Publishing is one of the least transparent industries. No one knows what its real size is, even if you exclude e-books directly published on digital platforms and self-published books that are essentially an author’s game. Keeping aside textbook sales numbers that are predictable enough, you are aiming in the dark. Lately, the Indian publishing industry has become very visible primarily because of a small constellation of bestselling authors and a galaxy of celebrity authors.
The latter come with the promise of big sales. Literature festivals created the platforms to bring authors close to their readers. They boomed, with every city, every locality having its own Lit Fest, but they were bitten by the glamour bug too soon. Lit Fests became the favourite haunt of fashionistas and the real authors missed the horizon. Whether this buzz has become viable revenue for the publishers and their authors remains a question.
English language publishing dominates the mind space, with most big names choosing to write in English—be it a politician, a sportsperson, an actor or a journalist. Little is spoken about Indian language publishing, though in readership numbers, it may be far greater than English language publishing. Gita Press, headquartered in Gorakhpur, is probably India’s biggest publishing house with the widest possible reach and it publishes in almost all Indian languages. We know there is a huge reader’s market in languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi and Tamil.
The publishing industry once stood for quality. Authors took pride in being published by reputed publishers and readers could trust their judgement. Today, it is a game of click-bait selling. A book is assessed solely on the basis of the sales it can generate. Nothing wrong in that, as the industry has to generate revenue for itself and its authors. The problem is that readership is not a parameter they focus on, which may be a small percentage of the numbers sold.
For example, most self-help books with catchy titles that promise success or happiness like a one-size-fit-all pill clock big sales, but people hardly read them, much less use the pill it offers. Marketing muscle is spent on a select few authors. These cash cows in turn can arm-twist the publishers on their publishing decisions as we saw in a recent controversy. No one knows the size of the publishing industry. Sales and readership numbers are elusive, be it the leading publishing houses or the small family-run Indian language publishers. Authors give up all rights to their work to the publishers for a small share of revenue generated by their book.
The sales numbers are known only to the publisher and the author has no choice but to believe what the publisher shares. There is zero transparency and no interest in changing the status quo. The distributor networks are so distributed that collation of numbers leaves ample room for manipulations. This lack of transparency hurts the authors at the micro level, and it does not help the industry in any way at the macro level. Bestseller lists trace their numbers to three primary sources. Nielsen Bookscan data covers 60-70% of the spectrum, but it shares data only with subscribers. The next source is the neighbourhood bookstore and its accuracy is anyone’s guess.
The third source is Amazon, which is the best one available in the public domain, as it accounts for substantial sales and each purchase is counted instantly. Book sales moving online is the biggest industry trend. With their deep discounting policies, online portals have effortlessly killed neighbourhood bookstores as well as brought down the margins for publishers. Algorithms have taken over personalised recommendations from fellow readers even when we know that online ratings that feed the algorithms can be easily manipulated by using your influence or money. Like it or not, digital platforms are here to stay, and the pandemic gave them another boost.
Digital platforms are more of an opportunity than a challenge, if the publishing industry chooses to see them as such. E-books account for less than 5% of the overall sales, which means that most people still prefer to hold a book in hand. ‘E-books only’ and audio books are emerging as a market segment in themselves. Subscription-based reading options are gaining ground as people want to have more choices at hand or judge the readability of books for themselves.
The publishing industry needs to innovate and leapfrog by adapting to new technologies and bringing in transparency. It has to move away from being close-fisted with numbers and start using data analytics to widen the reach of the industry and improve the quality of books published. Data can be used effectively to experiment with new genres, new formats and new mediums. In my years of reviewing books, I have seen just one new-age publisher experiment with new ideas and succeed at some of them. I wonder if we would ever see a publicly listed publishing house that shares its numbers transparently. Ironically, an industry that publishes authoritative books on so many subjects fails to learn from most of them.
Author and founder of IndiTales