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The writing's on the screen

The next time you go on a long vacation, chances are, you might be packing an e-book reader in place of a paperback. Meanwhile publishers, authors and e-book reader and tablet manufacturers are tightening their belts in preparation for the e-book storm that's all set to sweep over India

Nikhil Kumar Verma has the kind of friends we wish we did too. Case in point � a particularly generous one gifted the 26-year-old digital strategist an Amazon Kindle last April. Never mind that the smell of a new book or the feel of an old one's paper has been replaced by a gadget. "I am reading a lot more now, thanks to the simple fact that I can carry my Kindle everywhere I go, including local trains. Also, it's easier to read on a Kindle -- I need just one hand to hold it, as opposed to a paperback for which I need both my hands," reasons Verma.


Nikhil Kumar Verma was gifted an e-book reader last April. Since
then, the 26 year-old digital strategist says he's reading more,
because using a reader is easier. Pic/ Suresh KK


Twenty four year-old Henal Shah gets all her reading done on her Kindle. In fact, the marketing professional says she hasn't bought a book since she bought her Kindle seven months ago. She shops for e-books, e-newspapers and magazines on the Amazon cloud. "It is slightly costly right now, but that will change next year when we will shop in rupees instead of in dollars," she says.

Verma and Shah are two of the many tech savvy readers who are looking forward to the world's largest online retailer, Amazon, entering the Indian e-commerce market in the first half of 2012. Our sources inform us that Amazon is already in talks with publishing houses to retail e-books. While a formal announcement is still some time away, it can be said without doubt that the online publishing industry is on the verge of an 'e-boom'.

"We are definitely on the precipice of an e-book boom in India," says Infibeam founder Vishal Mehta, who came out with the first Indian e-reader, Pi, in February last year. "It's a bit like the old music scene that shifted from analog to digital. And with growing literacy rates, coupled with a difficulty in reaching out to remote locations, this only means good news for the readers out there," says Mehta.

Amazon came out with its colour tablet, Kindle Fire, last month to compete with the Apple iPad. They have acquired 450 children's titles from Marshall Cavendish, a Singapore based publisher, to print books in physical and digital formats. Amazon revealed its plans to publish books � both physical and digital � in October 2011, and has signed on authors, as well.

Portals to look out for
Closer home, you may have noticed that Phoenix Mills' star attraction has been shut for a while. As the Landmark store in Lower Parel undergoes an overhaul, the fine print on their website, www.landmarkonthenet.com, informs us that "e-books are on the way".



Business Head of e-Retail at Landmark, Arun Naikar, tells us that "the face of Landmark on the web is set to change in a couple of days. In 2012 a million e-books, both Indian and foreign titles, will be made available."
Industry experts also point to the Infibeam and Amazon websites as portals to watch out for in 2012. Infibeam's e-book store currently boasts five lakh titles, and the e-commerce website plans to deal with competition -- from Amazon and other e-retailers � aggressively, especially in the e-books market. In fact, in a move reminiscent of Amazon, Infibeam has begun to approach authors directly.

"As digital literacy grows among authors, they have begun to retain control over the web rights of their books, which is why we have also started approaching authors directly," says Mehta. "We add a few thousand books to our list every month, and hope to have 15 million e-books by 2012. Regional titles of e-books are available too.

There is a large readership of Indians living abroad that reads books in regional languages." New Delhi-based tech journalist and author, Nimish Dubey, says e-books are an exciting proposition. "As an author, it's even better to know that to get published, I do not have to undergo that heartbreaking process of mailing my manuscript and waiting for months to get a reply from a publisher." Dubey, who has published two books � one on Indian heroes and another on sport � is getting them converted into e-books.



Publisher-author David Davidar's publishing house Aleph Book Company has aggressive plans in the digital arena too. "Though I am not a digital native and my default choice is print, the whole world is moving towards a digital medium, and all you can do is be ready for that inevitable change," he says. Davidar's firm, which is coming out with its first list of published books in April next year, will digitise them as well.

