Round-up of Publishing Next: India's first digital publishing conference

Last month, Tara’s Maegan Dobson attended Publishing Next – India’s first conference on the future of publishing. There she spoke about social networking from the perspective of an independent publishing house, joining a conversation that touched upon subjects as diverse as technology, dissemination, class and language. Here Maegan discusses the experience, reflecting on some of the issues raised by Jennifer Abel in her ongoing series of posts on the social economics of both digital and printed publishing. (Thank you Maegan for allowing to reproduce this piece from your blog.)

‘Social Publishing’ just about captures the nature of the Publishing Nextconference held in Goa earlier this month. Chosen by Maya Hemant (of Pratham Books) as the title of the workshop we conducted together on social media marketing, I couldn’t help but feel that it had it wider application in summing up the conference as a whole.

While Publishing Next undoubtedly was – as promised – a forum to explore the future of Indian publishing in light of new technologies, it was the old-fashioned networking, meeting of new people and face-to-face discussions that made the conference so phenomenally successful: putting a face to a twitter ID; discovering how other companies were making use of the new opportunities afforded by the digital age; meeting the person behind a favourite blog, facebook page, or book.

Whilst uniformly friendly, such conversations were far from uncontentious, with the panel discussion on social media marketing initiating particularly heated discussions. The mixture of perspectives on the panel itself –ranging from multinational companies to independents, authors with self publishing experience to digital news providers – were further widened by the diverse and vocal audience. Could social media be as effective for a company as for an individual? Was it possible to establish a distinctive company personality? How far could a ‘successful’ social media strategy be correlated to sales? And what about audience? What proportions of the population in India have access to social media channels via the internet?

This question of audience was particularly interesting, and is something that we at Tara Books have been grappling with for some time. For us at least, any social media campaign (however successful) has to be balanced with more traditional means of marketing – reaching out to a range of schools, holding workshops and events, and of course liaising closely with bookshops. Whilst it is genuinely phenomenal to think that the number of facebook users in India grew at a rate of 35.7% in the first three months of this year to nearly 23 million people, this has to be balanced against the more sobering statistic that internet penetration is currently estimated at around 10%. The consensus of the panel discussion – and informal conversations afterwards – seemed to be that if you wanted to reach a more diverse audience, and to engage more than a slim proportion of the more economically affluent, then a range of marketing methods would be essential.

Interestingly, though, the discussion also showed that the application of social media marketing could not be reduced to simple statistics about internet users, and could actually be used to reach out beyond this narrow section of the population. Pratham Books – a publishing house with the aim of a book in every child’s hand had used twitter to build and engage with a community who then went on to contribute to their cause in different ways – from storytelling to distribution of books, from translation to Skype reading sessions. Similarly, they had been able to share the content of their books online via Scribd, and through creative commons licensing enabled local communities to translate their texts into a host of regional languages. Here at Tara, we’d experienced a similar phenomenon – twitter and facebook helped us to discover and communicate with journalists who then wrote about our books in more traditional mediums such as the review pages of the major newspapers.

Perhaps the most vociferous arguments, though,  were those around the subject of how to best use social media channels, and who should be using them. Many voices in the audience questioned the prevailing attitude on the panel that social media should and could be used by everyone across the industry. What about small companies without the manpower or monetary resources to maintain a solid presence on social networking channels? Could this really be prioritized above established marketing methods with proven links to sales? An audience member argued that a company facebook or twitter page could never be as successful as an individual (for example a blogger), as it was difficult to get past the ‘corporate’ image and access the truly ‘social’ and intimate nature of social networking. The counter argument came back that a company had to find and then establish its own personality on social networking channels, and that they had the potential to be utilised to great effect by independent companies working on small marketing budgets.

For us at Tara, this has certainly been the case – thinking about what we stand for and how we can engage with a creative community (rather than with a straightforward commercial group) has been essential in our social networking activities. Spaces such as you tube and facebook have given us the opportunity to share the contexts behind our books – to show art from our books in its original setting on the walls of homes in rural India, or to demonstrate the handmade printing process.

Drawing other examples from the panel and audience: in the case ofHarperCollins and Penguin India, social media channels had allowed their readers to connect directly with authors: through facebook chats, video lounges and tweets. For Kiruba Shankar, a wiki actually helped mould the content of his book on Creative Commons licensing, as he uploaded it chapter by chapter and received feedback from his online audience. Dial a Book – a startup offering cash on delivery books – were using social media to actually make sales, taking orders directly from facebook and twitter.

These then are some of the reasons why we all agreed that it wasn’t easy to measure the impact of social media marketing in any straight forward way, and that its successes were many and various. Different individuals and companies were using various social media channels in a host of different ways – to connect with other organizations, to get customer feedback or to build up a community around their work. When you then consider the many languages in which writing and publishing happen in India the question of outreach and usefulness gets even more complicated.

While these discussions were specific to the session on social media marketing, the issues that they touch upon are applicable to the larger debate about the development and growth of digital publishing technologies in India as a whole. Is it for everybody? Can technologies developed in the west be imported wholesale, and are they relevant and appropriate for the Indian market? Who is your audience, and how can you best reach out to them? Is there a danger of social and economic exclusion? Publishing Next may have raised more questions than it answered, but in a truly social sense, it created a connected community posed to answer and develop them in the coming years.

For us here at Tara, we’ve come away with an awareness of the exciting possibilities afforded by the digital age, but also a strong sense of the aspects of our identity that will remain constant. We will continue to try and make books that are more than streams of content, and have intrinsic value as objects in their own right. As a colleague pointed out to me on my return from the conference, looking at how our books using tribal and folk art are received back into the communities who helped to create them, the printed book still has a valuable role to play as a symbol of cultural authority.



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