Coronavirus Impact: Nielsen Book India on Readers in the Pandemic

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Nielsen Book’s extensive survey of India’s consumer behavior in and after lockdowns reveals shifts in the time spent reading—and listening—and potential guides for publishers’ marketing in reopenings.

In Kolkata on July 12, the windshield wipers wear masks as they work the streets. Image – iStockphoto: Suprabhat Dutta

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Impact of COVID-19 on the India Book Consumer’
As the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend lives, societies, economies and nations’ publishing markets around the world, one of the most telling challenges has been a given country’s ability to quantify the stress.

In France, for example, the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE), France’s national publishers association, by the latter part of May had provided one of the most exacting assessments of the contagions’ damage on a national market to date. Publishers in other countries continue to point to it as a model of what needs to be asked and learned, and you can see it in its entirety here.

In many other parts of the world, information has been harder to come by, in part because of the very stress under which these markets are laboring, of course. And the Indian market is among the world’s most complex, with its many languages, huge territory, and a population of 1.4 billion people. It also is among a handful of the very hardest hit nations in the pathogen’s progress.

“Six out of 10 respondents expect to buy books through physical stores and seven out of 10 through an online bookshop after the lockdown is lifted, with the proportion higher than before lockdown in each case, but more so for online than in-store.”Nielsen Book India

At this writing, the 7:34 a.m. ET update (1134 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center now sees India with the third largest caseload in the world, behind the United States and Brazil. The tracking system is assigning 936,181 infections to India and 24,309 fatalities, which puts it at No. 8 in the world for coronavirus deaths.

This is why it’s helpful today (July 15) to have an extensive new Nielsen Book India study—Impact of COVID-19 on the India Book Consumer—just provided to Publishing Perspectives so that we can share with you the kinds of consumer insights publishers have a chance to work with in that uniquely challenging market.

This, itself, is an interesting approach. While the rightly hailed French report is a direct evaluative survey of the losses that publishers themselves are reporting, Nielsen takes a tack that its research systems make doable, looking to the readers, the consumers for input that publishers, reeling from the effects of the outbreaks and mitigation efforts, can use to try to retain or regain buyers.

Reading and/or Audiobook Listening Time Is Up

Image: Impact of COVID-19 on the Indian Book Consumer, July 2020, Nielsen Book Research India

Quickly, several top-line results:

  • More than two-thirds of Nielsen’s respondents say they’re consuming more books since the Narenda Modi government initiated lockdowns—with only four hours’ notice—in March
  • Both reading and audiobook listening are up, increasing by a substantial seven hours weekly on average to as much as 16 hours total, per week
  • Two of five respondents say they’re spending more time with print titles
  • One in two respondents say they’re spending more time reading ebooks and listening to audiobooks, with women in the lead in the digital formats

Vikrant Mathur

Vikrant Mathur, who directs Nielsen Book Research for India, in issuing this report, is quoted, saying, “In India we have initiated a consumer research study to understand the reading and purchasing habits of book consumers during the pandemic.

“The study provides a vital understanding of how long people are reading for, their favorite genres and what their preferred formats are—print, ebooks or audiobooks—as well as how they’re discovering and buying books and how much they’re willing to spend.

“The findings are extremely valuable to anyone with an interest in the publishing sector, providing insights into the behavior of the Indian book consumer and helping inform future plans.”

And this tack parallels that of the Indian government, which has been doing research on the effectiveness of cautionary messaging by celebrities to citizens in the state of West Bengal, as written up by the BBC on Tuesday (July 14) by Soutik Biswas. Understanding how citizens responded to commentary from such figures as MIT-based Nobel-winning economist Abhijit Banerjee is helping devise communications that work.

The Nielsen study draws its conclusions from an online survey of 1,084 Indian adults, 60 percent female, and it was conducted between May 14 and June 7. Included in the sample were publishers, media companies, and social media platforms to amplify its reach. The point here is, as Nielsen’s team reports, “It should therefore be assumed that the majority of respondents are likely to be keen book readers and buyers as per the methodology used to conduct the survey. The responses from employees working in publishing, book retailing and market research companies are excluded from the study.”

A Taste for Both International and Indian Authors

Of particular interest to our internationalist audience, two-thirds of the study’s respondents said they like reading international authors as much as Indian authors—if anything, with a bias toward the non-Indian writers.

Image: Impact of COVID-19 on the Indian Book Consumer, July 2020, Nielsen Book Research India

More bulleted insights:

  • Women are more likely than men not to have changed their fiction reading interests since the outbreak of COVID-19, with both sexes more interested in crime/thrillers and literary/classic fiction, alongside historical fiction (men) and romance (women)
  • Historical/political biographies followed by self-help/personal development and self-study (learning new languages, etc.) are the most popular among nonfiction readers
  • Respondents with children aged up to 8 are especially likely to have changed their genre interests when buying for children since the outbreak of COVID-19, with increased interest in picture books, activity books and animal stories. Those with children aged 9-17 are more interested in buying spy/detective/mystery stories, fantasy and classic stories
A Generational Distinction in Digital and Print Consumption

In line with data from several world markets, younger readers seem to have an affinity for print, and the new study has spotted some small levels of generational differences in print and digital usage.

Image: Impact of COVID-19 on the Indian Book Consumer, July 2020, Nielsen Book Research India

More quick insights:

  • Recommendations from friends and/or relatives followed by media articles and/or reviews and general browsing on bookseller websites were the most influential factors on discovering books pre- and post-lockdown. 
  • Female readers are more likely than men to seek out recommendations from friends/relatives and read media articles and/or reviews. 
  • Male readers like to discover books by browsing on bookseller sites and looking at bestseller sections
Returning to Bookshops After Lockdown

For so many markets, the questions of how comfortable consumers will be going back to physical bookstores is an open one. While in many places stores quarantine books touched by browsers for days before re-shelving them, others use the now commonplace precautionary measures of requiring face masks, offering hand sanitizer, limiting the number of consumers in a store at one time, and using markings on floors to help customers distance themselves from each other

This graphic indicates that respondents to the Nielsen study say they expect to be comfortable with physical bookshop visits within three months of the end of a lockdown.

Image: Impact of COVID-19 on the Indian Book Consumer, July 2020, Nielsen Book Research India

Running to some 54 pages and graphics, the Nielsen study on consumer behavior in and around lockdowns provides a deeply parsed snapshot of the Indian reader in a remarkable point of time.

Pricing is included, with 50 percent of fiction readers and 40 percent of nonfiction readers saying that they prefer a price point between 200 and 400 rupees for paperback purchases. That, in US dollars is a range of 53 cents to 67 cents.

And there, of course, lies one of the most distinctive aspects of the vast market in India, a traditionally low price point by comparison to that in other markets, which can be borne only because of the magnitude of the potential consumer base.

And for those struggling with lockdowns or the concern of repeated lockdowns as the virus’ outbreaks resurface in various locations, it’s worth noting that The Hindu today, in its updates on various points of lockdown in India, is on its 112th day in which it has tracked a lockdown somewhere in the country. At the moment, a weeklong lockdown is in place in Bengalaru urban and rural districts, from Tuesday.

Anganwadi workers wearing protective face mask interacts with people during a door-to-door survey to check the spread of novel coronavirus, at slum area in Beawar. Image – iStockphoto: Sumit Saraswat

More from Publishing Perspectives on the coronavirus outbreak is here. More from us on Chiki Sarkar is here, and more on the Indian market is here. More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.