Meet the bookseller

‘Online booksellers offer transactions, not the romance of buying books.’

Priyanka Malhotra, owner of New Delhi’s Full Circle bookshops, explains how she competes with e-tailers.

Bookshops in India are an endangered species under the twin onslaught of discounted online sales and the lack of a ubiquitous reading – and book-buying – culture. Where does this leave the bookstore business? In a candid interview, Priyanka Malhotra, owner of New Delhi’s Full Circle Bookstore (“we have two and a half bookshops”), talks about this very real threat and how to overcome it. Excerpts:

Tell us about the book-buying culture in India in the pre-Flipkart and Amazon days.
People had the time to come browse in bookstores. They would walk in with a list of what they were looking for, or they would be carrying the latest Outlook or First City magazine which had run a review that had made them want to buy the book. Also, people were willing to wait for their orders or the latest Harry Potter.

We would have parents and children writing down their orders in our Full Circle register. There was great excitement in the “waiting”. I remember when one of the Harry Potter books was about to be released. We had a long line snaking through Khan Market. We were handing out little cups of hot chocolate and Harry Potter glasses to all the fans.

This was the book-buying culture. This determined, fierce joy for books.

Over the past few years, several prominent book stores have closed. Even the biggest retail chains have been struggling, stocking mostly international authors and local bestsellers. The ordered quantities have also come down drastically. How badly have bookstores been affected by online book retailers?
There is no doubt that bookstores have suffered immensely with online giants coming in with deep pockets. The overheads are colossal for brick and mortar stores, and as we all know, profit margins tend to be quite low in bookselling. We have people coming in to take pictures of books so that they can buy them online “cheap”. Some do it slyly, lurking between bookshelves with a guilty look, while others are quite blatant because they feel it is their right.

This idea bothers me because books aren’t commodities that you can purchase at a bargain. They are the living minds of brilliant people who have taken the time to share their world, their stories, with us, and all we want is a “discount”! It’s also the value we put on a book. We are willing to spend thousands on a fancy scarf, or 600 bucks for a gold seat ticket to watch a movie, but a book which will be our loyal companion for a lifetime is too expensive at Rs 299!

What can bookshops do to win book-buyers back from online stores?
It’s a pity because it does seem like books are a very small, unimportant part of their larger portfolio of other items like homeware, clothing and fashion, gadgets, etc. So books seem sort of “by the way” in terms of the treatment on online pages. It’s mainly bestsellers that are splashed on the front pages, with blinking “half-price” bubbles luring the discount buyer.

Bookstores can pay attention to themselves. They can stock better-curated inventories, know their books well, train their staff smarter, and listen to their readers. We need to go that extra mile to get our customers what they need. Bookstores need to be spaces alive with activity, book readings, author visits, book recommendations, etc. I think that’s a big reason why Full Circle stands waving the flag in face of the wind today.

In an earlier interview, you had made the following observation: “I really feel India needs to adopt the fixed book price agreement (FBPA) like in Europe and many other countries. This protects publishers, authors and booksellers and takes a view of the book as a ‘cultural asset’ rather than a commodity, ensuring greater discoverability and diversity.” Do you see something like this happening soon? What are the obstacles in the path of such a measure?
I think for something like this to become a reality, first and foremost publishers, authors and booksellers need to come together and join hands in common interest and propose a fixed book price law. An example of this is the Lang Law in France, put forth by the Ministry of Culture, which establishes a fixed price on books. We need the government to take an active interest in preserving and keeping alive bookstores in India. In the long run, this is needed in order to have a healthy and sustainable market.

Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited book went up for pre-order several months before the actual release. One might expect a majority of her fans and followers to have booked a copy immediately. Why don’t bookstores start the idea of pre-orders?
At Full Circle we do book copies in advance for customers. And the minute copies arrive in stores, we call our loyal readers to let them know. However, online spaces prove far more attractive to many people because of their money-saver offers.

