How the book industry is grappling with the coronavirus-induced lockdown

Nandana James Mumbai | Updated on April 30, 2020 Published on April 30, 2020

This picture is used here for representational purpose only.

Instagram has taken over at Walking BookFairs, a Bhubaneshwar-based independent bookshop, to facilitate what it used to do before the coronavirus-induced pandemic — talking about books, recommending books, and taking orders via messages, whilst also ensuring a zero-contact pick up from the front of the store. At Kitab Khana, Mumbai’s famous boutique bookshop, it hosted a virtual campfire for poetry reading every evening over the course of two weeks on its social media page. Book launches by publishers have turned virtual as well. Indeed, social media has emerged as the knight in shining armour for the book industry, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is leaving it in tatters.

As the pandemic rages across the country, even the quiet and demure bookstores, which were already grappling with dwindling footfalls in the shadow of online behemoths, weren’t spared its wrath. Book publishers and retailers are seeking reprieve in online activities, with virtual book launches and social media engagements coming to their rescue.

BusinessLine spoke to people in the book industry, which is a labyrinth of publishing houses, distribution centers, bookstore retailers - which include independent bookstores - literary agents, as well as online players, to understand their woes and how they are coping.

As bookstores downed its shutters and businesses got upended overnight, the book industry was privy to a slew of challenges like disruption in supply chains, production, sales and distribution of books, re-evaluation and re-scheduling of new launches and revision of publishing catalogues, said experts.

“We are taking it a day at a time. The whole industry and the country is suffering. We hope that we will be able to reopen as soon as possible, but of course (after) taking into account the scenario in Mumbai,” said Amrita Somaiya, owner of independent bookstore, Kitab Khana.

While there is an impact on revenue due to the lockdown, this is being tackled by focusing on the sales of e-books, said Nandan Jha, SVP, Product and Sales, at publishing house Penguin Random House India. “Since we cannot sell print books at the moment, more energies have been diverted to e-books and audiobooks publishing, sales and marketing,” he said.

Penguin’s authors are doing virtual book launches in partnership with its offline retail partners. Until the sales for physical books resume, publishing houses will have to be agile with their sales strategies and goals, he cautioned.

The publishing industry can be privy to a 30-50 per cent decline in print revenue, said Anish Chandy, founder of Delhi-based Labyrinth Literary Agency, who has over 10 years’ experience in publishing. Anyone supplying to publishers, ranging from authors, literary agents and printers, to the guy selling tea at publishers’ canteen will be affected, he said.

At his agency, the release of all the books it's dealing with have been pushed to later. Since print revenue forms the bulk of the revenue that publishing makes, this doesn’t augur well for the sector, he said.

But, for now, ebook sales will compensate for physical books to a certain extent, said Chandy. “Some publishers are reporting a 100 per cent growth in e-book sales. There are opportunities for people who can come up with great subjects married to great digital publicity. In this glut of boring webinars, the right new e-book could do well.”

Even as these dire prospects prevail, empirically, the appetite for reading should be increasing at a time like this when people are confined within their homes. But, this is nipped in the bud by the closure of businesses identified as “non-essential”, which include bookstores, publishing houses, as well as online delivery of books.

However, this could be precisely why digital equivalents of books, book launches and reader engagements are emerging.

“This lockdown has given us the opportunity to connect digitally with our customers,” affirmed Chiragh Oberoi, Customer Care Associate and Chief Executive Officer of Crossword Bookstores Ltd.

Penguin Random House is releasing select titles in e-book and audiobook formats, and it has a schedule ready for the next three months, said Jha. For instance, it released Sudha Murthy’s new title in e-book and audiobook formats on the World Book Day (April 23). Marketing is busier than ever with various digital engagement programs, said Jha, whilst Penguin is also acquiring new books and cover designs. Editorial work on upcoming projects are also happening as always, he added.

Labyrinth Literary Agency is also engaging with books in non-print formats like audio and e-books, which currently take up around 30 per cent of its work, and this figure is set to go up if the situation persists, said Chandy.

The Crossword Bookstore chain, which has more than 80 stores spread across 26 cities, has been curating live, interactive sessions with its customers on its social media pages, wherein authors read out from their books and interact with the audience. “In collaboration with Penguin Books, famous authors like Tazmeen Amna, Ruskin Bond, Anushka Ravishankar, and many others went live and entertained kids as well as parents with their innovative storytelling techniques - the response was phenomenal and got four lakh eyeballs,” said Oberoi. The Write Place, which is the publishing arm of Crossword, has also been sharing an e-book every week, free of cost, on its social media pages.

Kolkata-based bookstore chain, Oxford Bookstore, which has five stores across the country, has also launched similar social media initiatives on its official Facebook page. For instance, on April 21, Amish Tripathi, the author of the Shiva Trilogy, was in conversation with readers on Oxford’s Facebook page. It is also set to host authors like Kunal Basu and William Dalrymple soon.

Amazon Kindle India has also made a selection of e-books available for free to all Amazon customers to read on Kindle apps and devices.

Independent bookstores, devoid of the support of big business behemoths, have also been relying on social media to take orders and to keep their regular customers engaged.

Kitab Khana activated its virtual presence in a bid to keep its readers engaged, said Somaiya. Book recommendations, live storytelling sessions for children and a 14-day poetry reading session in collaboration with the Indian Novels Collective called Poetry Live, were some of the activities it organised after the lockdown started. Currently, it is curating a series of digital launches with publishers to help them promote their upcoming releases, she added.

