The big Indian publishing divide

In this era of becoming vocal for local, there is still a bias among writers and the media towards international publishers in India. Why are indigenous and independent publishers in the country still being overlooked?

Why should a distinguished publisher like Bloomsbury publish such a book when there is always some Garuda to publish it? This sentiment, which found resonance among a section of people when Bloomsbury India de-platformed the book Delhi Riots 2020 on the day of its launch event, raises pertinent questions on why, even with a rich Indian publishing history, there is a perceived difference between international publishers and Indian ones in the eyes of writers.

 This gap in brand perception is, in fact, equivalent to that of India and Bharat, between international publishing houses that have set up offices here and our own indigenous ones. When Penguin set up its offices in India in the 1980s, it was a joyous moment for writers in the country as they now had a multinational brand at their doorstep for their dream stories to take the shape of a book. Indie publishers had been there for centuries but they were either dedicated to Hindi and regional languages or the few that published in English could not provide an international platform to writers. 

There was also a big difference in the quality of production between books published by an international publisher and those by an Indian publisher. International publishers also brought in a large collection of some of the best international books they published at reasonable prices. In addition, they dedicated resources to scout for local writing talent and to build a list of indigenous writers, which further helped penetrate the Indian market. 

Penguin coming to India was perceived as an opportunity for Indian writers to get noticed and established in the US and the UK. With every passing decade, a new international publisher set up offices locally and entered the Indian market with its set of international writers. Simultaneously, it also built a list of local authors. Writers form the backbone of a publishing list and having some big names adds tremendous value to a publishing brand. Even after four decades of operating in the Indian markets alongside international publishers, indie publishers struggle to be given preference over international ones by writers.

 When asked why writers prefer international publishers over indie publishers, Niti Kumar, Senior Vice President, Penguin Random House India, said she feels that this isn’t a general rule per se. Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette, too isn’t sure they do, adding, “Because we do have strong local brands; and let’s not forget most internationally-owned publishers are completely Indian too. The days of the liaison office or expat-run companies or editorial departments are over.” Thomas further adds, “But, yes, the lure of longestablished imprints, where you join a stable of renowned authors or are part of a long chain of landmark writing, is understandable. When you are published by John Murray (the world’s oldest trade publisher), or Hachette or Hodder, you are following a tradition that published Charles Darwin or Madame Bovary or Jane Austen or, even on the commercial side, genre definers such as Love Story, The Saint, Enid Blyton, Ludlum, etc, so that might play a part. But strong imprints have been built here too. Kali for Women was definitely comparable to a Virago, for instance.”

 Kumar further says, “A well-researched writer will and should choose a publishing house that will best understand and represent his/her work and that could be an international publishing house or an indie publisher. In India, Penguin has a rich legacy of over 30 years. And this legacy, alongside the editorial, sales and marketing talent we have, makes us a compelling choice for authors.” Kumar also feels that the criteria to choose a publishing house should be beyond just its global presence or stature and more about its sensibilities which are best suited to bring the author’s vision to life. 

From the socio-economic point of view, international publishing houses setting up offices here in India should have led to local players improving the quality of their books to match the international ones, learning from the knowledge and insight gained out of operating in the same market. However, even after 40 years since the first international publishing house set up its India offices, we are yet to see a considerable and favourable shift in the publishing preference of writers towards indigenous publishers, especially the big names, unless it is for translations of their book.

 Why does this divide continue? 

In the world of branding and marketing, international publishers have definitely had an advantage with their brand image due to an international presence. But there are also these key factors that help build a brand image:

 Editorial Quality: For a publisher in any language, it is imperative that the books are error-free. This is not only about cleaning text of grammatical errors but also about engaging with writers to enhance the nuances of the language to add to the delight of the readers. Apart from having a command over language, the excellent quality of editors that are hired post standard language skill tests also ensure skills to identify and commission what would add to their publishing list in terms of content, quality of writing and profile of the writer. 

Production Quality: The perceived value of the price paid for a book, while measured by what the readers think of the author, also depends a lot on the quality of pages, the fonts, layouts and cover designs. There are well laid out standard practices followed internationally to ensure that the quality is not compromised upon. 

Distribution: There are primarily two aspects to distribution: first, that of sustaining long credit periods; and, second, being able to grab a bigger space on the shelves with more profitable and popular titles.

 Marketing and Publicity: Strong writing and great packaging backed by the right amount of publicity for their books ensures that publishers command better recall in the media. 

Deep pockets: Publishers need to have the ability and intent to offer big advances to writers and to sustain bigger teams and overhead costs. Indie publishers have been slow to up their game over the decades. They have largely remained disorganised and continue to be mostly family-owned, which limits their abilities to create clearly marked systems and processes, especially in the areas of editing, production and marketing. 

The cumulative effect of compromising on quality in the production and packaging of books has led to a contrary image in the eyes of the media, which is key for carrying forward word-of-mouth publicity. It has also widened the gap as the volume of books being published by the international publishers in India has increased considerably over time. Another very important factor that has played a vital role in a greater brand perception of international publishers is the perceived access to international availability and publication in the US, UK and Australia which comes with being published by their offices in India. 

