 2017? How has the business changed? What do the heads of the companies have to do differently now? To find out, Scroll.in posed some questions to the heads of a multinational publishing company and of an Indian one: Thomas Abraham of Hachette India and Manas Saikia of Speaking Tiger Books. Excerpts from a tandem interview:

What has been the role of a CEO in a publishing house traditionally? How has it evolved over the years?

Thomas Abraham (TA): The CEO has evolved from being a sort of general administrative manager who looked after human resources, admin rules, legal, etcetera, to being the one accountable for driving the business in partnership with their publishers in a church and state relationship, where publishers are given enough freedom, but financial directives are equally clear.

But fundamentally, while this is the role of the business head, it is a lot more participative now in the macro aspects of list building and publishing strategy. In India it is still evolving and right now almost all CEOs come from the business side. In a few years I think we will have CEOS emerging equally from editorial, product management, sales or marketing, as all departments get better engaged in core business deliverables.

Manas Saikia (MS): The CEO of an Indian publisher (mostly family-owned), whether in English or any Indian language, usually had the responsibility for everything from paper clips, through choosing what to publish, to printing and marketing – basically everything. For the smaller Indian publisher it remains the same, though there are exceptions. Some Indian firms have become large – like S Chand , MBD, Jaypee, etcetera, and this increase in size has seen more delegation and the creation of professionally-run departments.

For the multinationals it has always been different and organised into different departments headed by professionals. What is relatively new is that many CEOs in the West are from finance or MBAs. As a result there are many more systems, Excel sheets with boxes to tick, software like SAP and Salesforce which allow head offices (HO) in the west to exercise much more control over the Indian subsidiaries. With the advent of conference calls and video conferencing there are many more meetings with the HO, which means more meetings right down the line. This is probably inevitable in organisations which have grown in size to hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, worldwide.

We have many female publishers in India, but hardly any CEOs.

TA: I don’t have any particular view on this. It is a function of how the industry evolved historically. One explanation could be that editorial is dominated much more by women and therefore the odds are more in favour of women rising to being publishers. And flowing from this is the presumption that editors traditionally are averse to numbers and admin and operations averse. Something a CEO has to not just cope with but manage every day.

But this is changing as both the market and perforce traditional ways of doing business change. In fact, with the relatively recent (in India) acceptance of publishing also being primarily a business, this change will be driven faster. If you look at book retail, which has always had business at its core, you’ll see a number of women CEOs and/or senior management there from the late 1980s. The total quantum is still lower, as is the case with almost any industry, but the percentage of women business leaders in book retail was higher than in publishing until recently. That’s also because the clear definition of publishers and editors as business leaders is relatively recent.

MS: Your statement is not as true as it used to be. In the case of multinationals, the glass ceiling has been broken in the case of Taylor & Francis, and probably before that in the case of Palgrave/Pan Macmillan.

There are lots of smaller Indian publishers being headed, indeed started, by females. One of the largest school publishers – MBD – is now headed by the daughter of the founder. There are others in various languages where the founders are likely to be succeeded by their daughters.

Is it true that the CEO’s view on what to publish – say, literary or mass market books? – signing advances, launches, literary agents and so on shapes the broader vision of a publishing company.

TA: It is partly true simply because the CEO’s opinion will provide the financial imperatives, and more often their approval is needed for sign-offs beyond a certain level of investment. And that will make it seem that decisions and vision are essentially emanating from the CEO. But in any good publishing house, the lists will be developed (within financial parameters) by the publishers. The vision and execution is theirs and the good publishers will equally consult sales and marketing colleagues, and also the CEO. Let’s take each one of those criteria you’ve listed:

Literary vs mass market will be a joint decision based on a publishing philosophy. Hachette India, for instance, does not want to enter the low-priced mass market campus romance segment as of now (which is a financial decision) as well as an editorial one when we decide what we want to publish in terms of writing style.

Signing advances is a generally a system of rising slabs, but in eight out 10 cases, the CEO will back the publisher. Book launches again are a tactical decision and driven by the marketing department. Most houses are aware today that the routine launch yields no effective publicity and that money can be more gainfully deployed elsewhere. So that decision is taken between the publisher, marketing head, sales head and CEO in publishing and sales meetings.

