The impact of the pandemic in 2020 on every aspect of English language publishing in India – from release of titles to marketing them, from selling in physical bookshops to selling online – is now known to industry insiders. What lessons can be extrapolated from these conclusions to the future, especially after the pandemic recedes? To find out, organised a roundtable with professionals representing every segment of the value chain – publishing, editing, marketing, sales, distribution, and bookselling.

The participants: Karthika VK, Publisher, Westland Publications; Udayan Mitra, Publisher, Literary, HarperCollins India; Radhika Timbadia, Founder, Champaca Bookstore, Bengaluru; Gaurav Sabharwal, Managing Director, Prakash Books; Vijay Sharma, Sales Director, Pan Macmillan India; Niti Kumar, senior vice-president, marketing, digital and communications, Penguin India, Kanishka Gupta, literary agent and literary journalism curator. Excerpts from the conversation, moderated by Books editor Arunava Sinha.

Arunava Sinha: Now that we know what nine months of Covid-19 has done to every aspect of the publishing chain, we’re hoping to understand what might happen in a post-Covid world, and what steps each of you might take on behalf of the position you occupy in that chain. I’m going to start by asking each of you to give me a short prediction of what you think might be new for your area in the year 2021 and afterwards.

Karthika VK: I’m not in a very optimistic mood. So my prediction, if I have to call it that, is that books will have to reinvent themselves quite dramatically. This is if we have to make publishing part of a profit-making business, rather than something which is supported by various other arms of the business which earn the money to sustain publishing.

It’s going to be harder for independent presses to survive and continue doing good work, because they’re simply not attracting the kind of investment that they should be. For me, that is the biggest problem going forward. As Indian publishers, how can we make publishing self-sustaining? How can we drive it towards profit-making mechanisms without relying on books coming from the West into our market, without only publishing books that are out of copyright and other such things instead of focusing on original, innovative writing? That is the biggest worry I see coming up in the future.

Arunava Sinha: When you say reinvent the book, do you mean form, content, or both?

Karthika VK: I don’t think people are going to move away from conventional reading. It’s not about romanticising the physical book, the fact is that many people prefer reading a book in the old-fashioned way. But I don’t see us being able to say, yes, this is the future too. It seems to me that the physical book is something we’re all going to be working with while also considering other formats which might take over from it or co-exist with it – whether its OTT, audio or the film version of the physical book, or even podcasts. The word “content” is probably going to be more central to our imagining the book as one part of the whole, rather than the whole.

Arunava Sinha: That’s quite a shocker, considering that most publishers swear so much by the physical form of the book, irrespective of new technologies. We’ll come back to this later, but let’s talk about the marketing aspect of the value chain. Niti?

Niti Kumar: I see a lot of sales moving online, which enables us to get much more data on how readers are picking up books across genres and formats. It certainly sounds a little odd because so much of publishing is led by the sensibilities of the editor and the author and their conversations, but I feel that data will strengthen the process and make books more marketable. It will make marketing more tangible.

Right now, there are so many books which have good marketing plans behind them, but they still don’t work, and it’s hard to figure out the reasons. I’m hoping that with more data coming in, these questions will be less difficult to answer.

Arunava Sinha: Moving on to sales. Vijay?

Vijay Sharma: For the first days of the lockdown, everything was at a standstill. Sales is a physical process. It involves going door to door, bookstore to bookstore. In between, there are many stakeholders, like distributors. In the last couple of years, there has been a drastic change, but Covid-19 has changed the scenario even more. In the last nine months, for example, we have seen a 41% jump in online sales to the end customer.

Brick-and-mortar bookshops stand at about 25% of what they used to be, even though we have seen some booksellers reinventing themselves. Despite multiple challenges like logistics, lack of footfalls and the absence of new book launches, their bookstores have managed to not only survive but thrive. They introduced intelligent ways of selling books and reaching target customers, through home delivery, for instance. But these are a miniscule number. It is the organised retail chain, especially those in mall areas, which faced great challenges, like high rentals.

With Covid-19, we have seen a drastic fall in front-list [new and recent books] sales, because we finally understand the importance of physical brick and mortar shops and the importance of browsing. Since back-listed [older] books were already well-established in terms of sales, online platforms started promoting these aggressively. As a result, there has been a great uptick in the sales of back-list titles.

