Technology does not create quality

by Mapin Publishing

PrintWeek India interviewed Bipin Shah, publisher of Mapin Publishing, for its Book Special, produced in late 2013. The interview is reproduced here, by permission. 

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PrintWeek India (PWI): Do you think that the printed book is on its way out? Will illustrated books survive?

Bipin Shah (BS): I won’t say that the printed book is on its way out. The kind of books being published is changing. The numbers are changing. Illustrated books are not going to survive in the present form. Illustrated-book publishing will have to reinvent itself to survive.

PWI: What are your observations of the changing trends in publishing?

BS: Indian publishing has been coming of age in the last 10 years. This has been happening in the midst of a tech revolution that is taking place simultaneously. At the same time, publishers are now being pulled in a direction of change – in deciding what to publish, and in how to market the books in a changing environment, with the new phenomenon of “bestsellers”.

In the last 3–4 years alone, a number of bookstores have shut shop. Although new ones have come up, when you compare those that have shut and ones that are new, it would certainly be a negative number.

In my years of experience in the publishing industry, I think what we are experiencing in global publishing is a tectonic shift. The last major change I remember was about 15 years ago, with the coming of desktop publishing, when we switched from producing 4-colour films to offering digital files to the printer.

Today’s change is more serious – especially for the illustrated book. It is shaking the very foundation. The concept of a book, known to be in its printed form within the bounds of a hard case or softcover wrapper, is itself changing.

PWI: Are publishers changing their core publishing programmes?

BS: The popularity of books such as those written by Amish Tripathi and Chetan Bhagat, and of how-to books, has brought in millions of readers overnight. It has set off a revolution. More people are beginning to want to write books. Thousands of authors are sending manuscripts to publishers. Publishers are changing their publishing programmes, and making changes in the kinds of books they would have otherwise chosen to publish. They have discovered new trends and are trying to reach out to hungry readers. The bestselling items are determining the kind of books that publishers are deciding to publish.

In serious illustrated-book publishing, the trend is shifting in favour of generating more visual books, where manuscripts are shorter and there is less to read… so that it reaches out to a wider audience. Today, reputed illustrated publishers are taking the view that they won’t publish books with text exceeding 25,000 words. There are exceptions of course, but this is becoming the general rule of thumb now.

PWI: Is India at a tipping point of a digital boom?

BS: Relatively speaking, we are not. We are still not reading nearly as much in digital formats when compared to the West. But the rate of growth is such that we will catch up much faster, than the rate at which the West leaped from print to digital books.

Academic books are transitioning faster because the e-book form makes more sense. But the ratio of readers will depend upon penetration of tablets and acceptance of e-books. The next generation will probably read very little in print mode.

PWI: Are changes in book-retailing affecting the sales of illustrated books?

BS: The practice of buying an illustrated book is such that one needs to see it before buying. With footfalls in bookstores dropping, and with only certain types of books getting visibility in bookstores now, you anyway lose customers that cannot see the book to make a purchase decision.

When it comes to online sales, discoverability is an issue. It is not like walking into a bookstore, where you discover things. When you purchase online, you can only discover books based on recommendations made by the store, which typically reflects your past purchase history or what others are buying. As a result, unknown books are not being discovered.

PWI: Mapin is well-known for its quality. You have worked closely with some of the best museums and co-published with reputed international publishers, for whom you have produced books. How did you achieve the quality and how do you continue to achieve it?

BS: When we started in the mid-’80s, books produced here were not known outside India, because of the quality – rather the lack of it. Our first priority was to ensure that we created a quality product in terms of editorial, design, printing and production. It was the only way that we would have been able to go and talk to an international publisher. By now we have established our credibility. We are well accepted for our quality.

But today there is considerable competition. Publishers are using the same printers and process houses, using the same technology. So, we differentiate ourselves through our editorial content and by bringing up production quality in the last mile to generate a better quality product – going up from 93% to 98%.

We ensure that our proofreading is good and there are no mistakes left behind. In terms of design, every page is thought-through to make sure all elements are coming together. There is a continuity maintained throughout the book, and no compromises are made in colour-processing and reproduction of images. We try our best to not allow for a “let it go” attitude.

PWI: Do the printing capabilities exist in India, which can create the kind of books you produce?

BS: One of the things we are invariably told is that our demands to create a quality product are stringent. But many proprietors of printing firms have told us that they learn something from us, even though we make life difficult for their foremen.

India’s printing capabilities have changed enormously. One did not have so many printers that were generating quality work, when we started. There were just so few that you could count on your fingertips. Now there are dozens around the country who understand quality and generate quality. Yet, the printers who generate the sort of quality we need, on their own, are still very few. With all others, you have to push them to get from 80% to 95%.

