Hachette, one of the world’s largest publishing houses, is about to complete 10 years in India. CEO Thomas Abraham spoke to Scroll.in about the journey, the early books and the new hits, what lies ahead – and what he thinks is the most perfect book his company has published. Excerpts from the interview:
Hachette India’s parent, The Lagardere Group, is one of the largest media houses in the world. Tell us something about it.
Our parent company is actually Hachette UK, whose parent company is Hachette Livre, who in turn are owned by the Lagardere Group. The Lagardere Group is a holding group based in France that has four main business lines. Its book and electronic publishing division (Lagardère Publishing) includes the major Division Hachette Livre of which we are a part. The Lagardère Travel Retail unit includes store retail, largely in airports and railway stations (brands like Relay and Newslink) while the Lagardère Active unit encompasses newspaper, digital media and magazine publishing (including Hachette Filipacchi Médias, Elle, Paris Match), radio and television broadcasting and production and advertising sales. Lagardère Sports and Entertainment engages in sports and talent management, sports academies, event management, marketing of sports broadcast rights and management of sports venues.
Hachette – we are a directly 100% owned subsidiary – includes the oldest extant trade publisher in John Murray, who celebrate 250 years this year. So our tenth year celebration sort of juxtaposes the oldest and the youngest. It’s themed “250 years and still travelling”.
Hachette India began operations in India well after some of the other big multinational publishers. What are the factors that contributed to global publishing companies taking India seriously as a publishing market?
We were actually the last big international house to start a business here. Everybody was already here either as a distribution branch, liaison entity or fully operational publishing company. In fact, I left Penguin to found Hachette in India after Penguin had completed its 20th year celebrations. So we are relatively young. The main reason Hachette came in here so late was that despite the fact that its heritage goes back 250 years, it was itself consolidated as a group relatively recently.
India is a prime market for all major English language publishers, and is still a developing market capable of long term growth. But it is not for the faint-hearted or those with a five-year myopic view. If you want to be in India you have to be in for the long haul, because you will see ups and downs in its erratic and often disruptive market movements…but what other country has the population of a France being added to the middle class every year? True, those benefits won’t accrue to the book business immediately but they will eventually – as history has shown.
Hachette started its local list with two commercial titles (My Friend Sancho and Faking It) and a children’s book about Gandhi. Clearly, the aim was not to launch with global or household names but new talent. What was your initial publishing philosophy? How did these books do?
The children’s title was called Mahatma and the Monkeys. All three did very well and they are still on our active backlist. That’s right, our aim was to expand the market, and to date we have not poached a single author from any publisher (though a few authors have come to us, and a few agented acquisitions of previously published authors have happened). And to clarify – no I don’t mention it as a point of principle but as an illustration of our stated objective that we would build new voices through a focused programme that would be constantly evolving. Two writers, Roopa Pai and Krishna Udayasankar, are examples of massive break-out success, others have had moderate success. And others – like the humour or detective fiction we sort of pioneered – didn’t do as well, though they were great books.
What’s the rationale behind keeping the local list small? I know of some other publishers who started off with select lists but eventually had to succumb to the volumes game. How do you make it work?
Because it is a cluttered and over-crowded market and especially so given the number of English bookshops we have. And because the market from 2010 has been in a churn. I think with so many publishers around now, and with reduced shelf space, the days of factory style output are over…selective curated publishing is a better way to do it. And the only way to make it work is – if you do want a profitable list, that is – is to acquire and publish sensibly, pegging market numbers correctly.
In trade publishing it is always hunch-based, and impossible to get it right all the time. But with more books failing than ever before, and backlist conversions dropping, it is important to get the list size right to what you can handle, and build upwards from that to what you believe is optimum list size. However, there’s no problem in publishing a large list or a small list if you can serve the list and authors well. It is unwise (or so I believe) to publish more in a bid to fling titles out there with the hope they stick.
