A great Indian opportunity

The subcontinent is uniquely placed between the mature markets of the West and the localised markets of the developing world, writes Vivek Mehra

There can never be one clear definition, interpretation or prediction about Indian academic publishing. Any article making any sort of claim can and will be challenged. And it should be challenged. But that doesn’t take away from certain facts about the country and its potential. In the figure above, there are some figures that need attention.

My area of focus remains in the undergraduate and postgraduate programs. There are some fundamental differences in India’s Higher Education structure that are distinct from the developed world. By focussing on the education system one arrives at an understanding of the publishing landscape in the world’s largest democracy. Here are a few.

Education – the primary driver

The route to rise above the current economic strata (India) VS Education to gain knowledge/build a career (overseas)

It is fascinating to see how education is viewed globally. In ancient times India was the centre of learning and knowledge building. The oldest university in the world is supposed to have existed in India. But through the years of foreign domination and unbridled pilferage India suffered. When the British ruled India there is evidence to suggest that one form of subjugation was to dismantle the existing education system and replace it with what existed in Europe. The result was the demise of education for the masses and selective enrolment for the elite.

This, coupled with the plunder of wealth ensured that by the time India woke up to freedom, it was stratified by wealth in a manner not seen in the history of the nation. Since independence, getting a certification that qualifies education has been seen as the single important reason for getting a job. While the western world took the lead in medicine and engineering, India languished in both. This generated the drive to create centres of excellence and the prestige of getting a medicine or engineering degree. Even today, the same mindset continues even as liberal arts are now seen as sufficient to gain employment.

Education system – the conundrum

Prescriptive from a central source with some flexibility (India) VS complete autonomy in the hands of a professor or course leader (Western world)

The socialist structure envisaged by thought leaders in 1947 pointed clearly to a centralised, standardised, prescriptive curriculum to form the foundation of India’s education system. There were many benefits of adopting a centralised system. The certification process was transparent, and a degree meant that the basics were in place. It worked exceedingly well when the pace of knowledge creation was slow and steady. In the last three decades, however, global knowledge creation has accelerated exponentially. This isn’t something India’s education system is or was prepared for. There are patches of autonomy within B-schools but that hasn’t really brought forth any substantial change to existing norms. The IIMs for example remain the leaders in curricula design with a few others now having made their mark with their own (curricula).

Educational resources – embracing technology

Traditional, prescriptive with a sprinkling of adapting modern tools (India) VS great exposure to non-traditional, non-prescriptive digital and interactive tools (Western world)

While the western world has accepted modern digital tools and resources, the pace has been differential for India. Although elite institutions with large funding have made rapid strides in the use of digital resources, the vast majority of India remains dependent on traditional print and analogue resources. India has the distinction of rapid technology adaptation and the Mobile Telephony industry is one such example. Within two decades, India moved from an environment where a phone connection took 15 or more years to arrive to a three-hour period today. It is however unclear if such a dramatic change will happen in India’s higher education sector. I remain optimistic that change will happen but am realistic about the pace at which it will take place. The government has embarked on a plan to bring at least one computer terminal to every village in India1. This means that 1.32 billion Indians will have access to at least one computer. Couple this with falling prices of smartphones along with government schemes rolled out directly to beneficiaries (digital + virtual routes)2, it is clear a revolution is about to take place.

Given this landscape, India presents a unique challenge and opportunity. As India demands education, both as a need and as a fundamental right guaranteed by law3, the demand for education and academic publishing can only grow. But the Indian consumer isn’t easy to profile, being discerning, frugal and minimalistic in his approach to life in general. Add to this the ever growing choices for receiving content and you have a molotov cocktail in your hand. And therein lies the greatest challenge and opportunity for publishing.

Prescriptive courseware is an opportunity only if the publisher is at the right place and at the right time (when a revision is taking place). With formal curricula revision still at a snail’s pace, professors and course leaders resort to bypassing systems to support learning objectives. The autonomy granted to B-schools has fuelled quicker changes in syllabi thus fuelling the demand for more relevant content. In the last few decades professors/course leaders have increased the reliance on secondary reading. This list has steadily grown spawning a parallel industry indulging in creating photocopied content. While the recently abandoned legal action4 was one visible discussion on the issue, there remain several similar processes rampant across India. The net effect is that copyright violation in print has been brought to the same level as it exists in the digital space. Note: the comparison of copyright violation in print vs that in the digital world is restricted to the quantum of violations today and not a comment on how the two types of violations are similar or the level of legal acceptance.

Academic publishing is a term that has different meaning for publishers and educational institutions. For publishers, academic publishing refers to reference publishing and secondary reading lists. Core textbooks were ring-fenced with the term textbook publishing. For librarians, students and course leaders, the term included core textbook publishing. It’s simpler to use the all-encompassing definition to understand the great Indian opportunity.

Reference publishing has all but vanished globally. The reference library has now become the Internet and search engines are the new age librarians. Traditional libraries continue to be the backbone of India’s education system. But these are now clearly divided into two distinct categories:
1. The ones with high speed internet connection; and
2. Those without.

The former consist of almost all state and central universities; whether or not using English as their primary means of teaching. Here reference material is stored on publisher-hosted digital spaces and access is IP based. These are the ones that multinational publishers love to work with. E-Shodh Sindhu5 is the largest consortium created by the government that helps deliver electronic content to around 6000 of India’s 43,000 institutions. That still leaves around 36,000 institutions with no or limited digital access. There is no surprise then that India still remains print dependent. Physical distribution of books and other teaching/reference materials to these institutions is a massive challenge. Complex government regulations on transparency such as tendering and multiple level scrutiny of orders often hampers more than it helps. This, coupled with inconsistent fund distribution under various UGC and RUSA schemes, keeps the market volatile, unpredictable and sometimes exceedingly dangerous from a business viewpoint.

The future of India’s academic publishing rests on three pillars. These are:

1. Academic or reference content with greater digital accessibility at friendlier end-user terms – publishers have accepted this reality and digital content generally comes with a hefty discount against print. By the best estimate, only 6000 institutions have access to digital content. The rest of the 43,000 are waiting in the wings;
2. Textbook or core material publishing should be at a price where photocopying is made redundant. The West has countered photocopying with stringent laws. In India enforcement of copyright law is very low in priority. The answer then lies in a combination of print and digital resources that helps institutions keep libraries alive and students who don’t mind spending a little, for curated and relevant content; and
3. Publishing services in the hands of students, professors and researchers is still a developing area. India’s overall research and scholarly output is disproportionately low to the enrolment numbers. One cause is the lack of formal knowledge on what makes knowledge publishable.

India is uniquely placed between the developed and mature markets of the West and the underdeveloped localised markets of the developing world. The demand in India and the lack of stringent controls (as seen in China) present a large opportunity that is equally daunting. To exploit this opportunity, a publishing house needs to find a model that in many ways is unique and bespoke for the market.

Vivek Mehra is the CEO and MD, SAGE publications India, a TEDx speaker, author, teacher and mentor


1 National Internet Mission

2 Direct Benefit Transfer scheme of Government of India

3 The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009

4 Oxford University Press, Taylor & Francis, Cambridge University Press Vs Rameshwari Photocopy Service (suit withdrawn in 2017)

5 eShodhSindhu (

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