How a Tamil publisher sells books like toothpaste

How a Tamil publisher sells books like toothpaste
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First Published: Sun, Jun 01 2008. 11 56 PM IST

FMCG strategy: New Horizon Media’s managing director Badri Seshadri (left) and director K. Satyanarayan in their office. (Arjoon Manohar / Mint)
FMCG strategy: New Horizon Media’s managing director Badri Seshadri (left) and director K. Satyanarayan in their office. (Arjoon Manohar / Mint)
Updated: Sun, Jun 01 2008. 11 56 PM IST
Chennai: In Indian publishing, if a book sells 5,000 copies it is a best seller, and Shobhaa De’s Spouse: The Truth about Marriage sold 35,000 copies in its first year. So Alla Alla Panam, which has quietly moved 25,000 copies every year since 2004, should have made at least some noise.
But it hasn’t, maybe because it is in Tamil. Alla Alla Panam (literally, “heaps and heaps of money”) is a Tamil stock market primer, New Horizon Media’s biggest seller and the most definitive proof of its statement of purpose.
“In vernacular India, as literacy has grown, there is a huge hunger to learn,” says K. Satyanarayan, director of New Horizon. “Wisdom has it that nobody reads books now. But wisdom misses the point that people read newspapers. If you publish the right thing, people will read.”
Last month, New Horizon raised a second round of funding from Beacon India Private Equity Fund and its earlier investor Emergic Venture Capital. Satyanarayan calls it the first venture capital investment in the Indian book publishing industry. “We’re unique, among Indian publishers, in our ability to raise funding from VC or private equity investors.”
There are sound reasons for its investors’ trust in New Horizon. Revenues have grown by 2.5 times every year, and Badri Seshadri, managing director of New Horizon, expects the firm to become operationally profitable by the end of 2008 (like most other start-up founders, he is reluctant to reveal more, and specific numbers). From 50 titles in 2004, New Horizon will print 500 titles this year, across three languages and seven imprints, each selling an average of 2,500 copies. All this by cracking two basic business-school concepts—what to sell, and how to sell it.
FMCG strategy: New Horizon Media’s managing director Badri Seshadri (left) and director K. Satyanarayan in their office. (Arjoon Manohar / Mint)
Satyanarayan started New Horizon with his former colleague, CricInfo co-founder Seshadri, in defiance of a popular myth. “Publishers in India believe that 40% of its market is in English, and the rest is too scattered across regional languages,” says Seshadri. “We believe that it’s possible to build profitable publishing in every language.”
The Tamil books from New Horizon’s first imprint, Kizhakku Pathippagam, must have seemed unorthodox at first. Besides Alla Alla Panam, they included an Alaskan travelogue, biographies of inventor Thomas Edison and Reliance founder Dhirubhai Ambani, the official Tamil translation of Pervez Musharraf’s In the Line of Fire, and a corporate history of Google. Other publishers would look at New Horizon’s catalogue and ask, in curiosity: “What will you print next year?”
“These are subjects that people in regional languages just cannot access otherwise,” says Satyanarayan. “Simple things, like global warming. What exactly is it? How does it work? Even in English, I bet many people would like to read a well-written overview.”
New Horizon thrives on “The Long Tail” principle, described by Chris Anderson in Wired magazine in 2004—the same year New Horizon was incorporated. The Long Tail dictates that the total volume of sales of individually low- popularity items can surpass the volume of a few high-popularity items. It’s the reason Amazon and Netflix stock even the most obscure books and movies. “Our particular long tail, we think, could be even longer,” says Seshadri.
In 2007, New Horizon began English and Malayalam imprints, publishing original Indian fiction and translations in English. Another Tamil imprint, Nalam, introduces readers to the rudiments of medicine and health. One book, written by a practising cardiologist, outlines the mechanics of the heart. Another ponders the nature of diabetes.
New Horizon’s authors are experts in their subject, required to distil their knowledge into a simple narrative. “Sometimes, though, we run into copyright issues,” says Seshadri. “For English books, we ask for sources and do random Google searches and other testing with the manuscript.” With Tamil and Malayalam, potted summaries of other English texts sidestep the tangle of literal translation. “Other sources in the same language are harder to check,” says Seshadri. Once, for a book on Singapore, New Horizon found that the author had directly lifted ideas from a series of online essays. “We blocked the book immediately.”
When the firm launched, Seshadri and Satyanarayan had another mountain to climb. “Outside Chennai, there are perhaps 250 bookshops in the state, many of them glorified stationers,” says Satyanarayan. “We had to look outside this channel. So, we began to treat our books like FMCGs (fast moving consumer goods).”
Like toothpaste or chocolate, New Horizon books began to find their way to medical stores, supermarkets, temple shops, even cash tills in restaurants. “We have one rack of assorted non-fiction in Jayachandran Textiles (a local shop that sells sarees, among other items of apparel), and it’s a source of steady business,” says Seshadri. “People don’t go to bookshops. But when they find books elsewhere, they’re interested enough to buy them. We have more non-book outlets than bookshops.”
The firm’s distributors cover 20 Tamil Nadu towns, doing local rounds, taking orders, supplying books and collecting cash. “But we’d need 80-100 to really cover the state,” Seshadri says. So, New Horizon has looked to another hoary FMCG strategy: the road show. On his laptop, Seshadri cues a video of an exhibit in Pattukottai, a small town with no bookshop. In the middle of the afternoon, the firm’s employees in a mobile van erect a stall, set out a selection of titles, and urge passers-by to browse for as long as they want.
“We did three towns a day, for 12 days,” says Satyanarayan. “We would pass out title catalogues and simultaneously go to local shops, to give out books for sale. That way, even if people couldn’t find a title on display, they could go back to the shops and request it.”
The response, he says, floored him. “Once, a bunch of kids passed our stall on the way to an exam. They told their teacher about us, so when the exam ended, she came back and bought a number of books,” Satyanarayan remembers. “Another time, we handed a tourist bus-driver a catalogue in the morning. In the evening, he stopped at an entirely different town where we’d moved to, just to buy some books.”
Meanwhile, on Seshadri’s laptop, a moustached policeman flips through his purchase, then looks disarmingly into the camera and grins. There are so many people here who can and want to read,” he says. “Now this is a way to get something good to read.”
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First Published: Sun, Jun 01 2008. 11 56 PM IST
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