Printer’s Devil: Bookstores under siege

Introducing a new monthly column for the Business Standard: Printer’s Devil will look at publishing and bookselling trends across India. The focus is on English language trade and independent publishers, but the column will also include trends from other Indian language publishing from time to time.

August 1: Indies: Seagull’s Naveen Kishore and Zubaan’s Urvashi Butalia on bookstore trends

One of the best definitions for what an independent publisher does comes from Canongate’s Jamie Byng: “As an industry, we would do better to publish fewer books, and do it better.” He said this at a “big ideas” meeting of publishers two years ago.

The approach Byng advocates is put into practice by many of India’s best indies, from Blaft, Tulika, Leftword, WomenUnlimited to Tara Books, Seagull or Zubaan: their books receive more care and attention, and their lists are often more selective, than those of many mainstream trade publishers.

The big challenge for the indies has become more complicated in the online bookstore era – how do their books reach readers? I asked two publishing veterans, Zubaan’s Urvashi Butalia and Seagull’s Naveen Kishore, to discuss the challenges they face. Seagull (established in 1982) has a formidable world literature list, aside from its strong Indian list (especially in translations and theatre): its books are distributed by Atlantic in India and by the University of Chicago Press. Zubaan was set up in 2003 as an imprint of the highly respected feminist publishing house Kali For Women, and is now a leading independent specialising in books for and about women from South Asia.

On bookstores: It isn’t easy to find space in most bookstores, says Butalia. “They focus on the big sellers – the political books, the books by ‘rock stars’. Typically indies try to price their books reasonably and distributors don’t like this as they don’t make much from low-priced books!”

Kishore spotlights the disappearance of the bookstores in India or their reappearance as chain stores where books make up only one-fourth of the inventory. “The Landmarks under the Tatas have all but gone. Vanished. The other chain stores have reduced book inventories to one-fourth. It isn’t worth stocking slow-selling books specially if you compare them to say deodorants.” With Crossword also closing some outlets, that leaves independent bookstores who often don’t have enough retail space for independent publishers. “Except,” Kishore adds, “when we throw in a Nobel or a Booker winner every now and again.”

Both Kishore and Butalia said that it was hard convincing bookstores to stock books: there’s never enough shelf space.

On ebooks and bookstores online: As Butalia points out, large book retailers online don’t differ much from brick-and-mortar stores in their preference for big sellers. But she’s met individuals from Amazon and Flipkart who’ve been sympathetic to stocking books from indies. “Online book sales do make an immense difference. Readers who know what they’re looking for can at least order books online,” she says. However, the growth of online bookselling hasn’t translated into greater visibility for indies to readers unfamiliar with their imprints.

Kishore says: “Amazon and Flipkart are a significant presence in the lives of book buyers and us publishers. Their sales are very important and cannot be ignored.” For both Zubaan and Seagull, as with many other indies, their own websites have become crucial as a source of information for readers.

But a troubling trend that independent booksellers as well as other independent publishers mention: as online retailing sites grow more profitable, they depend less on the sale of books, compared to other products. Their direct contact with smaller publishers drops sharply. Several other indies mentioned that large online booksellers had been more accessible to independent imprints four or five years ago.

The growth of local bestselling writers and books is in many respects a healthy development – with the arrival of Chetan Bhagat, Durjoy Datta or Devdutt Patnaik, Indian publishing has its own stars, rather than depending on writers from elsewhere, the Stephen Kings or Paulo Coelhos. But a market that depends, lazily, on just 10 or 12 big books to bring in the money each year loses out on variety and quality.

Despite this, independents have found ways to survive. As Kishore says: “The bottomline is that everyone has to find ways to sell their books and reach as many people as possible. So sitting back and feeling dismayed or threatened at the online presence is of little help. One needs to work with everything that is available and at hand.”

July 4: Under siege: Bookstores

When the author started her bookstore some years ago, asked her what was needed if new stores like Parnassus were to survive. She said: “People are not mean spirited, but they really do go into with their iPhones, scan the barcodes of the books they want and order them on Amazon. We need to have someone say, ‘This isn’t good.’ If you like the warm feeling you get in a bookstore, then you can’t do that.”

