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The fine print

Is the country seeing the beginning of an e-book reading revolution?

Kottayam and Ahmedabad seem unlikely places to set off India’s e-book evolution. Yet they were. In 2010, Ahmedabad-headquartered online retailer Infibeam was first off the block with its Pi e-book reader. Soon after, Kottayam, Kerala-based publisher DC Books introduced the Wink e-reader. Both were just a little bit ahead of their time. By mid-2011, Wink had been pulled off the market as tablets and smartphones began to pour into India. The Pi continues to list on the Infibeam website as a ‘sold out’ product.

But these two homegrown businesses were forerunners to an e-books frenzy that now has top global e-reader brands, publishers and online retailers lining up big plans for India. The country is considered one of the top 10 markets for books and the third largest market for English books. E-books are tapping into this market, aided by an expanding youth demographic. And everything from pulp fiction to serious literature, non-fiction and even comic books, is turning digital. But how big is the opportunity, really?

“The Indian e-book market is less than 1% of the overall books market by value,” says Ananth Padmanabhan, vice-president, sales, Penguin India, and vice-president of the Association of Publishers in India, an industry body. Estimates for the print publishing market peg it at ₹10,000 crore, but reliable figures are hard to come by. This has to do primarily with the fragmented reporting of sales by India’s publishing houses, dominated by small and mid-size businesses. There are global pointers, though, that e-books are well on their way to change how books are read and experienced. In early 2011, Amazon’s worldwide e-book sales surpassed its physical book sales for the first time, and continue to be among its fastest growing categories, even as its print books sales shows sluggish growth. At Penguin Random House, e-books contribute a third of total book sales in the US and 21% of global book revenues, both numbers up a couple of percentage points from 2012. And in its results for the quarter ended September 2013, HarperCollins reported that sales from its 30,000-odd e-book titles accounted for 22% of publishing revenues, up 30% y-o-y. Similarly, says Padmanabhan, “Publishers in a growing market such as India will definitely see a 3X-5X growth y-o-y in e-book sales for at least the next three to five years.”

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