Making predictions of any sort during a pandemic seems foolhardy. Predictions are especially fraught in Indian publishing, where every trend is likely to have an opposing, equally credible trend. More plausible in such circumstances is to focus on what is – ie, both what is unfolding before us and what preceded it in the Indian publishing landscape. How these two factors blend and mix with the post-Covid-19 realities and how they reconfigure Indian publishing’s key pillars will be for all of us to experience on the other side of pandemic.

The lie of the land

Indian publishing, which will celebrate 75 years in 2022, has a close and symbiotic relationship with the educational system in India. Some 95% of the industry directly caters to schools, colleges, universities and research – including technical, medical, and professional education. The remaining five percent forms what we call general or trade publishing, the segment that garners eyeballs with its bestselling books, high advances, and celebrity authors.

The largest segment within education publishing is K to 12, or school books, which account for about two-thirds. The rest is occupied by higher education, and a small specialist research segment where several international publishers operate. India is the second-largest English language publishing market in the world. The focus has remained on English language publishing since English is also the language of higher education and research here.

There is, however, an equally rich, segmented, Indian language publishing tradition, with Hindi being the largest. Localised publishers predominate this segment, although several international players have either started local language lists or tied up with local players to access these inaccessible markets via translations in the last few years. Local publishers also form a big part of the English-language educational market both at the school and the higher education levels, with a strong focus on textbooks and support materials. At last count, there were approximately 9,000 publishers across India, producing about 90,000 new books across segments and languages.

Academic publishing and higher education

The higher education publishing landscape is vast and varied in India, with a large young population in need of books for education and skilling; a large, primarily government-funded university and research framework, and burgeoning private institutions that bridge the gap in technical, professional and medical education. The academic publishing ecosystem mirrors the varied needs of the central, state, and privately funded institutions and research bodies and is therefore uneven across the country. India is one of the few countries where higher education institutions continue to be set up, providing new opportunities for academic publishers.

While the pressure for keeping book prices low is universal, and everyone in the supply chain wants to pay less but get longer credit terms, the difference in quality, copyright awareness, and educational levels as well as access to digital means has meant several publishing universes can co-exist in India. This has created both challenges and opportunities.

Piracy is rampant in both print and digital, while long payment cycles, increasing discount levels, convoluted supply chains, and bureaucratic and anachronistic purchase patterns are still a common feature of the industry. On the plus side, the robust co-existence of print and digital buyers and demand for both locally developed textbooks and high-level research monographs feeding different price points and needs has meant both small and big players can co-exist.

Sadly, missing in this mix is the recognition of publishers as important contributors to the educational and cultural value chains and as catalysts in the accompanying multiplier effect of quality education and research on employability, industrial progress, and economic growth.

The symbiotic nature of academic publishing and higher education takes on a new relevance in current times of disruptions. Funding patterns, learning and teaching formats, examinations and admission cycles, research and infrastructural facilities, and the shift in financial priorities will have ripple effects on the publishing universe as it responds to these changes.

Content and experts matter, not formats

In the short run, the pandemic has changed the status quo in interesting ways. The crisis has stripped life down to basics, and suddenly knowledge and content vetted by experts, available and accessible to solve real life problems, has become essential. Research and researchers are in the public glare, academic journals are cited, and their editors interviewed in the news. Medical research on vaccines and cures is being undertaken under full media glare instead of in remote labs and specialist journals.

As people lead both their personal and professional lives from home, quality reading materials for learning, teaching, and pleasure have become important. In many countries books were declared essential goods and bookstores continued to supply to their customers. In India, however, Amazon only recently opened up its supply of first, educational, and most recently, all books, while the extended supply chain remains fettered.

Publishers have responded to this requirement with unusual speed and flexibility. A plethora of free resources are now available globally. Publishers in India are using the resources at their disposal to make material available, be they on the pandemic or for home learning and teaching. These resources are platform agnostic and an empathetic response to a sudden and immediate need of their audience.

However, providing free content is not sustainable in the long run, and some means of monetising these resources will be required to sustain the flow.

