Tuesday, October 03, 2006

‘The book is interpreting the world in these confusing times’

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

John Makinson/Chairman and Chief Executive, Penguin Group

John Makinson, 51, was in Mumbai recently for the launch of Portfolio, Penguin’s new business imprint with the release of The High-Performance Entrepreneur (Golden Rules of Success in Today’s World) by Subroto Bagchi.
Excerpts from an interview:

Shevlin Sebastian

The Economist has foretold the death of the newspaper in a couple of decades because of the spread of the Internet. What does that mean for book publishing?
I don’t think the pressures that apply to the newspaper industry apply in the same way in the book market. The book is a very different kind of product, whether it is a book read for entertainment or information.

What about children these days who go straight to the computer and avoid the book? What happens when they reach a book-buying age?
The challenge for book publishers is to make the product attractive to children who are used to working in a screen-based environment. So, that means, the use of design, illustrations and graphics in books. Of course, there is more competition in the form of play stations and televisions. But Harry Potter has shown one thing: the right book can appeal to young people in enormous numbers.

How big is the audio book market?
The audio book market is starting to show a lot of growth. And that is partly because of the format change from cassette to CD. The application of audio that is really starting to grow is the downloadable audio. So, audio books that can be listened on MP3 players and Ipods have become a big growth market. However, the numbers are small. Our sales are around a million dollars, in a business worth more than a billion dollars. So, it has to grow a lot.

Does that mean, there is no market for it?
No, it will grow at different speeds in different areas of the market. For example, the downloadable audio for travel publishing is doing well. If one is visiting Mumbai, it will be very attractive to walk around with an audio product, telling you where you are, and where you need to go. However, it is a complement, rather than a substitute for the travel guide. A lot of the applications of audio will supplement books.
What are the global trends in publishing?
There is a big demand globally, and certainly in this country, for intelligent non-fiction. Books like The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen have become bestsellers in India and globally. We live in a confusing and fast-moving world and these books help to interpret that world to people who are, at some level, confused.
Another trend is the hold that one generation of American airport best-selling writers had on a global audience, authors like Stephen King, John Grisham and Danielle Steele, is dipping; because readers are becoming more experimental. Rather than read the fourth book of a particular author, they might try a new one.
Word of mouth is very powerful in propelling a book to bestsellerdom. And that is a significant trend.
There is an increasing focus by publishers on a limited number of best-selling authors, in terms of how they allocate the marketing support. If you take the new Vikram Chandra book, globally, this is huge and every publisher of that book around the world is putting in a lot of marketing investment behind that book in order to make it a success.

Is it true that self-help books are one of the biggest sellers?
Self help books have always been an important category. People have always looked at these books as a way of improving themselves. Whether it is in their personal lives or business performance or in how they raise their children, books are a good guide on how to lead a better life. If you look at the market in China, self-help books are a tremendously important category. The Chinese have a huge appetite for self-improvement.

Is there any particular reason?
They are very ambitious for their children. So, there is a big market for books that tell them how to educate their children, how to equip them with skills, whether it be the English language or technology or business information that will enable them to live more prosperous or fulfilled lives.

Which is the hottest market for Penguin worldwide now?
India is hot. Penguin is, by a long way, the leading English language trade publisher in the country. This year, we have had a 27 per cent growth, as compared to last year, and this is the highest percentage of growth in the world for us. What is helping is the rising prosperity, the growth of the middle class and the increasing use of English.

Yet, if a book of fiction sells 5,000 copies, it is regarded as a best seller.
Traditionally, 5,000 copies is regarded a bestseller. As a rough mean, that stays the case. What has happened now is the big brands have become much bigger. Which means, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games has already sold 20,000 copies. Earlier, this would sell a total of 10,000 copies.

Portfolio: this new business imprint. Do you feel there is a market for business books in India?
There is a huge market. We are aiming it at business people and those who have an interest in business. There is an interest in India, in what makes businesses successful in the enterprise economy and what that means for India. Outside India, there is an enormous interest in the Indian economic success story. What we are hoping with Portfolio here is not just that we will bring some of the books that Portfolio in the US has published successfully to India but there will almost certainly be a worldwide audience for some of the books that we originate in India.

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