Lockdown Could Change How We Read Books. Here's How Publishers Are Preparing

Is this finally the time for e-books and audiobooks to shine in India?

On April 19, the Union Home Ministry sent a firmly worded letter to the government of Kerala, urging it to “ensure strict compliance of lockdown measures” and not dilute the rules in any way. The letter was in response to the state’s intention to ease lockdown restrictions by allowing, among other services, bookshops to remain open for business. For the state, which has one of the most dynamic publishing landscapes in the country, it was only natural that books were considered necessary during this time. “It is most essential, not just essential, for Malayalees,” Ravi DeeCee, managing director of DC Books, told Mint. The central government, however, disagreed, and the state was forced to roll back these relaxations. Books, for now, are simply not essential.

As India remains under a nationwide lockdown until at least May 3 in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19, publishers, big and small, are facing the unprecedented situation of not being able to get copies of their books into the hands of readers. Bookstores are shuttered, warehouses are locked down, and printing of books is at a standstill. And while publishers and readers had initially believed that at least online retailers such as Amazon—which account for roughly half of book sales in India—would continue to deliver books, that soon came to a halt as well. “It was one piece of bad news after another for all publishers,” said Priya Kapoor, Editorial Director of Roli Books.

In the absence of traditional channels of distribution and marketing, publishers, like many other businesses right now, have been forced to go online.

“We have been focussing our energies on digital channels and social media marketing to keep audiences in touch with their authors and engaged,” said Akriti Tyagi, head of marketing at HarperCollins India. There’s certainly a plethora of online literature festivals to tune into right now with nearly every major publishing house hosting a packed calendar of live storytelling sessions on Instagram and Facebook, panel discussions on Twitter, and workshops with authors. Social media challenges and campaigns are in full swing as well, geared towards encouraging conversations about books.

Publishers are attempting to go beyond mere engagement, however. They are also trying, with renewed vigour, to direct readers to the only way they can still access their titles: e-books and audiobooks. But with the low historical adoption rate of these formats in India —in the absence of industry-wide data, digital sales are estimated to be anywhere between 3% and 8% of total sales of books—is this the time for digital reading to finally shine, or are publishers just trying to scrape the most out of a tiny share of the pie?

The e-book push

Hand taking e-book from book shelf
Hand taking e-book from book shelf

In the past few weeks, major publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, HarperCollins India, and Hachette India have set up exclusive e-book stores on Amazon India in partnership with Kindle, with their titles available at discounted prices. Kindle India, the largest player in the e-book segment, has also made a selection of titles across multiple genres and languages available for free to Amazon customers to read on Kindle apps and devices, in the hope of bringing in more readers. And after initially putting their publication schedules on hold, publishers such as HarperCollins, Juggernaut Books, and Penguin Random House are releasing select new titles as digital-only editions, with physical copies to become available whenever lockdown rules are relaxed.

“These are unprecedented times; many things that we would take for granted have changed in the recent past. But reading and writing can never stop,” Tyagi said, explaining Harper Collins’s decision to go ahead as planned with the publication of three titles—Tasmila Nasreen’s Shameless, a biography of PV Sindhu by V Krishnaswamy, and Om Swami’s The Big Questions of Life—this month, as e-books only.

Just making e-books available at attractive prices, however, is not enough. Digital editions of Indian titles have been available for years, often at competitive rates. But publishers no longer have the luxury of letting them work on their own steam. Readers who’ve shied away from digital books so far now have to be actively encouraged to give the format a try, and publishing houses are far from the only ones vying for their attention. With an overwhelming majority of people stuck at home, the phone has never been more crucial, and more competitive, for marketeers. With conventional promotion methods such as events and media coverage either completely absent or limited in scope right now, publishers need to be more concerted in their efforts to reach readers.

“We identified what people are searching for and what kind of genres people are picking up. We saw, for example, lots of conversations happening around books related to spirituality, mind and body, and fitness. So we started promoting a lot of that using our digital channels, authors, and partners,” said Niti Kumar, senior vice-president, marketing, digital and communications at Penguin Random House India. The publishing house has also been promoting video tutorials that explain the basics of e-books to those who are coming to the format for the first time. “We’ve used that tutorial to bust some myths like people thinking they can only read an e-book if they have a Kindle device,” she added

It’s a role that writers have taken on as well while promoting their books on social media. During recent Instagram live streams to talk about her writing, Bengaluru-based author Andaleeb Wajid has had to explain to readers that they don’t need a Kindle device and can also read her books on the app or directly on the computer. “It’s entirely up to the people now to adapt to e-books instead of being purists (as some people are) if they want to have access to books,” she said. As a mostly e-book reader, her reading habits haven’t been affected by the lockdown, she added.

Listening to books

If e-books have formed a low share of book sales in India compared with many other countries, audiobooks have seen even fewer takers, especially since it is a category that is still developing. Audible, Amazon’s audiobook subsidiary, only entered the Indian market in 2018, while other players such as the Stockholm-headquartered Storytel app set up shop here in 2017. Yet, publishers and audiobook platforms alike are feeling bullish.

“Initially we had thought that audiobooks might decline a little because there was a lot of commute consumption there, but we’ve actually seen huge uptake on audio in the month of March,” Penguin’s Niti Kumar said. “The trends show audiobooks almost doubling.”

Yogesh Dashrath, the country manager of Storytel, which offers more than 1,00,000 audiobooks in English, Hindi and Marathi, echoed this. Globally, he said, Storytel saw more than double the numbers of customers coming to the service in the last two weeks of March, when people had started isolating at home. “It would be reasonable to expect that India would be in line with that increase.”

