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BW Businessworld

Going Beyond Grandma’s Tales

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Those in the publishing industry are aware that India is among the top 10 publishing countries in the world. Going by the India office of the ISBN agency, we have over 12,000 publishers. Add to that a bunch of unregistered publishers, and we have at least 18,000 publishers producing in excess of 80,000 titles a year, of which more than 18,000 are English titles. This, interestingly, makes India the world’s third largest publishing country for English language titles, next to the UK and the US.
A quick scan of Nielsen’s report on the top selling English books (in December 2012) throws up some interesting facts: Of the top 1,000 books sold in retail across India, 188 were classified as children’s books (fiction, non-fiction, etc.) led by Diary Of A Wimpy Kid! Of these, 188, 47 were ‘Indian’, calling for celebrations. But that is only if you consider Wren & Martin ‘Indian’! Without the ‘Indians of foreign origin’, the list drops to 33 or so! Out of these, more than 20 per cent are from Amar Chitra Katha (ACK). In November 2012, 183 books for children made it to the top 1,000. And ‘Indian’ books were 43 of these. And ACK publications typically contribute 20 per cent of the kids reading genre month on month. The big question that really seeks to be answered: What are kids reading nowadays?
For all who believe that ACK is all about mythology, here’s the ‘doosra’: Fables (including folk tales) is the publication’s largest selling genre, with stories from Panchtantra, Jataka and Hitopadesha, and other folk tales. This is roughly about 25 per cent of the retail sales. Mythology, popularly believed to be ACK’s core strength by parents, is also the second largest genre in terms of sales. Other best selling collections from ACK include ‘Nation Builders’ , ‘Mahabharata’, and ‘The Complete Collection’, which is a collection of 300 Amar Chitra Katha’s packed into one beautiful box.
As a recent seminar at the University of Baroda, we ‘educators’ were exchanging notes. At least two doctoral dissertations support our sales pattern (Rachana Bhangaokar, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies and Maharaj Sayajirao, University of Baroda). The reasons were similar to the ones volunteered by our customers — uni-variate stories and clear take-outs are the reason why books on fables (Aesop is of course an integral part of the world community of fables). My colleagues at other quality publishing houses would probably support this hypothesis and report similar sales patterns.
Why are fables our largest genre? One reason is that our core readership is between 8-12 years old. Children in this age group are getting into the stage where reading becomes a choice beyond ‘activity’ books. Because the classical and much loved ‘grandmothers tales’ find content from a lot of these stories, and as you know, the comfort of familiarity is very important.
The reading pattern changes with older kids moving on to Mythology and/or History. Fables pass the baton to Mythology and History. Kids start (or should start) making inferences on ‘right and wrong’, ‘good and bad’ based on what they have learnt in their fables. Some kids drop out of reading other comics after the first two or so years of reading, however, the ‘loyals’ will convert to other genres.
Within the ‘older child’ genres, Heroic and fun characters quickly gain precedence. I quote from data based on responses from kids who applied for the Amar Chitra Katha scholarship, run in conjunction with Big Bazaar and which generated >25,000 entries. The primary question was: who is your favourite Amar Chitra Katha character? And the top 4 characters: Birbal, Raman of Tenali, Hanuman and Krishna. I was impressed by the intrinsic ‘wit’ in the answers. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Human Wit is valued over super natural powers… especially in a specific segment of the population.
What fuels a child to read a story book? A familiar eco-system, Characters or stories that s/he has heard about from her/his significant others, A familiar storyline, for instance, victory of good over evil, triumph of intelligence over foolishness, foolishness is not ‘bad’… in fact, it is loveable, bravery over cowardice, conquering adversities to achieve good (Soordas was blind…) 
The data on the popularity of fables and characters supports the ‘FSBT’ theory. This is a theory that I presented at a seminar held at Baroda University.  Simply put, give the child a choice and s/he will chose familiar, simple, byte-sized stories with clear takeaways. This ‘FSBT’ principle was already known to the people who developed the collections of stories that make up Indian Folk Tales through the centuries.
Uncle Pai or Anant Pai who created ACK in the 1960s followed this to the hilt; Walt Disney created an entire world on this principle; and all ‘knowledge-based’ TV channels (Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, etc.) seem to follow the same principle when creating programming for kids. Pratham Books use familiar storylines to create inexpensive and beautifully art-worked books for the mass audience. I quote from their website: “…and we believe they should have stories set in surroundings familiar to them and in a language close to their culture…”. So, for instance, you will find children dressed in Indian attires, or games or food found in local setting in the story books published by Pratham. 
Uncle Pai’s other great creation, Tinkle, is arguably the largest selling magazine for kids in the country with 2.25 lakh-plus copies being sold every month. The probable reason for its success: The clumsy but loveable Suppandi who takes everything literally (thus marking the difference between literal and figurative) and the animal-fearing Shikhari Shambhu — who personifies all the fears that kids themselves will want to share and overcome. Chandamama from Delhi Press is a publication that simplifies life. Simple pictures and uncluttered pages make it popular with the masses as does its low price. There are hundreds of other publishers producing children’s products, but seldom, if ever, make it to the Top 1,000. The key here seems to be the development and ownership of a scalable and specific intellectual property, a la Suppandi, Shambhu and Chacha Chaudhry.
The publishers are trying to create books that would compel people to read more. Perhaps we are still lacking in our marketing efforts. We must have our core general products worked out to sustain the bread and butter of each business, with half a dozen best sellers providing the cream. Pricing continues to be an area of concern. Any lower and there is no sustainability in the business; a little higher and books go out of reach of the massive majority. The hunt for the sweet spot continues…
Mohan is COO with ACK Media
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