Under my byline

Turning the page

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 23 July 2011

The old-style generalist bookshop is under threat. For the moment it is holding its own against competition from big chains and online retailers — but can it survive into the next generation?

It’s as familiar and as timeless as morning chai, this kind of bookshop: owned by three generations of the same family; current owner-manager elderly, knowledgeable and forgiving; opened its doors before the British departed; a short roster of illustrious customers and regulars tending toward the cultured rather than the merely famous; stacks of eccentrically placed books making it not terribly easy to find the book you want, but that book not being the point of your visit… There are so many of these, you may think. Every city and town with any pretension to a literary life has such bookshops, from Lucknow and Darjeeling up.

The specific one described above is Bangalore’s Select Bookshop, off Brigade Road. It belongs to the legendary Mr Murthy. A young regular tells how during one visit — a visit to Select typically lasts hours and climaxes with one or two happy finds — a friend of the owner’s happened to dawdle by. Mr Murthy turned to this customer and told him, “Just sit here for five minutes. I’ll go have a cup of coffee.” The customer was nonplussed: “But what if someone wants to buy something?” “Then sell it to him, no.” Five minutes turned to 45, and in the interim two sales had been made.

Heartwarming, for sure. But how much longer can there be bookshops and booksellers like this? Who has the time to browse for hours? Even Mr Murthy’s young customer now guiltily goes instead to Blossom Book House, a three-storey, decade-old colossus of used books — big, ruthlessly organised, sternly priced, and without Select’s character though conveniently located in the same area.

The future for the old-style, owner-managed, single outlet bookshop is not looking bright. Because they are usually old businesses with old customers, paying rent at old rates, these bookshops are still making do. Once their owners retire, however, the next generation will either be more entrepreneurial or get out of the business altogether.

The pathbreaking Strand Book Stall, for instance, founded in the 1940s by the late, gentlemanly T N Shanbhag (said to be the first in India to offer customers a flat discount of 20 per cent), has grown from one outlet in Fort, Mumbai, to a chain based in Bangalore, under his daughter Vidya Virkar. Strand without Shanbhag has less character, but is a more effective modern business.

While the old-timers straggle on, there is one significant recent loss: the New & Secondhand Bookshop of Dhobi Talao, Mumbai, where generations of young professionals began their book-buying careers. Opened in 1905 and run by three generations of the Vishram family, it closed in February this year, reportedly because it wasn’t selling enough books. The blank shutters stand as a rebuke to passersby on this busy corner.

Logically, there should be several things going for the independent bookseller. He knows his clientele. He doesn’t have to pay for his stock until it sells. If a book sells, he gets a margin of 15-40 per cent. If it doesn’t sell, it goes back to the publisher, at no cost to the retailer. The author and publisher do all the hard work of marketing.

The modern books trade undercuts these advantages. Since the 1980s in the West and for the past decade in India, publishers have tended to focus on bestselling books and authors. The idea was to support less profitable but worthy titles with the flood of cash and publicity that the bestsellers bring — but, naturally, cash has a logic of its own. Because marketing and media coverage focus on the (potential) hits, bookshops have to stock all this “frontlist” from a growing number of publishers. The “backlist“, that is, older titles still in print, gets less and less retail space and visibility.

This creates two problems for the old-style general-interest booksellers. One, the backlist is their strength. Their loyal repeat customers, after all, are not always looking for the latest title. Two, if everyone is selling the same bestselling book, the customer will buy it wherever is cheapest and most convenient. This may be at a big-box chain store like Landmark in a mall or Crossword in a prosperous neighbourhood market, or with a click of the mouse online, where the buyer is likely to get a tempting discount. With his small volumes and limited shelf space, the independent bookseller cannot easily compete.

“Online stores have a number of advantages, such as the number of titles they can deliver, and they have very low storage costs,” says Prakash Gangaram, owner of the well-known Gangarams Book Bureau in Bangalore. “They don’t need to worry about dead stock or pilferage. For a [bricks-and-mortar] retailer, the overheads are much higher. In a store you can pick up only what’s available.”

