FPJ Anniversary 2022: What is the future of publishing?

To understand book publishing, one needs to slice the term so that it comes down to manageable slices

Vivek MehraUpdated: Wednesday, July 13, 2022, 03:27 AM IST
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The problem with this statement is that Publishing is very difficult to confine to one type of content or delivery vehicle. It is vast enough to encompass not just books and journals, but every website, blog, newspaper, magazine etc.

For the sake of this article, I will restrict the definition to Book Publishing.

There has been a lot of speculation about the future of book publishing ever since a major book publisher powered by unarguably one of the largest tech companies in the world, shut shop.

With this the so-called bubble about book publishing burst, or so the world tends to believe.

To understand book publishing, one needs to slice the term so that it comes down to manageable slices. Books are not books are not books.

There are broadly a handful of categories that books can be
divided into.

They are both from the point of view of the content and the audience that consumes this content. Below is a brief view of the classifications and their general future as I see them.

Trade publishing includes fiction and non-fiction content

This by far is the largest and most glamorous segment of publishing. It is easily identifiable with big names, big advances, big ticket sales and of course mass following.

The two genres of fiction and non-fiction while clubbed together have vastly different audiences even though many times these audiences seem to overlap.

Fiction is read for sheer pleasure and to “pass the time effectively”.
In the past, there was great demand for this sort of content simply because there were very few avenues for personal entertainment and pleasure.

The smart phone that was supposed to revolutionize book reading is actively killing it by providing competing content. This competition comes in the form of videos, podcasts, and movies. All of these are available at the click of a button and are for more engaging to today’s audiences than books are.

There will always be an audience that will read books especially in print. But pricing will play a big part in determining sales.

The likes of Amazon have sweetened the pot for retail customers in a manner brick and mortar stores can’t. It’s difficult to say if the golden era of these books has passed but the reality with Westland shutting down is clear; this genre doesn’t have the scale nor the profitability to interest a
giant like Amazon.

Non-fiction is read to enhance knowledge and learn about the nuances of a particular subject. However, today YouTube videos are a better option especially since they come in bite-size portions. Again, the avid reader will
remain but this population is also on a steep decline.

Academic or Reference publishing

Most global publishers have shut down this division. There still exist a minuscule number of publishers both in India and abroad. But this genre is near its expiry date.

There are many factors that contributed to this end. Wikipedia was given the most credit.

With Open Access journal publishing gaining traction latest research is available for free.

The few publishers still dabbling with this genre will move to Open Access or sponsored publishing since these books don’t make commercial sense in their traditional format. There remains a demand within libraries, especially in India where separate budgets are allocated for procuring e-books.

Textbook publishing

This is perhaps the most interesting genre and one that has the most confusion around it. Traditionally a standalone textbook was used to teach a course.

Then came add-ons such as quizzes, pop-cards and guides. This group of resources continued to flourish and depending on pricing were accepted by most audiences.

In the last decade we saw the Textbook++ model taking shape. Learning Management Systems (LMS), Content Management Systems (CMS) etc integrating and supporting the learning eco-system. With this came the thrust towards digital delivery.

The pandemic ensured that digital deliveries became the mainstay. With the lifting of curbs, there is some return of print but it is too early to believe that we are back to pre-Covid levels or if we will ever return.

With the Textbook++ model gaining acceptance, globally universities moving towards long distance course delivery, various up-skilling digital platforms gaining traction, the textbooks industry is set to undergo quantum changes.

No one can predict how this will eventually pan out, but what is safely believed is that digital content is here to stay and players who recognize this are going to greatly benefit from it.

(Vivek Mehra is Chairperson, SAGE India)

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