In 2011, well-known bookshop Borders closed its last New York store. By the end of the month, this chain of bookstores with 226 outlets in the US had shut shop. That itself was indicative of the churning in the publishing industry of the world's largest books market, the US. Sale of printed books was declining and those of eBooks rising. It's the same story elsewhere in the West, where this industry is seeing a growth in eBooks. However, India is yet to see a similar impact.
But change may be imminent. According to a FICCI report, India has an estimated 600 million book readers and, with Penguin, the country's largest English publisher, releasing 250 new titles from the last week of June, eBooks seem to have finally found a foothold. The books include 'The Book of Buddha', 'Dreams in Prussian Blue', 'Farewell Song' and 'Ideas of a Nation: Subhash Chandra Bose'.
HarperCollins too should be ready to announce its e-titles in a month's time, while ACK Media, publishers of 'Amar Chitra Katha' among other popular titles, have gone on record saying they would launch eBooks this year. They, however, declined to be a part of this story.
"The driver for the eBooks market is the usage of computers, internet and mobile phones. And India is not just a rapidly growing market for new technology, but technology itself has evolved enough for comfortable reading on various devices," says Ananth Padmanabhan, VP (sales), Penguin India.
According to the latest World Bank report, India has 70 mobile subscriptions per 100 people with one of the highest average mobile data speeds. Padmanabhan says the bigger challenge, however, is to see how many e-readers the country can have.
India doesn't have a mass-scale reading tradition. According to FICCI's report, India has a low per capita expenditure on books per annum — Rs 80 as compared to Rs 4,000 in the UK.
However, Lipika Bhushan, head (marketing), HarperCollins, says that the figure for users of various e-devices is constantly growing. "Most of these are young Indians who are very active online. Though no publisher can say with surety what impact these figures will have on the eBooks market, a change will positively come."
Rahul Srivastava, director (sales & marketing), Simon & Schuster India, says, "According to a survey conducted this year among 10 countries, nowhere have more people bought and downloaded eBooks than in India, where 24% have tried at least one."
This is also that chunk of readership which has made genres like metro reads and college romances popular, adds Bhushan. "About 5-7 years ago, a bestseller would be sold in the range of 3,000-5,000, but now 50,000 is nothing." Padmanabhan concurs, "About a decade back, Penguin bestsellers sold 10,000-15,000 copies; today, that figure stands at half-a-million."
The biggest push for eBooks comes from the growth of online shopping.
Flipkart, the largest online bookstore in India, was established in 2007 and broke even in March 2008. According to FICCI, Flipkart claims to have at least 100% growth every quarter since its founding. Flipkart CEO Sachin Bansal in a report on book piracy mentioned that the estimated size of the online book market here stood at Rs 1 billion in 2011.
The figures for book publishing in India are no less impressive — it's estimated to have an annual turnover of $1 billion, making it the the seventh largest book publisher in the world and the third largest market for English books. No wonder Bhushan says that the eBooks market in India is an addition to the physical books market and not an alternative — precisely why publishers are cautious about pricing.
While in the West an eBook may come for one-tenth of the price of an actual book, in India that would mean the industry hurting its own hand as it has one of the cheapest prices for books.
But that is an issue that is likely to be sorted out soon. And publishers' optimism about a healthy eBooks market in India in the next five years may not be misplaced.