When Amazon Inc, the global e-commerce behemoth which also owns a book-publishing arm named Amazon Publishing announced on February 1, 2022, it was closing down Westland Books in India, a company it had acquired fully in 2016, there was a concerted wail of despair across the English language publishing industry in general and among many of the authors published by Westland.
Two weeks later, author Sharanya Mannivannan, whose graphic novels have been published by Westland tweeted: ‘Exactly 2 weeks ago today, everyone at Westland found out the company was being shut down & our books would go out of print. Too soon, the date for distributors to place their last orders for most of the catalogue has come. From now, our books will begin to disappear from the market.’
Almost immediately, the publishers wrote to all those who have published with it, promising to return their rights—acquired over the preceding five years—on April 1, 2022, if Westland were not acquired by then. This, of course, begged the question of why Amazon had chosen to close down the company instead of selling it in the first place?
There was also the additional question of whether, for a company the size of Amazon, the losses of a small company it owned in India could really prompt such a drastic measure. According to a report in Mint, Westland ran up losses of Rs 46.3 crore, Rs 33.8 crore, and Rs 19.2 crore, respectively, in 2019, 2020, and 2021. While these figures are not small, they also showed a trajectory of narrowing losses, which is perhaps even more noteworthy, considering most of 2020 and all of 2021 were pandemic years.
According to the same report, the Indian operations of the multinationals HarperCollins and Penguin Random House also posted losses in 2021—of Rs 36.2 crore and Rs 4.6 crore, respectively. Westland, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House—possibly following an industry-wide trend in the face of many bookshops shutting down and book distributors shrinking their operations—saw their revenues slip in 2021. Westland went from Rs 31.2 crore in 2020 to Rs 25.1 crore in 2021; HarperCollins, from Rs 139.9 crore to Rs 137.5 crore; and Penguin Random House, from Rs 260.6 crore to Rs 245.6 crore.
So, it wasn’t as though Westland was doing particularly badly while the rest of the English language trade publishing (non-textbook) industry was thriving. Moreover, for multinationals HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, the lion’s share of sales comes from imported books—from their British and American lists. In contrast, Westland’s entire list was homegrown, which would, by industry estimates, not put it very far behind the Indian lists of other companies in terms of sales.
There was also speculation that Amazon had decided to close down the firm under pressure from the Indian government, for publishing books that speak up against the current dispensation. While it is true that Westland has published books critical of the Narendra Modi administration, the BJP and the RSS, by writers like Aporvaanand, Aakar Patel, Christophe Jaffrelot, Dhirendra K Jha, Sanjay Jha, K.S. Komireddi and Saba Naqvi, among others, it has also published narratives supporting the right-wing in India, by Ram Madhav and Sanjeev Sanyal, for instance, besides Nalin Mehta’s sympathetic account of the BJP’s growth.
But this is extremely unlikely, given that English language books barely move the needle on public opinion. They only serve to consolidate currently held views by providing evidence. Moreover, the Indian government has so far shown no inclination to catalyse such extreme steps as closing down a company because of the books it publishes.
That leaves financial performance as the key factor. And while Amazon itself is perhaps too big to be dented by Westland’s losses, its publishing arm is a much smaller business, which needs to be successful in every market it operates in. Five years ago, there were expectations of quick expansion in the publishing market in India—this has not materialised. And the decision may be on those grounds alone. However, Amazon officials familiar with the matter have not commented on the subject.
But why did Westland run into financial trouble despite having two of India’s top-selling authors—Chetan Bhagat and Amish—on its list? Back in 2018, Bhagat signed a six-book deal—not with Westland but with Amazon—for, reportedly, a combined advance of Rs 36 crore. Of course, such advances are never paid out entirely upfront, they are calibrated with the delivery of manuscripts and the publication of the books. At that time, Amazon must have bet on the success of these authors, which Westland would benefit from. Those expectations have probably not been met by the sales of works by these authors. Nor has Westland’s considerable depth in categories like spirituality and self-help—which usually rack up large numbers in terms of sales in India—helped its financial performance sufficiently. All of which points to the problems of the industry as a whole.
What lies ahead for Westland and its list of published books and authors? On the one hand, after the news broke of the closure, several companies directly or indirectly connected with publishers are believed to be considering purchasing the company. On the other hand, rival publishers have already begun making informal offers to some of the writers to acquire their titles, if rights are given back to the authors and translators.
What will a potential purchaser be buying, though? If it is a company already in publishing and wants to expand both its list of books and its distribution and marketing network, the acquisition will offer a quick route to expansion. However, for a multinational, this would mean adding redundant capacities. All it might be interested in are the books themselves, and, perhaps, the editors. It can easily hire the latter, and pick up the former once the rights go back to the respective authors.
For the Westland list to go out of print would be a tragic outcome. But, equally—or more—important, this episode points to the structural problems in the English language trade publishing business in India. The number of readers isn’t growing, streaming platforms are a huge challenge to books, bookshops are dwindling, distributors have cash flow problems. Unless the sector is reinvented with new technology, new financial structures, and new ways to get books into the hands of a much larger number of people than at present, these problems will only get worse.
Arunava Sinha is a translator, a professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University, Sonipat, and co-director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation.
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