In a rather interesting blog, Jürgen Snoeren, Manager Operations and Digital with Amsterdam-based publisher MeulenhoffBoekerij, exhorts small publishers to establish relationships with their customers rather than with retailers. Obvious as it may seem, it is a step not too many publishers think about. In this blog, Snoeren asks publishers to focus on developing a digital infrastructure so that they can publish quickly and in all formats and to exploit every sales channel available to them.

There are two aspects to this, though both may not be altogether mutually exclusive. One is to develop a digital infrastructure, the other to engage directly with the customer. Indian publishers would especially do well to heed the latter. Most retail chains follow volumes and ignore niche markets. The books they stock also follow bestseller lists, which is in itself a self-feeding phenomenon. It becomes important, therefore, for publishers, especially those who publish non-fiction and forms of fiction that haven’t quite found their feet in India, like horror, to engage directly with its audience. There seem to be several ways to do it:

a. Experiment with retail: Be in places that your readership frequents. New Horizon Media has tried this approach and seems to have enjoyed success. Book stores are currently, for the most part, cluttered with many other products vying for the customer’s attention or too crowded to facilitate leisured browsing and purchasing. fivex5 is one such experiment that we intend to pursue in 2012.

b. Develop a good website: In these days where the natural inclination is to “go and google” for every sound we hear, having a website has become a non-negotiable imperative for every publisher. Publishers should consider it as an investment rather as an expense and be involved in its development rather than allowing website developers a carte blanche in its design an execution. Publishers must decide what they intend to achieve with the website: whether they intend to make their audience aware of its list or if they intend to extend the purpose of the website and also offer sales. They should also be aware that customers are an impatient lot so it is important to get the information to them in as few clicks as possible. Understanding and developing metadata is also important as it allows information to be accessible when the customer uses a search engine to find a book.

c. Work with schools: Unfortunately, perhaps because of the logistics involved, schools and children haven’t figured much in publishers’ plans to market their books. PTAs provide a conduit to reach out to parents for books that are not suitable to market to children. Books pitched to children might result in larger sales when done in schools as children might buy what their friends are buying. Besides, such activities will help achieve the longer term goal of attracting children to the joys of reading.

These are the obvious steps a publisher could take. I am sure the marketing whiz kids at the publishing behemoths have better ideas. It’s the independents who, short of resources, need to be creative about their marketing. And, for the most part, they have managed to do a good job there.

The call to develop a digital strategy must, however, be carefully examined. With all the buzz about e-books and the prophesies that publishers who don’t invest in them might soon sink, many such publishers feel compelled to develop a strategy for e-books. A hasty approach might be equally disastrous and publishers should therefore examine their markets before investing. E-books, by virtue of being easily accessible, do allow access to widespread markets but the readers in those markets have to be an advanced stage that allows them to properly “consume” these books. If they primarily prefer the print version, an investment in digital content development might be unnecessary. So also if e-books form a minuscule portion of the market and can be developed by outsourcing rather than developing in-house. Publishers should behave like business houses with a well-defined business plan that includes a comprehensive marketing strategy while deciding whether or not to develop digital content. In many parts of India, literacy itself is an issue that can best be tackled by the tactile experience of an e-book and publishers might do well to understand and address that need. While e-book channels do offer direct access to the reader, through fewer intermediaries than those for printed books do, the very nature of the end product does not, in our opinion, serve the larger purpose of inculcating and sustaining the reading habit among those for whom the book is a scarce resource.

An unscheduled but much welcomed session by Anish Trivedi concluded proceedings on the first day of Publishing Next. This veteran of the music industry shared his experiences with the evolving music industry scenario over the last fifteen years.

Anish shared his opinion that within the music industry, it is not the music label, or the listener but a group of companies that own every radio station over the world who decide what is heard. “There are musicians who will never be heard because some software decides what’s to be heard on the radio.” he said. He put forth an interesting fact, “If there are 50 manuscripts that get trashed at a publishing house every week at one publishing house, there are probably 5000 tracks that get trashed everyday in the music industry,”  thus drawing parallels with the publishing industry.

