We’ve just got back from the World Book Fair in Delhi. This time around we were more perceptive to the environment and learnt a few things during the 9 days we spent there. But more on that later. However, if there was one aspect of the fair that could not be ignored, it was the constant cacophony around the topic of eBooks.

While almost ubiquitous in every conversation of consequence and even during inconsequential banter, there seemed to be still no clarity on various aspects of ebook creation and their distribution. Far from being a nice thing to have, publishers were told that they would perish if they did not invest in the development of eBooks. One could find any number of stalls, and an even greater army of salespeople strutting around, preaching the benefits of eBooks and their importance towards ensuring the survival of publishers.

Dig deeper and the answers were hard to find.

For instance, although there are enough statistics to prove that ebook sales have spiked, India-specific figures explaining digital consumption of data are hard to come by. Many publishers we spoke to pointed to the abnormally high growth in purchases of the iPad and other similar tablets as indication that the Indian customer is developing an appetite for these devices and will soon read their books off them. While that might be a logical argument to make, there are no figures that prove that ebook purchases are also on the rise, in step with the increase in sales of digital devices.

During a conversation we had, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, a publishing consultant and columnist, mentioned that a renowned publisher of academic journals and books had seen sales of their print editions dramatically decrease while witnessing an equivalent upsurge of ebook purchases. If that is indeed the case, and many other publishers of STM books do vouch for this, bodies like NBT, FIP or FPBAI should investigate this phenomenon further and make sales data available for everyone so that other publishers can plan for the future accordingly. There is yet no sign that such a conversation might happen, where publishers can learn from the experiences of their colleagues.

It also remains to be seen whether the lessons learned in academic publishing can be applied to trade publishing and to what measure. While it is true that in the West the purchases of eBooks have zoomed up, some questions need to be answered. For example, what percentage of titles published are bought in digital form? What is the average price of an ebook that is purchased? What kinds of books are purchased and what kinds see almost no takers?

Most importantly, how closely do ebook purchases mirror current bestseller lists?

The last question is of importance because if consumers buy just those eBooks that they read about often, does it make sense for publishers to convert all their titles to digital formats? Given the fact that bestsellers almost always come from a small group of publishers (and often because of their marketing muscle), does it augur well for small publishers and independents to invest in the development of eBooks? eBooks are even more prone to remaining obscure than printed books, given the absence of a “shelf”, so has anyone bothered to investigate what sells an ebook and what might be the marketing budget required to make it sell? And what that might mean for independent publishers who have a tiny marketing budget to begin with.

It is important to answer these questions because many salespeople at the book fair were insisting that publishers convert their whole lists into the digital format. These publishers are almost pressured into joining the e-bandwagon, with the threat of obscurity and decimation being dangled before them. There is also the lure of cheap conversion rates, some even offering to convert entire lists for free. With a “few” caveats, of course.

But the whole process is rarely explained to these publishers. There is no conversation regarding digital rights, no mention about how this newly acquired asset will be protected. Publishers who are so fiercely protective about the intellectual property they have so painstakingly created are inexplicably naive when it comes to protecting their digital assets. Even more astounding is their reluctance to ask the tough questions. For example, many publishers do not know how to monetize their digital books. In the absence of a comprehensive e-commerce platform, whether their own or that of a third party, there is little clarity of how eBooks will be sold in a secure and user-friendly environment. The inability to recoup investments made during the conversion process might actually dissuade other publishers to convert even those titles that can be adequately monetized.

On this blog we hope to address some of these issues. We hope to get other experts to write on this topic so that clear and coherent answers are provided. We do hope that ultimately there will be transparency on these matters so that publishers can make informed choices.

Disclaimer: Our publishing house, CinnamonTeal Publishing, provides conversion services into EPUB and MOBI formats, especially for books in the Indian languages. Similarly we provide an e-commerce infrastructure that allows for the sale of these books.