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10 years of Kindle: Physical books get a makeover to combat competition from ebooks

The Kindle was launched in the US on November 19, 2007, spearheading a new revolution in digital reading. In 2012, Amazon first made the device available in India. Over the years, publishers of physical books have tried different ways to combat competition from ebooks and to attract new readers - better-looking book covers, special editions, movie tie-in covers, anniversary editions and more

india Updated: Nov 20, 2017 08:29 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
Kindle,ebook,physical books
Physical books are doing brisk business, despite the growth in ebook presence. (Image courtesy Shutterstock)

Mirza Salim Beg is an archetypal old world bookstore manager; he is always abreast of the reading choices of the loyal customers of New Book Land - a 40-year-old small kiosk he manages in central Delhi’s popular Janpath area. He is soft-spoken and polite, but ever keen to debate or suggest changes to his customers’ wish list of books.

“The initial enthusiasm with e-readers and ebooks has subsided, physical books are back in favour,” he tells HT, pointing affectionately at the floor-ceiling stock inside the store. “Publishers are reaching out to newer audiences, and literature fests and social media promotions have rekindled an interest in books. Readers too are keen to explore new authors and topics,” he adds. “Non-fiction is turning out to be a big draw.”

In 2015, Nielsen, which studies consumer behaviour, came out with a first-of-its-kind report on India’s fragmented book market: The ‘India Book Market Report 2015: Understanding the India Book Market’. It valued the print book market in India, including imports, at $3.9 billion, positioning the country among the largest English-language book markets in the world. The sector’s compounded annual growth rate was 20.4 per cent between 2011-12 and 2014-15, thanks to growing literacy rate, the State’s spends on education, digital initiatives, and outsourcing of publishing services to India. Importantly, the report said, that 66 per cent distributors/retailers feel that the print consumption is growing.

In the UK and US too, physical books are doing brisk business. According to the Pew Research Center, 65 per cent of Americans reported reading a printed book in 2016, compared to only 28 per cent who read an ebook. Data from Britain’s Publishing Association show ebook sales falling to 17 per cent in 2016, with an 8 per cent rise in their physical counterparts.

Breaking New Ground

Publishers are exploring different ways to attract newer audiences, such as releasing special editions of their backlists. “Special editions are done mostly for books that withstand and transcend the test of time,” says Yogesh Sharma, vice-president, sales, and marketing, Bloomsbury India.

On its 30th anniversary in 2016, Bloomsbury’s UK office published special editions of 10 of its prize-winners (The English Patient, Fugitive Pieces and The Song of Achilles) to books that have reinvented a genre (such as Eat Pray Love, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) to the books that have captured people’s hearts (like The Kite Runner, Snow Falling on Cedars, Restless or The Little Friend). The publishing house hopes that these ‘Bloomsbury Modern Classics’ with new covers will attract contemporary readers.

The Adivasi Will Not Dance (Dr Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar): “I have put a line in Santhali - Aale Hor Baale Eneja -- in the Ol-Chiki script on the cover. I know many readers wouldn’t understand Santhali. But those who are curious, they might want to know. Also, since the story was set among the Santhals, I felt the title of the story should’ve been in Santhali. The Santhali line means: ‘We Santhals will not dance’.”

It has also done anniversary editions to commemorate the success of a book: Earlier this year, the publishing house produced special house editions to celebrate 20 years of Harry Potter with four special House Editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Each edition features the individual house crest on the jacket and line illustrations exclusive to that house by Kate Greenaway Medal winner Levi Pinfold. Exciting new extra content includes fact files and profiles of favourite characters. Then there are the movie tie-in covers such as for Victoria & Abdul, The Kite Runner, Paper Towns, World War Z where the artwork is drawn from the movie’s promotional features.

New Delhi-based Niyogi Books has also done new covers for revised editions. For example, Marion Molteno’s If You Can Walk You Can Dance --- a moving story about a woman’s journey of self-discovery as she feels apartheid in South Africa --- has a new cover after it acquired the rights to publish the book in South Asia.

Penguin-Random House India (PRHI) turned 30 this year. To celebrate, it unveiled ‘Penguin30’, a selection of India’s brilliant writing including classics such as Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavam and Nehru’s An Autobiography, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. The publisher has provided books on the Delhi Metro so that commuters can pick the book and read. “The beauty of these titles lie not just in the text but the distinctive cover design is done up in a sumptuous colour palette,” a press note said. (PRHI did not respond to HT’s queries).

Book Covers: Enigmatic, Un-Pindownable Things

In an increasingly visual age, publishers are also paying a lot of attention on book covers to attract readers.

“Given the visual excitement these days, our eye will not stop for a moment unless something ‘exciting’ or ‘unique’ confronts it. More people will take a chance on a great cover and a beautifully designed book — even if they do not know the writer or the genre — rather than one that has been indifferently or hastily put together,” says Seagull Books’ senior editor and graphic designer Sunandini Banerjee. There is, however, no accurate methodology to track sales linked to book covers.

Saakshi (SL Bhyrappa): This is a translation of a Kannada novel SL Bhyrappa. The cover had to convey the sense of what it means to be a Witness, which is shown through the motif of the eyes on the cover. However, a witness can also be blinded by their own prejudices and biases. This is suggested through the coconut and its shell as blind eyes. The coconut motif also provides a hint of the South Indian context of the book. The rural Indian setting is conveyed by the earth tones of the background colour and the idea of witnessing a crime is conveyed by the teardrop of blood. All these elements come together to create an impactful visual.

In The Clothing of Books, Jhumpa Lahiri writes that today a book cover’s work is not just about reflecting the sense and style of the book: “Its [book cover’s] function is much more commercial than aesthetic. It succeeds or fails in the market”. In the US and Italy, if a first edition doesn’t sell well enough, the cover is changed for the paperback edition.

Freelance book-cover designer Aparajita Ninan, who works with India’s top publishers, says most designs happen for classics or modern classics that have to be re-jacketed to inject a new excitement into a best-seller.

For authors too, covers are critical and publishing houses often take their inputs while designing them.

“The cover of a book is the face of the book, and with which, a potential reader has the first encounter,” says Sudeep Chakravarti. His latest --- The Bengalis (Aleph Book Company) --- has a stunning jacket of a boy playing football outside an old house in Kolkata. The image, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali --- the people as well as the book: “A hankering for history, a faded grand past, playful and yet focused child a symbol of possibly energised future, the Bengali obsession with football”.

The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community (Sudeep Chakravarti): “The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: A hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting”.

“We were very concerned that the [cover] image should not crudely reflect a stereotype, or alienate a vast number of Bengalis,” says Chakravarti.

But finally what is critical for a book to make an impact, all respondents to this story agreed, is not the book cover but what is between them.

First Published: Nov 18, 2017 22:59 IST