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Indian publishers are in overdrive, churning out books that offer marginal profits. But in the process, have they become glorified printers?

In Bhutan earlier this year, a literary meet revealed a nation brimming with aspiring writers, but with little recourse to the expertise of publishers. Writers generally take their manuscripts to printers for the pleasure of seeing them turn into books. 

India, on the other hand, is a publishing haven. The world over, there has never been a better time to be an Indian writer. Indeed, over the past couple of decades, an almost compulsive need to be introduced as an author seems to have gripped the country. And publishers are only too happy to oblige, in their hope that at least one in a dirty dozen turns out to be the next big thing. It’s telling that nearly one-fifth of books being taken up by English language publishing houses are by first-time writers. 

Yet, in this race—in an industry growing at the rate of 30 per cent every year—publishers are beginning to look more and more like printing houses. How different then is it here from our neighbouring dragon kingdom? 

Gone are the days when aspiring writers had to knock on a hundred doors to even have their manuscripts read, when being published was no mean feat. Today, a whopping 70,000 titles are being added to book lists annually, nearly 30 per cent of which are in English. 

And that forms just a minuscule proportion of the manuscripts that land at the doors of publishing houses. “On an average, we get over 15 manuscripts in a week. And sometimes, it just rains,” says Mita Kapur, founder of Siyahi, a literary consultancy. As for publishers, it’s a flood every day. 

“I must admit that 95 per cent of the unsolicited manuscripts that we receive are rejectable,” says Karthika VK, publisher and chief editor, HarperCollins India, which claims to publish about a hundred English books annually, and an additional 20 books in Hindi. “A lot of people simply call up and tell us that they have sent us the manuscript and we must publish them. They don’t even ask us if we like them or not! Out of these, there are only 5 per cent that you can look at and build on,” she adds. 

However, many others in this burgeoning industry seem perfectly happy to pick up a book, print around 3,000 copies and recover their investment, sending the writer a small cheque. After all, printing a few thousand copies hardly takes much outlay on their part. “Most first-time authors get a print run of only about 3,000 copies. This costs barely Rs 1 lakh in terms of production,” says Ashish Daftari, senior sales manager, Thompson Press. Even if each book is priced at Rs 99 and manages to sell at least 2,000 copies (resulting in sales worth Rs 198,000), it allows the publishing house to comfortably recover production costs.

In this recent spate of activity, publishers have also discovered the marketing potential of making a shift away from high-brow literature. “Increasingly, people who have had a successful work life are writing about their experiences, and people seem to love these books,” says Karthika. Infotech professional Amrit Shetty’s Love Over Coffee is one such example; he talks about the murky world of a software factory. Then there is banker Ravi Subramaniam’s Devil in Pinstripes, which offers a sneak peek into the complicated world of office politics. 

Kapish Mehra of Rupa & Co corroborates Karthika’s view. “Readers are now more adventurous and wish to see newer styles of writing. This is inspiring us to look at newer formats as well,” he says. From chick-lit to popular fiction about the lives of the young and restless, people seem to be lapping up books that allow them a glimpse of their own lives.

It’s no difficult task then to sell 3,000 odd copies of these books, most of which also go into reprints. “Each of our bookstores receives nearly 40 to 60 copies of a book by a first-time author. In most cases, these books are sold out in the first week itself and we need to ask publishing houses for more copies. It is in very rare cases that a couple of copies of the book are left and need to be sent back to the publishers,” says Sanchari Das, head of PR and marketing, Oxford Bookstores. 

It is not just the sheer variety but attractive prices as well that add to the charms of buying a book. Affordable pricing at Rs 99, 149 and 199 has allowed publishers to lure the young adult, for whom reading was never a priority, into bookstores. Book chains, too, have had to rethink their promotion and display strategy, keeping in mind the purchase habits of this new target audience. Most of these affordable, exciting literary creations are placed at check-out counters and are positioned as impulse purchases. “These books are well within the budget of teenagers and young adults. They are buying these books not just for reading, but gifting purposes as well,” says Sanchari.  This trend bodes well for publishers and authors alike. Once a book is made available at such a cheap price point, it tends to sell in huge numbers, thus becoming a part of the bestsellers list. Authors turn into overnight celebrities and publishers laugh their way to the bank. 

Besides, when it comes to promoting a new book, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter allow publishers to create enough buzz about the book without having to spend a dime on marketing and publicity. Often, the association of a budding author with a premier publishing house is sufficient to give a great boost to the sales of a book. Publishers like Penguin create avenues through which these writers can showcase their literary prowess. “Every year, we organise First Proof, an anthology of recent Indian writings which showcase emerging talent and writers. This compilation comprises fiction, non-fiction, essays, travel pieces and much more,” says a Penguin spokesperson.

However, a lot of other publishers are content to simply act as printers, churning out a set number of copies and expanding on the existing number of genres. It is only when a book catches the fancy of readers and turns into an unforeseen winner that the celebratory parties and wine-laden book readings begin.  

First-time authors realise this and don’t come armed with too many expectations. Rashmi Kumar, who debuted last year with her book, Stilettos in the Newsroom, has a word of advice for aspiring writers. “I doubt that publishing houses are going to be very involved with the launch and marketing for new authors,” says Rashmi, whose book had an initial print run of 3,000 copies, but went on to sell nearly 10,000.

Then, there is HarperCollins’ successful Johnny Gone Down, a fast-paced story spanning Delhi, Boston, Cambodia and Brazil, which was priced at Rs 99 and had a print run of over 50,000 copies. “As long as one gets one rupee per page, we can pretty much break even on a book,” says Karthika. 

But not all are happy about the lack of ‘intelligent’ publishing. “A publisher needs to take a judgement call. Do you want to cater to a reader for whom buying a book is last on his or her shopping list? Or would you like to target at least a semi-literate reader? I am aware that the former may mean a larger number of copies sold, but that is where an intelligent publisher always wins,” signs off Sanjana Roy Chowdhury, head of publishing, Amaryllis. The point is, does everyone see this as a winning proposition?