On March 17, I received a panic-stricken email from my author Poorva Joshipura. Joshipura has been the face of PETA India for many years and has just come out with her first book, For a Moment of Taste: How What You Eat Impacts Animals, the Planet and Your Health. The book, which was several years in the making, is a deep dive into the meat and dairy industry in India and the long-term impact of not being a vegetarian on health and climate change.
Joshipura wanted to know how her publishers were going to promote her book in “these absolutely bizarre and unprecedented times”. Her concerns were exacerbated by the temporary ban of flights into India from countries where the novel coronavirus has spread. An OCI card-holder living in the UK, she had planned to fly into India to promote her book in different cities, in particular Mumbai.
Poorva is one of the many authors whose books have been released at a time when the world and its economies – social, monetary, political, academic – are struggling to make sense of the novel coronavirus and the resultant pandemic of COVID-19. India, where lockdowns are taking shape in different forms across the country – a virtual closing of international borders, closure of schools and colleges, work-from-home protocols across the private sector – is no exception.
Gaurav Sabharwal, managing director of the leading Prakash Books, the company that distributes books for some of the biggest multinational publishing houses, told me over the phone that once the virus had entered India, orders for books from brick-and-mortar bookshops almost halved. Even order from online retailers like Amazon fell by 15%-25%. That’s an average drop of around 25% across online and offline retailers. “The malls have been forced to shut down, the footfall in airports has reduced significantly, high street is empty”, Sabharwal said. “The fact is, it’s not business as usual.”
“It would be abnormal to not expect any collateral damage when we are faced with a pandemic,” Ajay Mago of Om Books International told me. Over the past week, his company’s retail chain of bookstores, Om Book Shop, has had to close temporarily in Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Gurugram, since the malls in which these are located have closed down. In the malls still open, sales have plummeted by nearly 80%. Mago, like other mall-based retailers, are hopeful that the mall owners will waive rentals during this exceptional period.
The popular indie bookstore chain Full Circle has barely seen any walk-ins since the spread of the disease. The chain had fluctuating sales during most of 2019, but segments like children’s literature and non-fiction showed a steady, even upward, trend. “With the outbreak of COVID-19 we have seen very few footfalls in our bookstores and cafes,” said Priyanka Malhotra, CEO, Full Circle. “Sales have been dismal. Despite taking the best measures for sanitisation, there is a natural fear of transmission. While online sales may have seen an increase, as a physical store we’re witnessing a slow phase.”
Delhi’s Bahrisons bookshop has seen a decrease in footfalls over the past week, but at the same time bulk purchases have gone up, with customers buying as many as a dozen books at once. “We have always made home deliveries and couriered books across the world,” said writer and historian Aanchal Malhotra, daughter of Anuj Bahri Malhotra, the owner of the independent bookstore chain. “We have seen a surge in people emailing their wishlists or calling to order books over the past few days.”
With sales drying up, retailers and distributors are scaling back on their orders. An executive at a multinational publisher confirmed that the major bookstore chains are barely ordering books, and airport bookshops have cut back on the number of new books to be stocked, since passenger traffic is dwindling. “If there are say 20 mainstream publishers in India, and each one publishes 10 books a month, that’s 200 new books,” he explained. “In the current scenario, the stores aren’t willing to take more than 20.”
According to Vijay Sharma, sales director, Pan Macmillan India, offline retail has come to a grinding halt. “The central warehouses of major retail chains like Crossword, Landmark or Starmark have not been receiving stocks because of a government directive.” Usha Jha of Speaking Tiger Books said that this slowdown is going to have a big impact on the publisher’s finances. “April is usually a big month for us, especially for the sales of our high-selling children’s books, since the exams are over and children are looking for books to read,” she said, and added that the entire stock of five or six new titles is languishing in the company’s warehouse. “In addition, we couldn’t send several books to press, since the printers refused to commit to any printing schedule.”
Gaurav Sabharwal, who runs two publishing imprints – Fingerprint! and Wonder House Books – has decided to postpone the publication of 60 new titles by two months. “There is absolutely no disadvantage to doing this,” he said. “I don’t want to build inventory for no reason. What’s the point of publishing 5,000 copies when you won’t be able to move 4,000 of them out of the warehouse to bookstores?”
Like Sabharwal, Penguin Random House India is also considering deferring the publication of its April releases. “For now, we have delayed the releases of our new titles, wherever possible, and if the situation improves, we will fast track them to the market,’ says Vijesh Kumar, general manager, sales, Penguin Random House India.
Pan Macmillan, though, has not changed the publishing date of any of its titles as of now. “We are hoping that India will be able to contain the spread of the virus like China has and things will improve by April or May,” said Sharma. However, most of their big ticket releases have been scheduled for June and beyond.