Having said that, we do have a loyal base that takes pleasure in visiting the store and collecting their copy personally. There is a thrill in that which perhaps only a true book-lover can appreciate. You see, for a book patron, the idea of choosing and buying a book goes way beyond just a transaction. Online platforms offer just that, a transaction. There is a romance around the procurement of a book that will settle in your home library, and someone who appreciates that will want to weave a story on how that particular book came to be upon their bookshelf.

If you check out any of the online portals, most books on their top-selling, pre-order, or new releases pages carry international names or local bestsellers. In such a scenario, discoverability becomes a huge issue, and debut and mid-list authors struggle to sell their books. So, how can Full Circle help readers discover new voices?
Discoverability is a huge problem that works to the disadvantage of online retailers. At Full Circle we pay attention to the books we stock. In fact you will find a varied and different selection between our Khan Market and Greater Kailash store. We have noticed over the years that visitors to the two branches have different reading preferences. So we listen in on that.

We also make it a point to move the genres around in the physical space so that all books get seen and not just blockbusters. We have a recommended reading programme in our stores as well, where we invite readers to suggest books that they might want to recommend. These are then prominently displayed, along with comments, on our bookshelves.

Some of the online portals are shaping not only book-buying habits but also the kind of books that eventually get published. Most publishers keep a constant tab on bestseller rankings, and check the number of reviews for both new and established authors. One of last year’s biggest discoveries, Savi Sharma, was snapped up by Westland after her self-published book became a bestseller on Amazon. Do you have any long-term plans regarding this aspect of bookselling?
For the moment, no. I think it really depends on individual publishing houses and their publishing mission. If the idea is to go mass market and publish anything that will sell in large volumes, then yes watching bestseller charts for indicators is the way to go. On the other hand, if the premise is to focus on handpicked authors, special genres or a niche, then one has to look beyond and deeper than bestseller charts. After all if the only idea was the first one, then we’d all be force-fed Chetan Bhagat and Word Power Made Easy. And not everyone wants that.

During a recent visit to bookstores with a friend (she called it a victory lap) to check out her newly released book, we got talking to a bookstore owner. He confessed to having not read any of the books he sold. Comment?
It is very important for the staff to be well-informed about the titles they are selling, forthcoming titles, and subjects and genre. But though it would be ideal for all staff members to read the books that they hand-sell, unfortunately the language (English) tends to be a barrier.

At Full Circle we have found a way around that. Every week we have a briefing where our manager (who reads a great deal) talks about the new titles that have come in or are expected. A brief explanation or the story of the book is presented to the staff. So when a customer walks in asking about the latest book on water which was reviewed in the daily paper, our guys know.

But then, customers also walk in asking for the book with a red cover with the world “girl”, maybe, in the title! So yes, I do believe we need to be well-informed, but to read every book isn’t necessary.

Are there certain genres or authors that sell more in bookstores than on online portals? For instance, I see a strong emphasis on serious non-fiction and award-winning international fiction at Full Circle.
Absolutely. Literary fiction and non-fiction titles sell well in our stores, as do lesser known authors who will not be discovered online. For example, we hardly sell chick-lit and lad-lit through our stores, while on online charts these titles are bestsellers. At the Full Circle in Greater Kailash our mind-body-spirit and children’s sections do exceedingly well. In Khan Market, literary titles and books on politics and serious writing is very popular.

Mass market books are conspicuous by their absence in many of the bookstores I have visited. Is it merely to do with margins, or is there a bigger reason?
I think it really depends on what the customer wants and what they know you for. As I mentioned earlier, we are well-known for our children’s section in Greater Kailash. So people will make it a point to go there if children’s books are what they are looking for.

It’s also about discoverability. So we know mass market books are flooded on online retailers’ sites at half price, so we have to offer something different to our guests walking in. When they see there is something new, even something someone else would not have read so far, they want it.