Literary agents will have a primary relationship with the publisher and the editors, but also be in touch with the CEO.

MS: It can vary widely. In the case of Speaking Tiger, I am consulted only when major financial commitments, or potentially libellous books, are involved. So the freedom to publish is very much with the editorial team. I pay much more attention to marketing, finance, and operations, as well as the diversification into various other business streams.

The largest publishing houses in the country publish over 250 books a year. Even publishers with smaller lists bring out 40-60 books annually. In such a scenario, would you agree that one sees greater involvement of a CEO when the author in question is “big” and there is a lot at stake for the publishing house?

TA: But naturally. And it’s not just 50-250 books annually. Remember all the big houses have a flow of titles from group companies (and this is true not just of international houses, since every publisher in the top 10 in India has representation/distribution business), so the new release count is closer to 3,000-4,000 titles a year. So there has to be priority and a picking of “critical paths”, and that’s why we at Hachette keep our lists small.

Today’s market is seeing a glut of new titles that cannot find the space each one needs. Yes, local publishing will always get a better priority than a corresponding “import”, but it’s not always true that the CEO’s attention will be for the bigger books. Or perhaps engagement would be the better word to choose. Like any other editor, product manager, a CEO also choses some books that strike a chord irrespective of whether they are commercially big or not. That’s the whole point of being in publishing – that engagement with books…or one might as well have worked elsewhere.

MS: I try and see that every book gets adequate marketing and sales support. Some books may need extra marketing support for which funding has to be found. On the editorial side, there is no micromanaging at all. This is true of Speaking Tiger and I do not speak for other parts of the industry.

What is your level of involvement in the acquisition process? Do you read any of the books pitched to or signed by your company? Or do you rely completely on the judgement of your publishers and editors?

TA: A fair bit without being intrusive (or so I hope; you’ll have to ask my editorial colleagues ). We have a very clear systems-driven approach where the book has to be championed by an editor, a sales person, or a product manager or the CEO; and must make sense financially. In most cases it is the editor who will pitch the book, and will ask for others to read it. So yes, one has to read the books one is asked to read for a second opinion; and also just call for books that one sees a spark in.

But it is a collaborative process, and though it is a tough ask with our priority for new voices (and trade publishing is a hard taskmaster where unknown voices are concerned), I’m delighted that the strategy has paid off, and last year the local programme turned profitable.

MS: the only time I may intervene is when a proposal is likely to lead to a big loss, and yes, we rely on the judgement of our editors.

Tell us a little about the CEO-publisher relationship. How important is it to the overall success of a publishing house?

TA: Really important, I think. The publisher has to develop a list vision and then pitch that to the CEO, who needs to support it, providing the necessary input needed for the business aspects; and together the strategy needs to be articulated and owned. And with time, based on market conditions and trends, and the house’s philosophy, that strategy needs to be tweaked. Otherwise, you’ll have a bunch of books acquired on principles of ivory tower isolation following a strategy that may be outdated.

In business terms, publishing’s product line is books and the ones who pick or create that product line and the ones who sell and control the purse strings have to be in sync. And yes there has to be room for passion and hunch beyond just sales appeal…that is what finally differentiates publishing from other industries. A CEO should have that, share that.

MS: The relationship between the CEO and publisher is one of close confidence in each other.

Would you agree that mid-list fiction is dead?

TA: No, but it is in danger of entering a terminal condition. And this is the biggest marker of reading health, which in India is moving into real decline. The bestsellers are bigger now, and one or two commercial categories have exploded, but if we don’t have a rounded mid-list selling to its own category potential, the industry is in real danger of becoming irrelevant and losing all biblio-diversity. We will end up having just textbooks, and a few bestsellers, and a few airport reads. And this will be a sad state of affairs given that we had a rich reading culture up to the 1970s and through till the mid-1990s, and that, considering our demographic profile, we have the potential to be the largest reading market in the world.