Nalini Chettur, owner of Giggles, a tiny and well-liked bookshop (“Biggest little bookshop”, the board outside the 100 sq ft room reads) in a corner of Chennai’s Taj Connemara hotel, is fatalistic. “There is absolutely no future for bookshops,” she says. “It’s very hard to compete with the huge discounts offered by the online players, who don’t have any overheads.” She does not care for contemporary popular fiction. But she does have a USP: herself. Chettur knows every title on her shelves, will recommend books to her customers and even source and send books by post. She gives a small discount to loyal customers or those buying many items. “The indifference of large bookstores, particularly the staff who usually don’t know much beyond searching for a title on the computer,” she adds, “has helped me a lot.”

The key to viability for independent booksellers like Chettur — apart from the “authentic” bookshop experience and serendipity, finding books one isn’t looking for — appears to be focus. Chettur offers personalised service; others choose a subject area or market niche. Half of Gangaram’s stock, for example, is academic reference books. In Delhi, Fact & Fiction in Vasant Vihar, run by Ajit Vikram Singh, is known to have strengths in philosophy, poetry, travel and literary fiction. But he, too, is not optimistic. “It will get progressively harder to compete,” he says in cultured tones. “We don’t have the range.”

Nor, he insists, are there growing numbers of buyers. Despite the aggressive marketing of books and authors in the lifestyle and entertainment media, he says no more readers walk into his shop than used to, say, 10 years ago. (Even so, this reporter found Fact & Fiction busy on a Wednesday afternoon and counted four sales in half an hour. Each buyer picked up at least two books.) Singh said that of the Rs 8,000 crore the Indian books industry makes every year — this is the commonest of the figures in circulation, and refers to English-language publishing — no more than Rs 500-600 crore is from sales of trade books, from all the major publishers in the country combined. The remaining Rs 7,500 crore is believed to be earned in the murky and fiercely competitive textbook market.

“Ten thousand copies of a locally printed book,” Singh says dismissively, “is considered a bestseller in a country of our size.” His single-room shop, stacked from floor to ceiling, contains “eight or ten thousand books”.

But you have to set such arguments against all the major publishers’ claimed growth rates (for several years now) of 20-25 per cent. Also, Singh’s bookshop is located in a market that is fighting a losing battle with three big new malls nearby. One of those malls hosts a Landmark chain store that is about 80 times the size of Fact & Fiction, by square footage, and stocks some 120,000 titles. Many parts of the books industry, if not the independent booksellers, are growing.

What about discounts offered by online retailers — are they a big competitive disadvantage? “I don’t think discounts are the only issue,” says Singh. “The main issue here is online bookstores are selling books which cannot legally be imported through the books channel.”

He means that, now that the biggest Western publishing groups have set up directly owned subsidiaries in India (Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, and so on), all books published abroad by any company owned by these parent groups can be brought to India only through their local subsidiaries. This means, says Singh, that booksellers like him have access only to what the local subsidiaries of overseas publishers will sell here. He has little choice but to carry books from the same, limited pool of titles. If a customer asks for something else, Singh cannot provide it — unlike, as he points out, an online retailer like Flipkart.com, that can source books directly from, say, the USA, which is the biggest publishing market in the world. That negates Singh’s USP as a specialist provider, not to mention his profit on the dollar or sterling price of a directly imported title.

Other small or once-small retailers have figured out that they need to think bigger, and to pair their books business with something else more lucrative. This is especially true in Delhi. Anuj Bahri, of the small Delhi-based Bahrisons Book Shop chain, also runs, solo, a literary agency called Red Ink. Young entrepreneurs Kanika Kapoor and Aseem Vadehra this year opened the Spell & Bound Bookshop & Café in Delhi’s Safdarjung Development Area market, joining books and snacks; they have extra space for children’s books, a known growth area. Midland The Book Shop (sic) is not exactly a chain but has four brothers in the same business in different locations around Delhi, which gives them local strength. They offer a standard 20 per cent discount. They also supply institutional libraries and handle distribution for some publishers.