Technology does not automatically create quality. It helps us build that quality. Difference between mid-’80s and now is that you have many more qualified and experienced people in Indian publishing, creating good quality work. But internationally we have not yet made a mark in terms of quality – whether in editorial, design, print–production quality – overall.

PWI: Someone from Mapin is on press for each book?

BS: We try to be; either I go, or a designer/production manager does. It ensures quality at every stage. On press, when each plate is made, when they start printing, you have to make sure the settings are right, and especially in adjustment of colours. This is crucial for illustrated books.

Many lay readers may not be able to identify these details. But we want that quality for ourselves first, whether others want the quality or not. There may be 5% among readers, globally, who might see a book and spot the 1-mm difference in the size of a jacket. One of them may be a co-publisher you want to work with. You are doing that perfect book for yourself first.

PWI: What can printing firms do to achieve your quality standards?

BS: There are quality conscious firms in India, where the owners have ensured that everyone down the line takes responsibility for a quality output. But if the management does not filter down this consciousness, then the output of such printers will not be consistent. We are now capable of very high quality printing in India. It just requires the right attitude.

It is not as if this consciousness exists among printers elsewhere, outside India. We are more careful with some than with others. There have been instances where we have rejected a printed lot, and been offered discounts, but we have not compromised. However, in these situations, printers have maintained faith in our judgment and have printed the book again.

PWI: Your books are expensive to produce and come at a hefty price tag. What is the scope for selling such books today?

BS: The market for quality illustrated books is shrinking all over the world. Not enough people are willing to spend money for such books. So one has to be careful in the selection of subjects, know what is in demand, and understand what people are willing to pay for.

Some categories within the illustrated/art books segment are doing well –popular illustrated books, travel books (that are not guidebooks), children’s books, cookbooks, books on nature and wildlife etc. They have a better market. But the scholarly, academic and well-researched books that are not for a consumer, but for a professional or a specific readership, are not doing well. These are the type of books we publish.

PWI: How have you handled the sensitivity to price in the Indian book market?

BS: In illustrated-book publishing, we have had to deal with it in many different ways. Any components that go into making of the book: imported paper, machinery, or other costs, are passed on to us – the print buyers.

In illustrated-book publishing, we have had to deal with it in many different ways. We have followed a dual pricing structure. In the international market, from where 35% of our sales come, we have priced our books higher by 20%, to address the price-sensitivity. If we know that a book is not going to sell at Rs X in India, then we price it at a lower mark up, and try to make it up through our international price. A Rs-500 differential in India is much more significant than a US$-5 differential in pricing in the international market.

Ever since the rupee has nose-dived, books have become almost as expensive as the prices that they are sold in, in the international market. This is more so in the case when we get our books printed outside India.

PWI: What is your business strategy going to be for the coming years?

BS: It is a multi-pronged strategy. One, we want to bring our out-of-print titles into formats such as as an e-book, to fill the gap of availability.

For new books, if we think that the market is not optimal enough to justify printing, we want to go the e-book-only route. We haven’t yet started working with digital publishing, but we are exploring this actively.

We are also looking to repackage existing content into modules, so that large, expensive books that don’t have a market in print format can find another way to reach readers. For new books, we are looking to conceptualise the book differently in print and electronic versions, because what works as a print edition may not work in its entirety as one single e-book, giving us the scope to deliver content in a modular way. But not all books will work in a modular way.

PWI: What do you think of self-publishing?

BS: The self-publishing market has emerged partly because the wide range of books that used to get published is getting narrowed down due to the bestseller culture. It is becoming difficult for authors writing manuscripts that may sell in smaller quantity, to get published. Self-publishing has opened up an opportunity for such authors to access publishing services.

One had never imaged that a publisher like Penguin would start a self-publishing imprint [Partridge]. Either they have seen an opportunity to get into a new publishing business, or they might be viewing this as an additional revenue stream. But it turns out that they are discovering authors for the Penguin list as a result of it.

PWI: How can printers address the pain-points in the book supply chain?

BS: I don’t see much contribution coming from printers in easing the supply chain. Many printers are of course offering print-on-demand, e-book services and other services. But a printer offering e-book services, for example, which is not their forte, is doing so because they see a business opportunity there, to retain clients and to create a new line of business. For clients too, this would be attractive because there is a pre-existing relationship with the firm.

PWI: Who are your favourite printers and process houses in India? Which is your favourite printing destination?

BS: I won’t name them! We print in Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad, and in Italy, Singapore and China. I would say Singapore is my favourite printing destination.

Bipin Shah is Managing Director of Mapin Publishing. He has nearly 40 years of experience in the publishing industry. Shah started his career at the Art Direction Book Company in New York. In the late ’70s, he was sales director of South Asia and Middle East for Feffer & Simons (a division of Doubleday Publishers), New York. He co-founded Mapin in 1983, as a company that focused on documenting and producing beautiful books on Indian arts, crafts and design.