Book fairs happen, but organisational ineptitude and official apathy are failing both the industry and consumers.
It’s book fair season. Tomorrow is the last day of the 19th biennial Delhi World Book Fair (WBF) and also the 34th International Kolkata Book Fair. International fairs in Bologna, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Jerusalem, London, Paris, St Petersburg, Taipei, and so on are in progress, have just finished or will soon begin.
There are two kinds of book fairs, as publisher S K Ghai explained at a WBF event on Tuesday: “totally trade” fairs like London, Frankfurt and Tokyo, where people in the industry meet and do business, and “selling fairs”, where books are sold to the public. At Indian book fairs sales dominate trade by far.
That is set to change. Indian book fairs are slowly moving towards trade. Claudia Kaiser, VP of business development of Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest in the world (7,300 exhibitors in 2009, compared to Delhi’s 1,199 in 2010), said at the same WBF event that fairs serve four purposes for publishers: they offer visibility, boost sales, bring together new partners and help strengthen links with old partners. At a big fair a publisher can get an overview of the industry, see change, network with peers, and of course, do business.
The trade business of books mainly involves rights. Here are two examples. A Hindi publisher buys Indian language rights to a US-published book it believes will do well here, translates it into Hindi and sells it in India. It can also sell the other language rights to other local publishers. Alternatively, a German publisher who wants access to the US and UK markets offers a title to an Indian publisher, who translates and tests the book in the local market; if it does well the Germans can seek partners on that basis in other English-speaking countries. This works best with educational books and science, technology and medicine (STM) titles — a huge growth area.
But this economic engine turns smoothly and profitably only if the fair is well run and lives up to the “world” in its name. The government-run National Book Trust (NBT), which manages the book fair, and India Trade Promotion Organisation, which owns Pragati Maidan, appear to have made a mess of things. Sanu Kapila of Academic Foundation, an academic publisher, did swing some lucrative deals with overseas partners at WBF, but he is appalled and angry at the poor facilities and unresponsiveness of the organisers (see boxes). From the inadequate website to last-minute stall allocation on January 25 by non-transparent lottery, filthy chairs to collapsing shelves, absent parking passes to cleaning work done at midday, and toilets that his overseas visitors could not bring themselves to use, he is sure that the rent he paid for his stall was not justified.
“At this moment,” says Kapila, “international publishers are more comfortable working with Indians than with the Chinese.” But our competitive advantage is English, and, he says, “In the next five to seven years China will remove that advantage.”
Evidently, big opportunities are opening up for Indian publishing. If the WBF is anything to go by, however, Indian organisational ineptitude and official apathy are failing the industry as well as consumers.
The Language of business
The majority of exhibitors are local publishers or booksellers. Many of them operate in regional, vernacular markets.
Goodword Books is based in Nizamuddin in Delhi, and does books on Islam in English. It has some beautifully illustrated and simply written titles for children, especially a series on Qur’an stories. Stall manager Jamal Tabish said that Goodword’s market is mainly overseas, and they sell books rather than rights. From WBF 2010, he says, Goodword expects not so much trade as “feedback, information, and [individual] buyers”.
Diamond Pocket Books is a Hindi publishing major (a sister company of Diamond Comics, home of Chacha Chaudhary). Its strength seems to be self-help books translated into Hindi — including one about how to slap your child. Marketing man Narayan Sharma at Diamond’s busy stall is proud that the company has the Hindi rights to Chetan Bhagat and other bestsellers like Kiran Bedi, Shiv Khera, Joginder Singh (the former CBI director, with a book on personality development) and Robin Sharma (author of the bestselling The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, but for a novel). It also distributes Baba Ramdev’s books.
As for trade inquiries, Sharma says “do-chaar parties” come every day, but most rights business happens at other international fairs, including Frankfurt. Cannily, because Diamond has international reach, it buys local language rights to foreign titles and then, keeping Hindi for itself, resells in India to smaller publishers. It has recently sold translation rights in Marathi and Bengali.
