Independent bookstores in India have long been besieged by issues of cash flow, logistical support, and, most of all excessive competition from online retailers offering deep discounts. The outbreak of Covid-19 in India and the subsequent lockdowns have made matters reach a tipping point.

Earlier this week the owners of six of India’s independently owned bookshops – Diviya Kapur of Literati, Goa; Raman Shresta of Rachna Books, Gangtok; Leonard and Queenie Fernandes of The Dogears Bookshop, Goa; Vishal Pipraiya of Pagdandi Bookstore Cafe, Pune; Aman and Mayura Misra of Storyteller Bookstore, Kolkata; and Ahalya and Meethil Momaya of Trilogy, Mumbai – came together to start the Independent Bookshops Association of India (IBAI), with the aim of bringing independent bookstores across India together, forging partnerships within and outside the publishing industry, and advocating for rights. Two of their founding members, Leonard Fernandes and Raman Shresta, spoke to Excerpts from the interview.

When did you start discussions about setting up the Independent Bookshops Association of India? Was it initiated by an individual or an independent bookseller or by a collective?
Leonard Fernandes: The discussions around setting up IBAI were triggered by an article that appeared regarding a co-op online bookstore set up by the indies in the USA. In India, Amazon has almost a monopoly over online book sales, and we suspect that a blind eye is turned to its deep discounting practices because of the buyers it garners for publishers. A counter-narrative is required, and we thought that if there was a similar exercise in online bookselling, it could come from independent bookstores coming together.

This is not to say that the raison d’etre of the IBAI is Amazon alone. We believe that independent booksellers can thrive in India if the issues we face are addressed collectively. That would mean sharing best practices and business strategies. There are very few bookshops which address exactly the same markets, so there is hardly any overlap. But there are things they can do together.

Raman Shresta: The publishing industry, in spite of what we might say, is still a small industry. And everyone knows or knows of one another, especially within the indie bookshop scene. And many of us got to know one another at publishing conferences over the years.

While the need for having a forum was always simmering within us individually, the news of the American indies coming together to make their own platform really got the conversation going. An association could collectively address issues that we as independent booksellers were facing and help to learn from each other. Then the lockdown hit us. It was now or never.

It made us connect, pause, reflect and take the plunge.

Have there been any similar associations in the past?
LF: There is a Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Associations of India, which implies that bookseller associations do exist. However, we have not heard of any association formed by independent bookstores in the past.

How do you feel about founding such an association in a country that doesn’t have a single formal, organised publishing association?
We believe it is an important first step. The challenge lies in getting most, if not all, independent booksellers to come together, and buy into what the founding six members have enumerated as their objectives. The challenge is also to make the Association relevant to its members. Members will feel that joining the Association makes no difference to them if their problems remain unaddressed or unresolved.

As for publishers, there are indeed formal associations. There is FPBAI, FIP and API.

Tell us about some of the major problems faced by independent bookstores in India.
There are many, and almost all can be traced to individual bookstores not having much of bargaining power. So, for instance, when a publisher gives Amazon or a certain distributor an exclusive right over certain titles for, say, six months, individual bookshops can cry hoarse over the perceived injustice, but nothing will come out of it. Similarly, if a distributor cannot get books to a particular bookshop in time, resulting in a loss of sales and goodwill, any protestations will be isolated and drowned in the cacophony.

The IBAI therefore presents essentially a unified voice, especially while dealing with other stakeholders in the publishing industry, such as publishers and booksellers. Everyone in the industry knows what the problems are – a preference for online platforms, deep discounts offered by the likes of Amazon, irregular supply of books, differential treatment of retailers based on volumes sold. We hope that we can work with publishers and distributors to get them to sit up and notice and address the concerns we have.

RS: Oh boy, where do I start? Independent bookshops are the final frontier of the publishing industry. Everything that an author has to offer, aided by the publishing industry, makes its final leap into the hands of the readers from these bookshops. And yet, over the last decade and half, these bookshops are completely isolated in this network – almost left to fend for themselves..

Do you think that standalone independent bookstores face a harder time than independent bookstore chains?
LF: We do, and it is again because of the volumes that indies sell individually. These volumes, which are greater in the case of chains, simply because they are aggregated across all branches, allow the chains to extract favourable terms that are not available to individual independents.

Does location play a role in the operational efficiency and bargaining powers of an independent bookstore? In other words, does an independent bookstore operating out of say Delhi or any other metropolitan have any advantages over a bookstore located in a remote city?
LF: I suspect it does, even if it only means easy and early access to titles. In the current situation, bookshops who have their distributors in red zones, such as Mumbai and Pune, cannot order replenishments and new releases, and must order them from the publishers in Delhi themselves, adding to the costs and time for delivery.

RS: Once the six of us got together and started talking about our pet peeves running a bookshop independently, we realised just how uniquely disadvantaged a bookshop in a remote place like Gangtok is. The nearest airport or train station is 120 kilometres / 4 hours of mountain terrain away. Visits to the distributors’ warehouses, something I love to do, is limited to once a year at most.

With orders too, in Delhi, books are delivered in half a day. You place the orders in the morning and there is a good chance the book will reach you by the afternoon. What’s more, you may not even have to pay for the delivery there.

If I were to place an order today, many factors come into play. The books should be available with the distributor in Kolkata. If they are, they will have to be despatched by courier, an expensive proposition (what business sense does it make to pay Rs 100 courier charges for a Rs 299 book?) and we will receive the book in three days if we are lucky. The courier charge for one book means we will be selling the book at a loss, even at full MRP. If sent by road, a consignment takes two weeks, and that is if there are no blockades and landslides.

