Thursday, December 9, 2021

Publishing in the Pandemic: Interview with Trisha De Niyogi of Niyogi Books

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If there is one quality that unites all humans, it is the need for escape during stressful times. The Covid-19 pandemic might be raging outside, but it compelled humans to slow down and turn to creativity: art, music, cooking, films, and books.

While people could sit in the comfort of their homes and read books online or order a couple of copies from Amazon, it wasn’t as simple for the publishing world.

However, as Trisha De Niyogi says, “The book industry is quite a resilient one. Be it earthquakes, be it wars, be it pandemics before this, the book world has bounced back every single time.”

Reading during the pandemic increased for two reasons: the first was the need mentioned above to escape, and the other was to educate or find a new hobby. This led to a demand for books, but India was facing a series of lockdowns. This meant that independent bookstores were dying at a rapid pace – social and digital media kept us informed about several bookstores shutting down their businesses amid the pandemic, others barely staying afloat.

IcyTales caught up with Trisha de Niyogi of Niyogi Books to talk about the resilience of the Indian publishing industry amidst the pandemic.

Q. We’ve all been dealing with the pandemic in our way. How has it impacted the publishing industry? Have there been any major changes in the industry?

Trisha De Niyogi: Yes, the pandemic has had its effect on all of us. No physical books were being sold at that time which meant zero revenue for most publishers. But it also taught us how to make use of digital channels more effectively. We started selling more e-books.

We saw sales (of e-books, audiobooks, and other digital formats) go up significantly till June last year. But as soon as the market opened, we saw the rise of physical book sales and a drop in e-books and audiobooks sales. Now this tells us that whatever trends have come up during the lockdown do not seem to be completely permanent.

Q. What kind of books did people prefer reading during the pandemic? Was there any change in the reading habits?

Trisha De Niyogi: There was a desire to read dystopia or self-help, eco-fiction, and cookbooks. We saw a lot of people started cooking, so food books became very popular which were earlier not a very lucrative proposition for a publishing house because they didn’t make a good economic investment.

At the same time sales for romance and feel-good books also went up. And since a lot of people took this opportunity to study and grow, a lot of our illustrated books also saw a rise, specifically in the biography section.

Q. What are the struggles that you had to face personally and who was your support during this time? Is there someone you look up to as an inspiration?

Trisha De Niyogi: My team was there to support me. I don’t think I would have been able to do anything without a very supportive team and a family. Niyogi Books is a family. It’s more than just a team for us.

Of course, since we were all scattered there were challenges in communicating and coordinating because we were all used to working in the office environment.

Niyogi Books publishes a lot of illustrated books that need to be done together. It’s collaborative work. A non-illustrated book is still easier to do but when it comes to illustrated books, it’s much more difficult to do it online.

We learned some things – how to coordinate, how to work things but we also made mistakes. It took us a lot of time individually at the office to understand each technology and onboard them. But we all did it.

We managed to pay everybody on time even during the lockdown but it was also a concern because there was no revenue. And when things started getting better, we started feeling better.

Q. You have partnered with a lot of independent bookstores. How are they coping with the pandemic, especially against online competitors like Amazon?

Trisha De Niyogi: One of my concerns as well was that independent bookstores should not suffer as much. They should be able to recover as well. We’re asking everyone to promote independent bookstores because if they survive, we will survive. They have to survive first.

What I’ve realized during the lockdown is that a lot of our readers are quite empathetic. We didn’t realize that before we faced this crisis. But a lot of our readers will go to a bookstore and buy a book at full price.

And this is only during the lockdown and the pandemic that I saw this welcome change. People are just buying books from bookstores. That does not mean selling through Amazon is a deterrent because, at this point when people are scared of going out to the market, books are coming to them.

"Curiosity kills the cat, sure but it also begins the chat. That is what happens in bookstores. They are the repositories of our culture, of our humanity," says Trisha.
“Curiosity kills the cat, sure but it also begins the chat. That is what happens in bookstores. They are the repositories of our culture, of our humanity,” says Trisha.

Having said that, why are independent bookstores important? Because it’s a place where you experience books. It’s not just buying a book. They are cultural centers – hubs where people exchange ideas, notes and there are so many discussions that enable a reader to find something that they might not ever read by themselves. Bookstores are not based on algorithms.

So, I always say this: curiosity kills the cat, sure but it also begins the chat. That is what happens in bookstores. I don’t think a society can go far without bookstores or museums. They are the repositories of our culture, of our humanity.

Q. Niyogi also has a Hindi imprint, Bahuvachan. Could you talk about the kind of titles you publish under Bahuvachan? 

Trisha De Niyogi: It’s just two years ago that I got into Hindi publishing and we focus only on illustrated Hindi books which is again a very niche genre in publishing. An imprint dedicated to only illustrated Hindi books is not heard of. So, this is a new game for me.

We have published biographies of Lata Mangeshkar, MF Hussain, we have done books like Antarctica, India’s first journey to Antarctica. We’ve done books on Kailash Mansarovar. We’re doing a book on Ajmer Sharif.

We just published a book on Indian Classical Dances – the entire history of it in Hindi. So, we’ve done quite a few. We’re now coming up with a biography of Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw in Hindi.

Q. Niyogi has published a lot of translated works, particularly women in translation. We know that there is a huge disparity in the number of translated works written by women. Could you shed some light on this?

Trisha De Niyogi: I won’t be able to tell you about the disparity in other publishing houses but I can tell you almost 50% of my list are women. Now even though the number of copies sold by an original English author is much more than a book in translation, there is a new wave of very aware readership which is picking up more and more of Indian literature in translation.

