Turning a new page : Publishing during the pandemic

As the nation went completely indoors in the month of March, a rare peace could be sensed around seldom experienced before in the metros. The situation seemed almost idyllic for writers to get into action. There was no need to ensconce oneself in a cottage in the hills and one just had to sit by the windows to hear the chirping of the birds. But as the days became months, the publishing industry braced itself for the major changes that lay ahead.

Publishing has had to move to the digital space and there has been a lot of experimentation with audio books and online events,” says Kanishka Gupta, literary agent, writer and publishing commentator. “Even festivals have moved online, though they have not been able to monetise the online model yet.  People are turning to digital platforms like podcasts and e-books. The success of Manu Joseph’s Serious Men on Netflix has led to a lot of aggressive pitching for series,” says Kanishka.

Acquiring editors are compelled to be more selective than ever as publishing lists are being tightened. Publicists are adapting promotional campaigns to suit a world that has moved online as on-ground activities stand cancelled

The publishing houses have become choosy in the work they are committing to as well and are relooking at the way work is being done. “Acquiring editors are compelled to be more selective than ever as publishing lists are being tightened. Publicists are adapting promotional campaigns to suit a world that has moved online as on-ground activities stand cancelled. Sales representatives are finding it harder to convince brick-and-mortar bookstores, already struggling due to the growing predominance of online retailers, to place sizeable orders,” says Teesta Guha Sarkar, senior commissioning editor, Pan Macmillan India.

Some of these issues, like those faced by brick and mortar stores, have been ongoing for many years now. “Right now bookstores are under a lot of stress but they are trying to make profits through home deliveries. Further, stores that have to pay rent are having a hard time whereas those who own their space are surviving better,” says Kanishka. 

In the literary world, the book launch of a bestselling author is a big event attended by fans and journalists. Earlier this year, author Amish Tripathi’s Legend of Suheldev was launched via Instagram live and was attended by people from different parts of the world. “Online book events mean there is no limit to the number of people who can tune in, regardless of their location,” says Teesta, who feels independent bookstores are adopting more radical business models. “They are delivering books to our doorsteps and running inventive social media campaigns. Yes, it is a time of upheaval, but the publishing industry is putting up a brave front.”

People are writing a lot of corona romance and lockdown stories. In the children’s section, tales of resilience are a popular theme

The pandemic is also reflecting in the stories that are being submitted. In July, author Shobhaa De brought out her book Lockdown Liaisons, which explored life during the pandemic through stories. Edited by K Satchidanandan and Nishi Chawla, the book Singing in the dark, is an anthology of poems and has around 100 poets from six continents contributing to it. “People are writing a lot of corona romance and lockdown stories. In the children’s section, tales of resilience are a popular theme. There has been a lot of interest in books on science, environment and self-help. But discoverability is an issue. Unless you are a big writer, it is hard to get noticed,” says Kanishka.

Despite the new normal of publishing, new talents are being spotted in the market. In the early days of lockdown, Jatin Bhasin, an HR consultant based out of Princeton, began going through his old diaries where he had jotted down several interesting anecdotes from his days in Delhi. “Most of them had to do with supernatural elements and haunted monuments. I began tweeting them and it became extremely popular,” says Jatin, whose stories are now coming out as a book, which he is writing along with his wife Suparna.

By and large, the publishing scene offers a lot of hope. “This is a very confusing industry where everybody shares different data and have different views of the market situation,” says Kanishka. “The MNC publishers have survived without any cost cutting or lay-offs. They sell a lot of their imported titles and their parent companies have done well in the west during the pandemic. For that matter, even local publishing houses have been resilient and continue to publish new titles every month.” 

The shift to audiobooks and Kindle is perceptible. Teesta feels that the reading trends will be based on how long the pandemic will last. “The longer it carries on, the deeper will be the impact on our reading habits. Kindle use increased noticeably during the complete lockdowns, but now that stores are open again and books are being delivered home and sales patterns are normalising. That being said, it is reasonable to assume that a small percentage of readers who prefer print editions will now read more comfortably on their Kindles than they might have in the past,” she says.

This story was published in The Times of India on October 18, 2020

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