The 30% dilemma: Is Indian publishing really growing that fast?

‘Describing country’s publishing industry as vibrant, the Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom Shiv Shankar Mukherjee said it is growing at an impressive rate of 30% every year.’

‘“There has definitely been a huge jump in the size of the [publishing] industry in terms of book sales and the number of books being published,” said Mita Kapur, the founder of Siyahi, a literary agency, who says the number of books published in English is growing by 30 percent a year.

‘Nielsen estimates the [publishing] sector is now worth $6.76 billion. Led by educational books, the sector is set to grow at an average compound annual growth rate of 19.3% until 2020.’

A Google search on Indian publishing industry will usually reveal all three news reports. Each of them is impressive, leading to a perception that Indian publishing is robust — 30% annual growth rate is astounding for any sector, anywhere in the world, really.

Now consider the three quotes in the following context: the first came from a news report in 2009; the second, from an NYT story in 2012; the last, from 2017.

So how has Indian publishing managed to grow 30% YoY, every year since 2009? Yet, why does the average book still sell only a few thousand copies, with bookstores shutting shop across the country? What is this dissonance between statistics and reality?

The simple answer is: we’ve been reading it all wrong!

Consider this:

Till 2015, there was no statistic on the Indian publishing industry since 1976! That’s correct: for 30 years, we had no numbers about Indian publishing; all we had was an apocryphal guesstimate that Indian publishing was a Rs. 14,000 crore industry growing at 15% YoY.

In 2015, Nielsen released a report titled ‘The India Book Market Report’. It was a first-of-its-kind, industry-wide report that quoted numbers based on actual data, with a source being the Nielsen-Bookscan India, which ‘covers a significant market of organised book sales in India. The shop panel has increased since its launch and current coverage is approx 300,000 units at a value of INR 80 million and 70,000 different titles (ISBNs) each week.’ Mind you, the report does not encompass the entire industry. ‘For “The India Book Market Report,” Nielsen supplemented the BookScan data with results from interviews and online surveys of over 100 industry stakeholders, as well as a survey of 2,000 urban consumers.’

The report said:

‘India is the sixth-largest book market in the world, and currently the second largest for books in English, behind the United States… Nielsen’s survey among urban consumers shows that they buy more educational books than trade books. The educational books sector, which forms 70 percent of the book market in India, is the bulwark for the publishing industry…Out of the 9,037 publishers identified in the Nielsen report, 8,107 publish books for schools, colleges and higher educational institutions. Only 930 are trade publishers…the schoolbooks market in 2013–14 was worth Rs. 18,600 crore, and the market for books for higher education was valued at Rs. 5,600 crore in the same period. The trade books market was valued at Rs. 1,860 crore, a figure which would no doubt be higher if publishers not covered by BookScan, especially those who publish books in Indian languages, were added to the count. But educational publishing would still make for a large portion of the entire book market.’

Therein lies the rub.

In the three news reports, only one mentions the growth figures are estimates for the entire publishing industry and not just what we in the business call ‘trade publishing’, or the whole gamut of Fiction, Nonfiction & Children’s Writing that we like to pick up from bookstores. Even in that story, the size of the educational market is underplayed: ‘Led by educational books, the sector is set to grow at an average compound annual growth rate of 19.3% until 2020.’ In none of the three stories is an educational publisher quoted. All three stories imply the Indian ‘trade publishing’ market is growing at the oft-quoted astounding rates, whereas it’s clear trade publishing is in the minority. Even within trade publishing, English trade publishing is minuscule. ‘Of the Rs 35,000-cr book publishing industry in India, more than 70% is education publishing.’

So what’s the deal? And where is this 30% growth coming from?

To quote Nielsen: ‘Nielsen’s forecasts for market growth in the educational book sector show this already extremely significant market growing by some 19% over the next five years…purchases of K-12 (kinder-garten till Grade 12) school books are estimated to account for some 71% of the market, with higher education books accounting for an additional 22%.’

Which means, 93% of the publishing market, according to Nielsen — the organisation that conducted the study on which the 19% growth rate is based on — is made up by educational publishers. Trade publishers make up 7%.

So why does the media assume that it’s the trade — fiction, nonfiction and children’s books market — that is poised to grow at 19% per annum in 2015, and 30% before that?

The simplistic answer would be lazy reportage, but that’s playing the blame game. Rather, there are a combination of factors that make English trade publishing (English, because in none of the three stories is a language publisher quoted, and because we rarely hear from language publishers in the media anyway) seem like the behemoth it isn’t.

The first is the widespread publicity and marketing English language trade publishers indulge in, and the premium that we put on English as a language. ‘[English is] the aspirational language,’ a CEO of a MNC publisher is quoted as saying. Of course it is, except it’s an aspirational language for a different purpose, and not for the sake of reading:

The National Youth Readership Survey 2009 showed that one third of the country’s people are between the ages of 13 and 35, and 25 percent of them — 83 million — are book readers. Of these, 53 percent live in rural areas and 58 percent are either at or below matriculation level. Curriculum-based reading and reading to gain professional skills dominates youth readership patterns.

English trade publishers are more visible due to the attention their authors (and sometimes their publishers) receive. Of the 48 authors that appear as Google recommendations when one searches for Indian authors, only 7 write (or wrote) in Indian languages. The rest are all English language authors. Rarely does the English media review books other than in the English language (one can read in a different language and write in English as well). And language publishing faces its own issues, most notably that of modernizing its operations and implementing a more cogent marketing campaign like English trade publishers.

The second reason why we misread the figures is because educational publishers are rarely in the news, except for all the wrong reasons. This is also because educational publishers have chosen to operate in opaque ways (yes, even more opaque than your average fiction publisher), and reveal very little of their numbers. Yet, I would imagine that a news report that suggests such an astounding growth pattern did a little bit more digging into what is driving these numbers. Where does the demand for educational books come from? And who’s buying these books?

The third is a more generic reason: all of us love to hear good news. Why should all the doom-and-gloom predictions bother us when we’ve got something like a 30% growth rate backing us up? But when the CEO of the Indian arm of one of the world’s largest trade publishers says this, you know it’s time we need to think about how trade publishing is done in the country:

[Mid-list fiction isn’t dead] but it is in danger of entering a terminal condition. And this is the biggest marker of reading health, which in India is moving into real decline. The bestsellers are bigger now, and one or two commercial categories have exploded, but if we don’t have a rounded mid-list selling to its own category potential, the industry is in real danger of becoming irrelevant and losing all biblio-diversity. We will end up having just textbooks, and a few bestsellers, and a few airport reads. And this will be a sad state of affairs given that we had a rich reading culture up to the 1970s and through till the mid-1990s, and that, considering our demographic profile, we have the potential to be the largest reading market in the world.

So is Indian publishing really growing at 30% per annum?

Perhaps, but definitely not as we — readers, authors, and publishers — are imagining it.