Anand Limaye of Indian Printing Works in Mumbai is a book printer and publisher. Every year during the festival season, he is “super-duper busy” with Diwali Anks, the bumper-size magazines published in Marathi during Diwali, featuring literary writings and ads in equal measure. “This year, instead of 19 Diwali Anks, we have printed 11,” Limaye said.

This is not too bad for Limaye’s press, which has been operating a single shift in its Wadala and Bhiwandi factories since March. For Limaye and many others like him, the factories are running again post-lockdown. Printing equipment is the life-blood of any printing factory. These machines are expensive and need regular running and maintenance. That they were unable to do this during the lockdown was the biggest problem faced by printers when things came to a standstill.

Now the machines are running, but the printing numbers have seen a dip. For example, more than a hundred Diwali Anks have opted out of printed publication because of reduced advertisements and the logistical problem of how to get copies to readers.

Limaye said, “Had there been an issue like Zee UtsavNatyancha with one lakh copies, backed by ads on TV, the Diwali Ank market would have seen an uptick.” Usually, the Marathi Diwali Ank reader visits the stall and picks up other magazines too. This Marathi reader is now in save-your-money mode.

To combat the situation, leading publishers mooted the idea of selling five leading issues at a combined sum of Rs 1,000, plus one free Storytel gift card. The scheme evoked overwhelming response.

The traditional Mecca for print in Mumbai, Shah & Nahar, in Lower Parel, is eerily quiet. Roopesh Sawant of Superlekha, a Mumbai-based printer, says, “After seven months, we are seeing 25%-30% of pre-Covid levels. Promotions are at an all-time low.”

Faheem Agboatwala of the BMPA, a premier print association based in Mumbai, said, “Commercial printing is going to go through a sea change and there will be permanent damage to several areas of the print business. I had hoped people would realise this sooner or later. It’s a pity that print still hasn’t got industry status in our country.”

Shrinking demand

Since printing is essentially ink-on-paper, a cursory look at the demand for paper since March gives us a fair idea of how book printers are doing. Deepak Mittal, a paper trader in Bengaluru, said, “Shrinkage of demand has been swift, in a way that has never been experienced by the industry. The writing and printing segment has been the worst-affected owing to its reliance on the education sector, which contributes close to 60% of the demand.” With schools and colleges, barring Classes 10 and 12, unlikely to reopen in this academic year, the situation is grim.

“To add to the problem, commercial and promotional printing, like diaries, calendars, brochures, catalogues, etc have been badly impacted, as a lot of companies have either cancelled their requirements for this year or gone digital,” Mittal said. “The big daddy of diaries, LIC, has called off printing diaries this year, and many other government departments and companies have followed in their footsteps.”

Anil Kumar, CEO and executive director, Shreyans Industries, speaking on behalf of paper mills based in Punjab, said, “Order books have improved but it’s not yet good enough.” The demand for educational books in Ludhiana, for instance, has dropped by 40%-45%. As a result, he explained, 2020-21 will bring no profit growth for the paper industry, and firms will face volume losses.

A Venkat, former president of the Federation of Paper Traders Association, from Chennai, added, “Along with the economic impact of the pandemic, banks, telecom providers, and governmental organisations have been encouraged to switch to digital services by using unfounded environmental claims such as ‘go green – go paperless’.” This has been damaging to the ink-on-paper industry, which has a solid environmental record.

Thinning orders

Clearly, the situation is grim for Indian commercial printers, especially small and medium ones. Ludhiana-based Kamal Chopra, president of the All India Federation of Master Printers (AIFMP), said, “Covid-19 and the pandemic have impacted the Indian print industry, which is dominated by small and micro units, quite badly. If there are 250,000 printers in India today, I can say more than 85% of these are facing financial difficulties due to a combination of the lockdown and the pandemic.”

Print industry magazine PrintWeek conducted a survey asking Indian print firm CEOs, both big and small, to describe their cash flow. The results revealed that 27.3% companies were on the verge of closure. Among the rest, 36.4% said they were reasonably comfortable with their cash flows, but things could be better; 13.6% had contingency plans for a crisis situation, while 22.7% declared that their cash flow remained unaffected. Rahul Kumar, assistant editor at PrintWeek, said, “A close reading reveals that at least 3,000 print businesses across India could go bust by March 2021.”

