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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Of the three basic functions that make books possible — acquisitions/editing, production and marketing — it is the last that accounts for the success or failure of publishing. Manuscripts can be commissioned and prepared for the press, but marketing and sales remain the biggest bottleneck because the market is a mysterious place, which is hard to fathom and near impossible to anticipate.

So it is suggested that marketing entails a bit of bamboozling in which literary agents, editors, reviewers and authors are involved to some degree. To succeed in it, there has to be a blunting of moral awareness. How true is the charge that some dishonesty is essential for publishing to be successful?

Before going into the semantics of what is right or wrong, two basic facts must be mentioned. First, publishing is a business and the first job of business is to sell and make profit. Second, like all businesses, ‘adjustments’ or ‘compromises’ are necessary for publishing to remain in business

Whether or not a publisher adopts dishonest means or under-the-table transactions hinges on the question on how much surplus the industry generates: if there is little surplus, there isn’t much left for the publisher to play around. Look at the basic facts on the economics of bookselling.

The price of a book is usually fixed at four times the unit cost of production. That is, a book costing Rs 20 to make would be priced at Rs 80. But the publisher has to part with a minimum of 25 per cent to the bookseller (Rs 20) and a 10 per cent royalty to the author (Rs 8), which means that the publisher gets Rs 52. After taking away the cost of production, the publisher is left with Rs 32. This is a good return on his investment but the hard fact of book trading is that the entire edition rarely gets sold out. Publishers usually calculate that 20 per cent of the printing would remain unsold. On a cost-benefit analysis, there isn’t much surplus left.

How then does the Indian publisher cope with the numerous demands that are made on him from different quarters? Unlike Western publishers who stick to publishing alone, the Indian publisher combines both publishing and distribution of imported books. The margins on imported books are really not more than 10 per cent on regular titles, but could be much more on titles that have been ‘remaindered’ or sold at throwaway prices. The Indian publisher/distributor mixes the two to make a return of 35 to 40 per cent. The big change that has taken place in the last decade is the rate at which books have been written off by British and American publishers. This means that a great many titles are now affordable that Indian publishers pick up for the domestic market.

The question is whether it is ‘dishonest’ to pick up high discount titles, mix them up with your own and sell the package at an attractive price. If it is just that, it isn’t because in business you don’t look too closely at a good deal. But if it means that you are only interested in the bottom line at the expense of more relevant titles that don’t return as much, then it is not all fair and square.

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