Why is India’s book market struggling?

Book publishers in India are facing new challenges after the Covid pandemic due to the high cost of raw materials and high inflation rates.

Inflation, driven by higher food and fuel prices, hit an 18-month high of 7.5% in April in India, according to a Reuters poll.

Publishers from all over the country – for English and regional languages ​​- say they have faced severe paper shortages and higher production costs for a few months now. As a result, they are forced to raise the prices of books.

About 80% of books in India are published in Indian languages, according to a 2007 edition by the Federation of Indian Publishers (FIP).

The average Indian spends less than $5 (€4.80) on one book published in an Indian language. But there is a lack of data on the actual number of books published.

Dear data makes it hard to discern publishing trends

The British Council published a report in February titled “The Indian Literature and Publishing Sector” to point out the challenges facing the Indian publishing world.

In the report, the researchers note that a 2007 study conducted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) found that half of titles published in India were either in Hindi or English.

The FICCI report also stated that about 90,000 titles are published each year. In the British Council report, the researchers noted “intermittent” tracking of the sector as no study was conducted on a regular basis.

The 2015 Book Market Report by Nielsen India estimated that the Indian book market is worth $3.9 billion (4.7 billion yen) and is growing about 20% each year.

High production costs after the epidemic years

Alind Maheshwari, director of Rajkamal Prakashan Group, a prominent publisher of Hindi-language books, said they were unable to publish as many books as they did before the pandemic.

Paper used to cost around 60 rupees ($0.77) per kilogram, and now it costs 110 rupees per kilogram. “The number has almost doubled,” Maheshwari told DW.

Delhi-based Rajkamal Prakashhan used to publish between 200 and 250 books a year before the pandemic. Now, they only publish 72-100 books a year, including translations of English books.

Maheshwari explained that book distribution channels have been greatly affected since the pandemic has posed a challenge to book distributors or those responsible for providing new books to stores.

Satabdi Mishra, co-founder of Walking BookFairs in the eastern state of Odisha, said book printing is becoming increasingly expensive with “high prices for printing and transportation services”.

Publication of some books has also been suspended due to the pandemic, and “Finally when we started publishing them, the prices have gone up significantly,” Mishra told DW.

A global shortage of freighters and higher freight costs in December last year contributed to some of the higher production costs.

Industry experts said Indian paper mills have also had to reduce their operations to two to three times a week.

Arpita Das, Yoda Press’s independent publisher of English-language books, said rising book costs have put pressure on the company because it “wants to keep prices low enough for enthusiastic readers to be able to buy the books.”

Readers are in decline

Thomas Abraham, Managing Director of Hachette India, one of the country’s top five publishing houses, said Indians read largely for utilitarian purposes and less for entertainment purposes.

In the UK and US, new titles usually have good results with readers. But in India, “it’s just the opposite,” Abraham told DW. People generally read a lot of old titles like Enid Blyton or Agatha Christie books.

Abraham added, “The country is losing its biblical diversity” — the diversity in the kinds of books people read.

The combination of changing reading habits and increased publishing costs has meant that many publishing houses have had to get rid of so-called demo or mid-list books, which are not given high priority because they only have a set number of readers.

Pandemic brings more e-reading

Nielsen’s book report added that e-readers did not find many buyers in India. However, the pandemic changed the scenario because people started buying more e-books on Amazon, specifically in the early period of the lockdown in 2020.

Major publishers said e-book sales doubled during that time, but there was a caveat.

Hachette’s Abraham explained that while e-book sales doubled, they didn’t contribute much to revenue because they couldn’t make up for the losses they incurred during the first four months of the shutdown in 2020.

“We have seen that e-book booms only happen when there is a huge discount from e-book sellers,” Abraham said.

Others have taken matters into their own hands in a decisive manner.

Walking BookFairs’ Mishra said that her company is selling one of her latest books – a collection of short stories by diverse Indian authors – “only in local and physical libraries across India – to support local libraries – and it’s not available for sale on Amazon or Flipkart”.

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