Delhi: Technology is like an object in your rear-view mirror. It is always closer than you think it is. In fact, for us in Indian publishing, it may actually just be ready to jump out of the mirror.
Let me first put this in perspective. Last year around the same time, I was asked by a business magazine to comment on the Indian publishing trends for 2011. I had said then that lack of efficiency in chain stores is bound to diminish gains in medium to long term. The sentiment was not without basis. Over the last year itself, we have seen three of the five biggies getting into extremely choppy waters. Most of them seem to have been caught in the trap of going after margins on paper, running the show mostly from an accountant`s perspective.
Books, interestingly, are not like any other FMCG commodity, where data mining could be singularly relied on. This, coupled with the blind race of scaling up, can be a sure recipe for disaster. Hopefully, towards the latter part of 2012, some of these chain stores would have begun to find their feet again.
But during the initial phase of this churning, with most of these show-stoppers in bad shape, we are bound to see new independent stores coming up, though the ones to survive will be those which are completely passion-driven. They will need to remember that it was the romance of having a book shop which got them to begin one in the first place. As long as the fire keeps kindling in their heart, they are safe. Conventional book business in India has never been a money spinner, anyway.
The saving grace among chain stores has been Reliance Time Out, who with their prudent use of technology and a responsive and engaged team led by Deepinder Kampany, Tarun Singh and Jacob Johnson, seem to have got their act together. The rapid expansion bug seems to have caught them too though, which by its very nature is high risk-prone. Fingers need to be crossed on that.
In 2012, as we saw in 2011, fiction`s percentage in the overall book sales will continue to increase in conjunction with the rise of paisa-wasool literature. We have seen the Rs.100 chick lit novels (inflation has ensured a price band of Rs.100-150) mushroom and almost every 20-year-old Indian is an aspiring writer today. This will continue in 2012 with smaller towns increasingly shaping the trend, thereby keeping the non-mainstream book wholesalers in business. The beautifully complex dynamics of Indian society ensures that what is looked down upon by one may be aspirational for the other.
This brings me to the other trend which I bet on - consolidation of book e-commerce. The phenomenon continues and we will see a rapid maturing of this zone - a few managing to scale up and most of the others who have just joined the bandwagon without appropriate long-term plans and awareness of the challenges of book e-commerce getting weeded out.
The open secret is that Amazon India is slated to begin operations in 2012 and you can be certain it will change the way books are bought, sold and read in India. But the one with the real ace up its sleeve seems to be Flipkart. They have understood the dynamics of Indian publishing and logistics like nobody else and have the crucial first-mover advantage. It is imperative that they will bring in their own intelligent e-book reader in 2012. Between Amazon and Flipkart, they will definitely negotiate territorial e-book rights with differential pricing with the major international players.
For an Indian reader, it means that an e-book in India will be cheaper than the e-book, say, in the US or the UK, and also cheaper than its Indian printed edition. Indians are known to be among the most intelligent and money-conscious consumers who want to remain updated with new technology and it`s anybody`s guess how e-books may take off here over a period of time.
2012 may then well be the watershed year for books.
Though the lines between the delivery platforms will get increasingly blurred -- books, e-books, applications, films, television and games will witness an interplay never seen before that you can be sure two things will never go out of fashion - content and customers.