Twenty-nine days – that’s how long my mother had been waiting to get a copy of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett delivered to her. I was not sure she will get to lay her hands on it at all. The Kindle version, however, lay provocatively on her screen luring her in. This time I thought she would give in.

Enough has been written and spoken about, in endless webinars of course, about the once-in-a-lifetime global event, Covid19. We may be remembered as the people who survived. But what is our survival mantra? Food, shelter, healthcare are undoubtedly essentials.But how do we tackle the ancillary killer – boredom?

While millions are cooped in and economies forced to a grinding halt, each one is looking to kill boredom in their time. In such a time what is essential is debatable. I was borderline shocked and immensely pleased to hear that some countries consider feeding minds an essential activity. Booksellers in Germany and Belgium are deemed essential. Bookstores have remained open during the pandemic and some sources claim that readers are stocking up on books there! What would Indian publishers give for this in India?

Here, with malls and airports, which are home to most bookstores, largely closed, and online mega-retailers like Amazon reporting delivery delays for non-essential items like books, many like my mother remain starved. Starvation of the mind can be a dreadful thing for your health. This starvation, however, has led to the discovery of alternate forms of content consumption.

The usual suspects, ebooks, and audiobooks, which have been around for a while but have had low adoption rates in India, are now the de-facto choice for book lovers. Even more interestingly, access to cheap internet data and the sudden pandemic-induced clearing up of our schedules have paved the way for the grand entry of new media into the houses and lives of millions of Indians.

New media is by definition digital-first, non-physical distribution of content in multiple formats across various devices with the help of the internet. In effect, everything you have been gorging on in the last three months – from Netflix to TikTok, from ebooks to podcasts – is new media. While most of us haven’t stepped out in weeks, there has been a dramatic surge in the consumption of new media – streamed straight into our living rooms on our mobile phones or TV screen.

My experiment

As someone who has been voicing the need for innovation in publishing and content consumption for the past two years, I’m certain that a certain section of readers has been expanding its horizon to newer forms of content for some time now, and the pandemic has only accelerated the move. That’s why we have built Plop Stories, with a sharp focus on re-inventing story-telling to make it mobile-first, immersive and interactive. Audio, video, simulations, decision trees, and many more immersive elements promise a fun, engaging experience, where you not only read the story but also become a part of it. These stories are not created by us, but by a plethora of creators around the globe who publish interactive fiction in the “Plop” format and monetise it.

I’ve come across both sceptics and supporters when pitching the product. As we focused on making Plop a global brand, we faced the greatest resistance in India. But what cannot be denied today is the dramatic growth in users and paying customers not only worldwide but also in India, although most believed that Indians wouldn’t pay. What’s more, we’ve had traditional publishers show an interest in the Plop format. We’ve seen a 400% rise in users and an 800% increase in subscribers since the pandemic started. New habits are forming.

Audiobooks and podcasts

Growth of new media usage in India in the form of audiobooks and podcasts can be evidenced by the entry of players like Amazon Audible. Interestingly, in December 2019, Audible launched “Suno”, which offers free original content in multiple genres. Providing free content has been the penetration strategy for Amazon and many others who are wowed by the mere numbers of potential users in India.

Another international player in podcasts and audiobooks market is the Swedish company Storytel, which less than a month ago launched AudioBites – free streaming of original series in a bite-sized format. The expectation seems to be that a taste of the content will prod people to take on a full-size subscription of over many hundreds of thousands of titles.

Closer home, there are a handful of Indian companies working on creating an exhaustive India-first content catalogue of podcasts. Sreeraman Thiagarajan is one such passionate new media founder who believes in the power of voice. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aawaz claims to be the largest spoken-word audio and podcast network in Indian languages. Asked about the growth of the user base during the lockdown, Sreeraman said, “We have seen a 22% rise in listenership. Interestingly, the devotional genre has gone down to rank 5, while mental wellness and relaxing music has risen to the top.”

As more original content is produced in the audio format, will some publishers be voice-first and paperback second?