We are now a back-list market, contributing 85% of sales. Front-listed titles are more challenging to sell, because there is no special exposure for these books when selling online. The worst part of all this is that great literature is not being exposed to the right set of target readers. Online platforms get behind what sells fast and makes the most money.

So, when it comes to the back-listed titles, we could see a growth in the sales this year, but this is only temporary because of the discounts available. It will be saturated by 2021-2022. We cannot anticipate an overload on the back-list by compromising on front-list titles.

Kanishka Gupta: What is your prediction about retail chains in airports in particular?

Vijay Sharma: Covid-19 has impacted the entire industry. The result of this has been many mergers and acquisitions. For instance, WH Smith has been taken over by the Future Group. Relay has continued to grow a bit, thanks to their independent funding. As soon as we see a growth in traffic at airports, we will definitely see a bounce-back.

The downside to this is that with the entrants of players like the Future Group, there will be a good deal of corporatising. This means a fight for greater space, and greater monetisation of racks and shelves. It means selling of books at airports will be more expensive. Thousands of books are released every month, but airport retail stores only buy about 20 titles. It will remain the publisher’s decision to choose which titles go to airports, but one cannot deny that it is a key captive audience area. It will only grow as the situation normalises.

Kanishka Gupta: Retail chains were struggling even before Covid-19.

Vijay Sharma: Yes, so what this means in a post-Covid world is that retail chains will have to finetune their business models, especially those chains which function in rented spaces. They will see a temporary uptick in profits, if a customer buys, say, between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000 worth of books on a visit, but then again, such customers are few and far between.

Arunava Sinha: Let’s talk about distribution. Gaurav?

Gaurav Sabharwal: The front-list is a big challenge for offline channels at this time. Earlier too, distributors were not distributing books for both online and offline sales, but over the last couple of years, publishers have gone directly to the online space. That part of the business has gone away from us. As distributors, we now work primarily in the offline space, which, due to Covid-19, is down to 20% of overall sales. This has dramatically changed the scenario and it is here to stay. How we manage to remain profitable in spite of such a decline in business? Does it mean asking for a higher margin from the publisher? Does it mean scaling down? At this point, we just don’t know.

Offline sales may see a revival once we have a vaccine, six months or a year down the road. But I don’t see the revival going back to pre-Covid levels, because a lot of customers have migrated to the online platform, where they are quite comfortable. So, the main challenge remains how to sustain the business with a lower volume.

The other challenge is from the closure of stores across the country, since they are not able to meet payment obligations. Cash flows are huge problems for distributors right now. For a distributor to survive in the post-Covid world, we have to have a strong offline strategy plus a strong secondary online strategy. For example, a publisher may be working directly with Amazon, but as distributors, we can be sellers on Amazon too, if we can figure out how to integrate in the right way.

Arunava Sinha: Do you see something completely new in the works? You’re talking of fixing this model, but is there anything different to watch out for?

Gaurav Sabharwal: When 75%-85% of sales are coming from Amazon and Flipkart, something completely new has already taken place. Of course, distribution per se has collapsed. Ten years ago, there were hundreds of distributors and now there are only a couple. So there’s already been a critical amount of change, but even for existing distributors to survive, we’ll have to rethink how offline business is going to go, in terms of what marketing we will have to undertake, what is sustainable for a distributor in the long run, etc.

Just to add to Niti’s point, there is a lot of online data which is now interesting for an offline distributor like us. Offline used to be the leading point of sales earlier, while online was a laggard. This has reversed now, with books getting established online first before demand trickles down to the offline spaces. So given that this is the space in which you have to establish your product, data-driven marketing and publishing are extremely relevant now.

Arunava Sinha: Is there a significant difference in the kind of books that are selling more, particularly since the online skew is between 75% and 85%?

Gaurav Sabharwal: Yes, there has been a dramatic shift, since discoverability has become a huge challenge. This is limited online, especially with the promotion of profit-oriented online sales platforms. So it’s less about content and more about extraneous factors coming together. The front-list takes a huge hit not just because of the online factor, but due to other platforms, like OTT.

Fiction, for example, has taken a huge hit because there is a lot of distraction today with Netflix and current affairs and social media. But on the other hand, the gift segment, the sales of topical non-fiction, children’s books, self-help, vernacular and translated books have all risen. I think this is because these genres allow for more accessible marketing.

Kanishka Gupta: When you talk about fiction sales plummeting, do you mean literary fiction or mass market fiction?

Gaurav Sabharwal: I think even more than literary fiction, mass market fiction has plummeted at an even more alarming rate.

