“If you want a new title to be discovered, bookstores are your ultimate go-to place”

shares Gaurav Sabharwal, Managing Director-cum-CEO of
Prakash Books India.

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Gaurav Sabharwal is the Managing Director-cum-CEO of Prakash Books India. He started his career as a Database Analyst with a Nebraska-based organisation in 1998 and worked his way to become the Sales Director at Prakash Books India in 2000. Gaurav, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration (dual Major in Finance and Information Systems) from University of Nebraska, Lincoln, has taken the business to greater heights, helping the business grow, to a revenue of 60 million USD. Gaurav also founded two publishing imprints—Fingerprint Publishing (Adult Fiction and Non Fiction) and Wonder House Books—a children’s book publishing house.

India has always been very academically driven; so, what we need is more leisure-driven reading, and I think the government can really initiate a movement to encourage reading right from an early age.

Prakash Books is one of the leading distributors of books in South Asia. Here, Gaurav Sabharwal, Managing Director-cum-CEO of Prakash Books India, shares his views on the status of book distribution in India and the road ahead. Excerpts.

AABP: Brief us about the inception of Prakash Books.

Gaurav: Prakash Books was founded by my grandfather, Hari Prakash Sabharwal, who came to India in 1948 after Partition, with very little money, and lived in the Purana Qila camps. He would pick old books from Jama Masjid and sell them across Delhi. In time, he set up a bookshop at Panchkuian Road and started selling more books. Thereafter, he started writing to international publishers by gathering their addresses from the back covers of books. He would send out a Demand Draft in their name and publishers like Harper Collins and Penguin would send him books here in India. Eventually, as the relationship cemented, he started to receive books from international publishers on credit. This further inspired him to give books on credit to booksellers here in india.

AABP: What have been the major milestones for Prakash Books?

Gaurav: Well, the pioneering work of my grandfather in terms of starting book distribution way back in 1948 is always going to be very close to my heart, not just from an emotional place but also because of the sheer courage and passion that he had. In fact, I recall how he used to tell me about Perry Mason books and other bestsellers that he managed to get for the Indian readership. Thereafter, in 1970s, when my father, Ashwani Sabharwal, joined the business, he took it one notch higher. He went on to publish coffee table, large format and travel books. One of his titles, Holy Cow, has already sold more than 200,000 copies; we have been selling this for the last 20 years. When I joined in 2000, I started expanding distribution by opening branches all over India across 6 different cities—Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, NOIDA, and Kolkata. At that point, I understood the significance of keeping all the branches connected; thus, I was very keen to invest in the requisite innovative technologies to keep the branches aligned and functioning in tandem. We have worked to improve upon customer service for distribution.

AABP: What have been the challenges in distribution?

Gaurav: In distribution, the greatest challenge has been in terms of margins and collections. Distribution doesn’t have much margin because the overheads are very high. Collections are also tough to manage because we don’t have a strong database of who the good paymasters are; there isn’t a good credit rating system in India. Thus, expanding in India has been a challenge. Likewise, in terms of technology, we still require a significant investment to stay at par with competition.

AABP: What have been the positives in distribution?

Gaurav: However, there have been quite a few positives that we noticed. For instance, there has been enough market in B and C towns, as also in all major cities. It wouldn’t even be wrong to say that we are operating in a continuously expanding market because people are really interested to read. There has been scope for a more organised play, which is where we came in.

AABP: What have been the major changes that impacted distribution and your company in the last 10 years?

Gaurav: Well, the onset of online marketplaces, especially Flipkart and Amazon have changed things massively; these platforms weren’t around until 2010. But their share has grown significantly in the last ten years. I think the fact that we were ready with the requisite technology when these platforms showed up was a big reason why we were better-placed as compared to the other distributors. In fact, we were the first to work with Amazon and Flipkart.

Since the last year, things have changed—we have witnessed how large publishers have started to engage directly with Amazon and that has impacted us in terms of declining online sales. However, we are still at it. The volatility in terms of policies has caused such platforms to want to monopolise the market for themselves; thus, smaller retailers as well as large distributors like us are suffering. When the marketplace doubles up as a seller, it starts to severely impair the distribution network in a way that retailers and small booksellers get squeezed and crushed. The online giants cause the small sellers to shut shop, and eventually, it only worsens the case for the publisher because you will have reduced points of sale where books can be discovered. Online environments offer limited discovery.

