Mumbai: John Makinson, a former journalist with The Financial Times, has been with publishing firm Penguin Group for around 15 years and has been its chief executive since 2002. An expert in digital publishing who is spearheading Penguin’s e-book initiatives, he was in India to launch Shobhaa De Books, Penguin India’s new imprint for books related to lifestyle, the celebrity world, fashion, film and culture.
Makinson spoke to Mint about the challenges of being an e-book publisher and the Indian book market. Edited excerpts:
What are your first thoughts on the iPad? Is it going to alter the e-book market further?
I haven’t used the iPad yet because it launched while I was here. I am waiting like a small child for it. But the Kindle and the iPad serve different purposes and they’re very good at what they do. The Kindle is aimed at very serious book readers; the iPad is a more versatile platform for books, video, audio and gaming. So I think the iPad will attract a younger audience. As long as we can sell through them, I don’t mind either.
Pricing is a huge issue in digital books. How will you stop someone from the US downloading a lower-priced Indian book? Will digital publishing kill regional price bands and replace them with a uniform international price?
When we sell a particular book in an e-book market, we load it with metadata. The metadata says where the book can be sold and where it can’t. So if you try in the US to buy a book whose US rights have been sold to somebody else, you won’t be able to do it on Amazon. And then there’s digital rights management, water-marking and all kinds of security arrangements. Of course, there are piracy issues and there are file-sharing sites, and I’m not saying it is as simple as that.
E-book challenge: Makinson says the physical book will survive the digital onslaught as people have a romantic attachment to it. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Differential pricing is an issue we’re always trying to address, especially in the Indian book market because prices are very low here.
So an Indian e-book publisher will have to first sell his rights to publishers in other countries before his product can be downloaded?
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At the moment, there isn’t really any book market in India. And there is not going to be a market for e-books in India unless you have devices which are commonly accepted and there’s a platform like Amazon that has taken hold here. And then I think all you can do in any market is test the market and see what people are prepared to pay for and talk to the consumer and see what they will buy. But what distorts the market in India, in the physical book market, is the activity of pirates. Not only do they cannibalize our sales, but they act as a lid on pricing. That’s an issue that we’re always having to address here.
Is advertising a possibility in e-books?
It is a possibility. We do it. We sell advertising on digital travel books. There are certain kinds of content where advertising seems to be a natural partnership—a travel book, for example. Would we do advertising in a Jane Austen novel? No. But generally speaking, I don’t think advertising is going to be big in e-books.
What are some of the specific titles we can look forward to this year to read on the Kindle or iPad?
When the Kindle was launched, what publishers did was transport a digital file that otherwise they would put on a printing file and sold it as a digital book. What’s happening right now is that we are producing different things. There’s animation and many other features that couldn’t be published as a traditional book.
So then the question is, if you produce that material in that platform, can you retro-fit a less-engineered version of that as a physical book? That’s something that we’re spending quite a lot of time working on at the moment. Not just the creation of the exciting stuff, but the readaptation of the exciting stuff to more traditional platforms.
Among specific titles, Winnie the Pooh. It was the only book that was preloaded on every iPad. The choice was largely because it was Steve Jobs’ favourite book. I am quite interested in how we adapt more traditional narratives in this platform.
Author Stephen Fry has been an Apple freak all his life. He’s writing his autobiography with Penguin which we?are going to publish towards the end of this year. We’ve been talking about how we can make his book something pretty exciting.
What responses have you received from your authors about the digital revolution?
I think some traditional authors are scared. They get into the royalty, piracy kind of conversation. The historian Niall Ferguson is very interested in using the technology for his works, for example, introducing gaming ideas into history.
Can the e-book make the physical book redundant?
I think, and I think this is especially true in India, people have a very special romantic attachment with the book. They like to browse it, buy it, put it on their shelves, share it. There is an emotional relationship with the physical book, and it is very important for us, publishers, to maintain that. That’s why we have to keep emphasizing on the importance of design, paper quality and print; the importance of the book being a nice thing to have. So there’s going to be more of a parallel economy as digital grows, but I don’t think it’s going to kill the book at all.
What are some of Penguin’s strategies for the Indian market?
I think you’re seeing a strategy today, as we introduce the Shobhaa De imprint. We are trying to engage readers who are interested in celebrity, fashion and beauty, health, personality and lifestyle. To address different kinds of readers, we introduced Indian language publishing and we introduced imprints such as Allen Lane and Hamish Hamilton here. With the new imprint, we’ll publish more non-fiction titles.
We are also the first international publishing house going to have a hub here in Mumbai right away. It’s important because there’s a slightly different kind of oxygen supply here than in Delhi. We will learn about the market because of the proximity to other kinds of media businesses here.
Is the Indian book market easy to map with so many different languages and different kinds of readership?
One of the challenges facing the Indian book market is the lack of consumer data. People ask me from time to time what is the size of India’s book market. I haven’t the faintest idea. Publishing in India is a step in the dark at the moment. That’s not true not just of the US and the UK, but of South Africa. We need to get smarter at that. Booksellers, retail chains, wholesalers and publishers together need to find ways to know what books people are buying, where they’re buying them from and how much they want to pay for it.
A trend since the last couple of years in Indian publishing is fiction about life in metros. Penguin’s Metro Reads series, for example. Are these books profitable for you and is there a market for them in other countries as well?
We are reaching out to a younger audience and writing about things that they are interested in—be it cricket or dating or MTV. They’re also interested in interacting with content in different ways. They want to be on Twitter and Facebook, and they want to be blogging. So we need to reflect those preoccupations in what we publish. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Metro Reads series and in the commercial fiction area and what we will also be doing with the Shobhaa De imprint.
There is an international audience for a certain kind of Indian writing, more of the literary kind, like works of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Amitav Ghosh. There’s an international market for commercial fiction too, but that’s more the NRI (non-resident Indian) market.
You’re not going to be selling many books about Indian call centres to British readers. But the NRI market is pretty big. I don’t want to sound pessimistic about it, I think it’s quite a big opportunity. But there are quite a lot of books that we only sell in the UK and nowhere else. The idea is to create an audience for these books in India.