Arunava Sinha: Yes there is a new home for literary fiction now, and it’s not the book. Radhika, how do you think bookselling is going to change, based on your nine months’ experience of the pandemic?

Radhika Timbadia: As publishers and distributors, all of you have a larger view, since we are quite small and our collections are quite niche. We had to launch our online store in May this year. It was not something we were planning to do. It’s true that 80% of our sales are online now, even though in the last two months, people have begun to come into the physical store.

I’m surprised to hear that literary fiction has fallen so much. For us, it’s started to pick up. Last year, non-fiction was selling much more. But like I said, we’re small and perhaps our patterns aren’t relevant for a larger audience.

Arunava Sinha: What are the changes you need to see for things to be better in the bookselling field in 2021 and 2022?

Radhika Timbadia: I’m surprised that there aren’t more independent booksellers online at this point, especially given that people are still quite uncomfortable entering store spaces. Maybe the infrastructure for this is not easy to come by. I would also like to point out that while bookstores outside India sell e-books and audio books, bookstores in India do not do so. I think it’s a no-brainer that bookstores in India will eventually have to start selling e-books and audio books too.

I’d love to continue selling physical books and maintaining a human connection, but if we’re talking strictly sales, then why bookstores cannot sell e-books or audio books is a question I’d like to look at.

Arunava Sinha: Udayan, How do you think publishers’ strategies are going to change in this coming year? We are particularly interested in the fiction component of the front-list.

Udayan Mitra: What has become self-evident in 2020 is that many things are not in our control. In publishing houses we do forecasts – three-year plans, five-year plans, seven-year plans. When you’re confronted with a year like 2020, these plans become meaningless. Look at this past year – out of the twelve months, no publisher was able to put out a single new book for nearly four months. March to June was a shut-down, so what was going out to the public was the back-list.

We have to rethink at a pretty fundamental level. Not all of that rethink has to do with Covid-19. It also has to do with shifting tastes in reading and shifts in the mechanics of publishing and retail. I am positive about one thing. It’s a personal observation since I don’t think we have enough data on this – but I think more and more people are turning to books in whatever format.

People were turning to books during those four months when we didn’t have a single new book out in the markets. People were reading and re-reading books, and were buying books on the backlist. I think it’s a human instinct that’s been sustained for several centuries. When we feel isolated, we turn to books for stories or narratives to make sense of what is happening in our heads and around us. This is always good for the publishing industry, since it reaffirms what we are all about.

I will stick my neck out and make a prediction. Gaurav was talking about fiction taking a hit and Radhika has talked about how fiction has been selling more. I would say that 2022 will be the year when we see fiction making a major comeback. I’ll tell you why.

2020 is one of those event years, like the World War. In modern history, when this happens, humanity reacts creatively to what has happened. So you will see non-fiction too, not just from the scientific point of view but how the pandemic hit us socially, culturally and politically. A lot of fiction is already being written, some of it reactive, nearly all of it remarkable.

Arunava Sinha: All right, now I’m going to request each of you to address another person on this panel and tell them what you want from them, assuming we were all working for the same company, which in a sense we are. Karthika, what would you tell Niti?

Karthika VK: It’s that perennial problem, Niti. When you talk about data and what kind of data drives the market, my biggest worry is that we will end up selling a certain kind of book to a certain kind of reader because that’s what the data tells us she is interested in. So basically, it will be more of the same kind of books and genres and formats entering the market.

The data is going to defeat us. At one point there may even be too much data, which can cloud editorial judgment and that can be a huge problem. I want to live in a universe where I can publish a book not just because the author has 500k followers on Instagram or if a genre has a record of selling 50,000 copies of every book published.

Niti Kumar: I totally hear you. Nobody wants to be tied down by data. I think the way we approach data is very definitive, it’s either this or that. But why not think of it as ‘this AND that’? This approach makes it a winning combination.

So, if you already have a set of reader-centric perspectives, data will enable you to do so much more in terms of creative publishing. That is why I would look at it as an enabler rather than a usurper. Data is a much abused word. I think a lot depends on how you treat data and the importance you give certain elements of it. You cannot let it consume you. At the end of the day, our experience as professionals in the field has to have a certain weightage over data.

From a publishing perspective, there is a lot of input that can be taken and given, but from a marketing perspective, data helps to rationalise a lot. The first thing that gets slashed during a pandemic is a marketing budget, but data enables a marketing professional like me to argue with a CEO and say if you give me this amount to spend, I can earn it back for you.