AABP: What is your distribution network and supply chain?

Gaurav: We work pan-India with 6 warehouses in Delhi, NOIDA, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Chennai. We work primarily in trade and children’s publishing including both fiction and non-fiction; we do not operate in the academic/textbook publishing ecosystem. We have a network of 50+ sales personnel across India who reach out to around 2000+ sales points every day. Our customers include bookshops, bookstores located in malls, at the airport, library suppliers, institutional suppliers, and online sellers. We work with around 200+ publishers in the country.

AABP: What do you think impacts discoverability?

Gaurav: Well, your social media strategy goes a long way, but online reach is still quite limited. It is, in fact, crucial that brick and mortar stores are provided an ecosystem that allows them to function well and thrive. It may surprise you to know that out of the sales that happened online, 89% was from the backlist while 11% was from the frontlist. However, in offline sales from bookstores, 65% was from the backlist while only 35% was from the frontlist. That means online platforms are in fact great for selling books that are already established but if you want a new title to be discovered, bookstores are your ultimate go-to place.

AABP: What has been the impact of the current Covid-19 crisis?

Gaurav: The current crisis has had a significant effect on our company, and on retail trade. There have been two negatives for us: the first, of course, is that with increasing dependence on online sales during these times, most publishers started supplying their books directly to Amazon and Flipkart in order to ensure better cash flow. The offline business has diminished drastically; the offline sales have gone down tremendously. Earlier, offline sales contributed to nearly 50% of the market, but today, it isn’t even 30%. So, we lost sales in both those areas. But because there wasn’t much competition, we did have a very strong presence offline and we are enjoying that space. Also, due to the offline stores remaining shut for a long time, we have a lot of inventory stuck in the market as well as cash. Even after resuming offline sale, things are taking time to pick up.

AABP: What is the road ahead in these times?

Gaurav: Well, reading habits seem to have undergone a major change. Consumer behaviour has also changed tremendously; though there is greater overall reading happening, we have observed that people want to buy a lot more books online. The sale of children’s books has gone up because they have been at home a lot more, and parents have tried to invest in ways to keep their kids engaged with minimal screen exposure. We have seen an overall decline in the sale of fiction books; self-help and non-fiction have done very well. However, I must add here that I am quite hopeful for offline sales to pick up in a post-COVID post-vaccine world, because people have gotten exhausted with staying indoors and are yearning to visit bookstores; they genuinely want to be able to relive their book browsing experience in a brick and mortar store.

AABP: In your opinion, how can bookstores reinvent themselves?

Gaurav: There is a tremendous need for bookstores to reinvent in order to survive. Publishers and distributors need to help them survive because their own existence depends on bookstores. Afterall, bookstores lend a more experience-driven sort of buying, they are engines of recommendation. However, I think bookstore owners can add more experiential elements, like setting up a coffee shop alongside. The online marketplace too needs to be optimised better by bookshops.

With regard to publishing, the govt. needs to look at the policy, and help safeguard the trade by providing subsidies and covering booksellers against risks. In order for that to happen, it is about time that publishing be given the status of an industry and not just continue to be a trade. France, for instance, has great protectionist policies for bookstores. In fact, the per capita bookstore percentage in France is one of the highest in the world. So, support to small businesses (such as bookstores) are great for the economy. In fact, both America as well as most developed countries in Europe are looking to restrict the online space to being marketplaces rather than traders. In the absence of that, such players will continue to use their unique algorithms and big data to monopolise the market to the detriment of the small businesses.

AABP: Share your views on how to increase readership.

Gaurav: I think that the issue of readership has very many cultural forces at play; I think we should see it in that light far more than in pure economic terms. India has always been very academically driven; so, what we need is more leisure-driven reading, and I think the government can really initiate a movement to encourage reading right from an early age. It is going to go a long way in helping address so many other issues plaguing our country; when you have a well-read population, you will in turn have more women and children who read, who have greater awareness and are more empowered. Apart from that, I think we need to observe and celebrate reading days, organise more literary events and fests even in schools and colleges to promote the habit of reading.

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