With the rise of e-books and online shopping, is your friendly neighbourhood bookstore going out of fashion?

Book lovers in the United States of America suffered a major jolt last year when the large retail chain ‘Borders' specialising in books and music filed for bankruptcy and started liquidating outlets. For many of them, these stores were not just a space to buy, but also second homes where they could surround themselves with the smell and colour of books and spend long hours browsing.

Back home in India, large retail chains are a comparatively recent phenomenon for books and their patrons. Some of them like Landmark from Chennai and Oxford from Kolkata started out as a single store many years ago and spread their business to other metro cities only in the last decade or so. However news from across the street is that quite a few of them are in trouble and shutting down many of their outlets.

Pravin Tatavarti, who heads a technology organisation in Bangalore and comes from a family of book lovers was dismayed to discover his favourite store in Residency Road had downed its shutters when he went shopping one Sunday. “I decided to try out their other outlet in a mall nearby. But that too has shrunk in size even though it had expanded just a couple of years ago,” he complains.

World over, the publishing business is dealing with challenges on multiple fronts. Technological changes as well as new ways of doing business have ensured that all the stakeholders from the publishers to retailers need to constantly think of innovative ways to ensure books reach their readers. The paradox being this is happening at a time when high profile launches and literary festivals are vesting books and their writers with glitter and glamour.

Does this phenomenon owe to the fact that many readers, especially from the younger generation, prefer to download and read works of their favourite authors in their laptops and iPads? Or are online stores like Amazon and Flipkart to be blamed for sounding the death knell for these browsing joints of a different kind? Industry insiders have varied views on the subject.

Not uniform

Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India, believes “While high street chains are having a rough time, the same is not the case with the smaller and mid size indies. This mirrors the state of organised retail. No big retail chain brand is making money. Whereas most indie bookstores are making money because the owners manage their cash flows better, know their clientele, and get stocking right.' Abraham also believes that India is under served in terms of bookshop spread all over the country. The problem as he sees it is ‘the metros and A cities have a rash of chain stores opening that end up being the wrong format or the wrong location or just redundant.”

Udayan Mitra, Publisher, Penguin India, concurs partially with Abraham. According to Mitra, “The future for the large physical bookstores doesn't appear bright. In India, as elsewhere, the large chain stores have been stocking stationery, music, gift items etc alongside books — and the majority of their sales come from these other items, not books. I feel that the future is going to be dominated by online retailing.”

Abraham and Mitra's perspectives are validated by Mayi Gowda, proprietor of the independent Blossom Book House in Bangalore. Blossoms stocks new books as well as seconds and offers discounts on all the books on display. Gowda, while admitting his bookstore is also going online, says his business has not suffered very much by the advent of players like Flipkart. “We offer generous discount not just on current bestsellers but all our books. Our faithful patrons keep coming back. In the last one year, our business may have been impacted negatively to the tune of 10-15 per cent but we are confident of regaining lost ground with our online venture.”

Industry insiders are loathe to admit that the downfall of the high street players is anything more than an outcome of bad business decisions. It is likely these stores over estimated the profits from selling books. Chapal Mehra, consulting editor with Westland Tata, sees a connection between their failure and the escalation in real estate prices in metro cities. ‘There is a children's book store situated close to where I live in New Delhi. Since it is not in prime location, it is doing well enough.'

As for the e-book revolution, both Abraham and Mitra agree that it is here to stay and the tech savvy Indian will quickly adapt to the new format. Kausalya Saptharishi, commissioning editor, Rupa Publications, is of the opinion that given the speed with which technology has overtaken every sphere of our lives, there is a heightened awareness among Indian readers about Kindle and other literary applications. But she believes it will take another decade at least for a marked shift to happen in the way Indians read books. “What we are seeing today is just the ripple effect of changing methodologies of reading in the west,” she concludes.

Pricing issues

Deepthi Talwar, Executive Editor, Westland Tata, places the onus of the success of e-books on pricing. “As cheaper e-books will enter the Indian market, its readership will increase,” she states practically. However Talwar also believes there will always be a space for the printed book in India.

What about the writers? What do they think? After all they are the creators of the works presently going through an existential crisis to do with finding a home. Shinie Antony, who has published two collections of short stories and a novel in the last one decade besides editing anthologies, puts it succinctly “Most writers are somewhere in the middle, published but not bestselling , and would like their work read, if not now then at some point in the future in just about any form under the sun.”

On the other hand, bestselling author Anita Nair makes no bones about the fact that as a reader she will not switch to e-books as she finds the experience limited and “one-dimensional”. This despite the fact many of her bestselling novels are available in the modern format. There is no doubt that Nair values the tenth anniversary print edition of her seminal work Ladies Coupe that was brought out recently, much more than the e-version.

One thing is for sure. The large chains may be fast perishing and more readers may switch to downloading or ordering them online, but books themselves are in no danger of becoming redundant. The threshold that needs to be negotiated has to do with embracing your love for books in new forms or finding modern ways to source them. Also the future of that cherished cosy haunt of yours where you go and strike up long conversations with the man behind the counter, because he knows as much about your favourite books, continues to be bright despite all the new threats it has to counter.

Provided you continue to play the role of the patron.

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At WorkSeptember 24, 2010