Audio books concept with books and headphones
Audio books concept with books and headphones

But with a low base to grow from, audiobook apps are ramping up their offerings to ensure numbers hit some sort of critical mass. Last week, Storytel launched Audiobites, a “freemium” app which provides bite-sized samples from their main catalogue for free for the first month, with ten stories a month for free in the following months or access to a wider catalogue at Rs 29 per month. “People who are interested in audio will get an idea of the longform storytelling we do in Storytel and hopefully enough of them will fall in love with the format and come to the main app, where there is a huge catalogue of unlimited listening,” Dashrath explained.

Audible, meanwhile has launched ‘Audible Stories’, a free web-based service of handpicked titles, mostly aimed at children, that doesn’t require a login. Their free India app, Audible Suno, has announced programming specifically designed for people to consume during the lockdown period. “Members worldwide are listening to more children’s and family content, suggesting a shift in where and how listening is being integrated into daily routines,” said Shailesh Sawlani, country head of Audible India. “Instead of listening while commuting, many people seem to be using Audible to enhance everyday activities like cleaning, cooking, and exercising.” Their top sellers during this time are J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Ikigai by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

Beyond books

Publishers are also keen to harness the power of audio during this time, and not just as audiobooks. Roli Books, which completed 40 years of operation in 2018, launched a digital arm, Roli Pulse this month, which focuses on everything from “dialogues to podcasts, virtual book clubs to debates.”

“Lines are blurring between platforms, and this is something we’ve been seeing happening especially in India in the last two years,” said Kapoor from Roli Books, “and we have been asking ourselves why are we only looking at ourselves as book publishers, why are we not able to go beyond that?”

So that’s exactly what they are trying to do now. “We want to become publishers for digital content as well and we’re agnostic across platforms. We want to be able to get into things like making podcasts, and I don’t mean two people sitting in a room and talking about a book,” she explained.

Roli is currently working on a podcast themed on cities, something they have extensively published on in the past and have experts on, in the form of their authors. “Revenue streams for podcasts might be very low right now, that switchover will be very fast in India. More and more people are going to get hooked onto listening to audio stories,” Kapoor added. “The book is not going anywhere. But we want to add on to that and take it to another world.”

While many publishers are wading purposefully into the choppy waters of digital storytelling for the first time, for others it is very familiar territory. Storyweaver, a free, open-source digital platform of multilingual children’s storybooks from Pratham Books, has seen a 180% increase in usage in the past four weeks as a result of children being at home because of school closures. They’ve launched a slew of dedicated ‘Read At Home’ resources for parents and children, including a six-month guide with a curated collection of books, themes and activities, for the learning needs of children from Grades 1 to 8, as well as books on science, with the latest one teaching kids how to stay safe during the pandemic. Storyweaver’s director Purvi Shah said that the platform has been a huge spike in traffic from countries badly affected by the pandemic such as France and Italy —people are not only reading existing books on the platform but using it to create new content to educate kids about the virus and its impact.

Meanwhile Juggernaut Books, which was founded in 2015 as a “digital-first publisher” focused on growing smartphone usage in India, was one of the first to launch a “Read Instead” online literature festival in the third week of March. More importantly, it has made its entire digital catalogue free for the duration of the lockdown. Their daily app downloads have gone up by almost ten times during this period, said Natasha Puri, who heads marketing at Juggernaut, while their daily active users have gone up by eight times compared with the previous month, with people spending double the amount of time on the app than they used to. “In general, the average user is spending close to 20 minutes across a couple of reading sessions on the app. These are healthy numbers,” she added.

What lies ahead?

In the face of an unprecedented global health crisis that scoffs at attempts to gauge its future contours, it’s safe to assume that traditional ways of functioning will be changed forever. Even when a lockdown lifts, the likely social distancing norms that will be in place for a while are bound to reduce footfalls in bookstores. With rampant fear of contamination, deliveries of physical books are also likely to take some time before reaching pre-pandemic levels. A stronger turn to digital reading seems inevitable, especially at a time when media consumption across most platforms has increased substantially. HarperCollins India said its e-book sales have gone up by 75%. Other industry trends place the growth of the category at 15-20%. But as with all things digital, the biggest trick is converting one-time trial users to longlasting customers who will pay.

Thomas Abraham, Managing Director at Hachette India, said that while e-book sales were up, as would be expected, it was too soon to talk about successes. “Data is bandied about without specifying whether it is units or value,” he added, “nor is it clarified whether sales are up from priced promotions run during the period, and what were the levels of discounted prices used.” It might be simply too early to make these calls, Abraham thinks.

“The challenge will be to retain and move them to subscription,” Chiki Sarkar, publisher and co-founder of Juggernaut, said of the spate of new users who have signed up to the app in the last few weeks, “so we’ll spend the next month seriously examining consumer behaviour.”

It’s a hurdle that all publishers, and audiobook and e-book platforms, will have to cross, especially at a time when many readers are finding it hard to concentrate on activities as immersive as reading. Other readers are returning to old favourites or pulling out books from their shelves that they never got around to in the past.

The publishing industry’s current operating model is also not conducive to a fully digital shift. The numbers of e-book sales, despite the current increase, are simply too low to recover advances already paid to authors, especially with the variable and slashed prices to encourage new customers. Even publishers such as Juggernaut rely on their successful print list for profits, and having access to physical channels is critical to the financial health and longevity of publishers. It’s no surprise then, that a #BooksAreEssential social media campaign started by the international trade magazine Publishers Weekly has found plenty of takers in India as well.

“Yes, e-books will go up, but even if one accepts the general theory out there as being right, and if sales double or treble from base levels, it is also clear that they cannot yet substitute for sales,” Abraham explained. “It is certainly useful and an eye-opener for the future, but right now, it will not be a game changer.”

For now, as the current times are teaching us to do, we’ll have to just wait and watch.