Monday, 7 January 2013

Urvashi Butalia

Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of Kali For Women and founder of Zubaan Books, is one of the nicest and most respected figures in publishing (and, in full disclosure, a very good friend).

When we asked her to be our expert on one of The Questions That Need Asking that you will read in our Anniversary Issue, she was, as ever, generous with her time and knowledge. The constraints of print, and the brief for the issue, meant that what you see on the page is a very abbreviated version of the conversation. Here, for your delectation, is the full conversation. One of these days, I must persuade her to write up a complete history of Indian publishing.

Peter Griffin: The 'big question' we want to address with this chat is: How much time does the book made of paper have left?

Urvashi Butalia: So, I know this is one you want to answer through the piece you'll write, but just because this is a question that interests me, I'm putting down some thoughts.

I don't think, it matters in the long run how long paper has left. The idea is that as long as content remains alive, we're okay. The nature of content is also rapidly changing, but even so, people will always hunger for knowledge, they will always want to get it, and for as long as they can get it from books, that's great. I think in all this anxiety around the paper book we forget that this wasn't always the form of the book; books were earlier made of cloth, vellum, palm leaf. Paper as we know it today (and not the papyrus of the Egyptians or the paper made by the Chinese as early as 150 AD) began to be widely used for books only around the 18th century when suspicion about its more 'temporary' nature and its 'fragility' wore off, and when the Arabs took it around the world, and when printing became properly set. I mean that books were printed on paper earlier, but it was paper that was almost like cloth, with very heavy rag content and so on. Paper made mostly of wood is a later invention, when cotton rags became less easily available because industry was growing, the industrial revolution brought in synthetics, and ragpickers could not find so much waste cloth, which is when wood makes a proper appearance. One of the things that made the paper book so attractive in European countries particularly was the fact that it took a lot of small animal skins to make a book, and it is interesting that the same sort of concern is there now for wood, and water, because paper uses so much wood and so much water, that it is just as well to look for alternatives.

So my take on this is that it is not only the digital revolution that will drive the death or slow demise of the paper book, but also the shortage of water and wood, and growing environmental consciousness. There is a lovely book on the history of paper by Lefebre which gives you some interesting stories. This is just by the by, a long answer to an unasked question!

PG: What is the approximate size of the Indian publishing industry? Where does it rank worldwide? What are the current growth figures like? And how long will that continue?

UB: The one thing that can be said with certainty about the publishing industry in India is that nothing can be said with any certainty. After 1972 when the Indian government commissioned the National Centre for Applied Economic Research to do a survey of book publishing in India, there has been no systematic study, so we have no stats at all that are reliable. You can see this easily if you ask people in publishing the question you have asked above, some will say the publishing industry in India is valued at 5000 crore rupees, and others will say 7000 crore (and last week I heard someone say 1200 crore, so you can see how crazy it all is!). There is quite a big difference in these two figures but these are the ones that are widely bandied about.

Similarly it is said that India is the third-largest English language publisher in the world, after the US and UK, and this figure may well be true as other English-publishing countries, such as Australia and Canada, have much smaller industries simply because they have been so dominated by UK and US.

It also used to be said, although I have heard this figure less in recent times, that India stands 16th or 17th in the international world of publishing. This figure is from the time when we did not have so many international publishers in India, so now that we have many of the big guns, in all the sectors—STM (science, technical & medical), educational, trade (books for the general public) —India may have risen higher up the ladder, but we don't really know.

These figures are arrived at basically by computing the number of titles published in a country annually, and this can be done in various ways: by law all publishers are required to send four copies of each of the titles they publish to the four copyright libraries in India. In practice very few do. If everyone followed this rule, there would be a good way of estimating the size of the industry at least in terms of its output. Then, in other countries where book publishing is well developed, there is usually a publication called Books in Print which is updated every year. We have no such thing. The only 'reliable' method we have of computing the numbers is by adding up the ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) at the ISBN office. The thing that this leaves out though is what often happens in India, which is that many people publish without ISBNs (not publishers, who will by and large get ISBNs, but individuals, NGOs and so on). Still, one can compute a rough figure for this and add it to ISBNs and that can give some idea. But even this has not been done.

