In this season of frenetic literary activity, featuring book launches, literature festivals and book fairs, demonetisation has stomped in as the grinch who stole Christmas. Everyone knows the effects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to scrap high value notes overnight. One of the lesser-known victims is the business of books.
Publishers, distributers and booksellers are all feeling the pinch after over a month of dealing with the cash crunch. A reading of the latest Nielsen Bookscan ratings is all you need to figure the scale of loss in publishing, a sales team executive from Penguin-Random House tells Scroll.in. “As per the analysis of last four weeks, the total consumer market is down by 35% year-on-year,” he said.
Other publishers are observing even steeper drops. “Distributors have reported a 50% decline in sales in the first four weeks after demonetisation, though things seem to be looking up a bit now,” said Yogesh Sharma, VP, Sales and Marketing, Bloomsbury India. “But our sales to distributors for books that sell regularly are down by 20% so far in December.” The impact is deeper in Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns, where transactions by credit or debit cards and digital wallets are not popular, says Arup Bose, Publisher, Srishti Publishers & Distributors.
Books in regional languages, which depend more on cash transactions at every level of production, have been hit worse. Tridib Chatterjee, honorary general secretary, Publishers and Booksellers Guild, Kolkata, has said to news agencies that if the dismal turnout at smaller book fairs seen in the last couple of weeks is anything to go by, he is worried about the production of books, reprinting, and, more urgently, the mood and sales at the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair scheduled for late January. “Publishers are likely to bring out only one-fifth of their titles,” he said.
Books aren’t important now
Since November 9, buying a book has become what booksellers call “unnecessary” for many who have other pressing matters at hand, such as standing in endless queues at the bank in the hope of some cash. And often returning home with none. Doling out a couple of tenners for parking tickets has been causing much heartache, never mind a couple of hundreds for a book, which can easily be put off for a less tense time.
“Books are not a priority currently, and that has affected the mood in purchasing,” said Bose. “Of course, loyal readers will continue to buy their favourite authors’ new releases. But since most Indian fiction we publish is priced relatively low, between Rs 120 and Rs 200, it’s too small an amount for a customer to go through the whole process of paying with a card and entering bank details online.” This is why cash-on-delivery transactions are so popular with book-buyers, but at the moment those numbers have fallen for obvious reasons.
Online booksellers have tried to bounce back after freezing the COD option for a couple of days. “While we saw limited short-term impact due to the recent currency change announcement, we have already tremendous customer response in adopting electronic payment methods at delivery with 10x growth in electronic payments at the doorstep,” claimed an Amazon spokesperson on email. Perhaps. Still, Amazon reintroduced the COD option on November 11.
Even as book sales show some signs of limping back to earlier levels, booksellers are being cautious, expecting the recovery to take five or six months. “Though our customers are happy to pay with their cards, we are seeing fewer walk-ins, down by about 15%-20%,” said Mirza Afsar Baig of the popular bookstore Midlands in South Delhi. “Of those who are paying for books in cash, giving the balance back is an issue. Stock procurement has slowed. We are being more careful about how much and what we are acquiring.”
Some booksellers have even been considering buying smaller denominations of currency in the black market to keep business afloat. While bestsellers are continuing to do decent business, readers are being less experimental in picking books. “If regular readers were buying four books a month, now they are buying two, and telling themselves that they will save the rest for next month,” observed Arup Bose of Srishti.
At one of the largest second-hand bookstore in the country, Blossom Book House in Bangalore, a favourite with students and book-hounds, things are gradually turning around. “I saw more customers trickling in this week after the initial lull last month,” said owner Mayi Gowda. “If earlier we had 80%-85% customers paying for their purchases by card, now it’s climbed to 95%.”
The silver lining
Readers, say booksellers and publishers, are educated and better informed than the average citizen. So, they believe the impact of demonetisation won’t be long term. And as always in the world of business, resilience will probably pay off.
The publishing industry is gearing up to cope with a cash crunch at a number of book-centric events lined up for January 2017. “At the World Book Fair in Delhi from January 7-15, Srishti will be accepting e-wallet payments, which we haven’t done in the past,” said Bose. There is talk of installing mobile ATMs across various venues.
“This [policy] may be a short-term setback to the economy, publishing industry included, but as digital wallets and plastic money gain currency, not having enough cash in your pocket won’t be a factor in deciding about buying a book in the future,” noted Sharma of Bloomsbury. “Often one sees customers leaving without making a purchase as a lot of booksellers and publishers aren’t fully prepared to accept credit cards at book fairs. That’s set to change at the forthcoming fairs and lit fests.”
The biggest literary carnival of the year, the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017, will be a test of whether all the prepping is paying off. There are worries about connectivity for card payments at such events, which have often been seen in the past. As Christmas cheer mingles with tension and anxiety, some, like Sharma, are willing to see the glass half full. “A decline in the sales of pirated copies of books – at least for the next few months – will be a nice silver lining!”