Thoughts at the Intersection of Publishing and Technology in India

(With thanks to Atul Chitnis, Sankarshan, Abhaya Agarwal and Sachin Malhan for their inputs.)

The Indian publishing space is both vibrant and flourishing with estimates suggesting that there are sixteen thousand publishers who publish, for the most part in printed form, some eighty thousand works a year. What this statistic does not show is how varied the market is across multiple metrics. Linguistically, as a country, India has twenty two languages listed in its Constitution and are considered ‘official languages, the 2001 census lists twenty nine languages as having more than one million native speakers. From a technological viewpoint, India has over six hundred and fifty million mobile phone subscribers and over eighty million internet subscribers while at the same time a recent survey indicated that eighty four percent of rural India are unaware of the Internet. And yet, India is the fifth largest viewer of the English Wikipedia and ninety four percent of Indian traffic to Wikipedia is to the English version of Wikipedia while the second largest language group for India after English is Hindi with just over half a percent of the total. These statistics indicate both large challenges and equally large opportunities for both domestic and international publishers in India.

The Indian publishing market has only just begun to enter its digital age in its deployment of technology and in the development of business models that technology enables. It is also curious to see the marked absence of big international players in India given the remarkable opportunities that this market offers and this gap in the market has been filled by numerous local players who now have a marked first-mover advantage. Looking at this space, one can separate the publishing market in to three elements, of content creation, of content distribution and of overarching publishing business models and there are several interesting established and emerging models within India that are technology centric in their approach and worth exploring.

India’s linguistic diversity is mirrored in the works so published and one particularly onerous problem is an abject lack of diverse “print ready” Indic OpenType fonts that are Unicode compliant and this problem is further exacerbated by the lack of adoption of Unicode in publishing work-flows. Such lack of standards compliant fonts are a serious drawback to technological attempts at publishing existing works in new mediums as it adds to the cost and time of conversion. A further issue is that optical character recognition of Indic scripts is far more complex than it is in Romanic languages because of the multiple variables involved. Both the Government and private sector have sought to address these challenges – The Indian Institute of Science, based in Bangalore, is part of the Million Book Project and has an ambitious goal of digitizing two hundred and fifty million pages of mostly out of copyright books in multiple Indian languages and have scanned over eighty million pages already. Their stated aim is two fold, to ensure access to books that might otherwise have not been possible and to develop optical character recognition and language processing tools better suited to Indic languages. There have also been private successes at digitizing content and multiple Indian publishers work with Google Books to digitize and make available their content to varying degrees. The Government has also worked to create Indic OpenType fonts that are Unicode compliant but there are open issues as to licensing and they have not yet seen widespread adoption.

Given the prevalent challenges around creation of standards compliant content, compounded by low internet penetration rates and by the relatively weak purchasing power of Indian consumers, it is not surprising to note the eBooks have not yet had widespread adoption and will not see widespread adoption in the immediate future. Amazon’s Kindle, while officially available in India, does not support Indic languages natively and this drawback, along with its high price point, have been hindrances to it’s adoption. Similarly, Apple’s iPad is not officially available in India and has a similar barrier to entry – an extremely high price. However, the domestic marketplace has birthed competitors who have addressed these two weak-points. Infibeam’s Pi and EC Media’s Wink eBook readers seek to offer viable alternatives to international offerings and they distinguish themselves as being cheaper alternatives and that they support major Indic languages natively. That said, they do not have a selection of titles, in English, that is in any way a threat to Amazon’s supremacy in the English publishing space. However, having earlier noted the challenges of standards compliant Indic content, it is safe to say that these domestic players do not yet have a compelling selection of Indic language content either and apart from the technological limitations, the most important constraints on eBooks and eBook readers in India continues to be high price points for the devices and for the eBooks themselves.