The music industry had spent a lot of time plotting how they could be protected from the internet, stop piracy and eliminate peer-to-peer sharing. Ten years were spent trying to combat these “ills” (quotes ours) and all they realized was that it cannot be stopped. The consumer refuses processes that make it difficult for them to listen to music. Meanwhile, sites like emusic suggested that musicians put their tracks up for free. The way out was to collaborate with online mediums to make it easier and more convenient for music to reach the people.

Since there is no data available on sites, how do you find a track? In the Indian music industry, nobody knew the name of the song or singer; they knew the actor in the song. That made it easy for them to find music on certain criteria, by putting data together. Anish exhorted the audience to action saying, “It took us a long time to realize that things have changed. Don’t make the same mistake, because whether it is the ipad or iphone, the convenience of it will draw people to it.” His advice was to use technology to reach the audience, not to protect content against who might be genuine customers.

“The paradigm has changed”, he concluded.

The parallels are too obvious to ignore. The traditonal gatekeeper role that publishers have played, and sometimes importantly so, is being challenged by various options that make it easy for authors to self-publish. That said, it is sometimes difficult to believe that a few editors can decide, and will do so correctly, what millions will read. The need therefore is for independent publishing houses that will support alternate voices and opinions and independent bookstores that will pay lesser attention to margins, concentrating instead on providing visibility to lesser known titles.

Similarly, the desire to control usage of digital content is too attractive for some publishers. At CinnamonTeal Publishing, we believe in the author’s right to choose on which platform books can be read. We would rather appeal to the reader’s sense of ethics and discourage piracy. That may or may not work and less subtle forms of discouraging piracy (like social DRM) are now available and could be employed. However, to totally restrict usage to publisher-mandated platforms may be counter-productive.

This report was presented by Lianne Caldeira and Malaika Fernandes at Publishing Next, 2011.

Over the past few years, more than just a few bookstores have started operating online. Flipkart, of course, is the most reputed of them, having started operations in 2007. This proliferation of bookstores is seen by many as an efficient and convenient way to get books delivered at one’s doorstep, often at prices that are highly discounted as compared to the local bookstore and at zero shipping costs. With most stores now offering customers a cash-on-delivery (COD) option, not having a credit card or being reluctant to use one on the Internet is no longer an issue.

More than triggering sales and, in the process, posing a huge threat to physical bookstores, these webstores have changed the dynamics of the publishing industry itself. Here’s how:
a. Online sales, coupled with print-on-demand, means that books can never go out of print. After they are ordered, hitherto out-of-print books can be printed and shipped to the customer. For the customer, it means that old books can now be obtained. For publishers, it means an evergreen backlist. The number of books that publishers have to manage suddenly gets bigger because none can be ignored. No book can be neglected any more and “it is out of print” is an excuse that publishers cannot use and simply won’t stick

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b. Publishers can now hope for new markets. Webstores being as they are, accessible anywhere, can trigger sales from areas that may not be considered by publishers as a “regular market”. Additionally, with migration within India now being a norm, it might not be unusual, for example, for a publisher of Bengali books to find a buyer in Kerala. Physical bookstores will not address such demand primarily because distributors in all their wisdom might ignore, or be unaware, of this demand altogether. Marketing of books therefore becomes challenging because one can never guess where the next order may come from

c. Prices are under pressure. The larger the online platform, the greater is its ability to both extract large discounts from publishers and offer similar, large, discounts to buyers. We saw this behaviour in the case of Amazon and other retail giants and can be forgiven for believing it might happen here too. Although not documented, the effect of the nascent e-commerce market on books sales is quite apparent – sales to individual buyers have fallen and many bookstores now rely on institutional sales to stay alive. That is because online bookstores can demand, and get, larger discounts from publishers as compared to physical bookstores, especially since they deal directly with publishers by bypassing distributors. They then pass on a large portion of this discount to consumers. With lesser overheads than in physical bookstores, they can probably afford to do so. Large discounts plus free shipping automatically translate into sales. Many buyers will privately confess that they have browsed at bookstores but bought online. Some distributors will also tell you, off the record, that many online bookstores sell at a loss. Since they have themselves given them those titles, they should know. What drives online bookstores to offer such deep discounts is anyone’s guess.

There is another aspect to this, although it is mentioned here purely on hunch and cannot be backed by statistical evidence. Is it possible that what is marketed as a potential bestseller is then sold at a higher discount, which in turn leads to higher sales in a self-prophesying kind of way?