There are a few studies done by the British publishers associations, the Norwegians and others, but these are restricted to their members and are basically focused on areas which can provide lucrative markets for them, or on copyright violations and suchlike.

So, just as no one really knows the size of the industry, no one really knows much about growth figures. Everything is based on impressions, assumptions and some speculation, with some facts lying at the bottom. The general wisdom is that in trade publishing the growth is somewhere between 20–30 percent annually. About other sectors not much is known, although some estimates can be made for the educational sector by computing growth in education and institutes. Growth will not stop in the near future. The thing about India is that it is one of the few markets in the world that is not yet saturated and that has a very low per capita book consumption (unlike say the US or the UK or France or Germany). So as education grows, as literacy grows, as urbanisation spreads, as incomes increase, the media spreads, growth in books will also accompany these, although the form of the book may well change. This is of course why all the big guns are flocking here: they see growth, growth, growth! And of course, this is borne out by what we see happening on the ground: an increase in the number of bookshops (even if some chains have shut down shops, we still have more bookshops than we had say when I started out in publishing in the seventies), online selling, book festivals, more authors... all this is indicative of change, so we know change is happening, we just don't know how much.

PG: We saw the merger of Penguin and Random House earlier this year. How will this affect the Indian publishing industry? Does it matter to India?

UB: Yes, in the long run, although at the moment it is difficult to say how much or how. But you have seen how Amazon has created panic in the publishing industry in the US. The same thing will happen here, and is already happening with Flipkart, which is changing its practices towards small independents like us. And the appearance of the large, international conglomerate will also set a new bar on things like advances (most of them remain unearned, but they ruin the ground for people like us), also they will put pressure on bookshops to only carry their stuff and smaller publishers will find it difficult to get space... at the moment one of the interesting things about indian publishing is the mix of old, new, independent, multinational, multilingual. All of this may change with the big guns coming in.

PG: Could you name some landmarks, some break-out moments, in the growth path of the Indian publishing industry?
UB: The first of these was post-independence, when the govt decided the publishing industry would Indianise and they started a phased process of throwing out expats, and also laid down that foreign companies could not be here with more than 49 per cent. This set the path for Indian authors to grow and develop, and for Indian books to come into the market; at this stage, mostly educational books.

The next for me would be in the late 60s when the NCERT was set up to create model textbooks but it ended up becoming a publisher—the government publisher—of textbooks, taking this very lucrative area out of the hands of private publishers.

The third, perhaps around the late 80s, early 90s, when two key things happen: the entry of young professionals in the industry, the setting up of new houses (Kali for women, Tulika, Tara, Ravi Dayal, Penguin and so on) who begin to publish for the general reader as opposed to the student. This ties in with another important development, the devaluation of the rupee against the dollar, which makes imports (India is still a major market for imports of English language books) more expensive and there is some reduction in the units brought in (although not in the money paid out!) which opens up a tiny, tiny space for publishers like us, and that marks, in the English publishing world, the entry of trade books.

Around this time you also start to see the beginnings of change in the language markets. Hindi for example, starts to grow and develop after a slump: in the early days, writers like Gulshan Nanda, published by Hind Pocket Books, would sell around 300,000 to 400,000 copies. We make so much noise about Chetan Bhagat these days but something similar has happened before in the Hindi world and in the Bengali and Malayalam worlds, except that it did not get noticed. And as the language media grow (you can see this in the growth for example of newspapers) so does writing and publishing of books. Today we see a healthy publishing industry in Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam (this has been there for a long time and Malayalam also had one of the early author cooperatives that paid out 25 percent royalties to its authors, it was called the Sahitya Pravartak Cooperative Society). All this begins then.
And then I guess there is the now world with the re-entry of multinationals, with FDI making 100 per cent ownership possible, with the paying out of huge advances...