And because of these readers, I think we’ve got yet another impetus during the lockdown to further our work in the space of translations. Niyogi Books has a separate imprint that focuses on translations from other Indian languages to English and yet another imprint that translates from English to Hindi.

For me, women in translation is a year-long event. Right now I am reading Mahanadi because I have to work on the promotion of this book, so I am reading the final product, I read it as a manuscript.

Reading the final product at this point. It’s called Mahanadi the tale of a river by Anita Agnihotri. She’s one of the youngest and the most prolific writers in Bangla literature today. And even though she’s Bengali, the book is based in Odisha, and as you know about Mahanadi, it traces the life of Mahanadi and the people around it. So it’s a very warm book. 

Mahanadi the tale of a river by Anita Agnihotri
Mahanadi – The Tale of a River by Anita Agnihotri was recently published by Niyogi Books

I am also rereading at this point of time Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Stories, in which currently I am reading the first of the lot, Draupadi. I just finished Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s foreword which is beautiful as ever. Every single time I have a new thing to learn from it.

I am reading Draupadi again at this point and of course, it will take me a while to finish this book because you can’t read it very quickly. So I am savoring the read now.

Mahasweta Devi's Breast Stories, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Stories, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Q. How has social media changed the publishing game in India? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using social media for book marketing?

Trisha De Niyogi: During the lockdowns, you must realize that a lot of people were on social media. They used social media more actively which meant more eyeballs. Which meant we had only one platform to reach out to our readers.

We didn’t have book review pages, we didn’t have physical events, we couldn’t share flyers, we couldn’t share posters, and we couldn’t share bookmarks. We couldn’t do anything. That was our only channel. And hence a lot of us focused a lot on social media. It did help us significantly then and it’s still helping us.

As for the challenges, it is the algorithm game again – to understand what works for your audience. That challenge is good, that’s how challenges should be. They need to become assets after it stops challenging you. You figure the game out.

Selling through social media was always difficult. I still don’t think I sell through social media at all. But it increases the visibility of a book. Now when you don’t have newspapers, you don’t have anything else, how do you reach out to anybody right?

But in the due course of time, we have seen a lot of very good bloggers and reviewers come up with very good reviews. The new digital magazines and journals which are coming out are quite promising. That gives us a new ray of hope that there are more ways of reaching out to the audience.

Yet another challenge is that there is now a fatigue setting in. So, a lot of these events, if they don’t have the lure, will have very few participants. And then it becomes a challenge in terms of cost, time, and effort in every way. There are challenges that I am yet to figure out, which are problematic for us plus the number of events happening at the same time.

Q. Do you think there has been a resurgence of reading culture due to Bookstagram and other social media platforms? How has Bookstagram helped in increasing the visibility of books?

Trisha De Niyogi: There has not been a resurgence. People were reading back then; people are reading now. The activity of Bookstagramming has increased but that does not mean that there has been a change in leadership.

It’s just that more people are enjoying their reading and would like to share it with others as well. That’s a good thing, that’s how you build word of mouth about a book. It’s just wonderful to me.

I might have a vested interest in it but I feel good when I see Bookstagrammers are at par with lifestyle bloggers as well many times in followers which is a pleasant surprise. That means that they’re connecting to the audience of readers.

Q. While social media has been a prime platform for marketing, what other ways do you plan to adopt to spread awareness about Niyogi Books in the future?

Trisha De Niyogi: I don’t know yet. But definitely, I know it will be a mix of the two (social media and offline promotions), and I would like to talk more through the books I publish.

We’re looking at experimenting with the formats of our books and I am kind of hoping that my experiments would speak louder than just push or pull marketing. I think our readers will pay attention to the fact that we are trying something new every other day.

But again, social media will remain a very important aspect of our promotion. Collaborations are a way forward, definitely, collaborations are a way forward. We would like to collaborate with lots and lots of other spaces and do something interesting.

Q. What is in store for Niyogi Books in the future? Would you like to share some of your plans with us?

Trisha De Niyogi: One line of thought which we are looking at is documenting these folk stories and folk tales from different areas of the world, even the most remote of areas.

We are also bringing in some international fiction. We’ve just finished a translation of a Turkish novel, based in Istanbul. It’s a beautiful novel. We’re trying to get more international literature to Indian readers.

We’re also coming up with a monograph series of pioneers of modern India which includes Homi J Bhabha, Charu Majumdar, and others. We’ve already finished five monographs; we’re working on ten more at this very point.

We’re also working on Mahabharata through Mewari paintings and the entire interpretation through these miniature paintings. We’ve translated all the Mewari texts into Hindi and English, there is a commentary running and the entire Gita is a separate volume.

"Publishing may be competitive but it is also a very collaborative space," says Trisha
“Publishing may be competitive but it is also a very collaborative space,” says Trisha

The Indian publishing industry is a competitive space. “Almost 200 books are being published every day in India so fighting for that space has become harder,” says Trisha. “If you see the number of movies coming out each year and compare it with the number of books coming out each year, you’ll see the number of books coming out every day is quite bigger.”

Trisha believes that “publishing may be competitive but it is also a very collaborative space.” This opens up new opportunities for publishers to foray into newer spheres. Niyogi Books also teamed up with The House of Belonging, a social impact start-up to conduct “Poetry by Midnight.”

The publishing industry also plays a key role in documenting contemporary stories, memories, and trauma.

As Trisha puts it, “Publishing keeps up with society, keeps up with the time of the people and the needs of the society. For example, a lot of people struggled through migration. We need to talk about it. We need to document it so that it doesn’t happen in the future – if it happens, we know how to deal with it in the future. So that way, the publishing industry is quite proactive even in documenting and creating future discourse on any issue that happens at that point of time.”


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