Why is the Indian book market struggling?
Indian book publishers are facing new challenges after the Covid pandemic due to the high cost of raw materials and soaring inflation.
Inflation, driven by high food and fuel prices, hit an 18-month high of 7.5% in April in India, according to a Reuters poll.
Publishers across the country — for English and regional languages — say they’ve been facing severe paper shortages and higher production costs for a few months now. As a result, they are forced to raise book prices.
About 80% of books in India are published in Indian languages, according to a 2007 publication by the Federation of Indian Publishers (FIP).
The average Indian spends less than $5 (€4.80) for a single book published in an Indian language. But there is a lack of data on the actual number of books published.
Lack of data makes publication trends difficult to discern
The British Council published a report in February titled “Indian Literature and Publishing Sector”, to take note of the challenges facing the Indian publishing world.
In the report, the researchers noted that a 2007 study 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 indicates that approximately 90,000 titles are published each year. Researchers in the British Council report pointed to the ‘sporadic’ monitoring of the sector as no surveys were undertaken on a regular basis.
A 2015 book market report by Nielsen India estimated the Indian book market to be worth $3.9 billion (Є4.7 billion) and growing by around 20% every year.
Increase in production costs after years of pandemic
Alind Maheshwari, director of Rajkamal Prakashan Group, a notable publisher of Hindi books, said they cannot publish as many books as before the pandemic.
“Previously, paper cost around 60 rupees ($0.77) per kilogram, and now it costs 110 rupees per kilogram. It almost doubled,” Maheshwari told DW.
Delhi-based Rajkamal Prakashan published around 200-250 books a year before the pandemic. Today, they publish only 72-100 books a year, including translations of English books.
Maheshwari explained that book distribution channels have been significantly affected since the pandemic posed a challenge to book distributors or those responsible for supplying new books to stores.
Satabdi Mishra, co-founder of Walking BookFairs in the eastern state of Odisha, said it was becoming more and more expensive to print books with “the rising prices of printing and transport services”.
Some books were also put on hold due to the pandemic and “finally when we started publishing it the prices had gone up significantly,” Mishra told DW.
A global shortage of shipping vessels and rising shipping costs in December last year contributed in part to higher production costs.
Indian paper mills have also been forced to reduce operations to two to three times a week, industry experts said.
Arpita Das, independent publisher Yoda Press for English books, said a rise in book prices had put pressure on the company because it “likes to keep prices low enough that avid readers can afford books”.
Thomas Abraham, managing director of Hachette India, one of the country’s Big Five publishing houses, said Indians read largely for utilitarian purposes and less for entertainment purposes.
In the UK and US, new titles generally do well with readers. But in India, “it’s the exact opposite,” Abraham told DW. People usually read a lot of older titles like books by Enid Blyton or Agatha Christie.
“The country is losing its bibliodiversity,” the diversity of the types of books people read, Abraham added.
A combination of changing reading habits and rising publishing costs has forced many publishers to get rid of so-called experimental or intermediate books, which are not prioritized because they only have a specific readership.
The pandemic brings more e-reading
The Neilsen book report added that e-reading devices have not found too many buyers in India. However, the pandemic changed the scenario as people started buying more e-books from Amazon, especially in the first period of the lockdown in 2020.
Major publishers said e-book sales doubled during that time, but there was a caveat.
Even though e-book sales doubled, they contributed very little to revenue because they couldn’t make up for losses incurred during the first four months of lockdown in 2020, Hachette’s Abraham explained.
“We’ve seen that eBook spikes only happen when there’s a deep discount offer from eBook sellers,” Abraham said.
Others have taken matters into their own hands decisively.
Mishra of Walking BookFairs said her company is selling one of her latest books – a collection of short stories by various Indian authors – “only in local physical bookstores across India – to support local bookstores – and it is not available for sale on Amazon or Flipkart.