Karthika VK: That’s the other thing. Once you have the data, you spend money on getting the market to work with that data and to send targeted notifications to readers. You might have the money to do this but you end up wiping out a huge segment of the publishing world that does not have access to that kind of money. So again, independent presses that produce powerful and saleable books are eliminated from this process.

As an industry, I see our choices narrowing more and more, year after year, into this constricted body of publishing where diversity and variety are slowly wiped out. That’s why a bookstore like Champaca Books is such a delight to work with. With them, you know where the readers are coming from and you can actually identify books on your list that can go to them. There’s an organic outreach to the reader. Data does not allow that. The more selling goes online, the more we push away consciously from this choice, this connection and this outreach. It’s a frightening scenario. Is this our future?

Gaurav Sabharwal: It’s a problem with capitalism really, not so much with publishing.

Karthika VK: The crucial point is that publishing hopes to shape opinion and content, not merely to feed into it and off it.

Gaurav Sabharwal: I think Karthika has a point in her fears about a data-driven, sales-oriented industry. It’s not going to stop unless there is a shift in society in general. In France, for instance, there are regulations in place to protect independent bookstores. Will India ever see such a day? This is not something that we can see the industry doing. It has to be extraneous.

Radhika Timbadia: I disagree with you, Gaurav, because as people in positions of power having this conversation and calling for more diversity and variety, I think we are also in a position to make some kind of change ourselves. There are sellers – like independent bookstores – who are trying to beat the online algorithm. Publishing, as an industry, should give them more support. For instance, what happens when a marketing team promotes only two books which are primed to be popular? Who is talking about the rest of the list? Booksellers are primed to do that, and we can do this in future.

Arunava Sinha: So, Niti, what would you tell Radhika?

Niti Kumar: I would actually say we need to talk more. What happens is that while marketing and sales should work as an interconnected system, the reality is that we’re sitting in offices and marketing books to readers that come into your space, as the bookseller, to buy them. So we need to feed back more into each other.

We might sit in our offices and think something is a brilliant idea, but the readers are actually giving their feedback to you as the sellers, rather than to us. You are the people who are getting the initial signals from the readers on the ground, and we need to tap into that conversation as marketing professionals.

Arunava Sinha: Okay, Radhika, what would you like Gaurav to do for you?

Radhika Timbadia: I think it would be great if distributors showed more interest in independent booksellers. I’m still new to this space and it’s about access to lists and to conversations with marketing teams, to improve the terms that booksellers can work on, even if you are a small seller. I don’t think these conversations aren’t happening because nobody wants them, but because of a huge communication gap within this industry. Maybe booksellers aren’t seen as a platform to promote huge sales. But conversations like these are a good start.

Arunava Sinha: Vijay and Udayan, what would you like from each other? What sort of exchanges should be taking place between publishing and sales?

Vijay Sharma: When you look at publishing lists for the next year or the year after that, we have to reinvent and fine-tune as much as we can. As sales people, we tweak strategies and try to align our vision with those of our customers. For Champaca Books, for instance, I would pull out a customised list of titles, catering to the readership that enters the store. When it comes to my channel partners in between, they are such a huge machinery of distribution, churning out thousands of books a month. In a crowded and challenging market, it is important to coordinate across the publishing industry in such a way that we share a common vision. We must also focus on reaching target customers.

Udayan Mitra: There is enough data at our disposal on this. It’s about how to use data intelligently. At the end of the day, it’s also about synergy. Publishing is a very small industry, catering to a niche consumer base. We’re all in the same boat, in the same industry.

When we talk about the market being back-list driven, that’s not just a number. There are specific books that have stayed on the lists for years. These books were published years ago, but remain perennial bestsellers. There’s a reason why. There are learnings here – not to replicate the past, but to identify a book that appeals to readers across generations. I think if we use data intelligently, we can be a bit more efficient.

Kanishka Gupta: My biggest concern with the Indian publishing ecosystem is the lack of influencers, like prominent book clubs, which exist in the United Kingdom or in the United States. The next problem is that while there are new awards that have been instituted, some of which are very lucrative, do they translate into sales? We’ve seen the recent closure of a number of venerable media houses. So with the avenues for reviews shrinking with their disappearance, it is the influencer who will actually make a huge difference to the sales of the book.

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