The book publishing and printing industry in India is actually far larger than most people – even industry insiders – are aware of. It is, by several accounts, growing although it has gone through a period of uncertainty because its largest segment consisting of school textbooks depends on curricula based on government guidelines and government subsidized production. While education and demand are growing, there are concerns on what the government is planning to do as far as its role in textbook production.
Apart from textbooks which continue to grow in spite of uncertainties, private publishers of trade books are currently quite confident of annual growth of around 10%. Trade publishers do experience distribution challenges in spite of the eCommerce channels. A still large dependence on conventional distribution means that cash flow is frozen for long periods. Booksellers and distributors are notorious with slow accounts while the policy of sale and returns yields tattered book copies that are only fit for pulping. Many of the larger publishers have become selective in offering copies on sale and return basis to booksellers and have also narrowed their credit windows. They prefer to limit print runs and sale quantities. They would rather reprint copies if there is clear demand and the cash is flowing back to them.
Backlash against digital
While a decade ago there was a rush to eBooks and digital, the period of increased exposure to digital and tablets has plateaued. Digital education solutions providers and even startups found the going very tough in the face of both schools and parents preferring printed books. Initially all schools were compelled to show some digital or computer education tools. However, once the novelty of tablets wore off and the dangers of letting children loose on the internet became apparent. A trend that reversed into a backlash. At the same time, there has been a growing demand for both education and physical books.
With rising disposable incomes, the focus has shifted towards better education and healthcare, a very strong positive for growth. The school textbook segment is the largest part of the book production industry. The segment has undergone some modernization, particularly in some of the North Indian states. This, in turn, has led to a rise in volumes. Similarly, increase in the use of faster and more automated presses and binding machines was also observed.
Industry book production expert, P Sajith of Welbound says, “The most developed sector in volumes is that of government textbooks, which is sustaining the production ecosystem. At the same time, the publishing value chain including private education is migrating to larger print companies. The scale of production has completely changed. In former days, publishers had to go to smaller printers because the runs were small. Now, the bigger printers are open to accepting smaller orders and even have digital presses in place if needed.”
Cheap, but at what cost?
Whether it is trade, academic or school textbooks, the tendency is to go to the bigger and more reliable printers who can handle large volumes in a timely fashion. Books are being produced in India cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Print margins are thin and every drop of glue in the binding comes into calculation. The only variable in cost seems to be that of the paper. It is often from very poor mills which affects the quality of print and binding.
Although one can justify the low cost by citing that right to education cannot be sustained without government subsidized books. However, there is a need to improve the paper quality and move to sustainable FSC papers as many private publishers have.
These quality issues of government subsidized textbooks extend from content to production. Curricula and teaching material content guidelines are supposed to come from the HRD, CBSE, and NCERT. But they haven’t come for years and the most recent deadline that was missed was 29 June 2018. Ambiguity is caused by the HRD saying that the curriculum is changing but not providing any clarity or guideline on when and what is to be changed or published.
Although the number of books being produced is increasing, private textbook publishers are vexed by continuous government pronouncements. Two of such pronouncements state that children should not be overburdened with books and textbooks should be affordable. For the last 3 to 4 years, publishers have been challenged by letters going back and forth from HRD to the government schools. The letters stated that they should not burden the students or the parents with too many or costly books. However, the issues of both content and production quality are largely ignored.
Book printing exports
Book printing exports are also in trouble. Many publishers offshoring print to India are demanding shorter and shorter runs while the prices have become increasingly competitive. India’s largest paper continues to raise paper prices continuously. Book printers report that it increased prices three times in the month of May. Exports to some of the less developed markets that were risky earlier have now become unacceptably so. Frequent paper price rises are also making it untenable to meet export commitments.