These trends are telling the world what academic publishers have always known – publishers play a vital role in vetting, framing, and amplifying research as well as content for learning. Publishers also have the technology and platforms to solve user problems with speed and empathy. With the variety of free resources academic publishers have opened up and the support through webinars and virtual sessions, publishers have responded rapidly and collaborated to resolve the needs of their stakeholders. This is equally true for bigger international publishers in India and to some extent, smaller and more agile independent players.

Learning online and access

During the pandemic, the vast Indian educational machinery had to suddenly shift to online learning without either training teachers and students, or access to materials and equipment. Lockdown learning has revealed possibilities and fault lines, with important lessons for publishers and the government.

The first is that we need to train both students and teachers to learn and teach online respectively. Replicating offline classroom methods and assessing norms in an online scenario doesn’t produce the required outcomes. This is evident in the US, where a recent McKinsey study shows a 50%-70% drop in learning by students of mathematical and reading skills via exclusive online training during the pandemic.

Next, access to broadband and multiple devices is limited to about 10% of the connected population in India, with another 40% that has access to 3G connections. The remaining 50% either has cellphones without internet connectivity, or no cellphones at all. In such a scenario, exclusive online models cannot be sustained.

There is also the question of availability of online courses, repositories and testing platforms at all levels. For higher education, the government has been building a digital repository via the National Digital Library (NDL) and has several online teaching portals like SWAYAM and NPTEL. But these are still relatively small and incomplete, and were probably designed as add-ons rather than replacements to classroom learning.

Even if we put aside the gaps, quality and searchability of resources, access and connectivity remain big issues, as do language gaps, since the vast majority of such resources are in English. Although resolvable, they require concerted collaboration between academic publishers, authors, and the government that has the platforms to reach learners at all levels, as well as other stakeholders. The World Economic Forum predicts that public-private educational partnerships will grow through learning consortiums and coalitions with diverse stakeholders – governments, publishers, education professionals, technology providers, and telecom operators. This could become a prevalent and consequential trend in future education.

Still not a print versus digital debate

While the ebook market has been growing, albeit much slower than elsewhere, India continues to have a significant print market. The pandemic, while giving digital a quantum leap, is unlikely to change this in the medium term. The norm has been the use of traditional sales channels, as academic publishers sell to institutional libraries via a complex supply chain of localised vendors and big regional and national distributors, the latter located in the tight lanes of Old Delhi’s Ansari Road.

Institutional librarians and library committees still study printed catalogues, ask for physical book displays, and take several months to choose books for their libraries, while payment cycles take several more months. At the publishers’ end, books are printed across the country and then supplied to the distributor warehouses for further dispatches. Online sales have been growing steadily, but the bulk purchase by libraries still functions offline.

The patchwork that is the Indian supply chain has lost many pieces during the pandemic. While some attempts to bridge printing and transportation bottlenecks are now underway, they pose the biggest short-term challenge to print publishing in India. The pandemic has ensured that all books are born digital, but most publishers plan to bring out print editions once printing and supply issues are sorted.

There are early indications that institutional customers will demand print books alongside growing digital repositories even as buying and selling processes get less bureaucratic and decision-making gets quicker in response to changes engendered by the lockdown. In theory, publishers now understand that relevant content in various formats should be their focus, but unless more readers are willing to pay for digital content, and institutional priorities also change to support better digital usage and value, monetising it will continue to be hard for most publishers.

Additionally, the bulk of local higher education and academic publishers have not gone online in significant ways. This will hamper their ability to make the transition, especially now when resources for new investments in software, technical infrastructure, and trained staff may be limited. Ironically, they may be able to buy time because large parts of the educational infrastructure they feed isn’t digitally ready either.

Along with the mindset of the institutional bureaucracy, this gap will continue to sustain the print economy. Local publishers and academic institutions will benefit from collaboration with international publishers, ed-tech companies, content start-ups in other Indian languages, and other existing and emerging stakeholders. Many of these players have shown innovative ways of supplying readers with digital and virtual means that can be amplified and co-opted by publishers with collaboration.