That said, it is again, the Government that seems keen to play a catalytic role in this space for the stated purpose of using technology as a way to scale content dissemination and interactivity for education. In this context it is also worth observing that while many Government prescribed textbooks are officially available online to download, for free, there remains a lack of digital channels and low-cost hardware devices to distribute them this content. Over the last year, the Government has announced multiple efforts to develop low cost multi-function devices that offer a tablet-like experience at a cost much lower than existing alternatives. Some of these attempts have been met with some well-deserved scepticism in the market but it is safe to say that the Government is intent on pursuing this path and while India has not officially adopted the One Laptop Per Child project, there have been several private initiatives to roll these devices out across limited geographies. Given these developments and the Government’s involvement, a logical opportunity that arises is content for such devices when they are eventually rolled out and there is some hope that this large opportunity will spur the development of Unicode compliant Indic fonts and publishing work-flows.

A further opportunity lies in the mobile phone – eBook reader hybrid device – while traditional designs eBook reader designs emphasize form and function, the steady march of falling mobile phone prices, increased screen space and enhanced hardware along with an impending roll-out of 3G services across the country afford an opportunity to the nimble publisher to offer eBooks and similar digital content to be read and consumed on these hybrid devices. While these devices may not resemble eBook readers we are currently accustomed to, the peculiarities of the Indian market often forces unique and innovative, or jugaad, solutions. Indeed, it is evident that some players have already spotted this opportunity – Wattpad, a Toronto-based mobile phone e-book developer, announced that it has reached an agreement to release its mobile phone eBook application on Bharti Airtel, India’s largest mobile phone network.

A small, but growing trend, is that of self-publishing and print-on-demand publishing in India. Two of the earliest entrants in this space were, a Bangalore based start-up, which started operations in 2008 and the company’s aim is to democratise publishing making it accessible to a wider audience using a demand backed publishing platform. They also offer ancillary publishing tools, service
s and an online store to help sell the books in both printed and digital formats. CinnamonTeal is another such player in the space. Perhaps, having recognized the growing interest in self-expression via the self-publishing route, these start-ups have been joined by Depot, which is the books and stationery retail arm of one of India’s largest retails groups, the Future Group. It is interesting to note that Wattpad has also announced that it plans to work with one of the larger more established international players in the self-publishing and print-on-demand space,

Indeed, a number of local publishers are already available on mobile phones and the content has a strong focus on entertainment rather than education and this holds true across mobile phone providers. At the simplest level, Reliance Communications, a mobile phone operator, launched a novel by an award winning author that was packaged and made available as a ninety short-messages or text messages that were delivered over the course of a month. They plan to convert this to an audio book as well that is accessible via a dial in number. At the next level of technological sophistication are options that leverage existing phones with data connections to provide an enhanced reading experience. Tata Docomo provides comics across a wide range – spanning mythological tales to content from Disney via a reader that offers a comparable experience similar to Amazon’s Kindle and is priced at INR 20 per comic book and is valid for one year. A company called Nazara Technologies is bringing Archie comics in Indic languages to two mobile phone operators and is in talks with other operators too. Amar Chitra Katha, one of the oldest comic book series in India that is still being published, is also available via Vodafone’s network and offers value added content based on these comics and stories such as being able to listen to folk stories, download ring tones, wallpapers and even games. Then there are publishers who have used technological platforms that are not yet widespread in India but have done so with an international market in mind. Tulika Books, for example, a children’s book publishers, have multilingual, interactive eBook applications for the iPhone and iPad while Amar Chitra Katha, that are available domestically via Vodafone, are also available on the iTunes App Store.

With rising levels of disposable income and a growing number of people online, online retail of books and allied printed works have grown quite dramatically in India. The absence of global heavyweights such as Amazon and Barnes and Nobles, while arguable evidence of a still-nascent market, has given rise to numerous domestic players in this space – from traditional brick-and-mortar stores that have expanded to the eCommerce space, such as Landmark On the Net and the Oxford Bookstore, to players who are only present online such as Indiaplaza, A1Books and FlipKart. FlipKart, in particular, has built a very strong and loyal customer base that rivals traditional brick-and-mortar stores.

While several Indian publishers have embraced technology to expand channels of distribution, and this trend will continue given the data points on costs of devices and wireless connectivity, there are also some rather exciting new business models that are emerging in the Indian market.