For me, one of the other things that is quite remarkable and I don't really have a precise date to put on it, is the entry of young people, the spirit of adventure and experimentation and the entry of young women into publishing. So look around you at what people are doing: Kannan (his publishing house is called Kalachuvadu), and New Horizon Media doing Tamil, S. Anand doing books on caste, Ravi Deecee, and Bookport doing Malayalam, Sunil Mehta (Mehta Publishers) and Manovikas and others doing Marathi, Shekhar Malhotra (Full Circle and Hind Pocket Books) and Manisha Chaudhry (Pratham) and Tultul Biswas (Eklavya) doing Hindi, I could go on and on. And then the women: Karthika VK, Diya Kar Hazra, Anita Roy, Preeti Gill, Nilanjana Roy, Renuka Chatterjee, Arpita Das, Kalpana Shukla, Omita Goyal, Sunanda Ghosh, Esha Beteille, Indu Chandrashekhar, Ritu Menon, Renu Kaul, Meru Gokhale, Divya Dube, Neeta Gupta and more and more…

PG: Has the Indian publishing industry reacted well (or with foresight) to change? Or has it been dragged, kicking and screaming, into change? How does it compare with more developed markets?

UB: I think the answer to this has to be: “both.” Some people have reacted well to change, seeing it for what it brings, both the good and the bad. But there are others who have fought for protectionism in the Indian market, tried to stop FDI, some for political reasons (and these are often suspect) and others for practical ones, or commercial ones. So many are scared of losing their markets to the big guns, but I think we have to really think on our feet about how to deal with this, and people are not doing enough of that.

The more difficult change has been the one that has come with the digital revolution. Those publishers who have taken this on board have done very well in coping with this change. But there are others who have been suspicious, who do not know, who don't have the wherewithal to find out, and who are confused. I'm not saying they haven't reacted well, but they have not reacted speedily because actually you really need to know what you are getting into before you put your foot in. We at Zubaan are an example of this: we're not closed to these changes, we feel we have to implement them, but I don't have the money to invest in finding out how to do it, so we have to learn as we go along. so it's a bit mixed.

PG: Is the Indian publishing industry feeling threatened by the emergence of e-books?

UB: Yes, and no, threatened and excited. See, in India, I think the paper book will be around longer than in many other countries. We are still, in terms of numbers, a country of book hunger. And electronic stuff is not so easily available or affordable, so we know that books will not disappear. But there is also the uncertainty of not knowing what exactly will happen.

FI: Even just a few years ago, publishers weren't buying e-book rights. Now, we're seeing houses like Aleph releasing e-books along with the print books for all of their catalogue. Penguin has said that they'll be bringing out ebooks of all releases. Would you be able to give us a picture of what the other houses are doing?

UB: I think pretty much everyone is trying to do two things: turn their backlist and out of print books into e-books, and ensure that every new book is simultaneously released as an e book. This has become possible now with new software and programming, so that you can do PDFs for printing and then move into doing epub files for ebooks. No one wants to be left behind here, some may be slower than others but everyone wants to be there.

PG: From what we see, e-books are being priced the same as print books, even though paper and distribution costs have been eliminated. Why do you think this is happening? Is it fair to the reader?

UB: There are still costs of conversion—turning a traditional book into an e book, for those books that come from the pre-PDF days (and anything older than say six years or eight years will be in this category) —you have to spend on scanning, proofing, turning the book into a PDF and then into an e-book. Then, e-book formats are different for different providers. For example, for Amazon you have to do one format, for the Apple store a different one. All this costs money. And no, distribution costs are not eliminated. See, you can sell e-books on your own website, but if you sell them through Amazon or Flipkart, they charge. At the moment, the charges may be fair, but wait just a bit and they will begin squeezing publishers just like distributors do.

Traditional distributors charge anything between 50 to 60 percent discount (e-books may be a bit less, but not for long). Also, for all publishers, the e-book market is a mystery, so at the moment they want to play safe. No one really knows how to price, and the best thing, therefore, is to go with the price you know. Plus, and this is a major concern, no matter how much DRM (digital rights management) you do, e-books are and can be accessed for free, so there are genuine copyright issues. Many publishers feel they will be giving away stuff, so they want to charge while they can. Most hackers can break even the best DRM.

PG: Do you think the experience of a book will have to change? I.e., Will publishers have to go beyond producing e-versions of books that merely seek to reproduce the print experience and re-imagine their offerings for the new devices?

