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Bibliophiles who visit Delhi are spoiled for choices while looking for a bookshop they can visit. One bookshop though, that many have visited, and come to like, is the Full Circle bookshop, that till now had its main store in Khan Market, and has now been moved to the Meher Chand Market near the India Habitat Centre. While writing about the move, that came after many years, the store’s owner, Priyanka Malhotra, narrates how the shift became inevitable since a new rent agreement could not be reached with the property owners. One assumes that the current rent was simply not affordable, considering how the lockdown during much of March and April 2020 caused severe disruptions to businesses.
However, the bookstore business was already precariously placed given some of the business practices and customer habits that affected it. In her article, Priyanka writes about how books have almost become commodities, with customers searching for places where they will obtain the highest discount on its price. Online platforms, in the absence of regulation, offer deep discounts on books (besides other items), at levels that defy all logical explanations, given the way the book distribution and retail system in India works.
Let me explain. In India, books pass from publisher to distributor to retailer. Each one gives the book to the next at a discounted price – the difference allows them to pay their bills, pay their employees, and then earn something for themselves. Most books retail at Rs. 299, on an average. Children’s books cost lesser, trade and reference books a bit more. For the business to work, the discounts offered to the next-in-chain alone doesn’t help pay the bills, volumes need to move. That means, the more books sell, the better the financial sustainability of all concerned.
For booksellers, considering the average price of a book, the discount they get doesn’t add up to much. For the bookseller to afford rent, the cost of transporting books from the distributor, utilities, salaries, and then keep something for herself (considering that bookselling is her full time job, and she probably has a family to look after), therefore, she will have to sell many many books at that price. Besides, a sold book also pays just not for itself, but for the unsold books lying on the shelf. It is entirely on the margins made from the book sales that booksellers have to maintain their stocks and stay updated. For many booksellers, their bookstore is their only source of income and any shortfalls have to be managed by begging (the distributor for credit, for example) or borrowing. There is no relief fund they can dip into.
Which is why there is much consternation among booksellers on the discounts offered by online stores. Consider this situation. The Anarchy, a book by William Dalrymple, published by Bloomsbury, has an MRP of Rs. 799/-. It sells on a popular online store (this snapshot as on 20th May 2020) at a 40% discount.
This implies one of two things: a)the publisher or distributor is offering the online store a huge discount and/or b)the online store is bearing losses with the objective of acquiring customers. The first points to an uneven playing field, the second to cross-subsidization of business verticals. My bet is on the latter.
There is a romantic notion that bookstores are disappearing and that they must be rescued, when all that might be required to ensure that bookstores stay strong and profitable are fairer business practices. Bookstore owners are fairly savvy business people, perhaps much savvier than their counterparts who have more resources at their disposal. While it might be the allure of books that attracted them to the profession of bookselling, during opening hours it’s all business for them. Even when the odds are heavily stacked against them, like in the case illustrated above, the bookseller will find ways of retaining her customer and finding new ones who will buy from her.
The bookseller knows that she will find new customers because she knows her bookstore offers advantages that online stores cannot. Online stores cannot have a book discussion, and visitors to them will not be able to have a casual conversation with a visiting author. There is no discoverability on online stores – the chances of finding a book you never knew you wanted are next to nil. Customers cannot sit lazily on the bookstore floor and browse through tens of books even as the bookseller is hunting busily for the book you said you wanted. There are no bookmarks to choose from, while checking out, on online platforms, and the conversations you can have with other buyers who adore books like you do, are completely non-existent. And we are not even getting into the sensory and tactile experiences a book buying sojourn entails.
Which is why it has often been the gripe of booksellers that the industry does not support them enough, and that with a little help from them, bookbuyers could simply concentrate on getting more people excited about books. Here’s what Priyanka says about this lack of support:
“What’s often disheartening is that publishers and authors now choose to pre-sell at big discounts on online platforms before new arrivals reach our bookshelves. This just goes to show how as a book fraternity we are not very supportive of one another. If we looked at the larger picture we’d realise that, we all stand to benefit if we formed a united front and started helping one other.”
While it took us some time to realise that booksellers, as a community might be able to voice their concerns, and negotiate their demands more effectively if they came together, the realization got some of us working towards a solution beginning early March. In a culmination of our efforts, six bookstores banded together to form the Independent Bookshops Association of India, the first of its kind in the country. Explaining the move, Raman Shresta, of Rachna Books, Gangtok, and one of the founders of the Association, writes:
“Independent bookshops are the final frontier of the publishing industry. Everything that an author has to offer, aided by the publishing industry, makes its final leap into the hands of the readers from these bookshops. And yet, over the last decade and half, these bookshops are completely isolated in this network – almost left to fend for themselves..”
The Association’s objectives include the desire to”be a bridge between independent bookstores and other stakeholders in the book publishing and book retail industry including institutional buyers (of books) and readers”, and “to assist members grow their business by facilitation and encouraging partnerships within and outside the publishing industry”. The founding members believe that Association will go a long way in ensuring a fair deal for independent booksellers as well their sustainability and rightful place within the book industry in India.