book bazaar

How does the life of a book change as it goes from publisher to bookseller?

Three publishing professionals explain some of the intricacies and irrationalities of book distribution.

How do books reach stores in the farthest corners of India? Why don’t publishers get paid on time by the distribution and retail parts of the business? What kind of bookshop works best: the big chain, the online behemoth, or the local independent player? A publisher – Manas Saikia, Managing Director Speaking Tiger Books – a head of business development – Anish Chandy, Head of Digital Business Development and Offline Sales, Juggernaut Books – and a bookseller – Ajay Mago, CEO, Om Book Stores and Om Books International – offer some insights. Excerpts from a three-way interview:

Why do publishers struggle to make newly released books available in all the bookstores at a given time?
Ajay Mago (AM): In the run-up to the publishing date of any new title, a publisher beams out the AIS (advance information sheet) to the entire downstream distribution chain, highlighting the tradeworthy talking points of the title. The publisher mounts a parallel reader sensitisation programme on social media for each title. Alongside there are pre-publication press releases and author interactions. The distributors aim to get the book to every bookstore across the country, but they face logistical problems such as warehousing, transportation, inventory, recovery of dues from bookstores and bookstore locations that are difficult to access. Fortunately, because of our own retail network, Om Book Shop, we are able to remedy some of these problems.

Anish Chandy (AC): If you calculate the ratio of books published and imported into the country to functioning bookstores, you will find that India is an overpublished market. Big books by famous authors or a trending subject are generally distributed widely, but the smaller ones have to fight for in-store real estate. Too many books are being released every day. It is pretty easy to get a book published in the country, but hard to get the entire publishing and retail ecosystem to commit resources to it.

Manas Saikia (MS): India is a large country and stocks take one to three weeks to reach different areas. With GST and the lifting of border barriers, and the improvement in National Highways, I expect this transport time to be reduced. Simultaneous release is impossible as booksellers who have already received the book will not wait for it to reach the rest of India. At best you can arrange with a chain to release on a particular date, which they can do by blocking sales of a particular ISBN on their connected computer systems till that date.

I believe it’s even more difficult to ensure availability of books at the airports. Do they operate differently?
AM: Ideally, the airport bookstore network should be a significant part of Indian retail chains. One can then make sure that the discount structure, the special display terms, and visibility remain uniform throughout the country.

AC: They don’t exactly operate differently, but the real estate is even more precious there because of the high visibility. Airport stores need to be confident that a book will sell, which means the package and messaging around it needs to be incredibly strong. Otherwise the store manager will rightly say, why don’t I stock a few extra bars of chocolate that I know will sell instead of a book that may or may not sell? Authors and publishers have been willing to pay for space in airports.

MS: Yes airport bookstores can be a problem. Thisis because airport operators take at least 20% to 30% of each sale made. Hence those running the bookshops want bigger discounts and full return facilities.

Many publishers don’t supply books to some of the prominent bookstores because of payment delays and even defaults. How rampant is this problem?
AM: This is a genuine problem that needs to be addressed very seriously by a publishers’ association. Any delay in payment has a direct effect on the entire production and distribution chain. So timely payments are of utmost urgency.

AC: The last decade or so has seen many changes in the real estate landscape in terms of rent agreements, market structures, rise of online platforms, etc. This has led to a lengthening of credit cycles and payment problems. The offline retailer is the most vulnerable entity in this cycle because he has to pay high street rents. It is unfair to solely blame retailers for the problem. At the same time the publisher needs to be paid. So publishers and retailers are constantly tweaking their models to keep the show on the road.

MS: Selling books is easy in India. Collecting the money is the problem. One of the reasons for this is that the entire publishing and bookselling industry is undercapitalised. So if a bookseller faces a delay in collecting somewhere and is unable to pay his dues, the whole chain is affected. Bank finance is difficult as bankers will not lend against printed books as collateral . They would rather accept blank paper. If bankers read more maybe they would be able to value books better. But who is going to bell that cat!

Why are publishers struggling to supply books to some of the major bookstore chains?
AM: The main reason is that publishers are not able to recover money from retailers. From the retail point of view, a retailer reserves the right to take an economic and logistical decision on whether to stock a particular book or not.

AC: Same answer as to the previous question.

MS: Publishers struggle with the chains because it is hard work and requires perseverance, politeness, and patience. Remember that the buyers at these chains get hundreds of books displayed to them every day.

Is it even possible to keep tabs on the stock in all the bookstores? How do booksellers replenish their stocks?
AM: It would mean an additional expense for publishers and distributors to send agents regularly to do inventory stock checks in order to encourage the retailer to procure more copies of a book. This is something that needs to be handled directly by retailers, so that they can generate better business for themselves.