Strand’s Vidya Virkar is building her chain on an IT foundation, setting up bookshops on the campuses of IT companies Infosys and Wipro, where she can be sure of a captive clientele. Strand also has an annual book festival, which helps pull in customers.

Roli Books publisher Pramod Kapoor is aiming to build not one but two chains — CMYK, whose USP is art and architecture books (“Art books are difficult to buy online, you have to see them in physical form”) with an outlet each in Delhi and Pune, and the Half-Price Bookstore, discount books, with one outlet so far in a Delhi mall (“a success”). It is modelled on the big American chain, Half-Price Books, with the owners of which Kapoor says he has a long-standing business relationship. “I’m ready to open 50 stores if I had the capital,” Kapoor says. “I’m quite bullish.”

Landmark, the largest books retailer in India by volume and sales (over Rs 200 crore), is a subsidiary of Trent, part of the Tata Group. Landmark is also hedging its bets. It has 17 large outlets nationwide, up to 45,000 sq ft each. Although books are still its most visible “product category”, as COO Ashutosh Pandey explains, Landmark gets just 30-40 per cent of its revenue from books and music combined. The rest comes from other “core categories” like films, stationery, “tech accessories” and computer games and consoles. Pandey points out that Landmark has the traditional bookshop advantage of backlist (what he calls the “tail”), and backlist titles don’t need discounting. Nevertheless, next month Landmark will start a three-for-two offer, for some new and popular titles, where the customer can pay for two books and take away three — what Pandey calls a net 33 per cent discount.

As a whole, however, Landmark is cannily turning itself into a “leisure and lifestyle” business. Its next “core category” may be sporting gear. All of which sounds like a threat to more than small booksellers.

As for Flipkart.com, the e-business that has set off so much concern for the future in real-world books retail, CEO and co-founder Sachin Bansal explains, via e-mail, “Books were an obvious choice to begin our foray into ecommerce. Books cost considerably less as compared to products like electronic items and as a result, it is easier for a first-time customer to trust us with books and make that initial purchase from an unknown site.”

No longer unknown — Bansal says his company sells six books a minute now, up four times from 2,000 a day early last year. Books contribute only half his revenue; the rest comes from newer categories like music, movies, games, computers, mobiles, and so on. “The collection of books on Flipkart is to the tune of 10 million titles,” Bansal says — impossible for any bricks-and-mortar bookseller, no matter how large, to match. Even so, he allows that “Online is not a substitute for people who love the experience of leisurely browsing through books before they make a buy. That is still best done offline.”

It will be years before e-business overtakes real-world books retail in India, everyone involved agrees. Publishers are not all certain of the ratio, but online sales in India are nowhere more than 20 per cent of total book sales, and typically less than half that. The old-fashioned nature of the book as an object, the slow act of consuming a book, and the kind of person who makes a regular books buyer are reasonable safeguards for the near future of bricks-and-mortar bookselling. It’s only the old-style, purist, generalist booksellers — still the soul of the trade — that may not outlast the current generation. Go see Mr Murthy of Select while you can.

With inputs from Indulekha Aravind in Delhi, Praveen Bose in Bangalore and Arghya Ganguly in Mumbai


A different (and considerably shorter) version of this essay was published in my paper. In that version another reporter had inserted discount figures that were incorrect because they don’t represent the industry as a whole.

On the whole, now, I’m not sure that the thesis of this article is sustainable. There are book lovers and eccentrics in every generation, after all; it’s quite possible that as incomes rise and (if) the taste for reading spreads then the market and affinity for small generalist booksellers will recreate itself. I think Spell & Bound, in particular, is a harbinger of things to come — its young and optimistic (and well off) owners have put down roots in an upscale market patronised by prosperous South Delhiites and students from IIT and JNU. If it doesn’t flop it may well improve with age. Either way, however, it will be too late for the legendary, ageing booksellers of today.


One Response

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  1. ashokrchandran said, on 10 August 2011 at 3:08 pm

    An informative survey. Thanks, Rrishi.

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