publishing trends

Decoding a bestseller: How Nielsen BookScan is changing some aspects of Indian publishing

An interview with Vikrant Mathur, director of Nielsen BookScan India shows how accurate data is indispensable for publishers.

The publishing industry in India tends to play fast and loose with the term “bestseller”. From Amazon to Crossword to individual newspapers and bookstores, everybody has a list of their own, allowing authors and publishers to gleefully declare their books a bestselling success. Among the multitude of rankings however, Nielsen BookScan India remains the only quantitative dataset in the industry. In an interview with Scroll.in, Vikrant Mathur, director of Nielsen BookScan India, revealed how accurate data helps Indian publishing, how much fiction really sells and how Nielsen’s entry changed the way publishers think about sales and books. Excerpts from the interview:

How reliable was the data gathering for book sales in India in the Pre-Nielsen days
Before BookScan in India, there was no robust statistical methodology driven data available in the market. “Guesstimates” were in vogue and bestsellers were created by prominent book stores. The publishers and retailers were using their own sales data but they had no idea about the competitor’s data, or their share in the entire market. Basically, there was no one aggregating the data in the market.

What were the kind of challenges faced by Nielsen in the early days? Was there a lot of resistance from publishers and retailers?
Nielsen BookScan was launched after a request from a group of publishers in India to make the services available in the country. We started with organised retail stores in India and gradually expanded our panel from nine critical retail groups (including all the top ones, such as Crossword, Landmark, Flipkart, Om Bookshop) to almost 43-44, as of today. We have expanded our retail panel eight times since 2011. Publishers and retailers have understood the benefits of using BookScan data/ reports over the years.

How much of the trade market does BookScan cover?
Nielsen covers 40%-45% of the English trade book market in the country.

Some mainstream publishers still don’t subscribe to Nielsen. Why do you think this is so?
It is eventually a publisher’s decision to subscribe to BookScan reports. But the benefits associated with the data are immense – be it strategic or understanding of the competition in the market.

Does Nielsen have discounted packages for individual clients such as authors? Do any bestselling authors subscribe to the BookScan?
Yes, we do consider niche publishers and authors and we have tailor made subscriptions for them named BookScan Online Sales Summaries (BOSS), which is essentially a subset of the bookscan. At present, we often get calls or emails from authors and we support them accordingly. Many of these requests come from self-published authors or authors who are just one or two books old. We usually provide them with the figures without charging any fee.

Have you thought of sharing category-wise bestselling lists, so that genres which are known to be slow sellers, such as literary fiction, poetry and translations, are not completely overlooked?
We have the relevant information available with us for all the genres and it is at the discretion of the media houses to decide what they want to publish. For instance, in the UK not only are the bestsellers published by sub-genres such as romance and crime but also by the format of the book, i.e. paperback or hardback.

Should publishers and aspiring authors worry about the dwindling market for fiction?
I don’t think so because the trend in the last couple of years suggests that Indian authors, especially in the fiction genre, are performing well. It is an opportunity for publishers to add new Indian authors. I see an opportunity for example, in the genres of romance, historical fiction and mythology.

Do you plan to offer more analytics and insights to your clients in the future, such as the break-up of book sales between urban and rural, organised bookstores and other retail outlets?
The scan already provides data by region, ie, North, East, West and South. However, we are now planning to break down data by individual states. I don’t think we’re looking at urban/tier two and three/rural immediatel,y because the latter mostly sees the sale of educational books.

What is the share of English trade publishing in the book publishing market in India?
Going by the Nielsen India Book Market Report, the English language covers 55% of the total trade book market in India.

What are your plans to tap into the regional languages book market?
We capture the sales of all books that have been sold from the panel retail stores. So any regional language book sold from these counters will be tracked in our system, but it should have a valid ISBN.

In conformance with our global research methodology, we track valid 10 or 13 digit ISBNs only and from those retail counters that have Electronic Point of Sales (EPoS) systems in place. I think regional books are largely selling from the fragmented market which does not necessarily have the EPoS.

Nielsen data has started shaping the way books are acquired and published in India. On many occasions, editors and publishers cite Nielsen figures to justify their decision about a particular manuscript. What is the feedback that you’re getting from clients?
It’s fantastic. Publishers and retailers use Nielsen data for taking strategic decisions such as author acquisitions, reprint and even the future direction of publishing based on the sales figures of different genres. BookScan has introduced a lot of transparency in the system.

When do you think you’d be able to cover most of the Indian market like in the West?
In India book publishing is intricate and unorganised, hence different from the Western markets. Many retailers in our country are still not equipped with EPoS systems. But I believe in the changing economic scenario in the country. The retailers are beginning to understand the importance of EPoS and we are more than happy to introduce them in our BookScan retailer panel.

Which year has been the best for Indian publishing since Nielsen started tracking sales? And who is the highest-selling Indian author according to the scan?
2016 was the best year in terms of volume and value. Chetan Bhagat is the highest selling author according to BookScan data.

How has the book market performed so far in 2017? What trends do you see?
The performance is negative compared to the same period last year. As we know India is a backlist-driven market and the list has not performed like last year. It is mostly fiction titles that make it to the top of the charts – versus nonfiction and children’s books. Typically, the nonfiction genre contributes to 50% in the BookScan-covered market, fiction is one-third, and the rest is children’s books.

Indian authors mostly dominate the fiction category, while nonfiction is a mix of both Indian and international writers. The children’s genre is mostly composed of international authors.

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