On this matter, Thomas Abraham of Hachette says that there is a difference between ‘presence’ and being ‘made available’. He says, “So, we offer books to our group companies, but Hachette is known for a very federal approach and there is no tokenism of any sort or regional quotas. If the companies there want to pick a book, they do so because they like it and because they believe it will work for their market. Just like we offer our UK/US books here but will pick just a few here based on what we feel will work in this market. All of publishing runs on curation.” Niti Kumar of Penguin Random House shares, “Books do need to have a local relevance and cultural appeal.” She adds that publishing with a global company like PRH does open up opportunities for content to enter markets outside India; however, the decision is far from an automatic one. Kumar further says, “Each market and territory makes carefully considered choices about the books they will publish or distribute and these are in line with what audiences in that territory want to read.” Thomas, one of the doyens of Indian publishing, adds that any writer, who labours under the myth that being published by an international publisher automatically gets them international presence, is very much mistaken. He further adds, “Look back at the last 50 years and see how many books have travelled from a local international company to the West. Yes, there are export catalogues and books being ‘made available’, and today eBooks ensure that your book is visible, but there is no substitute to being locally published in a market. I’d say 99% of Indian books that are published abroad are from the Western route of agenting.”

 The Indian Resilience

 Despite tough competition from international publishers entering India with big monies, some indie publishers did foresee a need for change and have managed to compete well with international publishers. Publishers such as Rupa and Westland started by focusing on the above factors. With the passing of years, Rupa also launched a literary publishing arm called Aleph and Chiki Sarkar launched Juggernaut, and both have been able to capture the attention of some established writers and big names in the writing world. There are also indie publishers such as Vitasta, Srishti and Roli, which have been consistently working towards bringing out books that go on to become bestsellers. 

All these publishers have not only competed in quality but have also been able to establish some big-ticket writers and bestsellers from their publishing houses. Though they continue to lose some of the writers they established to big international publishers, again due to the perceived brand power. For example, Preeti Shenoy, Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta, Novoneel Chakraborty and a few others were first published and established as a brand by Srishti, but the publisher lost Durjoy and Singh to bigger international publishers. Renu Kaul, Publisher, Vitasta, an indie publisher, shares, “It’s not been easy. As independents, we have to compete with the big publishers for everything, right from the manuscripts, to shelf space to media attention.” She adds that, because most authors still suffer from a colonial hangover, the indie publishers invariably lose them to big brands. 

Another challenge, she says, is: “Unlike the big ones, we cannot give hefty advances nor do we have budgets to market our books. Despite all these constraints, we give the bigger publishers a good fight.” Arup Bose, Marketing Head of Srishti Publishers, confirms, “International publishers have their strengths, like a bigger and international catalogue of books and authors, plus more resources.” Bose adds that they are a platform for debut authors and have published many titles which have become bestsellers soon after publication. These indie publishers also enjoy the freedom that apparently, and especially given the current Bloomsbury controversy, international publishers don’t. Kaul says that the joy of being in complete control of what and how you want to publish makes up for all the competition. 

She adds, “All these growing years, we have tried very hard to give the term ‘independent publisher’ a meaning, we have dared entrenched systems and succeeded in making a dent in the process of thinking; several of our books have influenced national policy changes.” She also says that since they are small, it is easier for them to resist pressure, recalling the time when Vitasta published a political biography of Rabri Devi when Lalu Prasad, who wielded a lot of power in those days, wanted some chapters removed. “Because I was small, I think I could resist the pressure. Big ones come with baggage and therefore have to be politically correct.” The representatives of both Vitasta and Srishti almost unanimously voice that smaller indie publishers score over big international publishers in their quicker turnaround time. Bose says, “Like most indie publishers, we have a comparatively smaller chain of command, and hence, decision making is faster. We remain more connected to not only the ground realities in our organisation, but within the industry as well.” Kaul adds, “Each of our authors and their books get an equal share of attention. So the authors feel much at ease with us. And I believe because we work closely with our authors, there is less trust deficit.” 

Another fact remains that, barring Penguin, very few readers identify writers with their publishing brands. What they do identify is a good story, told well, and a book with an author name that looks good on the shelf. But a publishing brand does matter to the writers, media, retailers and the festival and award organisers. Indie publishers are also able to provide books at competitive prices which are, at times, given the overhead costs of international publishers, difficult to achieve for them.

 Some indie publishers also have a better reach and market penetration with the ability to reach bookstores in the remotest parts of the country. And yet, we see only a few big names in the English writing world entrusting their books with indie publishers.

 The Way Forward 

Today, some part of this problem may have been answered through digital sales and social media and digital platforms to help spread the word and connect directly with end readers, where some of these indie publishers do much better than the international ones. But the media is important for adding credibility and building an image for a writer, and the media prefers books published by international brands over indie publishers for its books pages. But things are moving towards a change.

 If more indie publishers continue to put effort into investing in quality editors, production and marketing, this bias will change, and is beginning to already. In order to assure writers of an international presence, tying up with indigenous small publishers in the US, UK and Australia would help greatly.

 Brand building is a continuous and long term process and indie publishers need to focus on building a strong brand identity that’s global in its outlook and presentation. Given that the publishing industry plays an important role in shaping the past, present and future of any country through literature, it is imperative that it remains free of biases and encourages all kinds of opinions and voices. But to really break this divide over why choose a distinguished publisher over a Garuda, the need of the hour is for indie publishers to start working towards building the brand perception so that writers don’t shy away from going vocal for local.

 Founder of MarketMyBook, Lipika Bhushan has 15 years of experience in heading marketing in leading publishing houses. She also hosts a YouTube programme called ‘Between The Lines’.