Decoding Publishing with Udayan Mitra

While every budding editor at the Seagull School of Publishing yearned, for days, to have an insight into the business aspect of the publishing sector, Udayan Mitra, associate publisher and head of rights of Penguin India, stepped in to decode how publishing functions. He had assembled our feedback to the questionnaire, which we were told to fill up a few days prior to his visit, in a compact and informative PowerPoint presentation. It listed some basic questions regarding our interests in books and authors as well as our opinions about publishing in general. With the help of his ingenious business acumen, he highlighted and discussed the ideas he felt important for us to acquire a basic sense of the trade. Here are some of the questions and the points discussed.

What First Got You Interested in Publishing?

We had expressed, in our answers, several viewpoints related to the nostalgia we share for books and bookstores. Some had shared their deepest affection towards the various parts of a book while others had professed their loyalty to the authors and the profession they are about to venture into.

‘For me, the copyright page!’ Udayan confesses with a glint of smile.

He makes it abundantly clear that though the editorial department takes the most credit for bringing out a book, one should always be grateful to the marketing and sales team in today’s competitive market environment.

The Life of Pie: The Publishing Pie!

The life of a book does not start with the manuscript nor does it end with the reader. It is an idea literally pressed between crude hardcovers, wrapped in a sterling amalgamation of paper and creativity. The book passes through many hands before it reaches the reader. The figures involved in making a book available to the masses are reflected in a simple list:

  • Distributor discount 45–60 %
  • Author royalties 5–15%
  • Production cost 17–20%
  • Marketing cost 6%

That’s 75–100% of the pie. A little more actually, if one counts the maximums. Should the publisher expect a profit then?

‘Publishing is a labour of love,’ Udayan answers simply.

What Do People Read? How Do Publishers Publish?

As much as one wants to publish the books of his/her choice, it is generally not the case. Udayan emphasizes that even though the literary segment occupies half of the backlist for Penguin, publishing in India cannot run primarily on that. Statistics suggest that ‘commercial’ sells the most whereas ‘business’ is the most profitable segment.

What is the need for the literary segment then?

‘It is the heartbeat of the company.’ Penguin is known for this genre. The quality of the books and a dedicated readership are what keep them on the A-list. The massive import list is the lifeline of Penguin.

Udayan seems wary of the growing price of the book and the effect it has on the market, which he ascertains is partially a reason for the gradual shifting of base from the world of physical books to e-books.

The Future of Publishing

The world of publishing and readers has been swept over by the e-storm after the release of Kindle by Amazon. Book lovers panic for they view it as a violation of the nostalgia they hold dear. Udayan is unperturbed by the change. He feels ‘every threat is an opportunity’, and so one should not look at e-books as adversaries, rather as a complement to printed books. He remains prudent. He aims at a much more advanced stage where he feels that ‘just like the vinyl records came back in a revamped fashion replacing the mp3s’, the physical book, after this metamorphosis, will return in a new avatar.

‘No one can predict the fate of publishing,’ says Udayan, assuredly.

Publishers Now

Because physical space can be dispensed with, transportation costs are almost nil and production cost is considerably lower, the e-books are looked upon as the publishers’ messiah. They generate greater revenues, which is why their proliferation and rapid growth in the advanced countries is spectacular—the e-book market is expanding fastest in countries like USA and UK, closely followed by countries like Germany and Australia, and finally India and France.

What Will Be the Next Step for India?

Udayan talks with great relish and excitement about the Kindle revolution. He says that the focus should be on the management for maintaining equilibrium between the two counterparts, mutually supportive of each other, which he points out, is what the advanced countries are currently trying to cope with.

He concludes the class propounding his futuristic ideas of what the world may be seeing from the publishing sector in the years to come.

Asmitabha Manna


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