Thursday, 13 January, 2011

Of China scoring in commercial printing … and the plight of Indian writers

From rotary printing presses (used in rotogravure, offset and flexography) to screen-printing, and now, to digital and web-based printing, commercial printing has come a long way and perhaps become just a little too complicated for a beginner trying to understand how the business works. While the gravure method is not much in India these use these days except for flexible packaging (because it runs on cylinders that are pretty expensive), according to Raju Seshadrinathan, Executive Director, Nagaraj & Co., a leading printer in Chennai, it’s digital printing that has gained considerable ground in recent years.

Although the cost per page is considerably higher than offset printing, digital printing is far less cumbersome. However, it is said to be suitable only for small volumes of print requirement. Seshadrinathan says that offset printing still rules in India as far as commercial printing work (annual reports, brochures, leaflets, danglers and point-of-sale material) and book printing are concerned.

While mentioning that commercial printers in Chennai and several other places are an unhappy lot, thanks to volumes having dipped and margins having reduced drastically, Seshadrinathan makes another interesting point – that the recession in the United States and Europe has indeed affected printing volumes in Chennai. China seems to have taken over the volume business from Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai, he says, adding that the sheer speed with which the Chinese printers execute deliveries is “simply amazing.” He feels the Chinese Government is providing the print industry there with a lot of subsidy in terms of logistics, and shipping among other areas. “By and large, they have a stable currency. The only problem is language, and they have middlemen for that,” says Seshadrinathan.

Back to the Indian scene, and Seshadrinathan says sale of children’s books is picking up but writers, especially small authors (across the spectrum), are having a big problem with publishing houses. Reason: they may have to wait two years to get money! So, not many people set about writing a book although they may have a book in them. Seshadrinathan gives a simple example of how a book is priced in the market in Chennai. If the printing cost of a book is Rs 150, the price is suitably hiked so that 15 per cent goes to the author, 40 per cent to the publisher, and 60 percent to the seller. The customer thus ends up paying upwards of Rs 320 for the book. Books, fiction or otherwise, do not really sell in large numbers in India. An author is happy if his or her work has sold 2000-odd copies. Not everybody is a Khushwant Singh or Shobhaa De to touch the 25,000 mark, a number that is far, far below what an international author would expect to sell. That, of course, is another story.

The other aspect is also about writers in India generally not having a clue whom to approach and how to get their work published. Only if you know somebody who knows somebody else who matters in the publishing industry, does a project at least get a boost. Seeking a meeting with a publisher is sometimes almost like making a visit to the police station.

Sashi Nair

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