In 2015, Ramakrishnan Krishnan, an event consultant for indie music bands based in Bengaluru, read 53 books, 45 of them read digitally. It was a dramatic difference from the way he used to read just a couple of years ago. “I’m usually in various stages of three-four books at any given time, so carrying all my collection on my iPad 2 is quite convenient," says the 45-year-old, who uses Kindle and the iBooks app for books and comiXology for comics and graphic novels. As a reader, he would not opt for a subscription-based model for reading and would like publishers to start creating e-books that are immersive and interactive.

On the other hand, Vatsala Bisen, a 33-year-old copywriter based in Mumbai, would love a social library-based app. “I want a reading app to have a personality, tell me what to read next, let me show off my personal digital library like I do at home, connect to people who are readers, look at what others have in their digital library, and, if possible at a nominal fee, read a book from someone else’s library too," she says. Social connections while reading are important for Bisen, who reads on her MotoX rather than Kindle because she can browse and talk to friends on WhatsApp while she reads and manages her baby.

Pay by chapter

Aiming at readers who don’t want to buy the whole book owing to money or time constraints, Dailyhunt (Dailyhunt.in), a news and e-books mobile application, is trying to see if you would buy a chapter of the book. “The idea works similar to an EMI. The customer has the option of buying the whole book at the store price or buying individual chapters at a marginal premium for as little as 5 per chapter," says Virendra Gupta, founder and chief executive officer (CEO), Dailyhunt.

Gupta has tried this with magazines, by letting readers pay by the article instead of buying the whole magazine, and the response has been good. In November, Dailyhunt launched a pilot of pay-per-chapter with Westland Books, starting with author Amish’s successful Shiva trilogy. Currently, Dailyhunt offers 100,000 books across 10 languages. By the end of January, Gupta says they will be able to offer the pay-per-chapter option for more than 6,000 books.

“The content for mobile needs to be simple, bite-sized and easy to consume on the phone," says Rohit Kumar, founder and CEO of Chapter Apps (Chapterapps.net), a start-up in beta which is building a mobile platform for textbooks to cater to college students. “Students buy books today even though they read only two-three chapters in it. In our app, they would be able to pay for the chapters they want to read."

Mobile only, please

Like Dailyhunt and ChapterApps, the focus of another forthcoming publishing house, Juggernaut Books (Juggernaut.in) is mobile. The mobile publishing house, which was formally launched in September, is working on iOS, Android and desktop apps that will be released by February. They plan to use the pay-to-download model and will include a pay-by-chapter model so that readers can try out a new author. Their aim is to optimally design the app and content they offer in accordance with mobile reading habits. “On an average, people read for 10-15 minutes on the phone without getting interrupted, be it during a commute or late at night," says Delhi-based Durga Raghunath, CEO, Juggernaut Books.

There are plans to try out different lengths of a book too. “Users can only consume an optimal length for an optimal time, therefore you have to give users ways to get back and stick to a book," she says. “We’ve calculated the average reading time across a scroll and are building our content and design around it." She refuses to reveal more before their formal launch.

The idea itself, and the business model, is not new. Other mobile start-ups have tried to create optimum-reading apps long before Juggernaut and failed; at best results have been mediocre.

Perhaps the difference will be in the content. “What I’m really impressed with is the catalogue Juggernaut Books have brought together," says Nikhil Pahwa, founder, editor and publisher of Medianama, a digital and telecom news platform. Led by Chiki Sarkar, former publisher and editor-in-chief of Penguin Random House, Juggernaut’s 2016 catalogue (released in November) has celebrity authors like Arundhati Roy, Twinkle Khanna, Rajdeep Sardesai, Rujuta Diwekar and William Dalrymple. “I don’t know what they plan to do with the app but these are author names that will sell, which already gives them an audience," says Pahwa, though he hopes they won’t get stuck in the Kindle ecosystem and will think of multiple distribution platforms.

Unlimited reach

Distribution is on Sharath Komarraju’s mind as well. A multi-genre author based in Bengaluru, Komarraju dabbles in both digital and traditional publishing. Of 15 published books, six are self-published on Amazon Kindle. He likes the freedom he has in terms of content in the digital space, where he can put up books that are around 30,000 words as well as short stories that are a hard sell in traditional publishing. “Technology has enabled distribution, the hardest nut to crack in publishing," he says. “It’s made it convenient for both authors and readers to find each other online." To find new readers within the Kindle ecosystem, the 30-year-old opted for Kindle Unlimited, a subscription model from Amazon, when it was launched in India in September.

Kindle Unlimited is an e-library of Kindle e-books, which a reader can subscribe to for a monthly fee of 150. “You have access to over one million books, at the price of less than a paperback, including new releases and Kindle best-sellers," says Sanjeev Jha, director, Kindle Content, Amazon India. He believes e-books are the game changers in the publishing industry. “Producing, distributing and marketing e-books is more efficient than print. A book can be available in less than 60 seconds to our consumers worldwide through Kindle." Something that is simply not possible in the physical world.

All Kindle authors can choose whether they want to be part of the Kindle Unlimited pool. Komarraju is part of it as it helps him “entice" new readers to pick up his other titles.

This is not true of Rasana Atreya, one of the first authors in India to come on Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s self-publishing platform. “I love the control e-publishing gives me, be it the content, the cover or promotional opportunities, but Kindle Unlimited doesn’t work for me." Since June, authors in the Kindle Unlimited plan have been getting paid by the number of pages a reader reads rather than straight royalty for an e-book sale. This has discouraged authors like Atreya from availing of the subscription service.