For the longest time, all multinational publishing houses in India had sworn off mass market commercial fiction despite soaring sales and the cult-like following of their authors. All this changed with the launch of Metro Reads by Penguin India. Several other big names jumped into the fray. However, Hachette continues to steer clear of mass market fiction. Is it an editorial decision or business-related? And if it’s the latter my question to you is: why this mad race now for cheap mass market romance and thrillers?
Perhaps that was due to a predominantly lit-fic sensibility amongst publishers, and because Chetan Bhagat was still a one-off. There was hardly any local mass market writing in English from the 1950s to the 1990s. But the market didn’t change post Metro Reads. If I remember right, that was not set up until at least 2009-10. The commercial fiction explosion was pioneered almost single-handedly by Srishti from 2006 onwards with the campus romance novel becoming a full-fledged sub-genre in two years. That list seemed to demonstrate that it was no longer one-off, and there was a hot new genre on the block. And then everybody was jumping on to the commercial bandwagon…it was natural as that was seemingly a trend, and where the readymade bestsellers seemed to be.
To be clear, we at Hachette don’t steer of the mass market (that is in fact the strongest element in our DNA – a market segment we are dominant in as the publishers of John Buchan and Edgar Wallace in the 1920s to John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Mathew Reilly, etc., today). We steered clear not of the mass market but (at that time) of the sub-Rs 150 price point, as we didn’t believe those were sustainable for publishers like us. Today that point has moved up to Rs 175 or so, but we’ve also moved up a notch, so the same argument stands. (Except for a few exceptions. We do price Enid Blyton at that price point.) So in a sense it’s more a business decision, and in a lesser sense an editorial one. Editorially we were also clear that our imprints(s) would be put onto books that were written well for that genre – whether literary or commercial. Now this is not from any sort of elitism. It’s precisely what every imprint stands for.
Tell us the inside story of the global acquisition of Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography. What was Hachette India’s level of involvement in the deal? Was the book edited in India or overseas? Were the sales of the book (2.6 lakh copies and counting) in line with your expectations? What do you make of the criticism of the book?
Sachin’s was the classic case of the best in search of the best. Like a great batsman finding the right coach–in this case the world’s best batsman-turned-author in search of the best editor. Roddy Bloomfield at Hodder & Stoughton is indisputably the greatest cricket book editor in the world. Eighty years young now, and still at the crease without a “runner”, the man is a legend unto himself. That was the first step, and from there we were involved as the home market.
The book was put into shape after extensive interviews by Boria Majumdar, who co-wrote the book. It was edited primarily by Roddy with additional input from here, and had a global release on November 4. The rest, like anything Sachin does, is history. I am not aware of any particular criticism against the book. Save for a couple of opinions on that he should have said more about match fixing… something he obviously couldn’t for legal reasons. The book was all that an autobiography of a superstar should be – a first-person inside view of an extraordinary life, everything about his cricket, and a lot about him personally including candid opinions and shared personal moments that nobody knew about earlier. You’ll remember the front page splash headlines in the first few days. And when you have 99% positive reviews and 200% sales (Sachin set another record with the book), one can pretty much assume that it is an unqualified success on all fronts.
Hachette India is conservative with advances and not known to sanction high advances or print runs. Where does this philosophy come from?
I don’t actually think we’re conservative. We believe we peg the advances absolutely right. We have – when merited – offered high advances on auctions; and are more often than not the top bidder or under-bidder at the top auctions. But if you’re asking do we pay silly money or go in for an acquisition with a loss leader principle …no, we do not. We do peg books into what we think will be leads and super-leads and offer advances accordingly.
Take a look at the high advances paid out in the past five years and you’ll find that over 95% of them have not earned out. That is not healthy in the long term in a market where prices are low. In most markets advances are offered based on what is the norm for a book based on genre, author history, and, of course, the perceived sales strength of the book on offer. Nowhere in the world are advances offered the way they were a few years ago in India, (possibly because there were suddenly over 15 active trade publishers) where the level of a book was set based on the highest ever point achieved by an aberrant seller. So if one offered an advance for a biography based on Sachin Tendulkar’s sales, that would be patently absurd. But for the past year or so, advances are stabilising.