AC: Currently there are no real time analytics that give publishers visibility of their stock in bookstores. These solutions won’t be built anytime soon because the underlying model of selling books offline is shaky. So there’s no incentive to invest in something like this. Stocks are replenished when the retailer places orders or the publisher receives information that a particular store has run out of copies.

MS: No, it is normally difficult to keep tabs on bookshop stock unless there are lots of reps working very hard. Booksellers will replenish their stock when needed or when a smart salesman reminds him or her that they have sold the previous stock. Distributors can provide their stock figures more easily from their interconnected computers.

Do bookstore chains buy differently from the way independent stores do?
AM: The difference lies in the volume and the penetration. Additionally, bookstore chains demand higher discounts owing to their overheads. An independent store may rake in consistent profits, but lacks penetration and volume.

AC: Bookstore chains have more clout in terms of economies of scale, while independent stores will sell titles that come out of a deep understanding of customers in a local market. These don’t have to be bestsellers. They constantly sell titles that surprise the publisher.

MS: Yes, chains buy differently from individual bookstores. In the case of individual bookstores it is often the owner or the floor manager ordering. They are in direct touch with what is selling or will sell. The chain-buyers depend on their own point-of-sale data analysis, Nielsen data , or the Amazon scale. They are not always in touch with the ground action, but do respond to feedback from their stores.

Several publishers ask their disgruntled authors to direct their readers to Amazon and other online retailers “since that is where most books are sold these days’. Don’t you think this is a very convenient and short-term solution?
AM: Selling books is the cumulative responsibility of the publisher, its sales team and the author. Worldwide, online retailing is major for the front-list and bestsellers. So it is an important vending possibility, but not the sole possibility because it cannot substitute the advantages offered by a brick and mortar bookstore: window displays, book signings, book launches, book readings, etc.

AC: Amazon pretty much guarantees the availability of a book that a bookstore can’t owing to space constraints. And if a bookstore doesn’t stock a book, discovering the book is a challenge. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. But when the publisher directs customers to the store and the book isn’t available, the author is left disgruntled.

MS: Referring an author to Amazon or Flipkart is the safest bet as the potential buyer is most likely to get the book there. Generally it is believed that 20% to 30% of books are sold on Amazon, Flipkart etc. (This is not true for all segments.) We always offer to sell from our own website in addition to Amazon. If you recommend that the author try a particular bookshop, then there is the risk of getting an earful if it is not available.

Why can’t publishers have direct accounts with booksellers? Why are distributors necessary?
AM: There is no need to reinvent the wheel. A distribution system is already in place across the country and needs to be more efficient and proactive alongwith the retailers to make it a win-win situation for the publisher, distributor and retailer.

AC: Distributors are needed because they provide warehousing, transportation, sales support and credit. Distributors consolidate books across publishers and supply to stores. The logistics would get too expensive for publishers otherwise.

MS: Publishers have difficulties opening multiple accounts as it is not easy to collect money from lots of small accounts. Some of the big distributors do have big publishers working exclusively with them. As the bookseller needs those books, they pay the distributor’s bills. This means the other publishers in the distributor’s product mix also get paid. If the judicial system in India were more effective things would be simpler. Right now it takes an average of 16 years to enforce a credit contract and 6 years to get action taken against a bounced cheque. Solve that, and everything else will become easier in distribution.

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What hospitals can do to drive entrepreneurship and enhance patient experience

Hospitals can perform better by partnering with entrepreneurs and encouraging a culture of intrapreneurship focused on customer centricity.

At the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, visitors don’t have to worry about navigating their way across the complex hospital premises. All they need to do is download wayfinding tools from the installed digital signage onto their smartphone and get step by step directions. Other hospitals have digital signage in surgical waiting rooms that share surgery updates with the anxious families waiting outside, or offer general information to visitors in waiting rooms. Many others use digital registration tools to reduce check-in time or have Smart TVs in patient rooms that serve educational and anxiety alleviating content.

Most of these tech enabled solutions have emerged as hospitals look for better ways to enhance patient experience – one of the top criteria in evaluating hospital performance. Patient experience accounts for 25% of a hospital’s Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) score as per the US government’s Centres for Medicare and Mediaid Services (CMS) programme. As a Mckinsey report says, hospitals need to break down a patient’s journey into various aspects, clinical and non-clinical, and seek ways of improving every touch point in the journey. As hospitals also need to focus on delivering quality healthcare, they are increasingly collaborating with entrepreneurs who offer such patient centric solutions or encouraging innovative intrapreneurship within the organization.

At the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott, some of the speakers from diverse industry backgrounds brought up the role of entrepreneurship in order to deliver on patient experience.

