The Digital Haystack: Where Are India’s Digital Publishing Programs?

In Growth Markets by Vinutha Mallya

While India leads the world in delivering outsourced publishing services for international publishers, its domestic industry is yet to embark upon a robust digital path.

By Vinutha Mallya

Although strong IT capabilities in India are setting stage for the country to be a natural hub of publishing services, publishers within India are yet to jump on to the digital bandwagon. The value of publishing services outsourced to India is projected to reach $1.2 billion in 2012. Concerns of quality notwithstanding, India commands 60% of global publishing outsourcing.

Infibeam's Pi e-reader

Despite this strength, publishers are holding back from taking giant strides on digital platforms. Acronyms like ePUB, mobi, XML, DRM, iOS, and words like Apps, Android, e-Ink are still one big jumble for most publishers, who are overwhelmed and confused at the same time.

Lack of awareness of the available options and features offered by various platforms, and the absence of in-house capabilities to process this information, are roadblocks in the path of publishers planning a digital strategy.

The publishing industry in India is large and fragmented: approximately 19,000 publishers, publishing in 24 languages (including English); most are privately held, family-run enterprises. Although many of these are in the process of restructuring and professionalizing, legacy systems rule in the industry. Indian publishers are cautious by nature and slow to adapt to change, and some continue to be in denial to accept any medium other than print. However, among publishers of all languages, the English-language publishers in the country have a greater level of preparedness than the Indian-language ones.

The readiness quotient of publishers to adopting the digital medium is low, but STM publishers are the most prepared of all. Since, globally, the STM publishing sector has been among the first to adopt technology for digitizing and monetizing content, STM publishers and educational publishers in India can count on established models to work with. On the other hand, major trade publishers, like Penguin Books India and HarperCollins India, are yet to offer their India titles as e-books, even when their counterparts in the UK and the US are preparing for their print and e-books almost simultaneously.

E-Readers Emerge: Pi and Wink

Ravi Deecee

Ravi Dee Cee, CEO of EC Media

What’s more, despite the success of Kindle elsewhere, e-ink readers have been available in India for just over a year now, though the phenomenon is picking up. The first indigenous e-book reading device, a reader which mimics the Kindle, was the Pi, rolled out by Infibeam.com, an online store started by former employees of Amazon.com. Of the 500,000 e-titles available (all English) through their online store, 100,000 are from STM publishers like Cambridge University Press, Tata McGraw Hill, Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Pearson and John Wiley & Sons. A chunk of those offered are the copyright-free e-books that are also available through other sites.

The Pi’s main competitor, the Wink e-reader by EC Media, was launched in late 2010 and has been catching the attention of Indian publishers. The company’s CEO, Ravi Dee Cee, a publisher himself, leads the Kerala-based publishing house, DC Books, which publishes books in Malayalam language, and some English.. The vast backlist of DC Books meant the Wink would have access to a large selection of books from the start. EC Media’s other partners have a background in technology consulting, and together with Ravi’s capabilities, have created a value that brings together two core domains — publishing and technology. The two are able to leverage each other’s areas of expertise and this synergy is a reliable and winning proposition in the long run.

As someone familiar with publishers’ concerns, Ravi has managed to sign up many publishers through sheer persistence, including Random House India and numerous houses for Indian-language books. “We clearly say that we are not acting as publishers, but only as distributors,” clarifies Ravi. He admits to being in constant contact with publishers to address any concerns.

One of his recent recruits to the Wink is Zubaan, the feminist press headed by Urvashi Butalia, who agreed to get on board after some misgivings. According to Urvashi, “there is a lot of confusion among publishers [about going digital]. One doesn’t know what it means. As publishers, we are afraid of losing rights on our material. Also, we are unsure about how secure our stuff will be. No matter how much one says, downloads are a worry.”