In 2014, James Patterson gave away over a million dollars to bookstores across the country. This was followed by holiday bonuses to the tune of $250,000 to independent bookstore employees the very next year. How do you think celebrity Indian authors can contribute to the cause of bookstores?
I think they can begin by understanding the value of independent bookstores. These are the spaces where their books are cared for and displayed for readers to come in and discover. Authors need to come into bookstores more and interact with their readers and with the people who are selling their books.

When their book comes out and they post it on social media, instead of saying, out March 1, visit www.....com for your copy, they should be saying, out March 1, visit your local bookstore and pick up your copy with your own hands. I feel publishers too need to think about this a bit more.

It’s not only about supporting us with donations (though of course that is helpful for indies). We need real, first-hand attention and care.

We do have some authors who do that. They will come in and meet the staff, talk to readers in the bookstore, engage in conversation and sign copies. I remember the time Amish Tripathi came to sign copies. He shook hands and thanked each and every member of the Full Circle team for selling his books. Look at that!

To what extent are paid promotions and displays a feature in Indian bookstores? Does Full Circle engage in them?

While some bookstores sell space to publishers for promotion of their titles, we have a strict policy not to do that. One of the reasons for this is that it is mostly the big players who can buy up space for self-promotion. Also, we truly believe bookstores need to be places that speak for themselves, and books get picked up because they are naturally discovered between the aisles, out of curiosity and interest.

You also run the bookstall at the Jaipur Literature festival and other prominent festivals. Do tell us about the book-buying habits of the visitors. Is it true that books by first-time, relatively unknown authors struggle to sell at these venues as well?
Book festivals are very helpful to keep us going as relying solely on walk-ins is difficult in the current climate. In terms of what people buy at book festivals, I have to say that are great for debut and not very well-known authors, provided they are given a fair platform to engage with the audience.

Look at Volga, with her book The Retelling of Sita. It didn’t sell in the bookstores, but at JLF people couldn’t wait to get their hands on it. Hyenseo Lee, well-known internationally but not really heard of here, sold out at JLF because of her compelling story and the platform she was given to share it with prospective readers.

You run a chain of popular bookstores in Delhi. How hard or easy is it compared to running one independent bookshop?
We’re not a chain. We have two-and-a half bookstores, so we are clearly independent. It’s not easy. We’re in one of the highest rental markets in the country and our overheads are enormous. We have to look at our reports every month and keep a very close tab on things to make sure we don’t land up in a mess.

I have to say that there has to be a different set of reasons to be in the bookselling profession. If it’s purely a business venture then I’d caution those who have dreams of setting up a bookstore and reading books all day and making pots of money. There is a lot of work behind the scenes and if one doesn’t pay careful attention it can lead to doom. You have to love books and you have to love reading first.

Where does your restaurant Cafe Turtle fit in with the bookstore? Is this sort of diversification the only way forward for bookstores in India?
The Cafe is one way to help us tide over. It definitely brings more people into the bookstore. People also have this poetic idea of buying books and then heading to the cafe to read them over a cup of coffee.

Amazon has recently bought the publishers Westland. What implications will this have for bookstores such as yours?
The publishing and distribution industry are largely becoming monopolies. When this happens it spells trouble for the not-so-big players, because they are at the mercy of decisions that are made to suit economies of scale. We need have a better organised industry, a “federation” where we all work together and engage in dialogue and really listen to all the players and understand the implications our decisions can have on one another. There is an urgent need to look at the larger picture rather than quick profits and monopoly tactics.

Despite ebooks and new mobile platforms like Juggernaut, the sale of print books is growing significantly on an annual basis. I guess there is a silver lining to the cloud.
There is a silver lining. Industry figures the world over indicate that ebooks haven’t really made a dent in the physical book market. People prefer the physical book. I think this is wonderful and it says a lot about true-blue book readers. As a traditional bookseller this is heartening and I’m grateful to all those people who choose the paper book over the tablet. Having said that, the looming presence of online retailers is a concern. But yes, the physical book it seems is here to stay.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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