Eastern promise

<p>Although India was tabbed to be the London Book Fair's Market Focus 2009 a few years ago, the timing could not have proved better. Britain has long been linked to the subcontinent, both culturally and in publishing terms, but this past year has been a particularly strong one for Indian writers in the UK. Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize for <i>The White Tiger</i> (Atlantic), the Oscar-winning film &quot;Slumdog Millionaire&quot; has propelled Vikas Swarup's book (which Black Swan published originally as <i>Q&amp;A</i>) up the bestseller charts, and Bengali novelist Mahasweta Devi has recently been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize.</p>
<p>Of course, the effect Indian writers have on the UK is not the main reason for India being f&ecirc;ted at LBF. The subcontinent is one of the fastest growing publishing markets in the world, particularly for English-language books. For British publishers in 2007, the country was the 18th most important export market. The amount of English speakers is rising; some estimates put the number at 200 million Indians who regularly use English as their first or second language. As India's population and economic muscle increases, its book market is certain to continue to grow.</p>
<p>On the academic side, British publishers have a long history in India. Oxford University Press has had an office there since 1912 and Macmillan since 1892. Other big Western academics&mdash;including Cambridge University Press, Reed Elsevier and Wiley&mdash;have been in the country for decades, many of them publishing locally. It makes sense: as much as 70% of the Indian market is academic and education titles.</p>
<p>A less certain trade market, and&mdash;less certain still&mdash;English-language market meant that British trade publishers were circumspect about investing in the country. Penguin India was the first to blaze a trail, setting up an office in 1985. For quite a while, it ploughed a lonely, but increasingly profitable furrow. In recent years though, more trade publishers have piled in. In 2002, HarperCollins set up a joint venture with New Delhi-based media conglomerate India Today Group; Random House India started up in 2005; and Hachette Books Publishing India launched two years later (poaching Penguin India's c.e.o. at the time, Thomas Abraham). Even Mills &amp; Boon has joined the fun, setting up an Indian office early last year.<br />
<br />
<b>Unlimited potential</b><br />
It is easy to see why the trade publishers are finally investing: potential. India is the second largest country in the world by population with 1.14 billion people, a growing economy and a burgeoning middle class. Crucially for British publishers, there are those 200 million Indians who speak English as either a first or second language.</p>
<p>Mike Bryan, Penguin India c.e.o. and publisher since 2007, reckons that of that total of 200 million English speakers, about 20 million are Penguin's reading audience&mdash;which still puts India somewhere on a par with the size of Australian and Canadian markets.</p>
<p>&quot;That readership will grow,&quot; he says. &quot;India is a very aspirational culture, and education and learning English are seen as part of making a better life for yourself. You will see even poor families saving so [that] their children can go to private school to get a better education.&quot;<br />
Penguin India has certainly seen the growth, with a year-on-year double-digit rise in revenues for the past decade. It has done this by cornering the market as the English-language Indian trade publisher, publishing household names such as Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy to name but a few. Yet the company has also branched out, publishing in local languages Hindi, Marathi, Urdu and soon in Malayalam. It publishes a range of genres from children's to self-help and puts out about 200 new titles a year. Plans are also afoot to expand further outside the region, including into Pakistan and the Middle East.</p>
<p>It seems a long way from when the then 26-year-old David Davidar set up the company at former Penguin boss Peter Mayer's behest, operating initially as pretty much a one-man band out of &quot;a three-bedroom flat in the suburbs&quot;. From those humble beginnings, Davidar, a well-respected novelist himself and publisher at Penguin Canada since 2004, was quickly able to corner the market on big name Indian authors. He says the timing helped: &quot;We came in at a time of real explosion of Indian literature globally. But it was a slow burn, we were pretty much inventing trade publishing in India, everything from marketing to book design.&quot;<br />
<br />
<b>Piracy and pricing</b><br />
As with most emerging markets, India has had its share of teething problems. One reason trade publishers may have been leery of entering the market was because of relatively low price points and margins. Bryan says: &quot;There is this perception that prices are unduly low. But we usually sell paperbacks at R299 (&pound;4) which is what you would pay for a book at a Tesco in Britain.&quot; Hardbacks, he admits, are &quot;still a bargain&quot; at about R599&ndash;R699 (&pound;8&ndash;&pound;9). <br />
Book piracy remains a serious concern. It has been boosted in part in recent years by advances in digital printing technology, and the Indian government's bureaucratic foot-dragging does not help. At last year's LBF, the UK PA, which spearheads an anti-piracy campaign in the country, urged the Indian courts to speed up bringing arrested pirates to trial.</p>
<p>&quot;It really needs to be addressed. It is a bit more of a problem in the academic market, but it does hurt us,&quot; says Bryan. He adds drily: &quot;They don't pirate the books that don't sell very well.&quot; But he praised a number of anti-piracy initiatives, including a pan-Indian programme being set up by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).</p>
<p>Investment in infrastructure would help the Indian book trade too. There is no Nielsen BookScan-like data collection system, which is another of the CII's priorities in the coming years. On top of this, the sometimes uneven supply chains and tortuous routes to market could be improved. &quot;India is very large and it takes a long time to get from place to place,&quot; Bryan says. &quot;There is a rather Byzantine, complex distribution system, but it does seem to work in the end.&quot;</p>
<p>Davidar believes foreign investment would help drive an improved infrastructure. &quot;Two or three big international bookselling chains have looked into coming into India. The current worldwide climate probably means that is a difficult investment, but it would completely change the landscape.&quot;</p>
<p>Despite the many challenges to Indian trade the potential for growth is vast. Davidar relates the story of how Peter Mayer was told he was &quot;mad&quot; for coming up with the idea of Penguin India, and was asked &quot;where were the readers, where were the book stores?&quot; Twenty-four years later, with a seemingly untapped potential, it is the trade publishers who have not yet invested in India who seem to be mad.</p>