UB: Oh yes, this is already happening. Books can now be read with sound, with music, you can witness notes, see what other people have to say. This is very important for example for educational books: many educational publishers say that in turning their books into e-books they are not relying on the printed version at all, or actually not being faithful to it, but that they are using the characters from the book and going much beyond the book.

PG: Are there the creators (as opposed to just writers) who can think this way too? And could you name some interesting new voices who are speaking today's language? Writers who can have an impact on India and/or the international markets in the near future (like 2013)?

UB: Yes, there are creators. In fact, I often, when I read a manuscript these days, actually see the thinking that has gone into writing it, with the e-world very much in mind. There's a book called Annual Haircut Day written by someone called Noni which has a character called Sringeri Srinivas who has gone viral, to use today's language. Srinivas now lives much more outside of the book. Pratham Books did something interesting, and they do this with many books, and this addresses your question below as well, which is that they put quite a lot of their books with Creative Commons licenses, believing that knowledge should be both free and paid for, and Sringeri has travelled all over, into blackberries, into apps, into little telephone bites and so on. Look it up and see. And yes, there are other writers, grown-up ones, who are doing this with their books. One of the things that I personally find very exciting about the experience of particularly interactive e-reading is that you can get writers to respond there and then, to participate in expanding and enlarging the book. Let me give you an example, we have a book on the women's movement that badly needs updating. The author is no longer interested, so we feel if we put it up digitally and ask writers to write in with their additions, we could have a really interesting product to offer at the end of it.

PG: What can publishing learn from the hard lessons that the music industry was forced to imbibe thanks to the digital age?

UB: I think we have to realise that it is only a matter of time before the pressure for knowledge to become free and easily available will catch up with us. We have to see what we can do which can keep publishing the profession alive, and what we can do to spread knowledge. I find Pratham's mixed model quite fascinating, and it's something we would like to experiment with: ask our authors if they want their stuff to be freely available and if yes, put it there. Or work out a staggered model, charge for a few years and then make it free. And we have to also learn to deal with providing a smaller product—you know, smaller, shorter books, single essays, single stories—like Flipkart sells a song for Rs 7, we should be able to sell a story for Rs 5 or 10. But that is some way off still.

PG: We're seeing a boom in literature festivals. Everyone seem to want to run one. Is there enough space for all of them? Why is this happening, do you think?

UB: Well, some of it is the copycat effect, but a lot of it comes from a genuine interest in books and more and more writers writing. I am not one of those sceptics who says “bah!” to lit fests, I think they are great for authors, they bring readers and authors together and nothing could be better for the craft of writing and for publishing. Also in a country that is still not well served by bookshops, they help readers to have access to books. If there is any caution I would put to this, it's this: that I hope more and more of our lit fests keep a balance of English and Indian languages (I refuse to call them regional, it's insulting) and sell books in those languages, and I hope more and more of them go to smaller cities and towns.

PG: The Indian reader: is s/he changing? How?

UB: Absolutely. Readers are always changing; it’s difficult to say how, but what is clear is that the Indian reader is hungry for things to read, and that is for me the beginning of a major change, and they're open to all kinds of books, which is also important. Look at the genres in the market now, and they all jostle with each other and work: autobiography, fiction, detective fiction, cookery, cricket, blogs etc, etc, and in all languages, not only English. And there is so much exchange between Indian languages now, that that is really encouraging.

PG: Do you see a scenario where an Amazon-like book shop will take over the Indian publishing industry by becoming a publisher itself? Do you think Amazon itself can do it?

UB: I think Amazon already has plans to do it and so may Flipkart. Yes, I think there is a danger of that. It's the same danger that the big companies felt when they set up their mergers; they wanted to be a counter to Amazon, and for us, at the moment it is the big companies that we fear because we feel they will begin to dictate the market and we will not have a chance. So yes, I think every bigger dog will try to eat the smaller and different dog and that is a pity, but I guess that is the shape of things to come. Also, size brings its own rationale: we're seeing this now with Flipkart who are finding it difficult to deal directly with smaller publishers, and that means that the small advantage we could gain by giving them discounts that were not so killing as those our distributors took, will be lost to us. We'll have to sell through our distributors.

All in all, not such a grim scenario overall, but some things look a bit grim. Let's see if we can prove equal to the challenge.