Unlike other multinational players, Hachette doesn’t publish its India books under its prestigious foreign imprints like John Murray, Sceptre, Virago, etc. but uniformly under the Hachette India brand. Nor have you created any separate imprints for the India division. Do you think the positioning of certain titles gets diluted because of this? For instance, many literary fiction authors choose to publish with a Penguin or a Harper because of the imprint they’re being offered (like a Hamish Hamilton or Fourth Estate).
Well, Hachette itself is a prestigious French imprint, one of the oldest in the world. This was part of the global strategy that existed when we began. We were the newest Hachette company and all the international companies (Australia, Ireland) were publishing as Hachette. Hachette is a diverse group with such a range of imprints, and it was thought a central group imprint branding may be more advantageous in the international territories. In the UK and US those other imprints stand for a list philosophy, a certain positioning etc., and there are specific teams publishing under those imprints in a focused way. So we didn’t blindly want to be bolting books piecemeal onto imprints without that key differentiation.
But we are not averse to a multiple imprint list either. We already do have Everyman for classics, Business Plus for business, and Chambers for reference. We are discussing this further in our International Group meeting and who knows, we may introduce imprints for local books too, as long as the positioning is clear – like Virago for feminism, or Gollancz for Scifi or Orbit for fantasy. Or even our own new imprints created here. We do have that freedom.
Hachette India has persisted with its local children’s publishing despite low visibility for the category in general and increasing competition from international children’s writers. In the process, the division has delivered some surprise hits such as The Diary of Amos Lee series by Adeline Foo, Venita Coelho’s trilogy, and the biggest of them all, Roopa Pai’s Gita For Children. What is your long term vision for the list, and for children’s publishing in India? What, according to you, ails this segment?
It has always been my personal belief that in India the children’s space is key and should be paid a lot of attention…almost literally in a child-is-the-father-of-the-man way. I’ve always believed that unless the children’s and commercial fiction segments really evolve (to me both are key markers of reading as a leisure habit), the market is not going to evolve. Plus I have a personal affinity for children’s books, and collect the great children’s books from the 1930s to the 70s. Which was why 15 years ago, at an ideas meeting, I proposed setting up Puffin India and I was happy David Davidar (then CEO at Penguin) ran with the idea, and that is today a significantly contributing division.
It is a difficult but thriving segment, and one of the largest contributors for brick and mortar retail all over the country. (Interestingly, this is a segment online has not yet managed to break into.) Nothing ails the segment besides the fact that it is a non-discerning market for younger readers and is unnecessarily low-priced. (And therefore where colour is concerned, the lowest price prevails at the cost of much better books that are slightly more expensive, but would actually be much better for the child. And because of this prices can’t go down organically from volumes).
Over the past ten years, the foreign arms of Hachette have bought several prestigious publishing houses, like Constable and Robinson, Nicholas Brealey, Quercus. Does Hachette India have similar expansion plans?
That’s right. It’s not quite the same sort of offering available here. But we keep our eyes open, and if there is a list or company that is a good fit, we would definitely consider it.
How has your arrangement to distribute Juggernaut’s books worked out? Talking of Juggernaut, what do you think about the future of mobile and digital publishing?
We handle only the print side of Juggernaut, so that’s what I’m qualified to answer. I think Juggernaut has had an absolutely spectacular year from a standing start – a brilliant first year that has seen both blockbusters and range published extremely well. As to how the arrangement has worked out, it shouldn’t be Hachette talking so I thought it best to relay this to Chiki Sarkar to answer. Here’s her reply:
“We absolutely love working with Hachette and their terrific team – it has been more than the usual distribution experience. We’ve benefited a great deal from their experience and their advice and their very disciplined approach to both the production and selling process.