Whatever the scale, Sharma says it is better to show a customer the actual book than an entry in a catalogue, and that’s why Diamond is at the WBF.
NBT CAN DO BETTER
After 19 fairs they have not learnt,” says an exasperated S K Ghai, about NBT. Ghai heads Sterling Publishers, which brings out educational books for children. He has been attending international book fairs since 1965. At a recent fair in Poland he met Thomas Seng, head of Tessloff Verlag, a leading German children's publisher. Now the two publishers have formed the first Indo-German joint venture in publishing. Tessloff Sterling is translating Tessloff’s German content into English for India and so that Tessloff can access English-speaking markets worldwide.
Despite the opportunities, neither Ghai nor Seng is happy about this book fair. Ghai is also chairman of the books, publications and printing panel of Capexil, a chemical industry export promotion body (yes, it’s an odd combination) sponsored by the government, so he is well-placed to offer the following business-friendly suggestions to NBT:
- Promote the WBF as a trade fair, with special timings for trade visitors.
- Set up a “rights centre” as other major fairs do, where publishers, filmmakers and others can buy and sell rights.
- Have a better website. The current NBT website for the WBF does not even have a list of participants.
- Do more to promote the fair abroad, including at other book fairs.
- Finalise layout and allot stalls earlier. Ghai already has his stall numbers at the London and Frankfurt book fairs in April and October; he only had a few days to prepare for this one.
- NBT needs a full-time independent team to organise Indian book fairs.
- NBT should learn to compete with other book fairs around the world.
Search for any India-related book on Google and among the first few results is likely to be a link to Flipkart.com. Flipkart is a two-year-old online bookseller, headed by a typically young and cocky crew of techies. But the company has the numbers: rapid growth in staff (now 200, from two in 2007), sales (Rs 25-30 cr, 2009-10, now 2,000 sales a day) and “hits”. It claims a list of 3 million titles, and is about to make online book purchases easier for customers in the hinterland without credit cards — with cash-on-delivery.
Company blogger and VP-marketing Tapas Rudrapatna tells an anecdote of a young customer from small-town Maharashtra who travelled by bus and jeep from his village to a distant town to visit a cybercafe, checked out a book on Flipkart, then found his way back home and nervously called the company to ask whether the book was still available. That, says Sujeet Kumar, VP-operations, is the untapped demographic they are aiming for.
Why are they at the WBF? To “develop relationships with different publishers and distributors,” says Kumar — and so that walk-in customers can try out the online ordering system.
“For OUP the fair is important in a holistic sense: it gives us a platform to display our full range, including school textbooks and professional books, and the academic range, which are not in normal bookshops. It’s a brand-building venue — we spend a lot of money being there. We do sell Rs 20-25 lakh of books, but it doesn’t weigh against our costs, of rental, materials, staff.”
MD, Oxford University Press India
“I find [the WBF] much less useful for trade. [At the London Book Fair in April] I’ll be meeting someone every half hour for trade, and the meetings are set up by now. Here, two or three work meetings, with a Marathi publisher and a Pakistani distributor.
“Book fairs here are book shops. We sell Rs 1 lakh-plus of books over the weekend. This huge crowd we get [at the stalls], why don’t we see that kind of selling throughout the year? It’s about the gap between what bookshops offer and consumers want.”
Editor-in-Chief, Random House India
CHECKLIST OF WOES
- Parking is unfriendly and distant, and from there to the gate the walk is filthy as well as ill-lit.
- Entry tickets are available only at opposite ends of the enormous campus.
- Signage is inadequate.
- The information counter staff are helpful but on the first two days they were largely clueless.
- There is a shuttle service within the Maidan, but it is quite irregular.
- Carpeting inside the halls is uneven and tricky to negotiate.
- The paths between halls are littered with trash and leftover cardboard, shelves and plywood.
- The catering is both overpriced and low-quality.
- Toilets are poorly maintained.