Widespread optimism as India's publishing industry emerges from the pandemic

By Vishnu Makhijani

New Delhi, Apr 22 (IANS): The road ahead is promising for the publishing industry as it emerges from the pandemic with a resounding bang and learns a number of lessons from the experience of the past two years, stakeholders that IANS spoke to ahead of World Book Day on April 23 said.

Not losing a sense of purpose and of community, nimbleness, not working in silos, noticing subliminal sales shifts, attention to ebooks and audio books, integrating with the digital space, adopting better social media strategies and a steep rise in the demand for Indian literature are the pointers to the future, the stakeholders said.

"Books were actually a trusted companion for many a reader during the pandemic years; not only did people read new books that were being published, but they re-read old favourites, and they also read some of the books that they had been meaning to, but hadn't found time for," Udayan Mitra, Executive Publisher of HarperCollins India, said.

"It is heartening to see how many books were published - and read and appreciated - during the very difficult times of the pandemic. As we emerge out of the shadow of the pandemic, the publishing industry is in robust shape, with some wonderful new books being published, and the book retail also up and running again," he added.

The road ahead seems promising, Nandan Jha, EVP Product & Sales and Business Development, Penguin Random House India, said.

"The way the market is opening up, bookstores are re-launching and festivals are taking place, we hope to be able to resume activities as they were pre-pandemic. The road ahead seems promising at the moment. We have an incredible line-up for the year ahead and it's going to keep us busy. Most importantly, we remain nimble in our approach and are reviewing the changes and growth around us," Jha said.

The pandemic had accelerated certain changes, as had happened in homes and families, Sumanta Mitra, MD, Oxford University Press India, said.

"We can look positively at the future because the pandemic has forced us to accelerate certain changes, as we have all had to do in our homes and in our families. One of the most highly commented phenomena has been the acceleration in the use of digital media and platforms, which certainly provides new opportunities to engage with new generations of students, without forgetting the OUP legacy of creating high-quality scholarly materials for the public good.

"At OUP we see a future where the digital space and greater technological skills afford students more autonomy in their learning and a greater opportunity for blended content - that is, a healthy mix of both print and digital material - that can be both more effective as well as engaging," Mitra said.

Trisha Niyogi, Director and COO, Niyogi Books, sees a sharp resurgence in publishing as well as reading.

"There is a widespread optimism about the future. After the pandemic and the lull, there seems to be a boom in consumption as well as production as publishers reprint and release new titles, which saw a dip in the last two years. Readers are quickly releasing their pent-up demand for a wide range of books and content.

"However, we must not forget that the output is springing up partly also because of the innovations carried out during the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. Publishers are constantly experimenting in every department - marketing to production, editing to designing and more," Niyogi said.

What are the lessons learnt from the pandemic and what steps need to be taken to prevent any disruptions caused by such events?

"The pandemic certainly brought home to all of us that we who publish, promote and sell books don't work in a silo, we are always part of a larger chain - economically, socially. For three whole months in 2020, we had to stop publishing new books, as it was simply not possible to get the books printed and to ship them out and reach them to customers," HarperCollins' Mitra said.

"I would say an equally important learning was that were able to work with optimum efficiency from our homes, without losing a sense of purpose and of community. A hybrid work model has emerged out of that experience, and I think this will benefit the publishing industry in the time to come," he added.

According to Jha, one of the biggest takeaways from the impact of the pandemic "is the importance of being nimble".

"The unpredictability of what we all went through has only reinforced the need to be prepared to move fast and skilfully. Our other learnings would be valuing partnerships; whether it was working with bookstores amidst lockdowns to ensure customers still get their deliveries or innovative collaborations to sustain customer engagement, it is important to work together and overcome challenges.

"Lastly, this period also taught many of us to look at the impact of online business- how customers interact with our books online, notice subliminal sales shift during certain events or periods and much more. For many players in the industry, this opened up more avenues to engage with our readers more fruitfully," Jha explained.

With many waves of the pandemic hitting, and on-ground bookstores shutting down, it has been a palpable challenge to ensure that the titles published get their due, Shobhita Narayan, Marketing & Publicity Manager of Simon and Schuster said.

"However, we have seen bookstores reinvent themselves since the first wave. Many independent bookstores now take online orders, deliver books pan India and are also present in a big way on social media. This has benefitted quite a few authors and publishers in turn. Publishers and bookstores have teamed up together in different ways through special promotions such as online sales.

"Furthermore, bookstores now have readers from all over India no matter where they are actually located. A person sitting in Shillong can now order a signed copy of his favourite book from a bookstore in Bangalore.

"We have also seen publishers coming out with online brand collaborations - for instance, we tied up with Curious Cat Company, an online cat themed store to promote ‘Cat People', a collection of stories by and for people who love cats," Narayan elaborated.

During the pandemic, Niyogi said, she had seen a steep rise in awareness and demand for Indian literature.

"Not just in books but in other mediums. With ‘Cobalt Blue' being transposed into an OTT series, we see a significant desire to read more of authentic Indian literature from various Indian languages. I sincerely hope this is not just a trend but a movement," Niyogi said.

Do publishers foresee a rush of titles, fiction and non-fiction, in the coming months on the theme of the pandemic?

"Not necessarily on the theme of the pandemic: to be honest, I think people are generally a bit sick of the pandemic, and don't really want to read a lot about the experience of the very challenging times we've just come through. But some terrific books have been written in the course of the last two years: I think a lot of writers have had the time to think through a project and then write; many manuscripts that were pending completion have been finalized. Readers have a lot to look forward to in the months that lie ahead (this applies to both fiction and non-fiction)," HarperCollins' Mitra said.

"I don't think that's going to happen in the coming months. I think we are all suffering from pandemic-fatigue at this point and would like to hear less of it if possible for now. Perhaps in a couple of years there will be more thought-out, meaningful literature on this subject, which will make a difference to how we look at the world going forward," Himanjali Sankar, Editorial Director, Simon & Schuster India, said.

While there might be books directly addressing the theme of pandemic, there will be a lot more books focussing on the issues highlighted during the pandemic, Niyogi said.

"We also see a need for entertaining content. We have seen enough darkness, our eyes need to adjust to the bright light shining at us," Niyogi added.



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