MS: If the mid-list was dead you would not get quality fiction. Bestsellers are titles which grow mainly by word of mouth and its extension in social media. If you want to publish bestsellers only, you might as well not publish anything original.

Why do you think Indian publishing hasn’t attained the status of an industry? What are the pros and cons of not being accorded industry status?

TA: Because it has too many products per company and has always operated on a handout principle. The government has declared books tax-free, and this has ensured they pay no further attention to it, leaving piracy and copyright infringement to thrive unchecked. To top this, prices move up very slowly, and prices today are too low to yield the margins needed to sustain the bigger push – in further investment, better salaries, more marketing, consumer insight research…you name it.

That apart, this is an industry that is fragmented given our geography, and mostly primitive with a few exceptions – systems of distribution and mindsets are still archaic, and the industry is the worst behaved in market performance terms – credit cycles, ownership of accountability, qualified and trained personnel.

MS: Indian publishing is not given an industry status because bankers and financers find it very hard to judge the value of printed books. They are happy accepting blank paper as collateral but as soon as there is print on it, it requires a judgement call on quality. That perhaps requires a different kind of intelligence. Or, to be fair, they just may not have the time to read.

The government has not given publishing “medium and small industry” status in the past, making it hard for publishers to get loans. Why this is so is not easy to comprehend. This has kept Indian publishing, especially regional language publishing, underdeveloped. When publishers are unable to publish, authors do not write.

Multinationals do not face this problem because a single letter from their HO is enough for multinational banks to extend overdrafts. As interest rates are so much lower in the west, head offices may just decide to finance the Indian subsidiary by extending very long credit periods for their purchases of the HO products.

Indian publishing has begun witnessing disruptions. For instance, last year saw the launch of Juggernaut, India’s first mobile publishing application. They have already published hundreds of books and also distributed books by other publishers. In the same year, Notion Press, a Chennai-based self-publishing platform, raised $1 million in funding from high-net individuals. Yet, it’s hard to imagine such disruptions causing any significant, long-term damage to traditional publishing. What is the scope for disruption in publishing? What is the one innovation you would like to see implemented?

TA: Yes, and these are not new. Every decade sees its disruptions, but it will equally take a decade to decide whether it has any impact...whether it was a trend or a fad. So I don’t yet see these as disruptions, but merely as companies riding trends that they hope will become big. I don’t see these affecting the industry or other companies.

The disruptions or inflection points that I would list in a potted history of English trade publishing in terms of being transformational are: Tagore’s Nobel (Prize), RK Narayan being published, the first distribution houses of IBH, Rupa etcetera, Penguin India starting local publishing, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable boy, God of Small Things winning the Booker, the death of the lending library, Chetan Bhagat, Harry Potter, the low-priced campus romance genre, the coming of Flipkart and later of Amazon, Amish Tripathi’s Shiva series, and the collapse of the chain store.

The one innovation (perhaps not really an innovation, but for us it would be radically new!) I would like to see is publishers, booksellers and even the state coming together for initiatives that build readership from ground up. If that does not happen now, we’re going to see a rather pitiful market in a few decades; and, going beyond the market, a poor rounded cultural environment.

MS: As far as disruption is concerned, I personally think the fundamental nature of publishing is the management, development, curation and distribution of content. The printed book is 600 years old and is yet to be seen off by any other medium. The e-book will grow, but not as fast as some of the hype suggests. The only real disruption will come when artificial intelligence will be able to transmit content direct to the brain with or without wires. But that will be in the medium of delivery only, you will still need content.

What authors complain about the most is poor marketing and exposure for their books. How do you think you can tackle the challenge that is book marketing?

TA: The simple answer would be spin out some more marketing jargon and say, do more analysis of consumer insight, choose appropriate marketing media etcetera. But the equally simple truth is one can at best hazard a guess…because no one has a clue (95% of the time) as to why something worked. And this is the case all over the world.

There are some books you can plan, pitch, position and market – a career guide or a specific cookbook, for instance. But for 95% of books, you have no real idea whether it will work or not. It is finally word of mouth that determines how a book sells, and the question is, where is that word of mouth going to come from and how much will it viral?