Even though Amazon’s Unlimited plan offers a million books to readers in the country, readers won’t hop on if they don’t find the authors they want to read—as many authors have chosen to stay away from the service. London-based Siddhesh Kabe, a voracious thriller and science fiction reader, subscribed to Kindle Unlimited three months ago and is already thinking of leaving.

“The problem is it doesn’t have the big-ticket books, so I end up buying the latest e-books in the series I’m reading separately," says the 29-year-old over email. Now, he has subscribed to Marvel Unlimited, a subscription-based service, at $9.99, or around 650, per month, which offers 17,000 Marvel comic titles digitally.

What makes any business plan in e-book publishing fail or succeed is content. “It’s not the subscription you buy, it’s the books that you want to read that decide if you’ll buy an unlimited subscription," says Pahwa, who believes subscription-based services like Amazon Unlimited or Marvel Unlimited will not work for readers who buy books on impulse or those, like Kabe, who look for the latest titles.

Deconstructing the tale

Ultimately, it’s not technology that will determine which way the readers will swing, it’s the content. “If a book is good, even 1,000 pages or 18 sequels is not enough. If it’s lousy, even 10 pages are too much," says best-selling author Ashok Banker, who self-publishes his e-books while his print books go through established publishers. “Today, e-book sales of my titles outsell the print editions by a factor of 10-20 times. It’s a strong source of royalty and a great way to get the books where the print edition isn’t available," he adds.

Pratham Books, a Bengaluru-based non-profit that wants to see a storybook in every child’s hand, knew it couldn’t reach 240 million children in India on its own. So it launched StoryWeaver, an open-source digital repository for collaborative storymaking. The platform has more than 1,100 stories for children, with illustrations, all free to use.

“The platform lets you refurbish a book according to your requirement," says Suzanne Singh, chairperson, Pratham Books. You can read, download, use, reuse, translate any of the stories, or create new ones for others. StoryWeaver works on Unicode, which makes it easier to read or create stories in any language without requiring a font to be downloaded. Launched in September, the platform has already had 95,000 views. “Five-six new versions of a story come up on the platform every single day," says Singh, adding that she’s surprised it’s catching on so fast.

Digitizing Indic scripts

What makes StoryWeaver exciting is the control it’s given to readers, as well as the fact that it has books in more than 31 languages. Languages other than English remain a huge untapped readership in India and not many digital publishers have been successful in tapping it. Google Play, Dailyhunt and Kobo support Indic fonts, but Amazon has no plans to venture into Indian languages at the moment.

DC Books, one of the leading publishers in Malayalam, offers 1,224 titles of international and Indian authors in translation on its e-books store (Ebooks.dcbooks.com). “We faced many technical challenges in conversion to Malayalam fonts, in which we have 56 letters, and it took our team more than three months to find a solution," says Ravi Deecee, managing partner and CEO, DC Books. Each conversion to an e-book continues to need proofreading, for there can be missing letters or mistakes. This has prevented DC Books from introducing titles in languages other than Malayalam, Hindi and English.

Though it seems like an obvious idea, a lot of technology and pricing challenges have to be addressed for other languages, like programming in Unicode, and the cost of conversion of Indian scripts into digital formats; all this makes it harder for publishers to venture into this area. However, the book market is expected to touch 739 billion by 2020, according to the “Nielsen India Book Market Report 2015"—that will be a big enough market for experiments. Gupta agrees: “Digital publishing is a disruption waiting to happen. While there’s a lot happening worldwide, here it’s pretty much in a nascent stage."

THE DIGITAL CHOICE

Want to pick up a few books? Here’s where you can go

StoryWeaver

An open-source digital repository of children’s stories, StoryWeaver has over 1,100 stories in 31 languages and 2,000 images, all for free.

You can read, share and download all the stories for offline use or in print-ready formats, or make your own story, using the illustrations available on the website.

Free on www.storyweaver.org.in

Kindle Unlimited

Meant for voracious readers who like to choose titles across genres, and want to explore new authors, Kindle Unlimited is a subscription service that allows you access to a whopping one million e-books on any device. You don’t need to own a Kindle because you can use any of Amazon’s apps on other platforms to read on your device or smartphone.

Amazon Kindle is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Web; 150 a month. www.amazon.in

Dailyhunt

How about taking a bit of the cake to see if you like it or not? Choose from 100,000 books across 10 languages or just read chapters with Dailyhunt. The app lets you pay by card or mobile wallet, or even through your service provider.

Free on Android, Windows Phone and iOS; www.dailyhunt.in

BookBub

Love discounts? Become a part of BookBub, an e-book promotion company that shows the best discounts for titles in online stores.

Launched in May, BookBub shows discounts from Flipkart, Amazon, Google Books and Kobo. It’s a great place to discover new self-published authors from India and abroad.

Free on www.bookbub.com

Bloody Good Book

At this online publishing venture based in Mumbai, writers submit their manuscripts. “We make the first three chapters available online, and readers and reviewers read, review and vote for the books that they think deserve to be published," says Niyati Patel, co-founder of Bloody Good Book.

Based on reader feedback, the website decides which books should be printed and markets them. The Bloody Good Book had 141 manuscripts and 8,244 readers as of Tuesday.

Free on www.bloodygoodbook.com

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