There were five of us mourners at Fact & Fiction bookshop in South Delhi’s Vasant Vihar market, as if trying to console the well-known book seller Ajit Vikram Singh. There was a sense of disbelief , tinged with some nostalgia as Singh packed away some old books, talking about the inevitability of closing down his bookshop. “If society is not bothered and cannot take care of it, bookshops will not survive,” he said underlining his own epitaph.

Why bookshops are under pressure

Reality is a bit different. This shop, like others, has been living in denial for the last three years, unwilling to see the future and unable to mount a fight. Retail sales in all bookshops have crashed, and the ones who still hold on are those who own the shops themselves. Others have enlarged the scope of their offerings, adding on stationery, or diversifying.

Shobha Sengupta’s Quill and Canvas in Gurgaon, for instance, is now mostly an art gallery. Or the Apeejay group’s Oxford Bookstore in Connaught Place, New Delhi, has an upgraded chai bar as its main attraction, while books cry for attention. What’s a collection of Partition stories compared to iced tea?

The reason for the sudden collapse of bookshops and book retailing is the marketplace model which online selling giants Flipkart and Amazon have adopted. The Marketplace is a platform on which any online bookseller can sell books. A buyer has the option of comparing different prices for the same book, as offered by different sellers, and picking the cheapest.

Now, the ecommerce company itself might be selling the book, although at a higher price. Their algorithms, however, tell them that, for instance, (the Internet website which I once owned and closed down) has sold 10 copies of Lee Child’s latest thriller at Rs 180. The company will at once match this price, or go even lower, so that no other seller can be the cheapest choice for a prolonged period.

As a result, the bookseller loses customers. As for the deep-pocketed e-commerce company, it is even willing to take a loss on each transaction in order to grow its customer base. Naturally, small booksellers without matching resources cannot compete.

In this crippling price war, physical bookshops are losing out since they had neither strategy nor resource. Rentals have increased. Sales have decreased. The best discounted price they can offer a customer for a Rs 499 book is Rs 450. Buyers scoff at this and download the ecommerce app instead.

Government intervention like in Germany, where online sellers like Amazon are not allowed to deep-discount book prices, could have offered a temporary reprieve. But in India such an intervention is not a possibility.

Ironically, there are more readers than ever before

It is not that book reading has reduced – it has in fact increased. A new generation of authors appealing to the sensibilities of the aspiring classes has mushroomed. Their love stories, told in elementary school English and some Bollywood pastiche added on, are being devoured avidly. Chetan Bhagat’s total sales already run into multiple millions. Books by me-too authors have replaced Reader’s Digest as the favoured item of display in the living room of India’s aspiring populace.

However, sales of literary and serious fiction have dipped. Many patrons of these genres have moved their loyalties to e-readers as e-books are usually available quicker and cheaper. Bookshops that do not cater to the changing tastes of a younger India are suffering doubly as a result.

“Publishing is a cottage industry pretending to be a big industry,” Singh says. Maybe. But publishing isn’t exactly dwindling. This year alone, two new ventures have come up, led by stalwarts of publishing: Penguin and Aleph veteran Ravi Singh’s Speaking Tiger, and former Random House and Penguin publisher Chiki Sarkar’s new company.

Multinational giants like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette are scaling up their businesses, smaller global publishers like Bloomsbury are expanding, and even international companies not yet in India are looking to start publishing here. Clearly, the supply lines are getting wider.

Moreover, ambitions are getting bigger. First, Flipkart ran a front-page advertisement in The Times of India for Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend, and Amazon did the same with Amish’s Scion of Ikshvaku. The sheer marketing budget involved in such advertising points to extremely high sales targets for these books.

It is not just in India but in Paris too that bookshops are shutting down. Adam Gopnik wrote a New Yorker obit for the famous book shop, La Hune, which closed down in April:
“It was as much a social center, a place to drop in and see what was new among the leaves, so to speak, as a place to go and buy an assigned book. I can’t count all the books I bought there, and still own. (Some of them I actually read.) But the education was, as educations ought to be, more sentimental than simply didactic. “

As in Paris, so in Delhi. Back at Fact and Fiction, I bought Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter and Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies as parting gifts to Singh’s bookshop. There were at least ten empty shelves. There seemed no point in arranging new books on them.

The other mourners were still browsing and occasionally mumbling nostalgically. Like me, they had come for the last time.