Over the past two decades, we’ve seen definitive solutions touted, such as the book launch, or mailers, or, now, social media. But in terms of concrete results, all one has is flash-in-the-pan success stories. Stephenie Meyer set off the vampire boom, which then worked for a couple of other series and then it died out. Amish exploded the mytho-history genre but after a couple of other successes the genre itself has not taken off. So any marketing tactic or medium can give you that first fillip…after that it is word-of-mouth.

MS: Authors’ complaints about poor marketing of their books is not limited to India and exists all over the world. In the west, you get to see bestsellers being promoted, so you think we do not do as good a job in India. That is not true. There is just as much effort, but the amount of media available may not be as much as in the west. We are unable to get TV and radio coverage, for example, while there are many more such programmes in the west. Yes, word of mouth and the social media creates bestsellers in India. But other things like airport coverage or pileups in major bookshops cost a lot of money, but every author wants that.

Ultimately, it is the kunji culture of our education system, which discourages book reading and encourages rote learning, that affects readership and people’s relationship with books. The next time an author complains to you, do ask whether they have children, whether and they read – or at least used to read – to their children? If you really want to develop book sales, you need to develop book reading, and that should start at a young age.

The lack of public libraries is another factor in the creation or lack of a book-reading habit. Take one figure: Tamil Nadu has over 7,000 public libraries, while the whole of Uttar Pradesh about 70. That says something.

Publishing is one of the lowest paying industries in the country. Does this make it difficult to attract top talent?

TA: Not true, by the way. Take a dipstick survey with 10 industries. Publishing is not as high-paying as banking or media (or IT in one of the top companies), but it is definitely not the lowest paying, and is relatively more stable than those industries.

No, this presumes that all talent goes outside the industry. I don’t believe the difference lies so much in the fact that salaries are different but in the fact that publishing generally needs you to understand and stay with the industry much longer than other industries. Think about it: get a top notch MBA in and try to establish even one book on textbook marketing principles. If it had been that simple, the Tatas – who tried the “modern” retail approach, wouldn’t have needed to sell off Westland or downsize Landmark.

MS: I do not believe any reliable data is available. I would like to affirm that publishing may not be the highest paying of jobs in India, but nor is it the lowest. For that matter, ask around in UK and USA and you may get the same low-pay answer. Everybody wants more pay. But yes, this has to be earned. In the entire English reading world, the lowest priced book market is in India. Hence, high pay is not going to be easy. We do get people who like working with books. It ends up getting into your blood. Most won’t be happy writing code or selling toothpaste once you get into publishing. When we lose persons we do not want to lose from editorial, we tend to lose them to academia. Even ex-journalists tend to stay.

Is the burgeoning of online retail stores such as Amazon and Flipkart good or bad news for publishers? Do you see physical bookstores reviving at some point in future?

TA: Both. Their scorched earth policy is bad news because they end up shutting down brick and mortar bookstores without offering the curated replacements that is needed. And the really bad news is the fact that they have become safe havens for pirates. There are over a hundred pirate sellers on online marketplaces today doing serious damage.

The good news is the availability of any and every book, and hopefully they will extend their outreach to serve non-city markets which don’t have bookshops. So we should see some market expansion beyond the cannibalisation that is inevitably the first wave.

Yes, online sales can up to a point enhance bestseller sales and provide some cross-recommendations, but they can’t provide that browsing experience; so in the future I hope there will be space once again for the indie who manages costs well and curates books well, and is therefore not affected by any medium term deep discounting wars. It’s the chain stores with the high rentals that need to rethink their strategy and reinvent themselves much like Waterstones has done in the west. You need to develop a book culture first and retail culture second if you want to succeed and create that differentiator.

MS: The online stores have so far been good for publishing. For one, a person sitting in Kohima can expect to buy a book as easily and at the same price as somebody in Gurgaon, even if it takes a few extra days. And as an e-book, simulataneously. If you have not lived in places as remote, you will not realise the difference it makes.

As far as physical books go, there is in fact a revival underway and we are noticing the number of bookshops going up.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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