‘Books from India are my gift to the world’ (IANS Interview)


In 1998, Ray McLennan, who till then had been importing into the UK “all sorts of things” from India like musical instruments, saris, tilak, Tulsi malas and agarbatti, purchased Motilal Books, a small Oxford-based distributor focusing on academic bookshops and university libraries.

In 2014, he set up his own company, Rays Books of India Pvt Ltd, to broaden his accessibility. Between them, the two companies recorded a turnover of 1.7 million pounds in 2020, in spite of the Coronavirus pandemic, riding largely on online sales.

“I needed a new challenge, and having found it hard to get books from India, and the constant issues with payment, quality, reliability, and general information on what is in print, decided to improve all the logistics, providing a much needed service for all Indian publishers, from the biggest to the No.1 authors,” McLennan, who is originally from New Zealand, told IANS in an interview from his base in St. Albans in Hertfordshire, north of London.

“My gifts from India to the world are printed books across the full spectrum of subjects, many unique to India and others international, but produced more cheaply in India than elsewhere. Religious and spiritual development titles are the most popular category of Indian publishing worldwide. But all academic subjects, fiction, wildlife and tourism, and of course cookery, are always selling,” he added.

And how – 16,000 books were sold per month in 2020 and made for 9,000-plus titles sold during the year.

“We have had an increase in turnover (in spite of the pandemic), but due to increased freight costs, a lower margin. Our greater sales are because online selling is king. Bookshops have been closed much of 2020,” McLennan said.

His Indian associate, KPR Nair of Konark Publishers, was quite astounded when he visited McLennan in St Albans in 2019.

“I could not believe my eyes when I saw the kind of stock of books held by him of Indian authors, from Chetan Bhagat to Shobha De to Ramachandra Guha to Shashi Tharoor. I was floored by his in-depth knowledge of our products and equally by his passion about Indian culture and our way of life, etc. What was to be a brief meeting thus ended up in a four-hour-long passionate talk about books, history and culture and untold stories about Indian authors and our publishing industry.

“To sum it up, both of us did not get time even for the minimum civilities of a cup of coffee. We did not simply realize it; we were so caught up in our talk. We smelled, sipped, drank, but it was all books and books,” Nair told IANS.

Only in India, McLeenan said, “is the English publishing scene full of titles on an endless range of subjects, authors and publishers. As the world’s largest distributor of this material outside of India we work with the worldwide book trade to list between 700-1,000 new titles a month, adding to a range of over 100,000 such titles available today. We have over 9,500 Indian published titles in stock with Amazon.co.uk, and 13,400 units in stock with Amazon.com in the USA”.

“We have titles available from more than 750 Indian publishers we exclusively represent into the UK and the worldwide book trade, including Penguin Random House, HarperCollins India, Westland, Konark, Orient Blackswan, TERI, Juggernaut, Kitab Mahal and Jaico.

“We exhibit internationally every year at the London Book Fair (the 2020 edition was cancelled and the 2021 event will be held digitally) where we meet with publishers and customers. We attend the Delhi World Book Fair every year in February (the 2021 edition was virtual), which presents us an opportunity to meet contracted publishers and new publishers, see new titles, and plan future business with them all to maximise sales outside of India,” McLennan said.

He visited India originally in 1975, has since visited the country every year, and since 2004, multiple times a year.

The establishment of Rays Books of India Pvt Ltd improved the procurement percentage of all books he had a demand for and that dramatically improved sales. “We went from supplying only 55 per cent of titles ordered by me to 85- 90 per cent, and that, in turn, told the UK market that greater availability was now possible, which again increased orders,” McLennan said.

“We are pushing new developments all the time. Adding new titles to our selection is a priority. We are currently adding over 500 new titles to the world’s book trade records, every month, every year,” he pointed out.

“We want to sell as many of each title as possible, and as a specialised wholesale distributor of Indian publishing, we estimate that around 75-80 per cent of all Indian publishing sold in the UK is sold by Motilal (UK) Books of India,” he added.

Over time he built up the inventory of titles held in stock in the UK, “and that again increased the speed of supply to all types of trade customers, such as book chains, independents, libraries, schools and specialist niche markets.

“From 2006 we have been the only major supplier of all Indian publishing worldwide, and although we have had financial collapses, terrorism, changes of governments, ebooks, Brexit, and now Covid, our sales have continued to increase as we create more awareness of what has been published, its price and where to get it.

“Yes, Covid is giving us problems, but we will continue to supply demand which is mainly coming from the USA and the UK as can only be expected as the two biggest centres of English language publishing and selling,” McLennan concluded.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)