Ed-tech and edutainment

MOOC, or the massive open online course, is suddenly all the rage. The industry that Covid-19 has had a sure-fire impact on is the edtech space. The outbreak has caused almost all educational institutions to close their shutters and take notice, albeit grudgingly, of new ways of providing academic instruction. Learners are looking not only for content that is a part of their curriculum but also for supplementary and/or vocational courses to upskill themselves.

Most edtech companies have rushed out to attract the hordes of learners who are confined to their homes – where access to formal academic instruction seems far and distant – and will have to appear for examinations soon. Byju’s, Unacademy, Toppr – some of the leading digital education platforms in India – have all announced free courses to users during the pandemic.

GauravMunjal, co-founder of Unacademy, has tweeted that in April 2020 alone his company has made more revenue than it has in the years 2017, 2018 and the first half of 2019 combined. Meanwhile, not just start-ups but even well-established, pedigreed institutions like Harvard University are offering free online courses to eager learners.

Non-fiction and academic books have been reliable, steady sectors for traditional publishing. As academia gets comfortable with the idea of video courses will, for instance, a Macmillan, which already has a e-learning catalogue, come up with its own edtech platform?

Amit Agrawal, former head of YouTube in India Head, who founded OckyPocky, an edutainment app for pre-schoolers, said, “We have doubled our new content uploads during the lockdown to meet the demands of kids. Social distancing for preschoolers is very hard. So they may be staying home longest. We will witness a permanent change in what parents want as new habits have been formed for lakhs of kids.”

OTT, video, gaming

Video streaming has been on a steady rise already. Not only are global players like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Hotstar, as well as homegrown platforms like Zee5 or AltBalaji expandingthe entertainment space, but cheap data has also increased consumption. And with OTTs getting sports broadcasting rights, usage is growing even more.

An emerging trend is the increased movement of books to screens, giving publishers a new opportunity to make money from the books they have signed up for. With production houses looking for easily adaptable stories, actual and potential bestseller novels are a good bet. The great content hunt for the screen is a tremendous opportunity for publishers as well as writers.

The question, though, is whether – and how much – a “missed-call” centric population will pay for video streaming services. Tarun Katial, CEO of Zee5 India, told me that daily active users have gone up by 33% from March to April this year. And subscription users have seen an upswing of almost 80%. Katial revealed plans for a new short-form content platform.

A segment of more niche content is also staking its claim. Take Josh Talks, which creates content in eight languages on topics ranging from social upliftment to personal development. Supriya, co-founder of Josh Talks, said, “Covid-19 has lead to a sudden upsurge in learning, whether it’s at a personal level for skill development, or just generally learning about the world and keeping up to date with current affairs. We have seen a 25% increase in consumption. Some of the top-performing videos include talks that spread the message of never giving up, overcoming challenges during adversity, and turning your weakness into your strengths.”

Anirudh Pandita, founder, Pocket Aces – whose businesses cover social distribution, OTT partnership, live gaming, and talent management – added that while production challenges proliferated during the lockdown, they were able to come up with solutions. For instance, their Instagram web-series called “Firsts” was shot and produced completely during the lockdown, following social distancing norms, because everyone worked from home. Appropriately, it was a lockdown love story.

Pocket Aces’ live gaming product Loco launched its live streaming service recently, for users to host and stream games. The initial response points to a significant pattern of active user-generated content, with the consumer becoming an active creator too.

ShareChat, a regional social media platform, has also seen increased user-generated content, especially in the health and news segments. Said Rahul Nag, National Head, Corporate and Regional Communications, “Consumption, creation, and sharing of health-related tags has increased multifold and brought more awareness around Covid-19 through information shared from verified sources.”

Among the youngest entrants in the Indian new media space are live e-sports and gaming with real money. Shubh Malhotra, co-Founder, Mobile Premier League, a skill-based e-sports platform where users can play mobile games and win cash, said: “We have seen a surge over the past few weeks. MPL’s platform model, with over 40 games has seen the overall number of games played increase by 55 percent, while users have increased four times.”

There’s no doubt that the lockdown has played a crucial role in hurrying the adoption of new media. What traditional publishers cannot ignore is that old patterns are being broken and new habits are being formed, and this is a great opportunity for them to participate in the growth. If my mother now seems well-adjusted to the idea of consuming a book on a screen, I wonder what my daughter’s experience will be like.

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