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The attack of the publishers
Sangeeta Singh
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May 28, 2005

Isn't it ironic that while the literacy rate has barely doubled between 1991 and now, an industry directly related to it has risen exponentially?

The Indian publishing industry today has grown to Rs 7,500 crore (Rs 75 billion), of which exports comprise Rs 460 crore (Rs 4.6 billion); in 1991, exports stood at a paltry Rs 33 crore (Rs 330 million). And that's not all: leading global publishers like Pearson, Macmillan, Penguin, John Wiley, Aelsevier, Springer and Thomson are all contributing to this growing industry.

What more? These days, it is the developed countries that are receiving more books from India than our neighbours in Africa and other developing countries.

For Penguin it's a big shift!

What used to be a crude backyard industry generally passed on as a family business, has now become sophisticated. Book editors and skilled technicians who were languishing can now look forward to a number of global players entering the market. For most of them, India has become a hub for considerable outsourcing in the pre-press and finished products activities.

But Macmillan thinks differently. "It is not for back office work or affordable printing and typesetting rates that we are looking at India. Rather, it is for brain power that India has become a priority base for Macmillan worldwide," says Richard Charkin, chief executive, Macmillan, and chairman, Macmillan India [Get Quote].

Out of the total 7,000 employees that Macmillan has globally, 2,000 are in India. The company also considers India superior to its other hubs because of the back-end IT support that it gets for its printing activities.

Besides this, the industry, which is 16,000-odd publishers strong, is supplying books all over the world. And this ratio has tilted in favour of developed countries these days.

"Out of the Rs 460 crore (Rs 4.6 billion) worth of exports, 51 per cent goes to developed countries including the US, the UK and some European nations," says Sukumar Das, former president, Federation of Publishers' and Booksellers' Association of India and chairman, UBS Publishers' Distributors.

And what are the kind of books that are going to these countries? Das says it is mostly new age, coffee table, religious, those related to ayurveda and naturopathy and so on, which are being lapped up in Western countries.

However, Macmillan plans to supply more science and educational books out of India because it thinks India has really improved in this area. "Good titles and educational books, especially IT-related, written by Indian authors are becoming popular in overseas markets," says Ravi Beri, managing director, Macmillan India.

Another area where India clearly tends to score over its neighbouring rivals is that, out of the total titles produced in the country, 45 per cent are in English, which also makes it the third largest producer in English after the US and UK.

But this trend may soon change, for foreign publishers are seeing potential in the Indian rural markets and because of this a lot of big titles and educational books are being translated into Hindi and leading regional languages like Marathi, Bengali, Telugu and Malayalam.

"For us it is a part of the global policy of moving towards localisation. For instance, in South Africa, we have translated Nelson Mandela's Long Walk To Freedom in 12 South African dialects and we want to do something similar in India," says Charkin of Macmillan. With literacy levels in states like Kerala touching 100 per cent, he has a point.

Penguin also has a similar policy. The company claims that getting into local language publishing brings a touch of completeness to Penguin's India operations.

It has decided to start publishing in Hindi and Marathi, and will later get into Malayalam and Tamil.

Similarly, Orient Longman, which is mostly doing academic books, is aggressively looking into publishing in Hindi, Bengali and Marathi, which includes its popular English dictionary. Whatever the policy, the fallout is more activity and hence more choice.

And competition and globalisation has made people in the industry more assertive.

"Things like paperback, hardback, complete edition and handicap rights are being increasingly talked about and properly negotiated, along with royalty payments, and so on," says Das.

Students are also looking at pursuing publishing as a career. Universities like Calcutta Univerity have started full-fledged post-graduate diploma courses. Talks are that even Delhi University may start a course in publishing.

So even while e-learning and e-browsing are catching up, printing and publishing are not losing ground. In fact, they are gaining more prominence under the changed scenario.

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