A new chapter in publishing

First it was manufacturing. Then it was call centres. Now, the publishing industry is starting to move its operations to India. Oliver Bennett looks at the next era in outsourcing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

We are used to the idea that a number of British call centres are staffed by inhabitants of Bangalore, who call themselves "Dave" and natter about the terrible weather. But the outsourcing story is mutating. Q2A Solutions, a publishing company, is now exporting creative work to India where it has recruited illustrators, designers, editors, website producers, picture researchers and writers to produce books for the Western market.

We are used to the idea that a number of British call centres are staffed by inhabitants of Bangalore, who call themselves "Dave" and natter about the terrible weather. But the outsourcing story is mutating. Q2A Solutions, a publishing company, is now exporting creative work to India where it has recruited illustrators, designers, editors, website producers, picture researchers and writers to produce books for the Western market.

It's the kind of news that strikes fear into the hearts of professionals who might have expected to be left alone by the galloping trend towards outsourcing. The manufacturing jobs have long gone, the unskilled office jobs are going, white-collar gigs in software, finance, science and engineering are on their way, and now the creative, media and marketing sectors are looking to Asia. Many of these jobs were once considered "safe". Not any longer.

Gayatri Singh is the joint managing director of Q2A with her brother Hanut, and publishing director Chester Fisher. The company is three years old, and despite its not having quite gone into profit yet, the industry is watching its progress with keen interest. The market analyst Nasscom-McKinsey reckons that Indian outsource companies will hold 12 per cent of the world market for design, animation and content development by 2008.

In its offices in Nehru Place, Delhi, Q2A Solutions employs more than 60 people - a staff number that Singh confidently expects to become 300-strong by next year. The employees commute into work by bus and car. As in most capital cities, the average time of the commute is about 40 minutes. Except that here - and this is a key district in India's capital city - parking costs 12 pence a day.

Moreover, the rent is cheap, says Singh, who has worked for the Economist Intelligence Unit and Arthur Andersen in India. "The Indian business environment is very positive about outsourcing," she says. "It needs foreign exchange. There are very good incentives for outsourcing businesses, including tax holidays."

While the Q2A offices are in an "export processing zone", these are not the kind of trainer-stitching sweatshops that exercise Naomi "No Logo" Klein. Indeed, they appear to be rather better than the multifarious London pits in which many of us have toiled: standard open-plan, with Apple Macintosh computers, desk dividers, swivel chairs and the usual international-style blonde furniture. The staff start late by Indian standards; they come in at about 10am, the better to converge with GMT, and work through until about 6 or 7pm. There's a real person making tea and coffee, and lunch is a subsidised thali, which costs about 15-20 pence.

British illustrators and designers are often freelance and work from home. But the Q2A workforce is right there in the building - a bit like the old Hollywood studios, with teams of artists cross-hatching away while their designer colleagues "Quark" the results on to the page. At present, Q2A produce mostly children's and information books, but they are working on plans to do the same for magazines and catalogues. It's better this way, says Singh. "It keeps the work highly integrated, and we can keep a handle on the quality control. The idea is that we do the dirty work for you."

Singh, who travels back and forth to India every six weeks, says that public understanding of Indian outsourcing should stop fixing on call centres. "It's changing," she says. "India is already known for its IT expertise, and now it's time to look at its other professional strengths, such as its huge creative community of illustrators, designers and editors." What's more, because English is the lingua franca of India, and the education system is still post-Imperial (Singh herself attended a Catholic school run by Irish nuns), written and spoken English is as good as in the UK - some would argue, better, despite its archaic flourishes.

Singh says that the "key is to get the right people"; highly qualified BA- or MA-level graduates in fine and applied arts who have been sourced from top Indian colleges. "They're from all over India, although Calcutta is a very good source for designers," she says. Everyone trains for 15 days before starting and each is given a style guide as a clue to the Western design market. Most are in their late twenties. "Any feeling that they are less sophisticated is totally untrue," adds Fisher.

Indeed, there may be human advantages to having an Eastern workforce, says Bruce Thew, president of Ceridian International, who has studied offshore outsourcing for 20 years. "It seems that workers on the sub continent are more loyal," he says. "They still have a view that the person you're working for is providing a living, in contrast to our individualism."

Which is all very well, but don't creative and media professionals need to work closely? Singh and Fisher are keen to emphasise that Q2A's systems are solid, despite the fact that you can't take tea with your colleagues. "People want to know how we check for quality," says Singh. "So we set up systems to develop work that we can follow 24 hours a day. There's total visibility." Q2A doesn't need to do video-conferencing, and although clients are often keen to go to India, no personal contact is necessary. "In my experience, people only need to see their workmates once," adds Singh. "That's enough to satisfy curiosity."

The whole process is technology-driven, says Fisher. "Technology has changed everything. Ten years ago, you couldn't have done this." Now, with servers, hi-resolution downloads, mirror servers in the US and Hong Kong and local know-how, it's all there. And, before you ask, India's privatised telephone system is now excellent. "The only thing you need is a generator, in case of a power cut," says Singh. "We have two. In India, you still need 100 per cent power backup."

Yet, some British companies still need persuading. "There are companies that have shown resistance to our idea," says Singh. "Others are excited by it." For some, adds Fisher, "it's still too big a leap" and, as well as the quality control fears, those with personal interests can be chary. "I used to be on the other side and I was wary of outsourcing," says Fisher. "But now the product is so good that reactions have changed."

Singh estimates that, overall, the costs are about 60 to 70 per cent cheaper than in the UK. If an Apple Mac designer took a £30,000 wage here, they'd receive about £10,000 in India. And, if the cost of an illustration was £200 in the UK, a comparable Indian job might be about £80.

At this point, a part of me starts to feel a little bit redundant. Should I, a freelance writer, worry about sub-conti- nental competition? Not necessarily, says Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today. "The Indian workforce is highly qualified and they're very good," he says. "But outsourcing starts to get difficult when you're dealing with product that is very specific to the market." Which includes scary articles about outsourcing, one hopes.

The price of the free market is eternal vigilance, of course. "Businesses always want to get their goods and services cheaper. If you're overcharging, then perhaps you should be concerned," says Thew. "For instance, a few years ago certain IT and software costs were silly, and businesses looked elsewhere, as you would if you could shave 60 per cent from your bill." But even the unskilled jobs, he says, are still a small amount of the British economy, perhaps 2 to 3 per cent.

Even so, the fears are ramping up. Thew says that, in the US, outsourcing has become a huge election issue, as both sides are trying to reassure the public that they'll stem the flow of jobs to the developing world, a political debate that is bound to raise temperatures here, too. "They come over here, take our jobs", went the old anti-immigration whingers. Now they'll have to change their tune: "They stay over there, take our jobs..."

Comments