Getting the best from collaborations

Speakers such as Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairman and Managing Director - Medanta Hospitals, and Meena Ganesh, CEO and MD - Portea Medical, who spoke at the panel discussion on “Are we fit for the world of new consumers?”, highlighted the importance of collaborating with entrepreneurs to fill the gaps in the patient experience eco system. As Dr Trehan says, “As healthcare service providers we are too steeped in our own work. So even though we may realize there are gaps in customer experience delivery, we don’t want to get distracted from our core job, which is healthcare delivery. We would rather leave the job of filling those gaps to an outsider who can do it well.”

Meena Ganesh shares a similar view when she says that entrepreneurs offer an outsider’s fresh perspective on the existing gaps in healthcare. They are therefore better equipped to offer disruptive technology solutions that put the customer right at the center. Her own venture, Portea Medical, was born out of a need in the hitherto unaddressed area of patient experience – quality home care.

There are enough examples of hospitals that have gained significantly by partnering with or investing in such ventures. For example, the Children’s Medical Centre in Dallas actively invests in tech startups to offer better care to its patients. One such startup produces sensors smaller than a grain of sand, that can be embedded in pills to alert caregivers if a medication has been taken or not. Another app delivers care givers at customers’ door step for check-ups. Providence St Joseph’s Health, that has medical centres across the U.S., has invested in a range of startups that address different patient needs – from patient feedback and wearable monitoring devices to remote video interpretation and surgical blood loss monitoring. UNC Hospital in North Carolina uses a change management platform developed by a startup in order to improve patient experience at its Emergency and Dermatology departments. The platform essentially comes with a friendly and non-intrusive way to gather patient feedback.

When intrapreneurship can lead to patient centric innovation

Hospitals can also encourage a culture of intrapreneurship within the organization. According to Meena Ganesh, this would mean building a ‘listening organization’ because as she says, listening and being open to new ideas leads to innovation. Santosh Desai, MD& CEO - Future Brands Ltd, who was also part of the panel discussion, feels that most innovations are a result of looking at “large cultural shifts, outside the frame of narrow business”. So hospitals will need to encourage enterprising professionals in the organization to observe behavior trends as part of the ideation process. Also, as Dr Ram Narain, Executive Director, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, points out, they will need to tell the employees who have the potential to drive innovative initiatives, “Do not fail, but if you fail, we still back you.” Innovative companies such as Google actively follow this practice, allowing employees to pick projects they are passionate about and work on them to deliver fresh solutions.

Realizing the need to encourage new ideas among employees to enhance patient experience, many healthcare enterprises are instituting innovative strategies. Henry Ford System, for example, began a system of rewarding great employee ideas. One internal contest was around clinical applications for wearable technology. The incentive was particularly attractive – a cash prize of $ 10,000 to the winners. Not surprisingly, the employees came up with some very innovative ideas that included: a system to record mobility of acute care patients through wearable trackers, health reminder system for elderly patients and mobile game interface with activity trackers to encourage children towards exercising. The employees admitted later that the exercise was so interesting that they would have participated in it even without a cash prize incentive.

Another example is Penn Medicine in Philadelphia which launched an ‘innovation tournament’ across the organization as part of its efforts to improve patient care. Participants worked with professors from Wharton Business School to prepare for the ideas challenge. More than 1,750 ideas were submitted by 1,400 participants, out of which 10 were selected. The focus was on getting ideas around the front end and some of the submitted ideas included:

  • Check-out management: Exclusive waiting rooms with TV, Internet and other facilities for patients waiting to be discharged so as to reduce space congestion and make their waiting time more comfortable.
  • Space for emotional privacy: An exclusive and friendly space for individuals and families to mourn the loss of dear ones in private.
  • Online patient organizer: A web based app that helps first time patients prepare better for their appointment by providing check lists for documents, medicines, etc to be carried and giving information regarding the hospital navigation, the consulting doctor etc.
  • Help for non-English speakers: Iconography cards to help non-English speaking patients express themselves and seek help in case of emergencies or other situations.

As Arlen Meyers, MD, President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, says in a report, although many good ideas come from the front line, physicians must also be encouraged to think innovatively about patient experience. An academic study also builds a strong case to encourage intrapreneurship among nurses. Given they comprise a large part of the front-line staff for healthcare delivery, nurses should also be given the freedom to create and design innovative systems for improving patient experience.

According to a Harvard Business Review article quoted in a university study, employees who have the potential to be intrapreneurs, show some marked characteristics. These include a sense of ownership, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to look at the big picture along with the desire, and ideas, to improve it. But trust and support of the management is essential to bringing out and taking the ideas forward.

Creating an environment conducive to innovation is the first step to bringing about innovation-driven outcomes. These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott, which is among the top 100 global innovator companies, is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.