Rachna Chhabria | Will printed word comfort and inform post-Covid?

Columnist  | Rachna Chhabria

Opinion, Columnists

Book sales in India aren’t usually very high and the lockdown further plummeted these sales

Publishers are doing everything to keep the book reading culture alive during this pandemic time. AFP Photo

Over the years the publishing industry has faced several setbacks, many brick and mortar stores closed down, lending libraries dwindled, and with the influx of social media platforms and Netflix, books found their biggest rivals, against whom the competition is largely one-sided. The publishing industry already feeling the impact of the economic slowdown was rendered another blow with the Covid-19 pandemic induced lockdown.

“The publishing industry has been very badly affected as expected with almost four months of zero sales. Books weren’t considered essential goods and went down to full lockdown. It’s just about now that supplies and sales have resumed,” says Thomas Abraham, managing director of publishing company Hachette India.

Sadly, books have never been a priority for the general public, for the vast majority, movies, malls and restaurants are the focus of their undivided attention. Book sales in India aren’t usually very high and the lockdown further plummeted these sales. “Book sales came to an all-time low during lockdown 1 and 2,” says Ravi Deecee, managing partner at DC Books. “In Kerala people restricted their movements from mid February when the 1st Covid case was reported on January 30.

This in turn affected the book sales in brick and mortar stores, slowly the online sales started picking up, but by March 21, the print book sales came to a complete standstill due to the shutting down of retail stores and online delivery was also stopped across India, except for essential goods.”

Ajay Mago, publisher of Om Books International agrees that the publishing industry has been impacted by the lockdown at multiple levels, “commissioning has slowed down, release of new titles has been staggered, book launches except in their virtual avatar and author tours have been cancelled, e-books and audio books are being released before the hard copies, distributors are reluctant to reorder titles or order fresh titles till they are sure of the smooth functioning of the distribution downline, bookstores in the malls being shut since the third week of March have registered no sales, literature festivals seem a remote possibility, at least over the next one year, as do domestic and international book fairs.”

But there is a twist in the tale, if people couldn’t buy physical copies, the books arrived at their E-readers. The lockdown saw a growth in the sale of e-books. According to Mr Abraham, “E-books saw a spurt, doubling from previous levels. Hachette e-books saw an 87 per cent jump in the first month of lockdown. But even that isn’t enough to come anywhere remotely close to the revenue flows that any publisher would have had. Because at best e-books were the equivalent of being five to seven per cent of revenue.”

Many readers for lack of books during their home quarentine period, earlier on the fence, now jumped on to e-books platforms in a big way. “The sale of e-books has been on a sharp increase with about 200 times growth.

We started working on promoting e-books in a big way from the beginning of March due to the low sales in print books. We also gave 75,000 to 1,00,000 downloads free of cost.

So, now there is a consistent growth in e-book sales which helped us to keep readership alive and by making books available through digital platforms we were able to acquire 75000 new customers during the lockdown period,” admits Mr Ravi. Kottayam-based DC books is now supplying books directly through Zomato in all the major towns of Kerala.  

April, May and June see publishers bringing out their holiday and summer lists. These books have now been pushed to the second half of the year.
Currently its advantage online stores, as the Covid cases are rising. But brick and mortar stores will see footfalls in the longer run believes Mr Abraham, “customers will come back, lured by the curation and browsing experience in a book store - the differentiation that brick and mortar stores have from online stores.

I think it’s critical that the indies (independent bookstores) get together and build representation needed for them to get a fair deal and government aid, because they will be the hardest hit. Fiction which was already declining will probably dip further, and non-fiction may grow certainly in the short term as preoccupations change to getting ahead, learning and enhancing knowledge,” says Mr Abraham.

Publishers are doing everything to keep the book reading culture alive during this pandemic time, bringing out e-books and audio books to make the books available to readers. The Covid pandemic comes with certain restrictions and everyone knows it will continue for some time.

The fear of the virus has made people cautious of touching anything. Mr Ravi feels a reasonable chunk of brick and mortar sales will be taken over by online delivery mechanism as well. “The e-book and audio book platform will grow at least by 1,000 per cent within a year which will keep the culture of reading alive. To lure back readers, DC Books is planning almost 1000 new titles as e-books and only half of it will be in the print format. We will have another few hundred titles in the audio format.”
Sapna Book House, located in a buzzing hub of Bangalore which opened on April 27 at the government’s mandate that education books could be sold during lockdown, saw brisk business in the sale of education books and for one week the sale of their general books was high, a result of people panic buying books, but post that, sales slowed down.

“Earlier companies would buy books in bulk to gift their employees, now everyone is becoming cautious of their expenditure,” rues the branch manager of Sapna Book House. “But I’m optimistic that in a few months book lovers will throng back as publishers release their new books.”

Mr Mago feels that it’s time to arrive at a level playing field by establishing a parity between the discounts offered online and by bookstores.

“Physical books shall undoubtedly continue to rule the roost, with eBooks and audio books catering to a specific readership. The genres shall remain as diverse as before, with a temporary spurt in Covid-19 related books. We would need to explore the opportunities offered by the digital space and think of ways to keep books and reading habit alive,” says Mr Mago. Om book shop has begun processing orders received by phones and through social media by hand-delivering the books within Delhi.

Though the publishers have chalked out their future plans, but as Mr Abraham says “It’s constantly evolving along with the situation,” and in Mr Mago’s words, “a work-in-progress.” No one knows when the curve will flatten or when a cure will be found, till then publishers will find new ways to make books reach the readers.

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