If that is true, then in the absence of visibility (due to the absence of “shelves”), books that are in no way lesser whether in substance or style, get lost only because they were not marketed as bestsellers are or were ignored by book reviewers or because the publisher concerned could not offer a large discount. This leads to a downward spiral. As these books sell in small quantities, the miniscule sales discourage publishers and authors, who decide that such subjects are taboo for which there aren’t any readers, from attempting other, similar books.

All this leads me to believe that discounted prices may not be the way to go. True, it delights readers but in the long term could lead to homogenization of material being produced in books. Perhaps the Indian book industry should seriously consider a Fixed Price Book Agreement like the one in effect in Germany and elsewhere. I have noticed that many physical bookstores hold their ground and insist on selling books at the listed price. It does seem like buyers haven’t objected. For how long it will remain that way is anyone’s guess.

While online bookstores have made book buying convenient and books cheap, they have certainly raised many issues that need urgent consideration.

A platform that offers an opportunity to hear the best and brightest minds speak is one we’d never pass on. So when just that happened, thanks to the Tehelka sponsored ThinkFest, we made sure we attended the entire programme, all three days of it. While the venue and some comments made there could have been avoided, the event in itself provided a lot of food for thought.

While laying out the agenda of the conclave, the editor-in-chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal stated that Tehelka saw the need for ThinkFest because “India will grow not because it has a large number of consumers but only when there are more ideas”. He said that intellectual capability needs to be celebrated and that diverse ideas, from the sciences and the arts, need to be presented so that the human mind can then make most of these ideas.

In a strange way, I think independent publishing, and even the model of publishing that we at CinnamonTeal service, does quite that. It allows diverse opinions and ideas to be voiced. At a session on “The Difficulty of Selling Excellence”,  Kiran Rao(of Dhobi Ghat fame), actors Imran Khan and Abhay Deol and producer Dibakar Banerjee, took turns

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and spoke on how it was difficult to produce movies that “deviated from the formula”, yet were made by producers and directors who believed they had a story to tell. Ms. Rao lamented the lack of space that the creative arts had here in India, the space to express itself without being bothered too much about issues like distribution and budgets.

Although the speakers were talking about Bollywood, we felt quite familiar with the issues being discussed. Lamentable as it may be, it seems like the first issue that must be discussed by publishers deliberating on a book is the book’s marketability and its chances in the marketplace. The merits of the book, its intrinsic quality and the importance of the topic (or plot) it addresses seem to be of secondary nature. Publishers are quite unwilling to take a risk because the book might not find distributors, let alone buyers.

This conversation on stage, by Ms. Rao and others, came at a time when I was reading Aaron Schiffrin’s “The Business of Books“. He states how, increasingly in the United States, certain books are not being published either because a)they serve too small a market (and may therefore have print runs in the hundreds, not the thousands) and b)because the issues being addressed may be ideologically different than those that the owners of the publishing house believe in. While the second reason is something that may not happen in India (although I cannot attest to that), I am sure the lack of a “perceived market” for a title prompts publishers not to publish that title. So never mind that there might be a few hundred readers who might be interested in a particular book; since it may not result in a print run of a few thousands, the book is often not published.

Case in point: Mahesh Nair, a photographer by profession, with the permission of the Indian Army, authored a coffee table book titled “Iron Fist, Velvet Glove” that was published by CinnamonTeal Publishing. The book juxtaposed the military activities of the Indian Army alongside its other, humanitarian, activities in a format that had interesting visuals and even more interesting text. Every distributor we have approached has refused to distribute the title because they feel no one will be interested. With all respect to their wisdom in the matter, we feel it would have been better for the readers to decide that.

Besides, the theory that publishers (or distributors) know what readers want is stretching the truth a little. Like Steve Jobs once commented, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. This self-delusion that publishers have, of believing that they know everything about customers’ tastes probably led many to believe that a story about a boy wizard would never sell. Many such stories are well documented.

Left with few alternatives, CinnamonTeal is trying hard to develop other initiatives to boost its sales. In many cases it might be about developing its own channels. In the meantime, we are taking quite seriously this exhortation to provide a channel that will allow other voices to be heard. We have been contemplating a publishing imprint for some time now, one that follows the “regular” model of publishing for books of a certain genre, and we can promise you that that will happen soon.