India’s first Virtual Book Fair in 2021

Publishers Exchange hosts young publishing visionaries

The Indian Virtual Book Fair is on the cards
The Indian Virtual Book Fair is on the cards

On 25 June 2021, the Publishers’ Exchange hosted a session with the Indian Virtual Book Fair team via Zoom. Publishers from across India participated to understand the concept. The Publishers’ Exchange, is an informal organisation of publishers in the Indian languages that was formed during the pandemic. We have been putting our heads together for the last year in an effort to share knowledge and resources via Zoom.

On the occasion, the dynamic duo of Murali Kannadhason and Karthikeyan Pugalendi, walked us through their proposed Virtual Book Fair to be held in 2021 and possibly in the coming months.

Kannan Sundaram from Kalachuvadu Publications, who is one of the promoters, introduced the concept of a virtual book fair with these words, “The Indian Virtual Book Fair was started as an attempt to cope with the crisis that hit the publishing ecosystem as India went into lockdown in March 2020. One major aspect of the discussions was how to publish, promote and deliver books to the reader, looking beyond the traditional, limited book supply chain. #VBF is the answer. Though this came from four major Tamil publishing houses, our focus was the national stage right from day one. We do not believe in the idea of ‘Down South.’

Murali and Karthik, both third generation publishers, who between them brought in expertise in technology, finance, business management and impeccable instincts, have planned, developed and designed #VBF. This is in short the story of a new generation of publishers finding answers to the biggest challenges of our times.”

For an industry that has survived two world wars, countless calamities and economic crises, the kind of changes that have taken place in the last few months have been radical. While it is too early to predict where these changes will lead us, it is quite clear that the possibility of revamping physical book fairs — which have been the mainstay for language publishers — are ruled out for the present.

The Virtual Book Fair is actually similar to the physical book fair with each publisher getting their own individual stalls. VBF works in multiple phases with four book fairs a year. So when you commit to a stall at this virtual book fair, you are looking at a model that is sustainable throughout the year.

The site has different categories like award winning books, new launches, a children corner (categorized age-wise), recently reviewed books, and a separate corner for books recommended by popular personalities. Publishers can get their books reviewed by bloggers which will then appear on the bottom of the listed books. Publishers are given an option to permanently feature a particular book in a particular month.

The books can be sorted by price, popularity, author as well as the category of the book. People also have the option to ‘show interest’ in a particular book, so publishers can make it available for them on the VBF website. It the publisher have eBooks available on any other website then they can provide the hyperlink to redirect readers to that website. There are other products in the pipeline like rights pavilion, literary festivals, master classes with writers, illustrators, editors, speakers, protection against piracy and plagiarism, VBF awards, publishing industry classifieds and meet the author sessions.

When asked how their platform is different from Amazon or other book selling websites the two developers responded by saying that Amazon is a middle man, whereas #VBF is a connecting bridge between publisher and reader, no commission is involved. There will be no undue advantages to aggregators and the subscription fees are very nominal and features like literary fest, regional flavour and a book fair experience which no other website can provide.

At the entry level based on a limited number of titles there is a flat fee of Rs 3,000 which essentially covers the data upload costs for the web based ecosystem. The subscription model is available for one year with varying charges according to the number of titles. The membership or subscription charges will vary according to the number of titles that a publisher would like to post or make available for sale.

For the present, the Indian Virtual Book Fair team is focusing only on Indian publishers but they are planning to expand by taking Indian publishers abroad as well as bringing international publishers to India. You can read more about the #VBF at this link.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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  1. The complaint of some connected to the publishing industry for many decades has been that the Indian book fairs have been ‘melas’ – essentially an outlet for the sale of books for smaller publishers who could meet a book hungry public across languages and interests. Of course our criticism was wrong because the more than 200 book fairs around the country each year represented one of the greatest aspiration and interests of a population gaining in not only in functional literacy but in an active culture of modernity.

    We frankly saw that there was a greater need for the professional publishing culture and a huge unexplored and structured trading of rights and translations across our languages and regions that could not be addressed unless the fairs developed this activity.

    For a long time this professional culture was nurtured by the Frankfurt Book Fair’s activity in India including its German Book Office, which after many years has been wound up from the beginning of this year – a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic shrinking some of the more adventurous but useful and longterm efforts of the FBF. In the meantime the Jaipur Literary Festival started its BookMark activity – a physical and largely professional event alongside the festival but always in a discreetly separate venue that has taken on some of the work of literary awards, professional discussions of diversity, translations and perhaps a bit of the business of rights trading. This is a growing evolutionary success that adds justification to the JLF itself.

    However the pandemic has thrown both the JLF and BookMark and to some extent the Frankfurt Book Fair out of gear. Frankfurt in its hybrid event learnt, I think, that its most important aspect for many professionals was really the rights platform. When this part was digitized with a hefty subsidy by the German government the rights platform which was hitherto a challenge for smaller publishers and new professionals became accessible – although I have not discussed this with the FBF organizers, I think they saw that this was a real or key value of the FBF for the industry.

    It is with this perspective that I think that Indian Virtual Book Fair investors and developers have hit on something important that will help the Indian book publishing industry. In a way the pandemic and its constraints on physical or face to face book fairs have thrown the emphasis on what publishers can do better by talking to each other and for themselves using technology. And this is the opportunity that the Virtual Book Fair represents – to improve the business professional side of our activity and to explore our regional literature and languages within our own comfort zone.

    Technology has once more played into the hands of publishers who have invested years and generations but could not viably grow and access the potential of markets that seemed like a wall to them. Let this structured conversation that has flowered in the pandemic grow into a sound platform like the Indian Virtual Book Fair – with the humanity and open-ness of mind that publishing has always stood for. It is a huge and economically attractive proposition that will encourage many existing publishers and even others to become publishers who could not have dared to come forward given the barriers to trade and exchange that the old world of publishing had created and driven most except the fearless to a level of home or handicraft business.


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