“I recently bought a book at a 32% discount from Amazon. I am convinced that no book store will give me this kind of discount. Since it is an expensive book, the discount really matters,” said Anwesha Ray, a postgraduate in English. She added, “When I was frantically searching for Fatima Bhutto’s ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’, no book store could give it to be because it is officially banned. Thankfully, I found it on Flipkart.”
Prodosh Bhattacharya, Professor-in-Charge, Department of English, St. Xavier’s University, told BE, “Though I love to visit book stores, I prefer to buy books, especially for academic reference, online. The digital medium allows a wide access of publishers and ensures a short delivery period. Also, online purchase is economical.”
Books had initially fuelled the rise of e-retailing in India. According to credit rating firm Crisil, e-retail revenues in India grew by an astonishing 900% - from Rs. 1,500 crore in 2007-08 to Rs. 13,900 crore in 2012-13 - primarily driven by books, electronics, and apparel products. The ‘Nielsen India Book Market Report 2015: Understanding the India Book Market’ had stated that books accounted for 15% of the overall e-commerce trade, trailing behind apparel and accessories (30%) and electronics (34%).
Pinaki Mazumdar, Director, Chuckervertty Chatterjee & Co., a popular book store at College Street in Kolkata, told BE, “Online platforms give a 30% discount on a best-seller but they have other ways to make up for that discount. For instance, in case of Penguin publication, Indian editions and Indian prices are available, which are much lower than the original price. Suppose the original price of a book is eight pounds. This amounts to almost Rs. 750-800. Now, online players are showing a 20% discount on the original price and yet, they are able to keep a substantial amount as profit. By doing this, they can recover the discount they are allowing on other books.”
He is not entirely against online platforms, “Amazon and Flipkart are huge brands and it is only possible to reach their level of network and publicity if the customers support us. In the UK, the US and other places, there is a regulatory body, which determine the discount structures and so the prices offered by bigger book stalls and those offered by online platforms can match up. This system should be introduced here as well.
Arkaprabha Biswas, Junior Editor, Niyogi Books, told BE, “The new trend of reading soft copy does not hurt the publishing houses as much as it does independent booksellers as long as we can combat the practice of piracy.” He added, “At least for the next few decades, there aren’t many possibilities of books getting published only as soft copies. Nowadays, we try to balance both and cater to both kinds of readers.”
However, in India bookstores are on the verge of extinction. Several standalone stores, as well as large chains such as Reliance’s Timeout have closed in the past few years, while others have shrunk in size and number. Average store space of bookstores has also fallen by about 35% in the last four to five years. In 2004, stores belonging to the Crossword chain, for instance, occupied an average area of 10,500 square feet which is now down to around 2,000 square feet.
Talking about the impact of this trend, Mazumdar said, “In College Street, several small scale book sellers had to shut down their business due to online platforms. But some small sellers are still surviving because of the books prescribed in the school and college syllabi. This is a segment that is not yet explored by online players. However, as soon as the online platforms venture into this segment, these sellers will be devastated.”
Tridib Kumar Chattopadhyay, President, Publishers and Booksellers Guild, told BE, “Nothing much can be done about this situation. People will enjoy the benefits of science and technology and one cannot stop them. We can, at the most, make the people aware. I feel that it is better for people to visit book stores to purchase books as a hefty amount is often charged by online platforms as delivery charges. However, on the other hand, these platforms are advantageous as well because they allow the user to browse at his leisure and then order a book of his choice from anywhere in India. This was not possible earlier.” Speaking on the discounts offered by online players, he added, “Earlier there was a Good Offices Committee which regulated the prices. It had fixed a 10% discount for book sale at book fairs and a 15% discount rate in case of library sales. However, no one abided by its rules and the committee has ceased to exist.”
In the end, as Bhattacharya said, “Bookstores are not merely places of selling books but also centres for exchange of ideas, thought provoking chats, and spending time with books.” Now, it rests upon the people to save this tradition.