ACK Media, which holds the rights to Amar Chitra Katha comics that were previously discussed, are at the forefront of this evolving business models for publishers. They seek to provide “high-quality entertainment and educational experiences for children of all ages” and are now present across multiple platforms. They are, as has already been seen, present on a range of mobile phone platforms and have further diversified in to home videos, magazines, audio-books, TV and film and even game platforms with the launch of a game called Legend of Katha, a massively multi-player online role-playing game. They have been able to reinvent and re-purpose content forms and formats to expand their traditional offering to both existing and new consumers.

Panther Publishers have traditionally published print media for the health, pharmaceutical and medical education markets and they have evolved an interesting, yet niche, model that supplements their printed works with multimedia discs that offer interactive content about diseases and other medical conditions while ensuring high levels of quality and accuracy. This model does not supplant traditional printed media that they publish but enhances it with content and methods of exploration that print does not allow for and is a value addition to their catalogue of printed books.

Pratham Books, a non-profit children’s book publisher with a mission of “A Book in Every Child’s Hand” has evolved a social publishing model that includes strong social media elements to build a community around their cause and employs Creative Commons licenses (or what are referred to as participatory licenses) to allow this community to reuse and re-mix their content. This community led model has allowed Pratham Books to side-step existing constraints and enabled them to scale the co-creation of high quality, low-cost children’s content and created new channels of distribution for a multi-lingual and multi-cultural market. While strengthening their fundamental mission, this model has also catalysed the creation of multiple derivative works ranging from iPad and iPhone applications, to creating content for OLPC laptops, to creating entirely new books from existing illustrations, to creating community translations of their books and to creating versions of their books for the print impaired – from DAISY and Braille books to rich audio books.

However, an important element of this gradual shift and evolution from the traditional paper-print model to digitally enabled models is the legal protection that the Copyright regime offers in India. An amendment to the Indian Copyright Act, currently pending approval, introduces a few key elements to digital content spaces – amongst the many changes it contemplates three worth highlighting are that it seeks to introduce the notion of “Rights Management Information” and “Technological Protection Measures” or Digital Rights Management to the Indian legal context.

Aside from these two, an important exception being contemplated is to the benefit of those “persons suffering from a visual, aural or other disability that prevents their enjoyment of such works in their normal format.” This is important because India alone has close to 80 million persons with print-impairment i.e. those who cannot ‘read’ content that is printed in books or visually represented on the screen and hence the need for content in formats that is accessible to the print-impaired – usually audio, or text that can be read out by software. Unfortunately, there is far too little ‘accessible’ content in such formats, and efforts to expand the universe of such content are too few and far between. Government and non-profit and non-governmental initiatives to create or aggregate accessible content attract attention disproportionate to impact. This clause, while still debated as to its method and scope of operation, is seen as being able to spur and support large scale efforts to create accessible catalogues of content. While the print-impaired are under-served it also offers the possibility of a unique marketplace and is an area where organizations such as Inclusive Planet operate to offer community, library, content sharing and accessible solutions specific to this demographic.

Extrapolating current trends in the pace of technological improvements, falling prices of content consumption devices and increasing access to low-cost, reliable high speed wireless networks offers conditions favourable to publishers to expand channels of distribution and consumption of content beyond what print has traditionally offered and lays the foundation for new business models that use technology to deliver increased value and scale. It is also worth noting that infrastructure to support many of these processes, including varied publishing services, content conversion and allied services, already exists in India even if not targeted at the local market. Local companies, such as FlipLog, are already leveraging local content, talent and partners to target markets both domestic and international across multiple technology platforms.

It is easy to see the tremendous opportunities that the Indian market offers to publishers across the spectrum and it is important to remember that while Indian might not yet be a technologically advanced market in the way that Western markets have developed there remains immense opportunity for technological innovations in content creation, delivery and consumption as long as the technology is appropriate for existing conditions and offers value in a price sensitive market.



About gkjohn

Recovering lawyer, erstwhile entrepreneur, pretend polymath, hopeful zookeeper and future dilettante and farmer of organic strawberries. Work at @aksharadotorg and @klpdotorg. Previously at @prathambooks. Was a @tedfellow.
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