Urvashi Butalia

Ravi’s own interactions with publishers have revealed that there is a genuine lack of awareness of the digital platforms available to the Indian publishing industry. With no proven revenue model to bank upon, publishers would rather wait and watch before making any investments in digital infrastructure. One commonly hears the refrain that “e-books might go the same way as CD-ROMs and audio books did in India.”

What ultimately pushed Zubaan to jump into publishing e-books was the insistence of authors themselves, who are eager to be available on digital platforms. “But, some of them do not share the publishers’ anxiety of losing control of the material,” says Urvashi. In the end, after much debate with herself, she decided to respect what authors and the markets wanted, and began to accept the change.

Blind Faith

For a small publishing house, ”going digital” can mean a lot of investment — of time and money — with no idea of how soon it will start to pay off. Beginning with revisions in contracts to seeking expert advice, and holding discussions with outsourced typesetters for conversions, it is a daunting task for the uninitiated publisher.

As an incentive, companies like EC Media and Infibeam offer to help convert the files or scan the hard copies of titles that do not have soft files. While many publishers would find this the easier way to go, Urvashi is clear that she should make the investment for scanning and conversion — primarily in order to control quality. “We will proofread the files after scanning and make sure that the files are error-free before we hand them over to EC Media.”

Like with Zubaan, Ravi has discovered the piracy threat to be a strong disincentive for publishers. “They are not assured of safety of their content even though DRM systems, like that of Adobe or even the one we have developed for EC Media are proven to be good.” The EC Media’s DRM also factors in territorial rights of titles through a three-step verification process — IP address, credit card address and delivery address.

India long maintained affordable prices for print books. An average paperback is usually priced in the range of $4–7, while a hardcover is around $11, as opposed to £14 ($23) in the UK. Textbooks are priced as low as $1 to $1.50. But pricing models for e-books are yet to be worked out. “For now, we have decided to price the e-book the same as the print edition,” says Urvashi. Whether Indian readers, influenced by the debates in USA and UK for lowering of prices of e-books to less than print editions, will accept parity in price of the two editions is uncertain.

The issue of rights might also prove to be tricky, as Urvashi has been discovering, while selling rights to US publishers. “American publishers insist on being given e-book rights for new titles that they want to license from us, even though we have originated the book. There is also pressure from some authors to give away the e-book rights to American publishers when selling the print edition rights,” she says. In the long run, this trend could skew the future to India’s disadvantage, restricting the country from coming into its own in the sphere of digital publishing, especially in the case of small and independent publishing houses.

E-books are said to make up 9% of total global book market today. “There is little doubt that the future is e-publishing,” says Ravi, who predicts that even though the e-book reading community in India is barely at 0.05% now, it will become an active market within the next three years.

Self-Publishing Emerges

The starting point for most publishers is digitizing the backlist. Simultaneous publishing of print and e-books is still some way off, since it requires in-house resources to manage the workflows. Some self-published authors are looking at creating e-book versions along with their print editions. CinnamonTeal Publishing, a Goa-based company offers self-publishing services, including print-on-demand, and has started providing e-book conversions on demand, making authors’ works available through Smashwords.

The growing popularity of smart phones, handhelds and tablets in India is almost certainly going to lead to new developments for Indian publishing, with the potential for book apps and enhanced e-books. The tablet market in India is slated to cross the 200,000-unit mark in 2011, while 75 new tablets have been announced for launch in the coming year. Research shows that reader applications figure among the top five in type of popular applications on these devices.

With these developments in the offing, publishers in India may also look towards leapfrogging and latching on the tablet market. But they would need to wade through the digital haystack to find the needle that works for them.

DISCUSS: Can Developing E-book Markets Support “Lower-Than-Print” Pricing?

About the Author

Vinutha Mallya

Vinutha Mallya is an independent publishing consultant, editor and journalist, based in Bangalore, India. Currently, she is a consulting editor to Mapin Publishing, a contributing editor to Publishing Perspectives, and visiting faculty for National Book Trust's publishing course. She is also an advisor to the annual Publishing Next conference.