He said only three things can save the commercial print industry: an affordable vaccine for the coronavirus; a government vaccine to boost the balance sheets of small print firms; and a macro-economic vaccine. Kumar is confident that none of the three will be available in the next six months. The magazine’s assessment: even in a best-case scenario, commercial print firms are operating at 55%-66% of the pre-Covid-19 capacity.

New workflows

A major chunk of work for printers depends on the number of titles and copies being brought out by publishers. In August 2020 PrintWeek surveyed Indian publishers to assess their situation. Designed and conducted by production expert Subhasis Ganguli, the survey reached out to 68 print firm CEOs, big and small.

The findings: while almost 40% of publishers think they will be back in business in six months to a year with the same number of titles and quantity of print runs as in 2019, the majority think otherwise. Most publishers said they would like to change their workflow to pre-selling copies before giving a print order from giving a print order and then spending money on warehousing.

This could change the supply chain and procurement process. Digital printing for small print-runs could get a further boost, provided turnaround time can be brought down drastically. This can only be achieved if publishers and printers work as partners and there is no shortage of raw material. In the absence of accurate projections of requirements – as is the case when the publisher waits for orders – paper cannot be procured and stored by the printer, which will affect the efficacy of the chain.

There are also other printing-related technicalities for which publishers, printers and technology providers will need to work as partners. For example, while paper is the highest input cost for offset printing (usually employed for printing books with longer runs), it’s ink that’s the most expensive in case of digital printing (usually employed for printing books with shorter runs). Optimising costs in case of a shift towards more digital printing will need technological adjustment.

“Whether we accept it or not, Covid-19 has definitely changed things,” Ganguli said, “True, change is painful, but it’s time the book publishing and book print industry leaders made up their minds to change for the betterment of the entire ecosystem.” Agreed Ashish Batra of Magic International, a paper stationery manufacture, “In the post-Covid scenario, you will rely less on people and more on processes.”

From the perspectives of a trade publisher, according to Priya Singh of Hachette, there have obviously been ups and downs. “From the palpable fall-off in March, and the Covid-driven recalibration in the months that followed, we’re seeing a comeback of sorts,” she said. “But with orders being a lot more conservative than before and fears of inventory stockpiling, digital has grown while offset has fallen.”

As a result, Singh said, hardcovers have given way to paperbacks, and paperbacks to e-books at first. “This calendar year will probably close at a volume drop of between 20% and 30%, though we’re fairly confident 2021 will see a return, if not to normalcy but at least to the old ballpark. Of course, this will depend on physical bookstores getting back on track.”

For now, however, with shrinking print runs, many publishers are relying more on digital printing. “Some 25% to 30% of the titles meant to be brought out between April and December may have moved from offset to digital printing,” said Singh.

CJ Jassawala of Thomson Press said that when it comes to commercial printing his company has seen new orders only for trade books. “Every other product category, from commercial segments like schoolbooks and magazines to catalogues and brochures has collapsed.” This, of course, applies to the domestic market. Export markets are doing better across product categories.

“Still, the average print-run is down from 4,000 copies last year to around 2,000 copies today,” said Jassawala. There are bigger print runs too, but I am talking about the average.” His company is being sustained by trade books and exports orders, but “our web offset machines, which printed periodicals and schoolbooks or large print-run jobs, remain underutilised.”

Doing things differently

And yet, there are companies doing things differently. Take Arihant Offset, a 22-year-old unit based in Nazafgarh Road, New Delhi, which has invested in a brand new kit for book-binding. Founder Anil Jain said, “Our focus has been on government tenders across India, with a specialisation in textbooks.” He said Arihant can produce and deliver books anywhere in India from its factory, irrespective of the number of copies needed, whether it’s one thousand books or one million.

Jain was specially proud of a book published for the Ministry of Agriculture, which he said his company took from design to delivery in 72 hours. He also delivered 65 million books for a textbook corporation, in 60 days from the date of order. And when Punjab Technical University wanted six lakh answer sheets within one week, they turned to Arihant.

The Dussera-Diwali festival season is expected to boost the economy. But we don’t know what is actually going to happen in the busy season up to December. Some presses have started operating at 60% capacity, but no one knows how things will turn out.

(The author would like to thank the PrintWeek team, especially Ramu Ramanathan and Noel D’Cunha, for their insights.)

Dibyajyoti Sarma is a journalist based in Delhi.

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