As for the future of the digital – I believe we will have enormous growth through a combination of paid and free and our digital traffic has grown 4x in the last year. Juggernaut wants to be publishing plus plus – create a strong print list with a truly pathbreaking digital platform which seamlessly fuses curated publishing with self-publishing, which we will leverage across film and TV as well as audio and reading”.— Chiki Sarkar, Juggernaut Books
My own take on the digital market in general: When it all began a few years ago, Hachette bucked the trend of ebook contribution to sales (we had 11% when the norm was sub 5%), which was due also to the large range we have where print editions are not as easily available. After those initial years digital sales have now stabilised at 5%, so the ebook revolution never really took off.
Mobile is newer, and though everybody, and I mean everybody, has a mobile, the demographic for leisure use (reading on the phone) is fairly young, and that demographic is not yet ready to pay for content and prefers alternate (more visual) content to text. But we do hope that digital-first publishers like Juggernaut will push that frontier, widening both the market and readership.
You recently published a Hindi translation of Roopa Pai’s Gita For Children. Do you plan to get into Indian language publishing in a big way like, say, Westland or Penguin Random House? What are the challenges of setting up a Indian languages publishing division?
No we don’t…not directly. Unless one buys a regional language company or partners with one almost like a JV, I don’t believe international publishers can make a language list pay consistently (nobody has in the past 20 years that various people have tried). Yes we can do one-offs (like Hachette did with the Gita for Children or Sachin or Malala) that are exceptions but not as a regular programme – both from the perspective of price as well as of the fragmented nature of the market and attendant distribution issues. It’s best to license it to language specialists.
Do you have plans to get into academic books or the customised publishing markets?
We’ve sold our academic lists (mainly STM books) to Taylor & Francis a couple of years ago. (So no, the group strategy has been to move away from Higher Ed Academic.) And the school publishing is done by a different division in the UK helmed by the brilliant Lis Tribe and distributed here by specialist schoolbook distributors. Our brief right now is purely trade. If custom publishing is a euphemism for self-publishing or vanity publishing, then no, we have no such plans. But if you mean publishing for institutions, we’ve already done that in the past, with the condition that the book stand editorial scrutiny and has editorial independence. So no book we publish goes through without an editorial OK on it.
How much does Hachette’s local list contribute to Hachette India’s revenues? Has the percentage risen or fallen over the years? And how profitable is Hachette India?
Yes it has grown from zero to about 8% right now, and will keep growing I hope, but linking up to your next question, we believe in the adage “turnover is vanity, and profit is sanity”. So our priority is growth, but achieved profitably. We are nicely profitable and are pleased to complete 10 years in this position.
What is the level of control exercised by Hachette UK over Hachette India? How important are the India operations for the company worldwide?
The Hachette Group is characterised by two things – a common profit-driven philosophy and a completely federal approach. So while there are clear authority levels, governance guidelines and clear communication lines to ensure that the HO is aware of our business strategy, there has never once in all these 10 years been any directive to publish in a certain way. Nor has any book thrust down our throats because it is a book important to UK. India as one of the developing markets is extremely important to the group, which was the reason they set up here.
Have you considered bringing your big international authors like JK Rowling, John Grisham, Walter Isaacson or Malala Yousufzai down to India for promotions? Do these authors engage with their huge Indian readership in any way?
We do try off and on, but we are realistic about the superbrands. In this day of social media, there is a lot of direct engagement. But watch this space…you may see some big names touring here in 2018-19, like Neil Gaiman or Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Looking back on these ten years, what have been your biggest learnings? And also the biggest highs and lows?
