As a publisher of children’s textbooks, we have found the current global pandemic turning my world inside out. Over the past few months, we have brainstormed ways in which the market for publishing textbooks will have to reinvent itself. The world is changing and so are its needs. Today, the mundane activities that schoolchildren took for granted – morning assemblies, annual days and everyday classes – seem but a distant memory.
Will there be a return to ordinary, busy school days? In the near future, at least, it seems unlikely. What does that mean for a publisher of children’s textbooks?
The revenue model of this business is much like farming: you till and sow and water throughout the year, but you reap the harvest once every 12 gruelling months. Textbooks are printed and marketed between October and January every year. By February, godowns are packed with lakhs and lakhs of books. Between March and April, orders start to come in for prescribed textbooks for schools across the country.
Those textbooks will then be delivered and paid for. Covid-19, then, hit us at harvest time, just as schools were wrapping up their previous academic year and planning the new one. Collections have taken a hit, but fixed costs continue, with offices, un-dispatched stocks, salaries and overheads to maintain and pay for across the country.
Not all of this is disastrous news, though. Fortunately, Ratna Sagar and its peers in the textbook publishing industry are not entirely unfamiliar with volatile market conditions.
Ratna Sagar was established by Dhanesh Jain, when he realised that children were not getting the best knowledge they could gain through existing textbooks. After a PhD in Linguistics and a teaching stint at the University of Pennsylvania in 1973, he chose to be a Fellow with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) at the newly-established Jawaharlal Nehru University.
He committed himself to utilising his education to try to fill the gaps he found in the textbooks that children were studying across the country. And thus, Ratna Sagar (meaning “an ocean of gems”) was born, named after one of the famed library buildings of the 2000-year-old Nalanda University in Bihar.
We had a lot of work to do when we began. From the suitability and child-friendliness of the content, through the illustrations we chose, to the quality of paper and the binding, everything is crucial. We were the first to bring out science textbooks in four-colour resolution, as far back as 1986.
This was a revolutionary change in printing, since before this, books were printed only in two colours. So, a child would be looking at blue trees, blue elephants and blue faces, or pink idlis, pink suns and pink bears. When our first batch of four-colour science textbooks hit the markets, even our colleagues in the publishing industry couldn’t believe that these were printed in India. They were certain that we had outsourced the printing to Singapore.
Then there was the tricky question of binding the textbooks. In print production, the binding was mostly glued together and, stapled or side stitched pages were ironically called perfect binding, even though the pages often came loose as the academic year wore on. Worse, children could hurt themselves with the sharp edges of the staples in storybooks. The founder personally went to the best printing press in Delhi and asked them to get the books stitched instead. But in those days there was no such machine – so he had to buy the equipment and get all our books stitched.
If those were the challenges of working then, the challenges now are far greater. The pandemic has thrown many streamlined systems out of gear. With the lockdown, several employees couldn’t access necessary systems and equipment. One of our designers, for instance, returned to her hometown. She had to work entirely on her phone for two whole months, designing covers, brochures and other creative inputs.
An editor of our mathematics series needed his office system for work, but was unable to access it. Eventually, a friend – a doctor – from his neighbourhood offered to help. As a medical professional, the doctor had permission to be out on the streets. He kindly drove to our offices on his return from work to collect the system that our colleague and his friend needed to work on.
There are many from the team at Ratna Sagar who have risen superbly to the occasion, to meet all kinds of logistical, financial, emotional and medical challenges to ensure that there has been no full stop to work. And yet, realistically, textbooks cannot be made in the isolation that is mandated today.
Each series contains at least eight main course books, many include eight supplementary books or workbooks, teachers’ handbooks, and several other related material like posters and ready reckoners to support students.
This means daily interactions with teams of editors, authors, artists, designers and DTP operators, who translate artwork and graphics into publishable formats. Every single interaction implies the use of specialised equipment and software which are not always freely available at home. We do need to be together, even if we are miles apart.
Like many other organisations, we have adapted too. We have worked out complicated permutations and combinations according to which sections of each team go into the office in small batches, following social and physical distancing protocols. But even as the editorial process undergoes a change, so too, does the marketing and sales process.
Textbooks are chosen and prescribed by school principals. Institutional sales are very different from other forms of trade sales. Relationships with schools are a significant part of this transaction, as are face to face meetings, presentations, orientation seminars and training workshops.
As things stand, even after schools reopen, there will be many restrictions with respect to interactions like these. We cannot count on the old ways, when our team of nearly 300 salespersons would fan out to visit an average of four to five schools a day, handling a total of 80-100 schools each in the course of four months. Despite this new uncertainty, our team continues to work closely with teachers.
In small towns, for example, where many teachers have been at sea with new technologies and ways of disseminating knowledge, Ratna Sagar’s marketing team has sent soft copies of chapters on a weekly basis. These are special low-resolution versions so that even people with poor connectivity can access them easily.
The chapters are accompanied by microplans for teachers on how to teach remotely. This package includes everything from circle time to group discussions, grammar exercises, homework assignments and individual projects. Our team has been working with the knowledge that today, schools are trimming down their content in many ways. They no longer have the bandwidth to engage in classes on general knowledge or value education or even an extra literature supplement. So products that could once cushion a drop in sales will probably not play the same role.
The content of our books is yet another area which we are working on. The new syllabus for the CBSE, ICSE and ISC boards has not been announced yet. In fact, it is likely that none of them will be announced until November this year or January next year. What does a student and a publisher of student’s textbooks do then?
At Ratna Sagar, we are incorporating new approaches that take into account new requirements. All books – from mathematics and science to English – will now underscore the development of resilience and other kinds of emotional and social intelligence. The texts, exercises, examples, stories and visuals are being changed to enhance a student’s adaptability and self-reliance. With much of the curriculum going online, Ratna Sagar has stepped up in the digital medium as well to offer digital learning solutions, hybrid learning, lesson plans, teacher training and pre-recorded classes.
We have also developed an advanced portal with enhanced digital content – animation, activities, games, videos and simulations – that teachers and students can easily access. A homework assignment portal enables teachers to easily assign and evaluate at-home projects. All teacher training programmes have also moved online – and there are hundreds, ranging from sports and music to communication and core subjects.
It goes without saying that processes in play today still need to be streamlined. It is not a question of troubleshooting and solving an individual crisis. All involved stakeholders must come together and work towards a new approach.
With this idea in mind, we have been organising a pan-India series of webinars with the heads of different academic institutions. The series started in May 2020 and has so far brainstormed with over 5,000 principals, directors and management committee members across the country. We hope to explore methods of meeting the socio-emotional challenges faced by students and teachers as they handle the inevitable uncertainties of the pandemic.
How do we build resilience and adaptability? How should teachers re-skill and rethink pedagogy? How do we make new strategies available in rural areas where students do not have access to the necessary devices and software? How can we reduce the burden on parents who now have the additional responsibility of monitoring their children’s online classes? How can schools redistribute funds to create new infrastructure for this new world?
Those of us in the business of textbook publishing have been talking for years about changing the education system. This is the time for publishers, schools and boards to truly walk the talk.
Atiya Zaidi is publisher, Ratna Sagar.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.