Booksellers, publishers back in business but rules of the game have changed

After two months of zero or minimal print sales, the publishing industry is gearing up operational guidelines percolating down to printers, supplies, warehouses, distributors and wholesalers for a business dominated by bricks-and-mortar sales. The lockdown may be over in most markets but the effects are being felt now. The iconic Full Circle bookstore in New Delhi’s Khan Market shut two decades after it opened, boding ill for a business in a world focused on high-touch zones, social distancing, and air ventilation to prevent the spread of a disease.

Amrita Somaiya, owner of Kitab Khana in Mumbai, says, “It has been a difficult time for us as we don’t have an online sales platform and don’t sell anything but books.” At present, she’s open for limited hours but only with kerb-side pick up and home delivery and no in-store browsing.

Most report high online sales, zero offline sales and deferred schedules. “It’s difficult to predict when the sector will bounce back as it will depend on how consumers view discretionary spends in the coming months as we face the twin challenges of controlling the pandemic while ramping up economic activity,” said Thomas Abraham, CEO of Hachette India. Hachette’s Online sales jumped by 90 percent in the last couple months.

Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO India says that his online sales have also soared by 100 percent and “started publishing books directly as e-books in May.” Across the industry, print Vs digital is 95 per cent and 5 per cent.

ALSO READ: India coronavirus dispatch: Why Mumbai became the worst-hit Indian city

Others see similar trends. Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland Publication says, “We have seen an initial surge especially in the demand for children’s books (as stores opened selectively),” he said. “During lockdown phase 1-3, sale of physical books virtually came to a standstill. It is during lockdown 4 and more so in the current phase that we saw a gradual opening of offline stores and resumption of online supplies even in red zones.”

Meanwhile, most will resume business by June-end. Nandan Jha, Senior Vice President of sales and product for Penguin Random House says that they normally release between 200-250 books a year but have down-shifted to release a 100 new titles from now till December. The big ones will include fiction works that include a collection of essays titled “Azaadi” by Arundhati Roy and new memoirs by Ruskin Bond, he said

How about titles launched just before lockdown? Abraham says books that went out late January-to early March had their sales and promotional cycle interrupted. “They need to be re-promoted as if new, and publishing schedules will probably see a lag of three months,” he said. “We revisited our pipeline and beginning June end will resume releasing new titles. In order to ensure that marketing and sales bandwidth is not over stretched, we have had to push a few releases into next year.”

The frontlist decline (new books published annually) precedes the epidemic. “Last year, for 95% of new books released all over the country across every publisher, sold less than 500 copies, which is a worrying trend,” Abraham said. “So outside big brands, and once-in-a-while break out new books like The silent patient or Gone Girl a few years it is difficult to establish new titles or build new authors and new brands.”

Can digital replace the real thing? Jha says that store sales for print is the bread and butter for all houses with e-books being less than 10 percent. For their part, Penguin Random House is pushing marketing with more audio and e-book launches,” Jha said, adding that bookstores are also looking to sign up with platforms like Dunzo and Swiggy and Zomato to to deliver books as well.

As a product, books are immersive as is the browsing experience for books which is a big draw for book lovers. In the future, will need to think of digital immersive marketing just like marketing a movie or show on Netflix is an immersive experience,” says Uma Talreja, Chief Marketing and Customer Officer, Shoppers Stop which owns Crossword Book stores.”New formats will include audio books, podcasts and more.”

Anil Dharker, Founder and Director of the Mumbai International Literary Festival, says he expects to see a lot of shutdowns across stores but hopes festivals will pickup by year-end. “So far there is no replacement for live events and the experience of meeting authors.”

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  • Bookshops start curbside pick up, limit store hours

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