The biggest learning was the abruptness with which the market can change. When the downturn of 2008 began we were unaffected because the Stephenie Meyer phenomenon was happening. Subsequently we had our highs and lows (a huge low in 2011 when a major retailer and, with them, a major distributor went down), and we’ve since then run the gamut of distributors and retail outlets shutting down. In the past five years 176 stores have shut down with a loss of over 810,000 sq feet. And while the India growth story goes on, the current period is one of churn that will see highs and lows. And it’s all going to be about the great books as well as the management of the business.
Which one is your favourite title among all the Hachette India books published over the last ten years?
Among the ones I’ve read (and I must admit to not having read all of our books) there are many for different reasons—Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo for the historical detective genre, Anuradha Roy’s soon-to-be-published All The Lives We Never Lived (watch out for that in June), Manjula Padmanabhan’s Island of Lost Girls for sheer dystopian genius, Roopa Pai’s Taranauts for story and linguistic delight, Pradeep Sebastian’s Book Hunters for sheer bibliophilia, Swati Kaushal’s A Few Good Friends for great crossover fiction, and Ritu Singh’s Stark Raving Ad for a completely new genre…the funny history. But if I were to pick one title, it would be the least known title from our top selling fiction author Krishna Udayasankar. Three, her reimagination of the mythological origins of Singapore, is a little gem, and I pick it for the sheer enjoyment it gave me, and the package it was published in – it is the most perfect book we’ve published.
Are you happy with the way you have positioned the Hachette. How do you plan to strengthen the brand in the coming years?
So far, yes, though I still believe we have a long way to go. Remember we didn’t have the advantages a few other houses have of their international publishing brand being synonymous with their UK parent’s primary brand. Hachette UK, as you’ve mentioned, does not publish as Hachette, but under a variety of imprints. But we’ve spent ten years making the name familiar and we’ve succeeded a fair bit by just visually sticker-branding our books as Hachette. The next step is to outline what those brand values are.
India is big on tradition…and Hachette has history, lineage, and tradition much more than anybody else. John Murray, the group’s – and the world’s – oldest trade publisher celebrates 250 years, Hodder celebrates 150 years, and we the youngest are celebrating our tenth year. So we’ve chosen the Hachette journey as our theme – “250 years and still travelling…” You’ll see a lot of activity around this, but we’re not going to be just resting on past laurels.
Our tenth year celebrations are spread over 2018-19, and will see some quirky little books published to commemorate the anniversary. The year will also see the release of books from great writers like Anuradha Roy, children’s bestselling author Roopa Pai, and new books from legends like spaceman Rakesh Sharma, and world champion Viswanathan Anand. We’re also = the publishers of the Limca Book of Records now.
Hachette India has many firsts to its name. It published the first ever children’s yearbook, the first ever Indian superhero novel (Samit Basu’s Turbulence), the first multibook children’s series (Roopa Pai’s Taranauts). It was also the first Indian publishing house to declare it would accept only agented submissions, and the first to openly discourage book launches. What are some of the new firsts we can look forward to from Hachette in the next 10 years?
There are some you’ve missed. The first cover sourced from a design contest (our first book My Friend Sancho); the first to go with an all-Rupee priced list even for imports; the first JK Rowling printed here. Some firsts I’d still like to see (but am not sure I will) are an Indian children’s brand selling over 50,000 copies in hardback, an Indian author brand in the UK and US top 10.
Hachette is famous for its office bar. Is it still operational?
Hmm that bar…It actually made the newspapers when we began! I hope we’re known for books and authors rather than this. And certainly our bookshelf walls are more attractive. The bar was thrown in by our architect as an accessory, if you will, to our office terrace, which is a rather nice space. Yes, it exists in our author lounge, and no, the bar can’t be operational daily because there are permits needed to serve alcohol. And contrary to any impression…I hasten to add, in our office you will find books everywhere not alcohol – so no, you won’t find any tipsy authors or editors. On a daily basis it’s a bookshelf…a showcase prop for our rather extensive beverage list. It does revert to its original purpose once in a while when we have a terrace party (and yes we have the required permits then).