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How India's publishing industry coped with the pandemic year

Sales went down but books survived in 2020, thanks to new innovations in publishing, promotions and sales

Representational image.
Representational image. (Dollar Gill/Unsplash)

By Zafri Mudasser Nofil

PTI—Publishing in India saw several challenges in 2020 due to the covid-19 pandemic but focus on online sales and making the best use of various digital platforms helped in promotion of books and keep authors in the public eye, say publishers.

With zero sales for almost three months, many had to trim their publishing list drastically. However, publishers adapted and actively looked for trends to cater to the subjects their readers would find useful and engaging.

New and innovative ways of marketing and selling books also became a part of the year gone by which saw people reading more.

Milee Ashwarya, publisher at Ebury Publishing and Vintage Groups, Penguin Random House India, says 2020 was also the year when the power of digital transformation was felt in publishing like in other industries.

"While some bookshops shut down, some new ones opened and online sales saw a surge. All in all, 2020 was full of learnings and got us more focused on our business," she told PTI.

HarperCollins India CEO Ananth Padmanabhan says 2020 was unprecedented in every way—and specifically to the business of publishing—when in India printed books were declared non-essentials.

"The entire value chain had zero sales for almost three months. This did teach us all many valuable lessons about the way we conduct our business but even more importantly about the way readers will buy books in the future—formats, retail, genres and how often too," he says.

"We continued our publishing programme—beginning with digital-first, e-books through April and May, and by late June our new books in print had also started to go out—depending on how unlock rules impacted retail," he adds.

According to Padmanabhan, sales in 2020 were at higher double digit rates over 2019, both by value and volume.

The single-most impactful change, he says, has been innovative digital marketing that can bridge the discoverability gap, considering physical stores are shut.

Chiki Sarkar, publisher at Juggernaut, says their "list was cut drastically, so revenues fell but the books we did publish pretty much performed as they would on any year and a large number of our books have gone into reprint".

Westland publisher Karthika VK, too, says there was a direct impact at every level as "we couldn't publish at all for three months, apart from the sheer logistical difficulties of getting books to readers even after the lockdown had lifted, due to disruptions in the distribution and retail chain".

According to Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India, the publishing experience was fairly bad with the battering brick-and-mortar stores had to take and they're just about recovering slowly. "Online did really well in holding up lists, but new books and the lesser known title which needed the discoverability at curated stores lost out badly."

Hachette India editor-in-chief and publisher Poulomi Chatterjee adds they had to reschedule many key new releases in the local list keeping in mind a slow and erratic market.

"Physical bookstores, when they reopened, saw low footfall so offline visibility of new books too was affected. Releases of the select list of books that were published in 2020 were meticulously planned so they would get adequate attention and visibility," she says.

As publishing schedules were drawn up well in advance, editors continued working on books as planned even while lockdown impacted sales quite severely in the early months.

"The early months were particularly difficult for everyone as we were trying to get used to working from home amid much uncertainty regarding what lay ahead," says Himanjali Sankar, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster.

For Renuka Chatterjee, VP Publishing at Speaking Tiger, "Overall sales may have gone down but we survived. We focused on online sales and made best use of the various digital platforms that opened up to market and promote our books and keep our authors in the public eye."

The impact of the pandemic was also strongly felt by educators and the learning community, especially young learners who needed engagement and handholding in a remote learning environment.

"Responding with agility, we at OUP India added extensively to our vast repository of digital and online resources and combined them with our print books while constantly engaging with teachers on remote teaching methodologies," says Oxford University Press India managing director Sivaramakrishnan Venkateswaran.

"Whether it was providing free access to resources on covid-19 to researchers and medical professionals, offering free access to our education platforms, supporting professional development for teachers, or sharing guidance on home learning, we made our valuable content available to the widest audience during these challenging times," he says.

Since the pandemic took the publishing industry by storm, at least during the complete lockdown in India, commissioning editors were compelled to be more selective than ever as publishing lists were tightened, says Rajdeep Mukherjee, managing director of Pan Macmillan India.

"Publicists adapted promotional campaigns to suit a world moved online as on-the-ground activities stood cancelled, sales representatives found it highly challenging to convince brick-and-mortar bookstores, already struggling due to the growing predominance of online retailers, to place significant orders," he says.

Bhaskar Roy, CEO of Palimpsest Publishing House, says though publishing has suffered badly for close to a year now and lockdown drastically reduced footfalls in bookshops, people read more as they remained in their homes.

"Also, now that outings are unfashionable, book ideas shelved for years are being dusted off and turned into texts. Some of them are sure to figure in publishers' lists in the New Year," he says.

Trisha De Niyogi of Niyogi Books thinks the year forced publishers to reinvent and innovate.

"During the lockdown, we realised more and more people were reading, which has always been music to our ears. The importance of ebooks and audiobooks cannot be ignored, more so now. The rollercoaster ride of 2020 is bound to continue into 2021, but we feel more prepared. I am confident that we will find a (or a few) way out," she says. PTI ZMN RDS ZMN

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