Additionally, online content has continued to follow the print format, and the comfort with PDFs, is ubiquitous. Reflect for a moment on how you read the news online. I prefer to go straight to the epaper, which mirrors my earlier reading habit of the physical newspaper rather than making a series of choices before getting my morning dose of news.

The PDF has become part of our reading DNA, and it will take generations to fade. This is not to say digital content consumption and institutional demand for digital content isn’t growing or will not continue to grow. But there is much to be done before our educational infrastructure can gear up to the needs highlighted by the pandemic. To illustrate, only the top 100 institutions in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) can currently apply to provide fully online degrees. Only one state, Kerala, provided the extra bandwidth that was needed to support online learning; Kerala was also the first state to open bookstores to meet student and general reading needs.

Research and content

Before format comes the content itself. India stands in good stead here, despite traditional problems of quality fluctuations and copyright infringements. Research from India is growing and academics in India are using the lockdown to complete research papers, submit book proposals, and deliver pending manuscripts, and there is a jump in OA submissions. Both China and India are showing faster growth in submissions to academic journals as compared to the US and Europe, a consistent trend over the last few years, which indicates where key research could come from in the future.

At Taylor & Francis, submissions of scientific and medical research papers from India in the past couple of months exceeded submissions from the US, and were second only to China. The company has put its first book on Covid-19, commissioned in India, into production, and like other academic publishers, has sped up the review and publication of any scientific papers relating to the pandemic to support ongoing research.

The value of peer-reviewed content, validated and produced by experts and amplified by academic publishers was never as tangible and visible as it is during this pandemic. Acknowledging this can pave the way for future partnerships between academic publishing, education, and research in India and enhance India’s global academic rankings.

Cues for academic publishing

Books for leisure and learning, upskilling and employment remain hugely relevant, irrespective of format. Experts, research and its role in solving real-life problems are at the forefront today. Research papers, journals, books and open sources remain validated sources to make this content available to those who need it.

Education is a key resource even during the ongoing crisis and later to restart lives and livelihood. As unemployment levels skyrocket, people will want to improve their skills, unlearn, and relearn continuously. Digital is important but not a standalone solution. Similarly, institutions of learning will play a role, but the physical space in which they are housed may become less relevant as their business models are reconfigured and the priorities of their stakeholders change.

Conferences and academic seminars that play a key role in the intellectual life of both institutions and academic publishers are being reinvented as webinars and virtual meets. The use of social media to both congregate and debate has increased manifold. Academic publishers have new opportunities to engage directly with their audience; researchers, students, authors, educators, and librarians. Data-driven selling based on user needs is set to grow.

Collaboration between institutions will be key to support digital curriculum development and online teaching. Collaborations between publishers to support pandemic reading and research needs will extend globally to provide their institutional stakeholders – learners, educators or researchers – with a seamless user experience.

Being self-reliant is a national imperative that sits alongside building leadership and influence globally in an increasingly interlinked world. Publishing is not exempt from this. Collaboration between publishers in India – local and international, independent and corporate, educational and trade, English and other Indian languages – is now essential to survival. This is the only way to support, enhance and rebuild the local publishing ecosystem that has needed government backing for many years.

The post-pandemic future

Copyright protection and the building of intellectual property resources for national good reinforces these needs. The rush to provide free resources and concessional access has been a collaborative effort of publishers. To sustain credible publishing, this collaboration needs to be extended to the much-neglected arena of copyright awareness and protection.

The pandemic will not destroy the perennial problems of Indian publishing, but will probably add greater complexity, impacting the pace and priority we place on them. What it will do is test the survival instinct and the resilience of its players. It also provides the Indian publishing industry another opportunity to understand that we have much to gain by standing together and much to lose as a divided house. I

f we enter the post-Covid-19 world with a spirit of collaboration rather than individualism and work as partners to reprioritise, reinvent, shape and structure ourselves to our needs, we will see readers on the other side, to celebrate the resilience of Indian publishing.

Nitasha Devasar is Managing Director, Taylor and Francis India & South Asia and President, Association of Publishers in India (API). Her book Publishers on Publishing: Inside India’s Book Business gives a panoramic insider view of Indian publishing. The views expressed in the article are personal and not of Taylor & Francis Group.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.