Four years later, Parnassus is still thriving because of careful curating and community goodwill. It’s one of a small but hardy group of independent bookstores in the US that has weathered the twin threats posed by and online book chains, and the pressures of the retail sector.

In those four years, the brick-and-mortar bookstore business in India has been rocked by similar waves of change. Three beloved indies, and Co in Hyderabad and Manneys and Twistntales in Pune, shut down. (This column will focus on the general trade hardback/paperback segment rather than the textbook segment for now.)

The proprietors of AA Hussain and Manneys were near retirement, and didn’t want to go the extra mile to keep their stores open in a time of online-retail driven turbulence and sluggish brick-and-mortar sales. Twistntales found it impossible to cope with the many pressures on small bookstores. Bookstores must stock copies of books that customers might want, even if the demand for these books is neither steady nor reliable. Indies struggle with low turnover and high warehousing challenges.

A good bookseller builds customer loyalty in a way that online chains rarely match, by anticipating reading tastes. A few bookshops thrive because they’ve created a very special bond with readers: Strand and now in Mumbai, Ram Advani in Lucknow, The Bookshop and Fact & Fiction in Delhi, and Seagull’s indie outlet in Kolkata, for instance.

But brick-and-mortar bookstores cannot match the discounts that online bookstores like and Amazon offer. For many online retailers, bookselling adds to their brand identity while not forming their core business, which is often driven by smartphones and electronic goods.

Deep discounts are standard: no online bookseller minds if their customers browse elsewhere, so long as they buy online. In price-sensitive India, book-buyers look for big discounts and good delivery. So far, Flipkart has led the online book retail business; unconfirmed estimates place their marketshare at 75 per cent. (This will be challenged as competitors try to grab a bigger slice of the online trade.)

For a country with growing literacy in at least two dominant languages, English and Hindi, India has a dismayingly low bookstore-to-reader ratio, and this has grown worse. All of the three big bookstore chains, Crossword, Landmark and Oxford, have shut at least one store in the last few years. Crossword shut down two outlets in Bengaluru in 2014 alone. By the time Landmark shut down its Nungambakkam outlet in Chennai, the store sold so many other products that books accounted for only 27 per cent of its sales.

In bookstores from Goa to Bengaluru to Delhi, I heard the same story: independents could not match online deep discounts. They were haemorrhaging custom, especially over bestsellers.

Hachette India’s managing director, Thomas Abraham, is blunt. He places online retail’s share of the trade at 50-60 per cent, compared to under 10 per cent some five years ago, but says they tend to chase bestsellers rather than offer range.

“Deep discounting on the online side has become a major problem,” he wrote. “Most of online unleashes deep discounting in a bid to get ‘eyeballs’, traffic and transactions-at-any-cost, and thereby boost valuation. They can sustain their deep discounting to levels that your neighbourhood stores cannot. Indie and chain bookstores are forced to close down. Over the past five years the number of store closures are more than we’ve had in the preceding 20 years.”

Discounts might make already cheap books even more accessible, but for readers, the closure of bookstores slashes choice and range.


2 responses to “Printer’s Devil: Bookstores under siege”

  1. Pradeep Gopalan Avatar

    The Printer’s Devil will indeed be a unique column. One is looking forward to reading it regularly. You mentioned about niche bookshops creating a special bond with readers. Barely a few hours after reading your piece I was saddened to learn from today’s Indian Express that the Fact & Fiction Bookshop is closing down. I have not visited the store but I can well imagine what a loss it should be for Delhi-based readers.

    1. Nilanjana Roy Avatar

      Fact & Fiction was a city landmark, and I’m sorry to see so many independent bookstores close — in Hyderabad, Bombay, Chennai as well as Delhi. It’s frustrating because on the publishing side, you actually have quite a lot of choice — children’s books, translations, non-fiction — but you don’t see that represented in bookstores.

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