By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Surprise and HearsayThere may be a small irony in the fact that one of the five titles featured on Westland Books’ Facebook page at this writing is India’s Undeclared Emergency: Constitutionalism and the Politics of Resistance, a January 10 release written by Arvind Narrain. Less than a month after the title’s arrival, it would be announced that Westland Books was being closed by its owner, Amazon–news that would arrive as a previously undeclared emergency for many in India’s book business.
Whatever pressures faced the company, few seem to have been aware of them or sensitive to how acute they were.
The headlines from Delhi are striking for the level of dismay they convey following the February 1 announcement of the venerable house’s closure. A graphic from News Nine shows the Amazon smile turned upside down under the Westland logo, the headline on Saurabh Sharma’s writeup: “Amazon’s Closure of Westland Books Leaves Writers, Readers in the Dark.”
When Publishing Perspectives asked Amazon for some clarity, a spokesperson’s statement was brief: “We considered multiple options and made the difficult decision to no longer operate Westland. We are working closely with the employees, authors, agents, and distribution partners on this transition and we remain committed to innovating for customers in India.”
The brevity of that comment is not atypical for Amazon and other major corporations, of course. And perhaps there’s hope in the use of the word transition. Amazon communications staffers select their words for the news media very carefully.
The fact, however, that Westland is a large, highly regarded Indian company—which was acquired by Amazon from Tata Trent Limited only in 2017, after an initial investment in 2016—has left many perturbed to see operations shuttered by an international company. The strong, stable presence of Indian divisions of Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Hachette has given a local-hero glow to Westland, even under offshore ownership. The news of such a stumble in foreign hands carries an especially bitter taste.
And when so little official information is available, of course, rumor and guesswork rush in to fill the void in which facts and detailed explanation would be so helpful.
For its part, Westland continues to operate its social channels, today tweeting about a title from one of its star authors, Amish Tripathi.
‘Speculation Is Rife’
Westland author Sharanya Manivannan at The New Indian Express writes, “Speculation is rife about how this closure happened at all, but what is not discussed is just how short a window of time remains for Westland titles to reach the market.”
The company’s “backlist will go out of print on February 28,” she writes, “with a deadline of February 15 [today] for bookstores to order their final stock. The small frontlist goes out of print on March 31. March 15 is the presumed final order deadline, but maybe sooner as the company and distributors navigate this situation.”
Many readers trade messages in social channels about existing inventory being pulped after an unknown period of time. Some speak of Westland having been a courageous publisher of sometimes unpopular viewpoints. Other say that Amazon’s Westland paid overly generous advances to heavy hitters, a handful of which controlled too large a share of the company’s sales.
Still more comments suggest that Westland hadn’t been profitable under Tata’s ownership. And at least one commentator asserts that the hue and cry about Amazon’s experience with Westland is so loud while “at least 10 Hindi publishers have ceased operation in the past two years.”
The problem, of course, is that with so few verifiable points of cause and effect, emotional reactions–although perfectly understandable–can lead the conversation.
The cool head of an industry professional is welcome: Anish Chandy at Labyrinth Literary Agency tells Jane Borges this week at MidDay, “It’s a complex situation. If the books are to migrate to another publisher, it would depend on the genre, author profile, sales history, and if there was prior interest from other publishers in the work. So, naturally, most authors are apprehensive.”
A buyer for the company would be good, he says, “not just from an author’s perspective, but also from an ‘industry health’ perspective.”
Crisis and Concern
Westland was established in 1962 as Affiliated East West Books, and had functioned primarily in distribution at first, then becoming a publisher. In 2013, it reportedly became part of the Tata group. Under Amazon’s ownership–the company bought the remaining 74 percent of Westland’s shares–some observers are pointing out that its output hadn’t seemed deeply integrated into the international markets of the Seattle-based company. Instead, Westland had remained focused on the complex market in which it had been built, led until now by Gautam Padmanabhan, the son of the company’s founder, KS Padmanabhan.
In retail, however, integration is clear. That Facebook page sends you for Westland Books to Amazon.in .
Perhaps the most astute analysis comes from Shrabonti Bagchi and Jayshree P. Upadhyay at Mint, who ask with clear-eyed restraint (and a look at some Nielsen figures) the most interesting question in the discussion: “Financial performance and shifting reader preferences likely mounted pressure on the publisher, but who set it on a quest for scale without the appetite for losses?”
That’s not a bad question. The Amazonian story at its United States base is one of a company willing to withstand protracted setbacks during rough times in order to gain traction, then scale, then dominance. Obviously, Westland’s numbers weren’t adding up, and several observers point to sets of mostly unverified figures suggesting multiple levels of loss. But how unsustainable could things have appeared for Seattle to announce this move after only five years?
As Bagchi and Jayshree write, Westland–now roughly 60 years old–had gathered “tremendous goodwill across the publishing ecosystem” in India, as one of the country’s oldest independent publishers with staffers in Bangalore, Chennai, and Delhi. When they refer to changes in reader preferences, Bagchi and Jayshree point to what they see as a cooling interest in the type of mythology-based fiction in which Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi have worked. More international literature is selling today in the Indian market, they write, as is nonfiction.
What’s more, Westland’s backlist may not be as deep or influential, some are saying, as might have been thought. Nevertheless, Barkha Kumari at the Deccan Herald writes, “Some bookstores in Bengaluru are looking to stock up on their old and new bestsellers as Westland and its imprints form 3 to 15 percent of their collection.”
Tanishka Sodhi writes at NewsLaundry that the company’s “abrupt decision to shut operations, instead of trying to find a seller, has now left Westland employees and authors with questions that the tech giant does not seem to have clear answers to.”
A headline at The Economic Times reads, “Amazon shuts down the ‘homegrown’ Westland B0oks: Is it an alarm bell for India’s publishing industry, ask readers.”
More such questions than answers prevail, and more worry than insight remains at this point. The story of Westland Books looks upended, yet inconclusive.
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