Could e-books and audiobooks step into the breach, even though e-books constitute only 2-3% of book sales. “It’s too early to say one way or the other,’ says Yogesh Dashrath, country manager of the audiobooks company Storytel in India. “But it’s good to see that people are talking about listening to audiobooks. Many videos on social media are recommending audiobooks as one of the things to do when one is stranded at home because of the lockdown.”
Are people buying and reading a different kind of book now? It seems there has not been any major change in the sales of different genres. “While overall sales have dropped significantly, the spread across genres is the same as before,” says Gaurav Sabharwal. “Non-fiction continues to sell much more than fiction.”
An even bigger and somewhat trickier problem is the marketing and promotion of new titles in this highly unpredictable environment, where the authorities are repeatedly urging everyone to stay indoors. All book launches, events and literary festivals have been called off (as have global events like the Paris Book Fair, the London Book Fair, and the Hay Festival).
“Book publicity has taken a big hit,” said Rachna Kalra of Windword, an independent book marketing and publicity company. “We’re having to change face to face interviews to interviews over the phone, skype or email. Radio, TV and television interviews have been cancelled, which has had an adverse impact on overall publicity campaigns.I have an author who had events in Delhi and Mumbai. Both events had to be called off and the interviews that required her physical presence have had to be postponed.”
Novelist Shubhangi Swarup had a multi-country book tour scheduled in June for international editions of her debut novel Latitudes of Longing, but that has now been cancelled. “After the India edition, I had a Swedish translation release,” Swarup said. “It made it to the bestseller list in Sweden. The next release was in France. Sadly, it has directly coincided with the corona epidemic and that has impacted me quite hard. I was supposed to travel to France and UK in June to promote the book but I can’t go now.”
Poet and novelist Meena Kandasamy has had paid events cancelled in Germany and Toronto and is staring at an empty calendar for the next seven months. “My first public paid engagement is in November,” she said. “You just don’t know where your rent is going to come from. It can be such an isolating but also crippling thing. On the one hand, we’re going to defeat the virus, but we’re going to have to face a lot of other problems.”
All this has forced publishers to focus all their attention towards aggressive and sustained online promotions including use of digital media, Amazon Marketing Services, blogger and bookstagrammer review programmes and so on. But even these allied promotional activities are not helping greatly. “Online advertising on social media, Google and Amazon has also slowed down,” said Kalra. “Ads here typically work by targeting the interests of relevant audiences and we have seen a shift in the interest of these audiences.” According to her, people are focused on only buying essentials for their home and stocking up. Given the market volatility and uncertainty they are also keen to save and only spend on whatever is necessary. This has thrown marketers off course from their strategies, campaigns and plans.
Digital conversations, naturally, are dominated by coronavirus at the moment. Though people are continuing to read and sometimes even engage with book-related posts, the conversation quickly pivots to COVID-19. Digital branding expert Karthik Srinivasan, author of Be Social: Building Brand You Online, had a word of caution for publishers and authors promoting their books during this period.
“It’s not an entirely bad branding move, but one needs to consider the prevailing situation,” he said. For instance, recently Gwyneth Paltrow promoted a US $845 dress from her Goop collection and had to delete it because there was overwhelming negative feedback that she was being tone-deaf about the promo during a public health crisis. Most brands are pausing their advertising not necessarily because it may generate outrage but more because it won’t register at a time when people are generally far more worried about their well-being and mere existence.”
A matter of timing
Earlier in the week literary journalist, novelist and now academic Uttaran Dasgupta posted an online link of an interview with himself about his debut crime novel Ritual with the following text: “Looks more and more like the world might be ending but before it does you might want to check out this interview of yours truly by Chirdeep Malhotra in The Dispatch.”
When I asked him how he really felt about promoting his book on social media he admitted that one feels hesitant to market one’s book when the world has been caught unawares by a pandemic. “Even to say something like if you are in self-isolation read my book sounds tone deaf when people are dying and suffering. A writer puts a lot of effort into a book, and then to be hit by something like this just when the book has come out can be very frustrating.”
Lavanya Lakshminarayan, author of the recently published dystopian short stories collection Analog/Virtual: And Other Simulations of Your Future, has an entirely different perspective on the issue of promoting her book in this time. “It’s strange to be posting links to reviews and excerpts while everyone else is sharing information about the virus, or their personal experiences about the lockdown, but I tell myself that I’m giving all my friends and followers a break from the seriousness of the situation,” she said. “If someone picks up a copy of my book, I hope it gives them some respite from the paranoia and helplessness of having to stay indoors, away from friends and family.”
