Turning the page

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Updated: Jan 12, 2021 3:43 PM

Bookstores and publishers embrace digital to drive sales

Bookstore chains and independent book shops have pivoted to home delivery of books through tie-ups with delivery partners.Bookstore chains and independent book shops have pivoted to home delivery of books through tie-ups with delivery partners.

There has been a notable increase in reading time in the past 10 months. According to the Nielsen Book India report, more than two-thirds of book readers have been reading to a greater extent since the lockdown. However, the publishing industry suffered a great deal, pushing many of the publishers and bookstores to go digital. Although the e-commerce sales of books have risen, the changes in reading and book shopping behaviour could have serious implications on the business.

Adapt and pivot

Bookstore chains and independent book shops have pivoted to home delivery of books through tie-ups with delivery partners, or by setting up their own websites. Crossword has adopted an omnichannel strategy and tied up with partners like Ferns n Petals and Swiggy; Oxford Bookstore started home deliveries through orders placed on its website, where it lists about 3,000 titles.

Several independent bookstores also began call-to-order services. The Bookshop in Delhi started taking orders from across the country through email and direct messages on Instagram. “Bookstores that did not promote and sell books online and through tie-ups with delivery partners suffered. Walk-ins at bookstores are yet to pick up; they are at 20-40% of last year’s level,” says Kanishka Gupta, literary agent and publishing commentator.

Bookstores in malls have been the worst impacted because of high rentals and low footfall. Chiragh Oberoi, CEO, Crossword, says that sales are at around 55% of last year’s numbers. “Since almost 60% of our business is generated through kids-specific merchandise sales, and parents have not been taking their kids to the mall due to the pandemic, our topline has been impacted,” he adds. Bookstores are anticipating higher footfall in the next three months.

As India’s trade publishing industry is distributor driven, it is primary sales that publishers consider their turnover. “While this might vary across publishers, most narrative trade publishers would probably end up seeing fall-offs between 25%-35% in their turnovers. The overall consumer publishing industry itself would have shrunk in the range of under 5%,” estimates Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India. Disruptions to retail sales and supply chain have delayed the launch of new books. Hachette deferred over half of its 2020 launches, mostly local titles and mass market books; some even to 2021.

Penguin India experimented with a digital-first strategy in 2020. “We had to review and revise our publishing schedule and turned to releasing many of our new titles in the digital format first. By June 2020, we started publishing print editions of the e-books launched,” says Nandan Jha, SVP – products and sale, Penguin Random House India.

The flipside

In the first two months after the lockdown was lifted, Hachette saw 85-90% of its sales coming from e-commerce platforms. Previously, e-commerce contributed 50-55% of its sales. “Online sales have stabilised at about 65% now,” says Abraham.

Oxford Bookstore’s e-commerce portal brings in more than 35% of the revenue, says its CEO Swagat Sengupta.

While consumers are setting aside more time for reading, this hasn’t translated to higher book sales. New launches of books have been impacted. Further, publishers worry that new authors and lesser-known works may lose out because of promotional activities and sales going online.

“Because there are no opportunities to showcase new authors, they could fade away into oblivion. This is because online marketplaces are not conducive to marketing new books, especially fiction,” says Gupta.

The pandemic’s impact on travel, too, has dealt a blow to book sales: airport bookstores are hubs for non-fiction, business, international fiction and self-help books.

Meanwhile, consumer interest in audiobooks peaked slightly in the past nine months. Audible, which saw an increase in sampling in recent months, has been focussing on building its catalogue of books for India. “We pivoted to customise a lot of our content towards the lockdown with health and wellness titles,” says Shailesh Sawlani, country head, Audible India.

As per industry estimates, e-book sales saw a spike of about 90% over 2019. But, because of the low base, this increase is “fairly meaningless”, Abraham says.

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