Regional language books sell faster than English

Printed books sales grow at a healthy clip in India

VIASandip Sen
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Book sales in India are growing. But less than a third of the books by number are English language books. Regional language books are selling faster than English books with Hindi, Tamil and Bengali being the key language markets. Reading habits are growing in India, as are literacy rates and print book sales are still growing fast despite the intrusion of mobile phones and digital reading.

Book sales boom and regional languages flourish

Baldev Verma, the general manager of IBD, one of the largest book distributors in the country, says the Shiv Khera best seller You Can Win today sells more in Indian languages than in English. Bloomsbury, which bought the title rights a few years back, now sells the book as a step by step tool for top achievers. The paperback English language edition of the book has a list price of US$ 20 (over Rs 1,400) while the Punjabi version sells at Rs 232 on Amazon. The book is sold in 18 regional languages at a price significantly lower than the English edition, but volume sales make up for the lower margins.

This is true for all books sold in India. Books in regional languages sell in very large numbers but at modest prices. By value it is the English language books that dominate the market, as they cater to the top 20% of the population, the upwardly mobile big city reader. Unfortunately, most regional language publishers are small. Many publish books without ISBN numbers while many others who do print with ISBN numbers, do not register in any national database. Thus, their books do not appear in the statistics generated by Nielsen.

Despite this and other lacunae, Nielsen estimates the Indian book market to be worth US$ 6.76 billion, predominantly consisting of educational books. Nielsen further suggests the Indian book market is all set to grow at a whopping pace – a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.3 % till 2020. India has over 15,000 publishers, of whom around 9,000 are officially listed. Even a decade ago three out of four youngsters used to be illiterate. Today less than one out of four cannot read and write. Considering a population of 1.3 billion of which over 500 million are below twenty, it is estimated that India added around 250 to 300 million new students in the past decade.

Indian authors dominate English title sales

There is not only a surge of readers but also of Indian authors. Not just the literary award-winning authors like Arvind Adiga or Jhumpa Lahiri or the mythology exponents Devdutt Pattnaik, Amish Tripathi or Ashwin Sanghi or pop culture writers like Chetan Bhagat or Ravinder Singh. Among the not so famous Indian authors selling well are Perumal Murugan, Twinkle Khanna, Amitabh Bagchi, Raghavan Jagannathan, Rana Ayyub, Rupi Kaur, Durjoy Dutta, Sudeep Nagarkar, Savi Sharma, Lily Singh, Koral Dasgupta, Shobha Rao and many others.

Verma says a decade back nine out of ten English titles published were of foreign authors. Today nine out of ten of the best-selling books in India are by Indian authors. Two-thirds of the sales of English language books come from the five southern and western states of Maharashtra, Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. These states are showing strong growth in consumption of both fiction and non-fiction and are strong in the purchase and consumption of education books. Even though book stores are faltering by the wayside, Amazon is making up with large volume sales of print books. Almost half the books sold in India today are through online portals. Digital reading is still not in vogue in tier-3 or -4 cities because of poor connectivity. Till this changes, and perhaps even longer, printed books will rule the roost and new readers will keep buying printed books with increasing gusto.

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