Can commercial & book printing in India come back?

Commercial printing’s erosion in the pandemic

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commercial printing
Photo Nikhita S on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic in India began in January-February 2020. On 25 March, the government declared a total country-wide lockdown. While many of the packaging plants could plug into the essential goods supply chain for food and pharma, the publishers and commercial printers, including newspapers, magazines, and books, continued to be locked out until July 2020.

The newspaper industry lost an estimated 40% of its ad and circulation revenue in the 2020–21 financial year. Similarly, magazines lost many issues and pages to the lockdowns and post office closures, as well as to conventional distribution such as newsstands and airports and railway stations – and advertising and circulation revenues plummeted. While there is a shift to electronic and digital media, most publishers have not monetized their web traffic or even understood the financial implications of web first narratives.

Here the better magazines stand a better chance since they tend to be specialized or niche products while the newspapers are mostly duplicating commoditized information and that too much later than very opinionated television and social media. Here the opportunity is for newspapers to differentiate their news and opinion by leveraging the more literate and intelligent reader rather than diluting their outlook to appease the lowest common denominator and their hunger for government advertising. A newspaper cannot retain its character as a first or primary source of information even for students study, if it continues to obfuscate facts and history.

Commercial printing and book printing and exports

With the closure of schools for the past 20 months, textbook demand has also been low. Apart from the uncertainty and weak consumption of books by digital classrooms, many publishers have been waiting for the curriculum changes before placing their book production orders for the coming season. The production of textbooks for private schools typically starts in September for deliveries starting in December, which go on till March for the following school year. Rural education and literacy have taken a bigger knock since digital Zoom classrooms have functioned more sporadically in the countryside often relying on children using only smartphones.

Nevertheless, by the first week of September 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic has abated to the extent that it is seen as an endemic situation – with 40,000 new infections daily, for the country as a whole – (of these, more than half are in the state of Kerala). In this first week of the month, the daily Covid-19 related deaths have declined to less than 300 across the country, and most ordinary citizens are in the main complying with the rules requiring the wearing of masks even if the social distancing rules are routinely flouted.

With about 200 million vaccine doses administered in August, there is talk of achieving 300 million dozes in September and each of the following months. However, one still needs to verify whether the vaccine producers are going to supply at these heightened levels.

Nevertheless, public and private schools are opening in many states, albeit with staggered attendance and other safety measures to minimize the risk of infections. This may lead to a bit of pick-up in the textbook demand before the traditional deliveries start in December.

However, book printing exports have done well in the past year, with many printers maintaining previous levels and several exceeding earlier sales levels. Textbook sales to Africa have done exceptionally well, and there are more inquiries than before the pandemic from around the world. While some book printers tell us that they are still not as competitive as they need to be since the input supply chains are not as streamlined as in other Asian countries, others say it is possible to compete by streamlining in-plant and marketing processes.

Commercial printers including book printing exporters have also struggled in the recent months with price increases of raw materials. Prices of offset plates and inks have risen by anywhere from 11% to 12% in the past year. The cost of adhesives has gone up by 20%. Paper prices, according to one of our reliable sources, have been relatively stable over the past year.

Apart from book printing and book exporters, commercial printers, including digital printers, have lost revenues from 25% to 65% over the past year. While printers have benefitted from the integrity of their loyal publisher customers, credit periods in some cases have grown from 30 to 60 and 90 days. On the other hand, some domestic textbook publishers are in default with the only recourse being to take them to court since they decline to even pay a single penny or commit to any definite installments.

Several commercial printers have already cut costs and expenses, and as we wrote earlier, others have sold assets and let go resources. There is talk of closures and mergers, and in the case of those who are newly invested with heavy borrowing there are huge financial and emotional costs. There is no government apparatus in place especially in the banks to deal with critical cases. Nor are there any business services and the financial resources dedicated to the commercial printing industry to make viable mergers happen. Although one has heard of some banks restructuring debt of printers in Maharashtra this is probably more relevant to packaging printers in trouble. For commercial printers across India, the banks are more than ever unavailable and invisible. Moreover, it seems commercial printing will take at least another year to recover and sort itself out, although optimists are sure that it will.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital 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.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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– Naresh Khanna

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