Publishing house Tata Westland already has 20 titles in e-book format up on Amazon, informs CEO Gautam Padmanabhan. However, those are international titles. Padmanabhan exhorts readers to wait till 2012, when a host of Indian titles in e-book format will be unleashed online.

"The scene of e-books in India is poised to change. We intend to add 200 titles on Amazon by next year. While earlier Amazon would deal only with American publishers, today they are dealing with Indian ones. Westland will get a dedicated e-wing soon. Printers have started offering deals that involve physically printing your book and making a digital ePub copy simultaneously," says Padmanabhan.

Debutant authors too, are happy, as many feel that they can focus on writing a book instead of worrying about getting themselves published, since e-books are easier to create and distribute. Kolkata based Elizabeth Gupta says,

"The digital world helps you give a miss to the ruthlessly commercial angle of publishing." Perhaps that's why this 60 year-old embraced the Internet even as her peers were overwhelmed by it. Her first e-book A Guide to Spiritual Tourism, did not sell even in double digit numbers. However, thanks to Shillong-based e-book publisher and content writing service Chillibreeze, Gupta is already on her second book, Frankincense and Myrrh. But can Gupta support herself on the sales of her e-books? "No," she replies, though she is not willing to divulge the percentage of the sales she receives. "You need a parallel job going to earn your bread and butter. Being an e-writer for a sole source of income is a big risk."



"The real question is at what point will publishers make standalone e-books that elaborately marry text, pictures, sound and animation," points out Davidar. However, though it's business as usual, today, no one, according to Davidar, is laggardly about it anymore.

"It may take time, but e-books will (become popular) for their ease of distribution and other conveniences they provide. For a country like India, where distribution to remote locations is prohibitive, e-books are definitely the answer to people's reading needs," says Jaya Jha, co-founder, Pothi, a print-on-demand publishing firm, which recently began publishing digital format books and selling them on their website.

Number crunching
Even with a mere 100 million Internet users, we can't overlook the economic disparity that puts e-books and e-book readers, including Apple's iPad, Amazon's Kindle or even Infibeam's Pi 2, out of reach for a majority of readers.

Maybe Aakash, the cheapest tablet in the world, will change that. Expected to be priced at Rs 3,000, Aakash, released last month, has the potential to increase the penetration of e-book readers and tablets in the Indian market.

"India is an extremely price-sensitive market," says Suneet Singh Tuli, chief executive officer of Datawind, a UK-based company that developed Aakash with the Indian Institute of Technology, Rajasthan. "Like in the case of mobiles, where there was an explosion in the market the minute the prices dropped, the exposure of the tablet will be massive thanks to its low cost. And as distribution and printing costs become negligible, prices will drop even further," predicts Tuli.

Perhaps this is just what we need to shift the current focus from retailers and distributors, right back to authors and readers. As Dubey puts it, "I am not going to mourn the demise of paper. We are going to have more trees. As long as authors and readers get a good deal, it's all good."

The Handbook
Your guide to buying an e-book reader
Wink: Made by Bengaluru-based online bookstore EC Media, Wink comes in two models � XLite (Rs 6,999) with a 5-inch screen and XTS (Rs 8,999) with a 6-inch screen � and supports more than 15 regional languages. Mail: customer
support@winkstore.com 
iPad: The tablet/e-reader has several applications including iBooks, iPod, iTunes, mail, music, and comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB options. It's priced at Rs 22,500 and above, and can be bought at Croma and Vijay Sales stores
Kindle Fire: The first full-colour, touch-screen Kindle costs half of what the first Kindle cost four years ago ($199 or Rs 10,388 approx) and has 8GB of storage and a 7-inch screen. Available at www.amazon.com
Pi: Infibeam's newest e-reader model comes with touchscreen, WiFi connectivity and a 6-inch screen, for Rs 9,999 (with free gift vouchers if you buy it on their website). It's available at Reliance Time Out stores as well.
Nook: Barnes and Noble's e-readers range from a 6-inch Simple Touch to a Nook Colour and a tablet. They are priced upwards of $99 (Rs 5,173 approx) and are available at www.barnesandnoble.com

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