Both Swarup and Kandasamy have been feeling conflicted about promoting their books. “As global citizens it’s our responsibility to respect what’s happening,” said Swarup. “It’s not a question of an individual book and how the book does because in a time when a lot of people are thinking about whether their loved ones are going to die, are they safe, do they have symptoms, it becomes highly insensitive to make the slightest of noise about your book,” added Kandasamy.
“It’s the wrong time for book promotion, or any promotion,” said Shobhaa De, bestselling author and columnist. “People are paranoid.” When I wrote to Poorva Joshipura asking her how she felt about promoting her debut book remotely she said: “There are no in-person events being held for the book promotion for now, which is undoubtedly disruptive, but I believe this presents an opportunity for novel promotions by the publishing industry that can be kept in use even after the COVID-19 threat subsides. What better time to read a book than when you’re stuck at home?” (She also told me how her book had predicted a flu pandemic and shared the two relevant and somewhat prophetic pages with me on Whatsapp.)
Talking of books
The already dwindling space for book reviews in major newspapers and magazines has not particularly been affected by Covid-19, however. “Reading a book is a solitary pursuit, as is writing a review,” said Manjula Narayan, Books editor at Hindustan Times. “For book reviews there is no shift. It’s not a news page. However, if someone were to bring out a cracker of a book on a pandemic, of course it would be featured prominently because it is topical.”
Narayan, however, has discontinued her widely viewed video interviews with authors for the time being. “I don’t know about others but I’ve decided to keep mine on hold till there is some clarity on Covid-19,” she said. A journalist running the features section of a major newspaper told me that since most books editors work remotely and interact over email, the pandemic hasn’t had an impact on books pages. But while his paper continues to carry the books page every weekend, he suspects this might change eventually with depleted staff and the inevitable economic recession looming ahead.
Nandini Nair of Open has been receiving many pitches for book-related stories and reviews.She attributes it to the cancellation of exhibitions and the shutting down of cinema halls and museums. However, book publicists are struggling to place stories and author interviews. A senior book publicist told me, “One worries that a book might be too dark and bleak for the current scenario or, on the other hand, too positive and cheery.” Despite mounting pressure from anxious authors, many of whom are publishing for the first time, she is hesitant about being aggressive because she feels it might be construed as insensitive.
When writers themselves have problems reading, what can be expected of readers? Explained the UAE-based novelist Avni Doshi, author of Girl In White Cotton, “There isa lot of uncertainty so I would say that anxiety is probably adding to my inability to concentrate and because of that I am having trouble reading or focusing on anything other than Covid-related news at the moment, which I need to stop doing.”
Author Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan recently ran a Twitter hangout, inviting her followers to share with her the kind of books they would like to read while socially isolating themselves. Most of them wanted to read a murder mystery or lighthearted comfort books. “People don’t want to be challenged now with their reading,” said Reddy Madhavan, “they want something easy, fast and engaging”.
Self-isolation may turn (and return) many to reading but not all of them will be buying new books. “I’ve observed that everyone has a massive TBR pile,” said poet and columnist Harnidh Kaur.
Still, one of India’s top-selling romance authors, Ravinder Singh, doesn’t consider COVID-19 a big threat. He is going ahead with the publication of two books as planned – a romance novel with HarperCollins India, and a crowd-sourced anthology with Penguin Random House India.
“I would rather believe that reading will go up based on the fact that most people are indoors and movie halls are shut,” said Singh. “AfterNetflix and Amazon Prime you wish to give your eyes a break and yet keep the entertainment factor on.The number of people who go to bookstores to buy books is in any case lower than the number of people at a paan-shop. So I am not worried. People buy online. Coronavirus isn’t a threat here.”
Kalra thinks bestselling writers like Singh may not have to bear the brunt of the slowdown as much as first-time and lesser-known authors will. “The space is very competitive under normal circumstances and this situation has just made it tougher,” she said. Singh also believes that this is the best time to create great literature. “People have written great books from prison,” he said, “You can write from your quarantined home.”
Author and festival director Namita Gokhale sees some positives in this situation. “Every disruption is also an opportunity,” she said. “People are not going to stop buying and reading books. There will be casualties, but the publishing ecosystem will find newer and better ways to engage and deliver.”
Just as I was about to file this piece, a publishing professional drew my attention to two major developments in global publishing: the indefinite postponement of the release of bestselling author Jeff Kinney’s new book Awesome Friendly Adventure, and, even more important, online retail giant Amazon’s plan to de-prioritise book sales in the UK and the US to meet the surge in demand for essential commodities and medical supplies.
When I asked a senior publishing professional whether Amazon’s decision would apply to India too, he said, “Eventually it will. India might go under complete lockdown.” But then Waterstones in the UK is staying open longer hours precisely to cater to the increased demand in anticipation of a lockdown. So there might just be a silver lining for books, after all.