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 …