E-BOOKISH IN BHOJPURI

Like most seasoned punters in the recent Bihar elec tions, Prabhat Prakashan the Hindi publishing house in Delhi, had hedged its bets. Were Nitish Kumar to win, they’d flood the market with his biography . Ditto for opponent Sushi Modi. Both bios were specially com missioned, 3,000-word booklets priced at Rs 80 for the printed book and Rs 20 for the e-book. You can’t think of one without the other now, says Piy ush Kumar, director at the 50-year-old company .

Indian language publishers, who were initially skeptical about the viabil ity of e-books, are finally having a change of heart. With prices ranging between Rs 10 and Rs 200, e-books in Indian languages are experimenting wildly with pricing and packaging mod els (pay-per-chaptervia telecom tie-ins) These innovations have been largely eschewed by foreign-owned English lan guage publishing houses, whose e-book sales have been reined in by globally benchmarked pricing terms.

“Our bestseller, the Hindi-to-Eng lish Spoken English Digest sold over 1 lakh downloads on Daily Hunt. Each download was priced at Rs 25,“ says Kumar. Even with 70% taken by the online distributor, the earnings are about Rs 7.5 lakh; less than half the print takings, but significantly sup plementary with virtually zero over heads.

REINVENTING THE POCKET BOOK

E-books could actually revive the mar ket for the once hugely popular pock et books, says Harish Jain, founder of the 35-year-old Unistar Books, a Pun jabi publishing house in Chandigarh “Before TV arrived in the ’80s, writers like Gulshan Nanda and Surender Mohan Pathak sold lakhs in first edi tions, and pocket books often cost Rs 4-5. I see that readership returning and it’s because e-books cost little and offer a variety of stories,“ adds Jain Two years ago, Indian publishers had high expectations from print’s rebel child. Tablets were all over the place, internet connectivity had jumped 31% between 2012 and 2013 (ac cording to comScore), and the Kindle India Store had finally opened. At the time market analyzers, Netscribes had predicted a 20-25% rise in e-book sales by 2015. Now though, the English publishing banners prefer to turn the conversation back to print (after all e-book sales have been static for two years at 2% of the overall business) and it’s Indian language publishers who are talking up digital.

Biographies in Hindi, novels in Gujarati and epics in Malayalam -digital reading in vernacular languages is growing by the screen

Our standard line to publishers is `Jo bhi hai de do’,“ says Vishal Anand, chief product officer at news and e-book aggregator Daily Hunt “When we started out last year, we had no idea what titles to ask for. Un like English trade titles, where you know the bestsellers, in Indian lan guages we were at a loss. So we start ed at railway stations and got our bestseller lists from there.

Daily Hunt is currently the largest distributor of Indian language ebooks (including comics), with 70,000 titles in ten Indian languages, including Bhojpuri. Their market is spread across 1,000 Indian cities, with 80% of their readers buying Indian language e-books (the rest buy English).“The problem so far was that digital content wasn’t available to native language speakers.e book

WHAT READERS WANT

Prabhat believes his Hindi readership prefers compact, topical `how-to’ e books that prepare a reader for eve rything, from freezing weather to social media etiquette. They’re even . custom-making e-books for this mar ket. “We have 5,000 monthly downloads of titles like WhatsApp Ke Champion Baniye and Facebook Ke Champion Baniye, priced at Rs 4-5,“ says Kumar. He believes his reader ship is between 18 and 30 years, middle-class, predominantly female and reading on smartphones. Daily Hunt says its e-book readership is largely Hindi-speaking, followed by Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu.

At Prabhat Prakashan, e-books average 25,000 downloads a month and make 5% of the company’s revenue.“We can easily scale up to 15 or 20%,“ says Kumar. He is now converting his 2,500-strong catalogue for the screen.“We have submitted 325 titles to Kindle, which is finally ready to sell Indian language e-books.“

While Kindle declined to comment, publishers and tech companies that specialize in print-to-e-book conversion, say there is a dearth of online distributors with Indian languagecompatible e-book readers. “There were no common standards for Indian language implementation,“ points out Apurva Ashar, founder of e-Shabda, a Gujarati e-book creation and distribution division of the tech com pany Cygnet Infotech in Ahmedabad.

This year Ashar developed the eShabda app that offers a compatible Kindle experience in Gujarati, complete with dictionary, highlight options, Google search and a pop-up Gujarati script keyboard. The app allows a reader to download and read a Gujarati e-book from anywhere, not just e-Shabda titles, which number 500.

Publishers however, Ashar says, are loath to split revenues further with third part digitizers and distributors, and want to set up their own e-bookstores. On the other hand, some authors like Kaajal Oza Vaidhya, who’ve only inked print contracts with publishers, are choosing to publish their e-books independently with platforms like e-Shabda, for a bigger cut in royalties -in some cases, almost 40% of the sticker price.

Ashar believes the e-book in Indian languages has the potential to make readers of smartphone browsers and advance interest in regional writing.“Unlike the English e-book reader who is believed to be urban and upper-class, readers of Indian language e-books are dispersed across Tier-2 and -3 towns and villages,“ he says. “These places cannot easily access bookstores, even though literacy rates are rising.“

Has the trend come to stay? Some publishers believe the e-book is a bubble, others say their authors are not keen. “As a publisher I don’t have digital rights to about 40% of my titles,“ says KS Murali, who runs the Kannada house Vasantha Prakashana in Bengaluru. “And writers are apprehensive because they’re worried about copyright violations online.“

These are, he adds, are usually older authors. “Unfortunately these very authors are my bestsellers.“

Source: Times of India 20 Dec’2015