The iconic owner of a bookshop that dates to pre-independence days. A management whizkid who founded a national bookstore chain. Each talks about his relationship with the reader
‘THERE IS A HUGE SHORTAGE OF EDUCATED BOOKSELLERS’
Ram Advani – Book seller
On the Indian reading habit
We in india babble more and read less. They don’t read they talk, they talk small talk. Im not saying they should become philosophers or thinkers but the fact remains that you never find people reading in a restaurant or while travelling. The culture of reading is absent and it is not setting in to the extent that one would like, despite the fact that the publishing world and book sellers are by and large going through better times – the printing quality for example is as good as anything –Although the number of readers has increased in absolute numbers, the percentage of the population that reads seems to have decreased. People also seem to be reading English books because they think that if you don’t know English, you will not get very far in life. But the fact remains that we need more people to read. What we can do to motivate them is another question.
On corporates entering the book retail market
There is nothing wrong with it. The more outlets you have, the more booklovers you get. So, I think on the whole it is a good idea. It might take them longer to get the result they anticipate but they are there because there is a demand for books.
On the small bookseller’s survival
I think the small bookseller has an advantage in that he can cater to the particularly interested reader. My job is to recognize readers and their particular interests. If you come in asking for a book on Lucknow, on the mutiny say or its culture, I would inform you of the good books on the subject. Out of the 40 such who come in, at least 4 would return to me or say i will buy the book or keep it for me, thank you very much. Next time he will buy another book and is in this way we’ll keep in touch. I’m not concerned whether crossword or so and so has kept the book or not kept the book. My job is to interact with them and a small bookseller can do that which is a big advantage. You come across a man who is so shabbily dressed you wonder what he is doing in the shop but the way he looks at a book, the way he browses tells me that the man is serious. If a man is waiting to meet his girlfriend he looks at a book differently and sometimes the most unlikely character will show an interest in a subject like gender studies say. These are the joys. There is not a day when i don’t learn something new from these people who come into my bookshop. There is a shortage of educated booksellers. There is a shortage of educated booksellers and books to 95% is nothing but a merchandise. This is my income, this is my job, instead of selling biscuit or toothpaste or cloth I’m selling books. Book comes in a different category and yet it has become a part of the merchandise.
‘OUR AUTHORS ARE OUTSELLING FOREIGN BESTSELLERS’
R Sriram, co-founder of Crossword Bookstores
India is not a country but a continent, which lives across three centuries. So, I have never tried to understand the Indian reader vis-à-vis a reader belonging to another country. I have never tried to import business models from other countries to sell Crossword’s books. ‘Cut And Paste’ doesn’t work here. And even within the country, it’s difficult to classify the Indian reader’s tastes. But there are some trends publishers and booksellers recognize and follow, as those in the movie industry would. As a retailer, I’ve always dealt with the demand side of things – as opposed to a publisher who’s dealt with the supply side. I’ve recognized reader needs that are being served, underserved and un-served.
A trend that has emerged in the last five to ten years in India is the popularity of non-fiction. One reason for this is that non-fiction is more accessible than fiction, which is more often read by someone who is in the habit of reading. Another reason is that a lot of young India is now getting prosperous, and hungry for a better quality of life. Also, there’s a shift in family profile – from joint to nuclear families. So subjects which we referred to elders for – such as childcare, religion and rituals, cuisines and self improvement – are now understood better from books. The rise of individualism and need for youngsters to ‘figure things out themselves’, also adds to this effect.
So, there are books on Indian mythology by a popular writer who has simplified it, which youngsters may draw parallels and inspiration from. Also in demand, are books for those who’ve entered the professional job market and want to jump-start their career. Then there are books on parenting, on the lines of those written by Dr Benjamin Spock, by Indian Pediatrician Dr Anand, which are huge bestsellers.
The rate of change in national economy and business is accelerating. So what an executive learns in business school five years ago is never as relevant as it used to be. He looks for books to help him deal with changes market situations. Overall, the age of information offers up a paradox of choice. Books become all the more important because they help us make sense of the chaos we witness on the internet.
Also, there has been an immense rise in the popularity of Indian fiction over the last ten years. Indian authors are outselling best-selling foreign authors today, which a decade ago was unthinkable. This shows that fiction, besides entertainment, helps you understand yourself and what’s around you, which is why Indian characters, speaking in Indian English, in an Indian milieu, work. That’s why Indian authors – an Amitav Ghosh, an Arundhati Roy, an Altaf Tyrewaala – work.
Another trend in fiction is books which tap into the aspirations of a section of youth. A Chetan Bhagat has done this for IIT aspirants with Five Point Someone, or for IIM aspirants with 2 States – The Story Of My Marriage, a love story which begins in IIM. An Anurag Mathur has done this for youth waiting to settle abroad with The Inscrutable American, which was a blockbuster. An Upmanyu Chatterjee has done this for IAS aspirants with An English August.
These are clear predictable trends – reader needs which have been served. But there are the unserved and underserved as well. For instance, a piece of fiction which taps into the collective consciousness of cricket, will be a bestseller. So will more books like Butter Chicken In Ludhiana, which relate to travel. Or non fiction books catering to DINK (Double Income No Kids) couples and women executives. Or Indian children’s books on the lines of Dora The Explorer. Or books on entrepreneurship, for students just out of college. Or books which help parents find the right school or syustem of education for their child. I’d like to end with a quote from Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail): “Many of our assumptions of popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply and demand matching – a market response to inefficient distribution.”