If the books are not available at the distributors, we have to wait until they arrive from the publishers’ warehouses in other metros, mostly Delhi or Mumbai. A box of books arriving from Kolkata or Delhi changes three lorries and four warehouses before reaching us on the shoulders of porters. We have to pay for each step of the journey. So, with best effort, books take at least two weeks to arrive, even under ideal conditions. Once a box of books sent directly from Delhi took 20 days to arrive. I paid Rs 1100 for it.

With overheads like these, there is no chance in hell that we can provide the same amount of discounts as online retailer , in spite of our best intentions. Customers who couldn’t care less, or who can’t wait, just order online. We seem to be fighting a constantly losing battle.

Returns of unsold books are even more challenging. Since no transport company receives consignments in Gangtok, a sizeable bundle of books, maybe 9-10 boxes, have to taken to Siliguri, 120 kms from Gangtok, and handed over to the transport companies there. Receiving 10 boxes sent from Kolkata to Gangtok is cheaper than sending three boxes back. Just this thought is an impediment while we make a selection for our store.

One of your objectives is to facilitate and encourage partnerships within and outside the publishing industry. Can you tell us more about this?
LF: We hope that IBAI will ultimately come to represent a large number of bookstores, and acquire significant bargaining power. So, for instance, if we were to negotiate a logistics arrangement, IBAI would do that for all its member bookstores.

How do you think having an organised association will help you promote and advocate the rights of independent bookstores in India? Are you aware of any such associations in other countries that have successfully managed to do so?
LF: Our primary task is to ensure that independent bookstores are recognised as an important part of the cultural milieu of this country. Whether they sell books in English, or in any one of the tens of local languages, they play an important role in developing a culture unique to the place they operate in. They also provide a curated selection of books that appeals to their niche audience, and provides publishers with a sales outlet for their middle and back lists. There are important contributions to both publisher and reader, supplier and consumer, and it is very rarely that they are acknowledged. In practical terms, this means constantly hammering home the fact that an independent bookseller is open round the corner and must be visited and patronised. We are sure there are many booksellers lying obscure in some corner of the country, doing good work. The IBAI will throw some of the spotlight on them, and let more people know of their existence.

RS: The associations abroad, especially in the west, are doing a great job as a collective, looking out for the welfare of the members. While the issues we face in India are so much more rudimentary, there is great inspiration to take from how they have functioned to make all sections of the publishing industry work more ethically and cohesively.

The founding members of IBAI include only six independent bookstores, some of which are specialists in nature. How has the response been from the bigger independent bookstores? Have they shown interest in becoming members?
LF: It’s too early to comment on this. We think, that as news of the formation of IBAI spreads, booksellers will be curious to know more about the Association and will consider joining it.

RS: I have been getting a few informal queries from independent booksellers over social media. I hope they become members formally. We have only just announced and need to reach out to as many bookshops as possible.

The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t spared anyone in publishing – big or small, multinational or local. What has it been like for independent booksellers in India?
LF: Most indies have had to down their shutters during this time, leading to loss of sales. Some of them took orders online or by phone, and fulfilled them. But we don’t think it equalled what might have been their income if the shop were open.

RS: Indies have been affected adversely in terms of sales. I closed my shop five days ahead of the lockdown. Since my bookshop has an adjoining cafe, I was getting anxious about everyone’s safety.

Many bookshops across India are yet to open. Not every neighbourhood bookstore has the reach some of us have, so the real numbers of bookshops affected must be higher than we will ever know. With the rent, salaries and other overheads, this is a tough time for the indies.

The virus seems to have delivered a double blow to independent bookstores already bleeding from the rapid shift in book buying from brick and mortar bookstores to online retail sellers. How do you intend to address this larger issue?
It is also true that many people called in their local bookseller and asked for books to be delivered. There is something to be said about this loyalty towards the bookstore. We think online bookselling thrives only because of the deep discounts offered there, the likes of which indies cannot offer even if they wish to. In a recent article on Scroll, Thomas Abraham, MD of Hachette India, spoke of The Lang Law in France, which puts a cap on the discount that can be offered by online retailers. Individual bookstores cannot ask for such a law, or for any such change in existing business practices.

RS: Double or single blow, the lack of a level playing field has always hit brick and mortar bookshops the hardest. One battle is as good as two. It is only now, when online stores were unable to fulfil orders, that the industry took note of the neighbourhood bookshops, who are taking great risks in delivering books to the readers’ homes.

There is indeed great optimism in these overall bleak times. We have to understand that everyone in this industry needs to look out for one another.

Have any independent bookstores shut shop during this protracted lockdown period?
RS: Not that we know of. But then there are many neighbourhood bookshops we have yet to connect with. That’s why it is so important to have this directory of indie bookshops and to work together.

What is the total number of independent bookstores in India?
LF: There is no figure available on this.

RS: Yes, we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that every neighbourhood and community should have one. And with all independent bookshops together under IBAI, we sure hope we can support, nurture and realise this dream, one bookstore at a time.

Do I sound too idealistic? Can’t help it. I’m a bookseller.

The stated objectives of IBAI

  • To be a spokesperson for its members and actively promote the role of independent bookstores in the publishing industry.
  • To be a bridge between independent bookstores and other stakeholders in the book publishing and book retail industry including institutional buyers (of books) and readers.
  • To foster a network of members who share resources and best practices.
  • To be a forum where members can voice their concerns regarding the book publishing and book retail industry.
  • To assist members grow their business by facilitation and encouraging partnerships within and outside the publishing industry.
  • To liaise with the state and central governments as a representative of its members on topics concerning laws and policies that may directly or indirectly affect the business of its members.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.