[Published in The Bookseller (UK), August 24, 2012: http://www.gyaanabooks.com/files/BS33.pdf ]
When I began Gyaana Books in 2009, there was a gentle murmur around that the publishing sector in India was booming, never mind the over-hyped recession factor. Post Chetan Bhagat, a new genre of Indian commercial fiction had emerged. Indian presses were working without a breather, producing romances, crime fiction, chick lit, and the campus novel. Small independent publishers, mushrooming in every nook and cranny of the country, were mentoring writers who could never have dreamt of such opportunities at their fingertips a few years ago. With technological advances, POD, and self-publishing models, also set up by some small indies, there was euphoria amongst many aspirants who didn’t need to rely on the big five any longer. It was supposed to be a paradigm shift. Enter Nielson India, and the gentle murmur rose to a buzz.
Three years down the line, caught in the same web in the same trade, I’m still wondering where the boom is.
To begin with, agreed, there has been a transition in the publishing scene in India post Chetan Bhagat. There is a whole new genre of commercial fiction, especially the campus novel – from small independents such as Srishti, Mahaveer, and Grapevine, who cater for a well-defined segment of the book market interested in inexpensive, easy, commercial reads. However, others in the trade, with literary lists, crime fiction, or even children’s fiction, priced slightly higher, continue to suffer in spite of their quality goods due to a mammoth obstacle – distribution. Some writers believe their publishers are playing the villain, without being aware of ground realities. Distribution is an area that continues to irk even the big fish, though they have an edge over independents in that they are established brands, have established distribution channels, have standing orders from certain big chains, and a wider reach.
There are certain factors responsible, besides market forces, for why small indies are prevented from enjoying that luxury, especially today.
During the last five years, the number of publishers in India has grown significantly. More MNCs are setting up Indian branches (Simon & Schuster, and Bloomsbury being the latest). Several authors still prefer multinationals such as Penguin, Hachette, and HarperCollins over small independents, assuming both imprint prestige as well as better distribution. Incidentally, the multinationals, prodded on by the elusive ‘boom’ of commercial fiction/the low-priced campus novel phenomenon, did try to jump on the same bandwagon, but saw no success until they had lured away the ‘big brands’ away from the independents.
There are more books and fewer shops than ever before. That implies a constant fight for shelf space in the remaining stores, where small indies lose out big time to bigger brands, regardless of good quality books – unless they have low-priced commercial sellers on their list. Others are bullied by the distributors/retailers who wield the power. They must surrender to the distributors’/retailers’ terms, and whims and fancies, or their books will never see the light of day. That means discounts can go up to almost seventy per cent; books are always given on a sale-or-return basis (which translates into a hundred per cent risk for the publisher); returns can come any time of the year/month/week (and cannot be questioned); and payments can take up to a year to come in – if they come in at all. There have been instances where small local distributors have disappeared overnight with the proceeds. Usually, such incidents happen when a publisher is compelled to resort to a small, unknown distributor because he/she has had no luck with a big, established one. The unfortunate fact is that big distributors/retailers usually don't entertain small indie publishers at all. The reason is simple – they are too small; they don’t have a big enough list to interest the giants.
With the publishing process now made simpler, several major distributors are trying their luck with their own publishing ventures, and are too preoccupied to focus on other publishers. Alchemy, Om, Supernova, Fingerprint, etc, are a few such examples. Besides, it spells a direct conflict of interest, which is a deterrent by itself. Some such as Westland have stopped distribution altogether (save for a South India Penguin exclusive), ergo the conflict of interest – and are focused only on publishing now.
Retailers and distributors complain that online stores have hit the retail sector badly. They offer greater discounts, and have a cash-on-delivery option, so that people who do not believe in credit cards can also shop online now. The downside is that only people who are aware of the book already, and are Internet savvy, would order them online. Consequently, routine high street shops, especially the smaller ones, don't want to stock books by new writers/publishers, since they feel it’s a losing proposition for them -- ensuring that the books don't get to the small stores.)
On the other hand, distributors very often refuse to supply books to big chains because of pending payment issues. So, even if there are orders, the books are not supplied. The irony is that the publisher can't really complain in this case since non-payment of dues is a genuine and serious issue -- ensuring that the books don't get to the big stores.)
Not being able to find a place in bookshops – regardless of their size, means no visibility. Some places charge for displays. While bigger publishers may be able to afford them, it’s beyond budget for most of the smaller players. Distributors/retailers usually want to stock (and display) the fast-moving books/bestsellers/known writers, since everyone is fighting for the precious book shelves. At times, some small indies face a situation where a retailer only stocks their title if they agree to hold an event in that store (which means spending a hefty amount to organise one, but selling only a limited number of copies on that particular day). And, later, the store sends back the rest of the copies within a week or less, and is not answerable to anyone
According to the publisher-distributor contract, there is only a certain percentage of the stock the distributor is supposed to return after a certain period of time. This has changed over time because retailers today assume no stock risk, enjoying what is called full sale or return, which makes the clause redundant in real life. In real life, small indies are completely at the mercy of the middlemen in the industry. Everything is arbitrary.
As far as a ‘boom’ is concerned, it’s only been visible in the burgeoning number of writers, and in select low-price genres. Publishers receive thousands of queries and manuscripts from aspiring authors a month. But, unless the same number also begins to believe in reading and buying other book genres, a boom in the publishing sector would only remain a myth.