In April, Penguin Random House, India released The coronavirus: what you need to know about the global pandemic, written by Dr Swapneil Parikh, Maherra Desai and Dr Rajesh Parikh. In the same month, HarperCollins India published three books – The big questions of life by Om Swami, Shameless by Taslima Nasreen and The shuttle to the top: the story of PV Sindhu by V Krishnaswamy. Simon & Schuster India with Samit Basu’s too Selected spirits.
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The routine act of publishing houses that publish books is worth mentioning because of the times when it was done. Due to the current pandemic, India has been completely blocked since March 24. It completely stopped all operations associated with publishing until very recently, when some printers and warehouses opened for a few days a week. âA printer has started up, but that doesn’t mean things will get back to normal any time soon,â said Rahul Dixit, sales manager at HarperCollins India. The roadblock was and still is bypassed by resorting to digital and books available only as e-books – a first edition.
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We have always published Ebooks
âWe have always sold e-books. In fact, we were one of the first in the country to do so, âsays Kapish Mehra, Managing Director of Rupa Publications. Niti Kumar, senior vice president of marketing, digital and communications at Penguin Random House India, echoes a similar thought. âWe publish agnostics. We have always focused on eBooks. It’s not that we’ve never published them less.
Faced with an unprecedented crisis like this, however, forced them not only to see the potential of the digital format, but also to explore it in ways they did not have before.
Priced almost 50-55% less than their physical counterparts, eBooks generate less revenue and depend on the digital and technical know-how of readers. Their market is considerably smaller and seen from a commercial point of view, full dependence on them does not seem feasible. But the start of the nationwide lockdown made it necessary.
âWe went digital overnight,â says Akriti Tyagi, Marketing Manager at HarperCollins India. The result was not only to be able to support the publishing ecosystem, but also to follow the literary calendar they had decided before the restrictions were put in place. The three books published by HarpersCollins India in April were their main titles.
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âThe market was strongly anticipating them. by Nasreen Shameless is the sequel to one of his best-known works, Lajja. Swami’s book is perfect for the times we live in and a literary chronicle of PV Sindhu’s journey is simply inspiring. It didn’t seem fair to delay them, âargues Dixit.
Penguin Random India did the same. âWe had decided to publish Pooja Pande’s book Momspeak for Mother’s Day and it didn’t make sense to put that on hold, âsaid Manasi Subramaniam, editor and head of literary rights at Penguin India. Pande’s book is available as an ebook.
Respond to the present tense through eBooks
In addition to respecting the schedule, publishing houses also work around it to meet the present times. And the digital space has provided them with both an outlet and a fluidity to respond to requests with immediate action. Praveen Tiwari in Bloomsbury India joins.
Although he clarified that they withheld some books – “There’s one on the promulgation of the CAA and another on Shaheen Bagh” – fearing that bookstores might be a little wary of titles already published as ebooks, they work in the preparation of a book on stress. management which was due out later in July. âWe had to do it later and had several events planned around the colleges. But the book might speak to more people during this time. Rachna Khanna Singh’s Stress Diaries will be released as an eBook on May 18.
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The publishing house made a similar decision with another book, but for different reasons. âJitendra Dixit’s 35 days centers on the 35 days between the proclamation of the Maharashtra assembly election results and the formation of the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government in the state. The book was ready but we couldn’t get it out due to the lockdown. Now that we’ve done that, he’s getting a great response, âhe adds. Indian Premier League (IPL) indefinite postponement helped publish Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution by Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde before the appointed time. âIt was a good time to do it,â says Subramaniam. The strategy worked. Published by Penguin India as an eBook in April, it won Wisden Book of the Year.
Changing demands and growing conversation
Before the lockdown, e-book trends followed a specific pattern. âThe demand was mainly for books by historical authors like Ruskin Bond or Sudha Murty. People have generally opted for books they know well, âKumar shares. There has been a change since the end of March. âIn the initial part of the lockdown, we saw a lot of requests for books related to spirituality, wellness, and health. Another big trend was for children’s books. With each extension, parents go online to search for children’s books to keep them busy, âshe adds. “Lately, there has been a noticeable increase in the demand for books on financial topics, investing and how to manage money.”
As a direct result, there has been a surge in requests and conversations around them. âEven though Ebook data comes to us in a different way, the searches and conversations around it have increased,â says Kumar. Other editors agree. âE-book sales have increased two to three times,â says Dixit. âWe believe that the overall market for eBooks has grown. During the months of March and April, there was a jump of 55%, âadds Tiwari.
No change in acquisition
The sudden increase in demand for ebooks and the changing trends raise the question of whether this will lead to a shift in acquisition. Subramaniam disagrees. âPersonally, I don’t think we’ve changed direction. We haven’t changed our business model. It is not a permanent state. Publishing is a dynamic market and I don’t think a change in format will impact the trends. Kumar agrees, reasoning, âThere is a significant time gap between acquiring and publishing a book. I don’t think it will have an impact on how we go about commissioning.
Given the prevailing uncertainty, Sayantan Ghosh, editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, agrees with the rest, but adds that there will be slight changes. âWe are in conversation with authors to write things, like a short story or personal essays, that will be a quick read. These will be temporal. Whether or not they hold in the future will be a separate question. These will be available only as e-books.
Lessons from an uncertain present for an uncertain future
The current pandemic may have made eBooks an unexpected champion of hard times, but publishers across the board believe they won’t replace physical books. Subramaniam states that both will exist with other versions of books and cites historical evidence to support his point. âThe pocket edition saw the light of day in the years 1939-1940. The reason was World War II. A paperback book could easily fit into the pockets of soldiers. By 1949, they were selling more than the hard covers and many feared this would ruin the edition. But they have coexisted in such a fundamental way that there seems to be no difference in the formats.
His argument also implies that there will now be more attention to e-books. âIf confinement has taught me anything, it’s that reading will never go away. The fashion could change and as publishers we need to be invested in the change, in e-books if need be, so that when the next generation comes, we are ready, âsays Dixit. “We need to pursue and promote physical books and e-books with the same aggressiveness,” he adds.
From the perspective of ease of locking, publishers are also hoping that readers who have discovered the convenience of eBooks will keep coming back. âI was talking to seniors who owned Kindle devices but were reluctant to use them before. They are doing it now, âTiwari shares. âIn the last few weeks, we’ve generated three to four times more than what we were getting from e-books. âIn the future, it could revert to what it was, but I am hopeful it will at least double from the amount before the lockdown,â Dixit said.
But of course every argument for and against eBooks, just like other debates unfolding right now, rests on publishers’ guesswork and bold hopes.