Why commercial fiction writers should be wary of online book-buying

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Not being able to discover great new writers is a bigger loss to readers than the discounts offered by e-sellers, says Ravi Subramanian. Every Sunday, my wife and I have a ritual where we visit a local book store in Mumbai. We browse, have coffee and chat with the staff. A few weeks ago we were at one of the Crossword stores when I became a spectator to a scene between a mother and her son. The son had carefully picked out four books and was in the process of handing them to his mother for her to take to the checkout counter. She noted those titles and then told him to put them back. “Online is cheaper,” she said. And she was probably not wrong in making that assumption, resulting in the retail store losing a sale, and online gaining that sale.

I came back a bit disappointed, for I knew that the mother-son was just not an isolated example. The price war that e-commerce has engaged in to acquire customers is systematically decimating traditional book retail. I am one of those who love the romance of an old bookstore. The sense of vellichor as you walk through a bookstore cannot be matched by sitting in front of a laptop screen and ordering the book of your choice.

In 2007, when I launched my first book, If God was a Banker, it was priced at Rs 195. And back in those days, 195 meant 195. There were no discounts, no undercutting and everyone was happy. Today, after eight years, most of my books are available for far less than Rs 195. So much for years-years of inflation. At first glance this appears to be a win-win situation for the reader. He gets his books cheap. And for the author too. He is no longer at the mercy of book stores and by just taking care of one channel of distribution, he is in a position to reach out to a larger audience. And then there is also this notion that if a book is priced low, it sells more. May be that’s true. But then, as long as you want to buy the new John Grisham, the latest Jeffrey Archer, or the much awaited Amish’s Ikshvaku, it is fine. You would have read about it in the papers, heard about it on radio and seen it splashed all over TV. So you log on to e-commerce sites, buy the book you want and then get out. Do you surf around looking for newer books from unknown authors, or for that matter lesser known authors? You don’t. Right? Generally, people who buy books online, know what they want and often go online just to buy that book.

Buy online, find only established writers

How then do you discover new authors? Online or through bookstores? Clearly the latter. The emergence of online stores in a Bahubalisque fashion has taken its toll on discoverability of new writing. There is no bigger testimony to this than the fact that most big (Indian) commercial authors of today came on the scene much before online took over book sales.

If one were to count the number of debutant authors who have sold ten thousand copies in the last five years, their number would be in single digit. For a country where some 22,000 new English books are published every year, it is a sad state of affairs, to say the least. A new author will have to rely on brick and mortar to give themselves a minuscule chance of success. Bookstore displays, pile-ups, banners and posters, and, more important, shelf space are what enable discoverability. And trust me, there are hordes of new authors out there who die a depressing death because their book, despite being brilliant, doesn’t get seen and hence doesn’t get read. Isn’t that a bigger loss to the reading community and to the publishing world in general, than the forty to fifty rupees that one gains on account of enhanced discounting online?

But e-commerce does help

That said, I must confess that e-commerce does have a role to play in streamlining book distribution, there are many towns that have never had great book stores, and readers here can now buy their favorite author at the click of a button. New markets have opened up, Tier Two cities have emerged as important go-to markets for authors like Chetan Bhagat, Amish, Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta, etc. This couldn’t have been possible but for e-commerce.

I am not completely against online bookselling. I am an author too. And all said and done, today, 40-60 per cent of sales for a book come through e-commerce sites these days (it is higher for more expensive books).

No marketing plan for any book launch of mine is complete without taking into consideration sales through Amazon and Flipkart. That’s a reality. One can’t afford to ignore online anymore. On the contrary, sadly one can afford to ignore brick and mortar, as recent launches of Half Girlfriend and Pranab Mukherjee’s book have shown. It is a dangerous game which holds in it the capability to wipe out physical bookstores. With high street rentals and high inventory carrying costs for bookstores, the dice is heavily loaded in the favour of e-commerce. Traditional bookstores can’t compete.

Can the playing field be levelled?

There must be a way for both to co-exist, for bookstores and e-commerce players to operate on a level playing field. And this can only happen if they compete on customer experience and not on price.
Perhaps we should look at France as a model to emulate. In France, it is illegal to discount books by more than five percent. And this holds for bookstores and e-commerce players. It was done to protect more than 5,000 bookstores that dotted the French retail landscape. Such a step immediately levels the playing field between online and offline.
After all, if discounts are capped, it is up to the reader to decide if they’d like the convenience of online or the adventure (and romance) of offline. It will certainly eliminate scenes like the mother-son interaction I described earlier. The industry has to work with the government to come up with a solution. There are too many conflicting goals between publishing and e-commerce for them to sort this out by themselves.

Bookstores have it in them to define the culture of a generation. A well-read generation is invariably a more balanced, peace-loving and highly intelligent generation. When you protect a bookstore, you end up laying a foundation for a better world. Any step towards getting bookstores and e-commerce players to complement each other rather than compete, would be a giant step in this direction.

(Ravi Subramanian is an award-winning author of seven bestselling thrillers. His new book, a romantic Intrigue, is being released this October. His most popular books are: If God was a Banker, God is a Gamer, Bankster and The Incredible Banker.)

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