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The Rediff Interview/Mariam Ram, managing director, TnQ

What made TnQ Books and Journals hit the headlines

Shobha Warrier in Chennai | September 19, 2008


Mariam Ram

TnQ never hit the headlines. At least not until Nobel Laureate (1975) David Baltimore as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science spoke to a galaxy of American scientists how impressed he was with TnQ after visiting its Chennai office.

Baltimore was a on a scientific lecture tour to India organised by the Cell-Press (publishers of scientific journals) and TnQ.

He was taken to the TnQ office in Chennai where the staff showed him his own review on RNA published in the journal Immunity. TnQ had processed and edited the paper.

The work that TnQ does is different from what is generally perceived as outsourcing from India.

The company does editing, pagination and design for scientific, technical and medical publishers of the US, the UK and the European Union.

Today, TnQ designs covers and pagination for a number of journals, books and magazine, does technical and figurative illustrations for publications on mathematics and health sciences, generates business graphics, searches and sources stock images and stylises content for print and web.

Started by Mariam Ram (managing director) in 1998 with 12 employees, TnQ Books and Journals has at present 1,200 employees with an annual turnover of about Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million).

The company at present contributes 7,50,000 pages for various publishing houses.

Mariam wants to increase this to 1.2- 2 million pages in 3 to 5 years. She also wants to recruit 300 to 400 more people with science degree by 2009.

In an exclusive interview to rediff.com, Mariam speaks about the growth of TnQ. Excerpts:

How did the idea to start TnQ Books and Journals come to you?

I used to work for advertising agencies --  HTA and O&M. After I left HTA, I started my agency with corporate advertising as the focus.

We used to design corporate brochures, typeset and print annual reports. These brochures were printed at the Macmillan printing press in Bangalore.

Once they showed me their scientific technical and medical unit where they were doing the same work for many publishers, including the world's biggest, Elsevier. 

I thought it was a perfect business model for India because it requires scientific skills, IT skills and proficiency in English -- we have the all three.

At our company, we were already doing annual reports for the corporates. Therefore, I thought it would be a good business to start with.

This was in 1998. Macmillan had been doing the same work for 15 years then. In fact, they are the first to start this business model.

How did you get your first client?

We browsed the Net and read about Dutch publishing company Elsevier. It is known as the world's biggest typesetter of scholarly material.

We checked on Elsevier's suppliers and found that most of them worked onshore. I fixed up meetings with some of them in the UK.

I met Alden of Elsevier and more or less fixed up a deal. At that time, they were intending to go offshore. We decided on a 50-50 joint venture. 

How did you convince them for a deal when you did not even have an office?

I think the timing was right because they were desperate to go offshore and I just happened to walk in offering offshore possibilities.

Soon after, we started an office in Chennai with 10 copy editors. I sent a senior copy editor for training and he on return trained the others. That was how we began.

With how much capital did you start?

Nothing. From the ad agency, I had made enough money to pay 10 employees. 

When did you start making profit?

From the very first year itself. At that time, we were only editing copies.

Why did you choose the name TnQ?

TnQ, Travancore National and Quilon Bank, was an old business my mother's family had. When I started my ad agency, I chose the same name. Hence I named my new venture TnQ Books and Journals.

How much did you grow in the first few years?

Our copy editors did so well that in 2000 Alden asked for a larger stake in the business which I wasn't prepared to give. 

Therefore, we decided to part  ways. But we continued to get work from various other Elsevier's suppliers. 

Was it a difficult time?

It was neither difficult, nor easy. But we managed to get work. We didn't lay off a single person. By 2001, we started to do pagination for a US supplier of Elsevier. They were publishing 60,000 pages of a health science magazine.

How is the process?

We edit the author's manuscript, convert it to XML and then paginate it to check. You can say we started doing all the work related to publishing scientific works. 

By 2003, Elsevier itself realised that we were doing a huge bulk of their pages as a third party. In the meantime, we had started a software division and developed some software tools meant for publishing. Our tools impressed Elsevier.

In 2004, Elsevier decided to validate us so that they could deal with us directly. That was our biggest break.

We started with 50,000 pages in 2004 and today, we are doing 7,50,000 pages; 4,50,000 pages of journals alone.

At that time, we had about 100 staff, none without a degree in science. We even had people with PhD for copy editing.

Was the deal with Elsevier the biggest break for you?

Elsevier has stringent validation methods. Once they validate, others just walk in.  

Did you get the right break at the right time?

Frankly, I feel we didn't get the right breaks at all. Those who got the real advantage are Macmillan and SPS.

They came at the right time when prices were high.

We came to a mature market. What we managed to do was grow in a mature offshoring market. When we came in, prices were coming down drastically.

Our decision to go beyond typesetting really helped us. We were into software development (internal production of development tools), design and illustration. We even do complex medical illustrations for many publishers from the US, UK and EU.

But I must say that we were exceptionally lucky. We came in just at a time when Elsevier had decided to cut down on the number of suppliers. That was the real turning point. 

Nobel Laureate Baltimore comments on TnQ in Boston has now become big news. How did that happen?

As we felt our luck had helped us a lot, we thought of giving something back to the scientific community. Therefore, we decided to hold an annual lecture series jointly with Cell Press, Elsevier's most important imprint.They do cutting edge biological research.

We do all the work for Cell journals here.

The first lecture was in January this year and we had invited Baltimore. Cell Press brought him to India. He came to our Chennai office and was pleased to see the work we do.

We showed him his review paper which we edited here. He was delighted.

It was very sweet of him to speak about what we do at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meet. We never expected it.

Do you plan to arrange such scientific lectures every year?

Yes. We will have Elizabeth Blackburn in January 2009. 

What are your future plans?

We will probably move to web-based services for scientific journals.  Our strength is adding value to the content. Be it web or print, that will always be of immense importance. 

We can double our size in the next three to five years. If we do 7,50,000 pages now, we should aim to do 1.2- 2 million pages soon.

Do you get more queries now that the economy is slowing down there?

The big worry is whether the US will tighten up and not allow so much work to go offshore. A lot of it is government sponsored research. But large publishers will continue to offshore. India will continue to be an attractive destination for a long time because of the advantages I have mentioned earlier.

We are getting more and more work from our existing customers.

How is it that you get people with PhDs to work on copy editing?

We have many PhDs in India. Some of them do not have the cpacity to go for continued research. My ideal candidate is not someone with PhD, but with an M.Phil. What I need is knowledge.

Are you happy with the quality of people you get?

I am not happy with the standard of English of the new crop. English skills are worsening every year, which is a worrying sign.

Photograph: Shobha Warrier



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