Business Today

5-point someone on a 5-inch phone

Nandagopal Rajan        Print Edition: March 31, 2013

When Shanti Dominic and Naheed Hassan, two globetrotting women of South Asian origin, decided to step into the world of publishing last year, the writing on the wall was clear to them. The future of books was electronic and, more specifically, it was in mobile devices.

They set up Indirom, an e-publishing company offering English novellas written specifically for tablets, e-readers or smartphones. All their stories written by and for South Asians are at a mobile-friendly length of under 20,000 words. "We felt shorter books are better suited to the e-book experience," says Hassan, Co-founder of the South Africa-based company. "With our e-bookcentred strategy, our books are written keeping the medium in mind, and are meant to be short-reading experiences that can be optimally enjoyed on mobile devices."

For many book lovers, ditching the romance of paper for the convenience of e-books is not easy. But several electronic publishers such as Indirom are hoping to tap the millions of Indians who spend most of their waking day on their mobile devices and just do not have the time to curl up with a real book. The bulk of India's books are still sold through brick-and-mortar outlets, but with e-books becoming increasingly popular, many publishers and online book retailers are developing special apps for e-books.

Last December, online retailer Flipkart launched an Android app for e-books, Flyte,. It has already seen 50,000 titles downloaded, a third of them by smartphones. Flyte, more popular for its music downloads, has about 150,000 titles in its e-library. In February, Google launched its Play Book store in India though it still hasn't introduced its music and movie stores. "We believe the future of ereading will happen on smartphones, tablets and phablets," says Sameer Nigam, Vice President of Digital Services at Flipkart. "We are betting big on mobile devices… and about 70 per cent of the e-readership is coming from these devices."

Many publishers see the smartphone as the main platform for digital reading, especially with e-readers such as the Kindle failing to take off in a big way in India, unlike the United States and Europe. It was almost natural for Flipkart, India's largest online bookseller, to have an e-book app, but many others have also jumped into the business. iMusti, which has popular music and video apps, also has an e-book app with a strong India slant. The iMusti app allows users to rent out books and read them offline too. "Our content is strongly focused on India and our regional languages. We want only high quality content and won't sell anything that goes against the grain of our culture," says Samir Khandwala, Founder and CEO, iMusti Inc., who is also working with small publishers to digitise Indian books, some of which went out of print ages ago.

RockASAP Retail Pvt Ltd, an arm of mobile value-added services major Handygo Technologies, also launched its Rockstand app to cash in on the popularity of e-books. It has tied up with over 150 publishers and gives new authors a chance to publish their books directly on the app. New authors can't expect much from self-publishing e-books though apps such as Rockstand, but established authors could claim up to 50 per cent as royalty. Company head Rishi Mohan Jha says new mobile devices are shifting e-book readership away from laptops and desktops.

Authors are not complaining. "I felt the need to reach out to expatriate readers like me who would relate to the stories I had to tell. But they did not have access to my books that were stocked only in India and Sri Lanka," says Shweta Ganesh Kumar, who has written an e-bookonly novella for Indirom. "The cost involved in distributing paperbacks outside India is immense. It hikes up the price exponentially and turns readers off," adds Kumar who lives in El Salvador.

E-books have some inbuilt advantages over printed content. They allow you to read a book over multiple devices and fonts can be adjusted. Indirom's Dominic says the experience is better on smartphones because of larger and better resolution screens. It helps that these phones, some with screens as large as five inches, are becoming more affordable. The social angle is another attraction: users can discuss titles with friends and see what others are reading as most apps are linked to social networking sites. "We are excited by the potential to completely redesign the reading experience for our readers. They can engage with authors on our site," says Indirom's Hassan.

The opportunity is not lost on bigger publishers either. Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland Ltd, a Tata Group publishing house, says they have discussed e-book-only versions of titles, but have not made a decision yet.

E-book-only versions allow people to buy parts of a title. "These work best for out-of-print titles or reference works where a person may not be interested in buying the whole book as only a certain chapter may be relevant to their research," he says.

ACK Media, publisher of the popular Amar Chitra Katha series, has also jumped on the digital bandwagon for its mythological comics. "For digital comics, magazines and picture books, the tablet is arguably the ideal consumption device. Most of our interactive, digital products are being developed with the tablet in mind," says Shubhadeep Bhattacharya, digital head at ACK Media.

But digital books are unlikely to edge out old-fashioned paper any time soon. India publishes about 100,000 titles a year and e-books account for just a small fraction of the around Rs 10,000-crore industry. Some companies such as iMusti sometimes package an e-book purchase with a paper edition. "Since there is no estimate of how consumer habits will evolve, all serious publishers need to create necessary solutions to address growing demand," says Vijay Sampath, CEO, ACK Media.

"Digital publishing will be a mainstream delivery system for content in the long term, but it will co-exist with physical publishing." It may not be long before the ebook version of Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone, among India's most sold book titles, catches up in sales of its print version.

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