Bookshops are like private sanctuaries!
Bookshops are not dying! In fact, did you know independent bookshops and chain bookshops are making a comeback? Thanks to better social media presence and a growing interest among readers and authors who value bookshops and the browsing experience, booksellers today have a lot of support, the world over, from the reading and writing community. Here, the Independent Bookshops Association of India shares more about their current status.
Although bookshops have always enjoyed patronage from old and new readers, post multiple Covid19-lockdowns and an overuse of screens, reading devices, and online shopping, some readers now see bookshops as their own private sanctuary, a place where algorithms can’t manipulate them, and if there’s a cafe alongside, they are happy to find that rare combination of solitude and mental stimulation.
For all our unshakeable dependence on screens and the online world, bookshops, like flower shops and museums, are precious for their defiant yet warm existence.
However, booksellers constantly feel unmoored from the publishing industry we are part of. Channels of communication are non-existent, and in the face of e-commerce marketplaces dictating terms of sale and the cavalier use of deep discounts, booksellers are barely managing to have our voices heard.
Need of the hour…
A few weeks ago, we got together with fellow independent booksellers and wrote down our concerns about the present and future of bookselling and put forward suggestions that we could work on together with publishers. In the age of huge advances and royalties, international literature awards, literature festivals, social media reach, the discovery of several new and diverse voices in storytelling, and book adaptations, it doesn’t make any sense to say that bookshops are not relevant any more.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we need to be quick to adapt to changes in our society, and that there are now several tools we can use to reach readers, while simultaneously, authors and readers are discovering that the monopolistic nature of e-commerce marketplaces do not really nurture the reading habit, and there are several opportunists out to ‘game the system’ to the disgust of authors and readers alike.
As booksellers we were concerned about several issues that were made worse by the pandemic, deep discounts on e-commerce websites, a broken supply chain from publisher to distributor to bookshop, and a non-existent communication channel between bookseller and publisher that we needed. Once the letter went out, we had replies almost immediately. But only from the ethically vigilant and editor-led independent publishing houses, who were eager to participate in such a conversation. Of the Big5, only Penguin Random House and Harper Collins India replied to the letter.
We would like to think that this will change soon though, thanks to efforts around the world led by UK and USA publishing houses and the indie bookshops there.
As long-time partners in the world of literature and reading, publishers and booksellers have always shared the same mission — to take the author’s words further than they dreamt possible, and to widen the reader’s horizon so they can experience different worlds. Over the years, we have together, successfully, helped transform and revolutionise so many minds.It is for continuing this mission, that we write this article today.
The Independent Bookshops Association of India was formed in 2020 with an objective to safeguard the interests of retail independent bookshops in India. Books are cultural artefacts and we are not mere peddlers of wares. As booksellers, we are keenly aware of the role we play and the responsibility we have towards readers and writers.
Issues plaguing the bookselling trade…
Our concerns are broadly categorised as: long-standing communication issues, a need to update technological tools, unfair trade practices and to be in sync with the growing awareness worldwide of supporting local and small stakeholders without being overly partial to any one platform or behemoth.
These practices include deep discounting, display of wrong and inflated MRPs (and large discounts thereon), preferential treatment in case of pre-orders and new releases, stock availability on these platforms while bookshops are told that the book is not in stock, and the sale of pirated books, among others. While we agree that any regulation on selling practices has to be in the form of a law mandated by the government, we believe that a strong stand by publishers might dissuade these platforms from engaging in practices that are detrimental to the interests of booksellers. Secondly, most booksellers also have a thriving presence online through their websites and social media, and yet, publishers hardly ever engage with such accounts, one explanation being they do not want to be seen as favouring any one shop, even while actively directing readers to buy from one website that is clearly not privately owned by the publisher themselves.
In UK and USA, publishers are much better at working with indie bookshops.In the same vein, we hope that all efforts will be made to help us fulfil our customer orders. Often, when books are not immediately available with the distributor, our pleas to procure them are lost in the email maze. We need better processes that will allow us to get these books for our customers.
There is no transparent communication and redressal system in place to address these issues, and all our efforts to highlight issues are not addressed, let alone solved, year after year.
Authors tell us that copies of their books are sent to Instagram influencers (most authors do not receive royalty on books that are distributed freely for marketing and promotion), while booksellers have to pay in advance for books they have no way of knowing if they are worth the hype. And advance reader copies are not sent to booksellers, a practise that works well in other countries. This would really help bookshops plan and order better.
What booksellers want?
We need an online ordering system, a platform that makes ordering of books faster and convenient, rather than the current system that is cumbersome, and does not give an accurate description of the books.
We are in the business of selling books, and look at publishers as our natural partners in that process. We therefore are willing to commit ourselves to practices that will be of benefit to the industry as a whole. We hope to get the same kind of assurances from publishers, and that steps will be taken to make processes easier.
The Independent Bookshops Association of India consists of the following members: The Dogears Bookshop, Goa; Trilogy Bookshop, Mumbai; Bingsha Shatabdi, Kolkata; Eureka Bookstore, Delhi; Funky Rainbow, Bangalore; Goobe’s Book Republic, Bangalore; Kahani Tree, Mumbai; Kaul Krafts, Jaipur; Kitab Khana, Mumbai; Literati Bookshop and Cafe, Goa; Turning Point, Madurai; May Day Bookstore, Delhi; Pagdandi Bookstore Cafe, Pune; Rachna Books, Gangtok; Storyteller Bookstore, Kolkata; and The Browser, Chandigarh.