Walking BookFairs, founded in 2014 by Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Bahibala, has been recommending books, chatting about books and taking book orders via its Instagram account throughout April. “We are so local we do not use a website,” quipped Mishra, its owner and co-founder.

It arranged for books to be picked up from the front of the shop, which ensured zero contact as well, she explained. At its Bangalore store, many readers have also managed to get their book orders picked up by local delivery services like Dunzo, she said. From April 28 onwards, in Bhubaneshwar also, it has arranged for book delivery via a delivery service, she said.

Walking BookFairs has also doubled up as a traveling bookshop in the past. The founders set forth on a road trip last year, with a van full of books, traversing around 10,000 km in India, taking books to many small towns and villages in the process.

However, their struggles remain as pronounced as ever.

In India, there are only a handful of independent bookshops struggling to stay alive, and the lockdown has exacerbated their woes, said Mishra. “But, being an independent bookshop also means not giving up so easily, because things have always been difficult for us,” said Mishra.

“There aren't many independent bookshops to begin with. Big businesses control everything. Millions of people do not have access to books. And those who do, buy online and support Amazon. It has always been difficult to keep indie bookshops alive. We have been struggling to keep our bookshop alive and running,” she said.

With the pandemic-induced lockdown, she fears that matters are going to get worse. “As booksellers, we are dependent on our bookshops for our livelihoods. We are incurring losses. The government could have allowed us to open with safety measures in place,” she said.

This lockdown period also pertains to a time period when school books would usually sell like hotcakes, noted Rameshan PK, manager of book retailing and publishing business H&C’s Kochi branches, as these two months precede the opening of schools in Kerala. Now with schools also likely to reopen late, coupled with the financial uncertainties people have been beleaguered with, it remains unclear if purchasing books would even be of prime importance, he said. The Kochi-based book retailing and publishing business has over 30 stores in Kerala, as well as one each in Bangalore and Chennai.

Nothing in his 33-year career would have prepared Rameshan for something like this - “This is undeniably an unprecedented situation, wherein shops had to remain shut,” he noted.

In the last 3-4 years, he has also been noticing dwindling footfalls at the bookstores, as online behemoths Amazon and Flipkart started chipping away at its customer base. He identified general books or those not pertaining to school or college work, as having faced the brunt of this.

The coronavirus crisis, however, would be a good opportunity for the publishing business in India to support small independent bookshops, said Mishra.

“Only when all players come together can the publishing industry think of news ways to reach readers, and this will be impossible without physical bookshops. In the US, writers, publishers, readers have come out in support of indie bookshops. James Patterson has donated a huge amount of money to help save bookstores and readers are contributing to the fund. In India, we are yet to see that kind of support for local indie bookshops, but we are trying our best to make people aware,” she said.

Mishra also feels that this can also be a time that can herald new and creative ways of taking books to readers, akin to the ones Walking BookFair has been undertaking.

When it comes to recovery, the brick and mortar stores, who own their spaces, would be in a better position to withstand this downturn than the stores who have to pay high street rents, said Chandy.

The publishing and allied industries can bounce back in six to 12 months, depending on how long the lockdown prolongs, he opined. Books offer information, entertainment and an escape - it’s a hard combination to beat, he said.

What is more, in China, people have resumed shopping with a sense of vengeance after having been under a lockdown for months - a phenomenon referred to as “revenge shopping” - and this can happen in India too, said Chandy.

But, with the increasing focus on digitisation, can the coronavirus crisis create a new paradigm in the publishing industry?

Niti Kumar, SVP, marketing, digital and communications, Penguin Random House India, feels this is likely.

“While it’s difficult to predict anything with certainty – who would’ve thought that a virus would bring the world to a standstill – it’s quite likely that the post COVID world is going to be different, and not just for books. We already see signs of this in the way people have adapted to digital formats, digital interactions, home deliveries and so on,” she said.

She also pointed out that India has always been a print driven market and there are many who will return to bookstores as soon as they open. But, the way the industry looks at publishing and marketing books will need to adapt to the new reality and new world, she said. There will be people in India who will also add digital avenues to their list now, she added.

“Having experimented with digital channels, publishers, book sellers and event literature festivals are likely to use digital as a robust marketing tool. It’s going to be a different year with many interesting firsts, for sure,” Kumar surmised.

An increasing focus on virtual formats of books due to the lockdown won’t necessarily mean physical bookstores or retailers would suffer in the future, said Kumar. There is enough space in the market for the physical and digital formats to co-exist, she said.

“We have seen this in so many other categories as well. For example, an online beauty app co-exists with your neighbourhood shop because each fulfill a different consumer needs. Will the bookshops have to adapt and innovate in a post COVID world? Yes, but all businesses will have to do the same. The biggest advantage a bookstore has is the experience it gives you: the smell of books, thumbing through pages, chatting with the store owner for recommendations. This experience can never be recreated digitally.”

Apeksha Mehta, a Mumbai-based 26-year-old blogger who is an avid reader, would attest to this.

“E-books are good too, but the smell of the old book and the feel of the pages can never be replaced by e-books. I would always prefer physical books and bookstores,” she said. Sometimes, it is not even about buying the books per se, she added. She cited the example of Kitab Khana, which she refers to as her comfort zone. “On days when I feel like hiding from the world and need some peace, I go there.”

She can’t wait to resume her visits to bookstores once the lockdown ends.

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Published on April 30, 2020
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