Indian authors want technology to disrupt publishing because no one’s happy

Arnab Ray April 26, 2016 7 min

The word ‘disruption’ is a prime example of language that I like to call “business Powerpointese”, but if there is any context in which the use of the phrase “in need for disruption” may be excused, I would say it is in the world of commercial publishing in English in India.

Because this is an industry that really needs disruption. Because no one is really happy. Or I should say, in keeping with the spirit of using buzzwords, that none of the business’s stakeholders are happy.

First, let’s take the consumers. Many find the over-abundance of titles like ‘7 Day$ of [email protected]’ or ‘I Fell in Love with You and Then I Fell in Lust With Her’ on bookstore shelves off-putting, while others feel Chetan Bhagat is not writing books fast enough (somewhat like George RR Martin). And everyone, regardless of whether they swear by Ravinder Singh or Ravindranath Tagore, complains about the lack of choice when he or she walks into the bookstore.

Then, bookstore owners. They complain about the poor return-on-investment on books (“they sit on the shelves for too long”) and, if that’s not bad enough, online retailers who do not need to invest in display and have VC capital to underwrite losses, provide price-points with which they cannot compete. Which means closing shops down or books ceding shelf-space to the stuff that sells — Playstation games, soft toys, and compilation CDs of Arijit Singh.

Ask publishers and they reflect the concerns of retail. There are too many books, too few shelves, too much inventory lying in warehouses, and too few orders. And so their focus inevitably shifts away from quality or originality to the marketability of the author and the sexiness of the genre.

Unless you have dimples that make schoolgirls go weak in the knees, or the ability to put your love-pain into words, or endless money of your own to throw at your book, life is tough.

Which brings us to the last piece of the puzzle. Authors.

Unless you have dimples that make schoolgirls go weak in the knees, or the ability to put your love-pain into words, or endless money of your own to throw at your book, or, best of all, have been dubbed “literary” and are therefore no longer judged on quotidian concepts like sales but by presence on panels at Jaipur Lit Fest and spots on long and short-lists, life is very tough. You will be lucky to get a publisher who puts your books on the shelf, and luckier still to find it on-display after it has been published.

The naive response to this is typically “but nobody reads books any more.” This is not really the case. A large number of Indians, mostly young, are consuming English books at a far greater rate than their fathers and grandfathers did, which explains why more English books are being published than ever before. The problem if we take a slightly deeper dive, is that the market is skewed.

This is a bit of a rough estimate, but just about 20 authors have written 80% of the books sold in India, cornering advertising budgets and shelf-space. Add to this around 10 lit superstars whose books are usually on the shelves regardless of sales. After this comes the long, long, Venkatesh Prasad-like tail.

What this front-loading means is that as readers, you are not going to discover new voices unless you fall on the floor and twist your neck and look at the bottom shelf, near the dark corner, next to the rest-room, and as long-tail authors, you are going to have to jump that much higher, and write in certain genres and not in others, and settle for lower advances and sales-percentages.

Just about 20 authors have written 80% of the books sold in India, cornering advertising budgets and shelf-space. Add to this 10 lit superstars whose books are on the shelves regardless of sales. After this comes the long, long, Venkatesh Prasad-like tail.

I know I have mentioned him too many times and it hurts me as much as it hurts you, but Chetan Bhagat once said he does not compete with other authors anymore; he competes with mobile games and God.

Okay I made up that last part about God. But seriously, he is onto something.

Consider this. The reason budget point-and-shoot digital cameras have lost so much ground over the last few years is that people almost exclusively use their mobile phone cameras. Why? Because it’s an inconvenience lugging a camera along all the time, even one that fits into your pocket. Just like it is to carry a physical book around.

The demands of modern life are such that we rarely get extended chunks of downtime, when we can curl up with a good book. We get free time in scraps and pieces. Sitting at the doctor’s office. Riding in a cab. Early to a client call. And if books aren’t there when we need them, we just play Candy Crush or trawl through our ex’s Facebook profile.

Of course business doesn’t work that way.

Both iPod and Zune were music-players. But what distinguished the iPod from its competition were two things — the ecosystem and the UX (and yes, I have used yet another over-used buzzword: UX or user-experience).

Which is why UX (optimized for mobile) + ecosystem (the content) has to be the thing for electronic books. Did I forget anything? I did.

One of the joys of visiting book-stores, especially the big ones, used to be of discovery. Of new authors and genres. Picking up books on a whim. Flipping through the pages, and then buying. Traditional ebook publishing, except the “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought” line at the bottom, provides little by the way of true discovery. By leveraging the power of tracking an individual’s reading habits, his ratings and reviews, and those of his friends, data-analysis engines can provide the kind of personalized recommendations that even the old bookstore-owner, who had known you and your father and your grandfather, would struggle to provide.

It is this “big data” (is there any buzzword I haven’t used except ‘out-of-the-box’?) driven approach that drives services like Netflix, which is as important a factor of its success as its library of movies and the UX.

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The Juggernaut app gets the ecosystem + UX + discovery mix just right

Juggernaut, Chiki Sarkar’s latest venture, has based its entire business model on this: the ecosystem, UX and discovery troika. Which is why when I had five publishing bids for my latest novel, The Mahabharata Murders, I was excited to go with Juggernaut. The fact that they were also going to bring my book out in print was the added cherry on the top, because, hey, people still read paper books.

A platform like Juggernaut allows me to experiment the way I have wanted to for a long time — pricing models like pay-per-chapter; a kickstarter on top that will allow readers early access to books; and having digital rights management (DRM) built into the platform, so that I don’t have to bother about my PDF wandering around the Net like Taher Shah with angel wings.

Also, collaborative fiction. Interactive storytelling. Mixed media. The possibilities are endless.

However, the biggest challenge for mobile-publishing will remain habit. No matter how much you try to convince people of the cost of maintaining an extensive collection of books (and having just moved from Maryland to Chicago, I know how much it costs to transport books), and of the cost to the environment of paper, you will be brushed away with a little speech about how comforting it feels to read a “real book” and that “electronic is not for me”. This is to be expected. The user-experience of reading a book has not changed over centuries, and it’s this ossification that manifests itself in the romanticization of the reading experience; the so-called comfort of cradling a beautifully bound volume, or the smell of paper. Maybe it will take a new generation, one that grew up with mobile phones, to abandon the fetishization of the past and take the firm leap forward to a future that promises not just convenience, but also greater choice, greater diversity and greater value.

But for now baby steps. Disruptive baby steps.

Arnab Ray is the author of books such as The Mine, Yatrik and the forthcoming Sultan of Delhi and The Mahabharata Murders. He blogs as Greatbong and lives in the US.

Lead image: Nikhil Raj