I have been selling books under the banner of Akant Book Centre in Shalimar Bagh, Delhi, for about thirty years. I visit schools, colleges and universities for library supplies and authors’ visits. I’m also asked to put up stalls for book launches and corporate events at offices, hotels, embassies, restaurants and places like the India International Centre by publishers and others.

Essentially, I’m a vendor of books and I don’t have a physical bookstore. After purchasing titles from publishers at a discount, I send samples to educational institutes for approval and wait a few months to receive orders. Or I put up stalls at book events. When an author visits a school or comes to a launch, they sign their books at my stall, and I sell some copies.

How I began

I ended up in this business quite by chance. When I was young, I used to visit my nanaji’s house in Kamla Nagar during the summer vacations. Since I had nothing to do besides roaming around the house and getting into trouble, my uncle asked me to spend my time at his friend’s bookshop in the neighbourhood. It was in Gupta Colony, which was a short walk from my grandparents’ house near the North Campus.

They sold stationery, textbooks and some general books. It was called Madan Books and Stationery. This is where I started spending time around books. I used to flip through the textbooks to pass the time. I was interested in history, in people like Aurangzeb, Ashoka, Harshvardhana…what were they like, I used to wonder. We would lower the shutters between three and four in the afternoon for a leisurely nap and I would read. There was barely any business during the school vacations those days. It’s not like today, when you see parents rushing to buy books for their children, especially in this pandemic.

In 1980, when my father, who worked in the Life Insurance Corporation, was allotted a plot by the DDA, we moved to Shalimar Bagh, away from our joint family home in Vaidwara, near Nai Sarak. After finishing school I tried a few jobs here and there. I even started an imitation jewellery business with my relatives in Bombay, but I didn’t enjoy any of it and returned to Delhi.

Then one day in 1985, our neighbour, who owned a books and stationery shop, asked me what I was doing, and I said, “Nothing”.

“Then come with me,” he said. His store was called Manish Education, and I started making school visits for him, selling maps, charts and books. He just handed me the these things and said, “I’ll give you 25 per cent commission, including all expenses. You figure out whether you want to give discounts or not.” I had fun in those days – and I made good sales. The schools treated us like royalty, offering us cold drinks and snacks, and introducing us to all the faculty – not like today.

Then I was asked to go to the bigger schools like DAV, Shalimar Bagh. Eventually I started doing the rounds of schools all over Delhi and even made trips out of town to places like Bikaner, where I was told that “the Christian schools place big orders”.

My own venture

I started my own business in 1989 under the name of Ekant Books and Stationers. Then my accountant told me that stationery, unlike books, was taxable. So even though I began by selling mostly stationery, he asked me to remove “Stationery” from the name to avoid problems. So I changed the name to Akant Book Centre. In the 30 years since then, I’ve sold books for all the top publishers, like Penguin Random House, Oxford University Press, Bloomsbury, Westland, Rupa, Roli Books, Speaking Tiger, Jaico, Pearson and so on. I have been managing some of these accounts for 20-25 years.

I have travelled all over Delhi, to both private and government schools, colleges and universities like Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and so on. I remember when Penguin India brought out Nehru’s books, including The Discovery of India, I sold them to government schools that didn’t even have any benches in the classrooms – only because the government made them buy those books.

Before the pandemic, we would sometimes manage to sell a decent number of books at events in schools, colleges, libraries or book launches; but sales were very low otherwise. Often my wife accompanied me to help set up and manage the stalls we put up at these events, and my children have joined us too in the past. Out of ten times that we put up a stall, we achieved reasonable sales roughly three or four times.

So we had to put up two or three book stalls every couple of days, and attend ten launches a month at the very least. At these events the authors would occasionally visit our stall, greet us, thank us, and enquire about the number of copies sold. These included well-known names like Shashi Tharoor, who always said hello as soon as he arrived, either coming up to us or from a distance, Gurcharan Das, Devdutt Patnaik, Hindol Sengupta and Sanjeev Sanyal.

Once at a launch, Patnaik came straight to our stall, sat down, started signing books, and said, “Don’t worry, nobody will ask you for a discount.” Another time I had gone to meet Sanjeev Sanyal to get some copies of his The Ocean of Churn signed for an event, and he ended up gifting me one for my son. We still have that book somewhere in the house.

Back in January or February 2008, Raghu Rai’s book of photographs was launched along with a month-long exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art. I was asked to set up a stall there by the publisher. I would sit there in the mornings and then my wife used to come by lunchtime to take over, while I made my school visits.

We ran the stall at NGMA for a whole month, until the exhibition got over. It was an expensive book at Rs 6,000, and was mostly bought by foreigners, ambassadors or tourists. When they did not have cash on them, they invited me to their houses in places like Anand Niketan and Shanti Niketan to deliver the book. I would take down their addresses and take a bus on the following Monday, when the gallery was shut. They used to pay by cheque, mostly, which was convenient, and sometimes cash, which came in handy. I also remember going to Raghu Rai’s office in Mehrauli to get the books signed. He used only a black pen for some reason.

When the exhibition moved to the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, I went with it as the bookseller, and stayed there for a month. My wife and two children also came along – it was summer vacations – for 15 days and then went back. I stayed at the Khandelwal Samaj Dharamshala and got a taste of the famous Bombay monsoon for the first time. One day the whole gallery got flooded, and the water came up to our knees.

All of us went up to the roof and I saw the Gateway of India standing right there – it was beautiful. I also remember seeing Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak at the gallery once. They had come with their children and Pathak wanted to get the book. But Shah resisted, saying, “What will we do with this, do we really need it?” Eventually they did not buy it.

Another book I remember well is the one on Hanuman by Alister Taylor. I must have sold 1,500 copies of that one, and kept a copy for myself too. We visited so many schools, and Alister was a great sport, signing copies for the children and telling fun stories from the Ramayana. We ended up doing so many events together that Alister finally told me, “Just go instead of me next time.”

But not all authors are gracious, some don’t even cast a glance at our stall – let alone us. Not even when we painstakingly set up attractive, eye-catching displays so that those attending buy as many books as possible. Once, after an event at a restaurant in Connaught Place, the proprietors liked our display so much that they asked us to leave it behind as it was, having bought all the books.

Some authors repeatedly badger us for free copies at events, for their friends and relatives. This happens almost every time, without fail. In such cases, I have to ask the publishers whether we should oblige or not. Then we inform them the next day about the number of copies given away and to whom. Whenever I’ve been to the Press Club too, I’ve seen that the journalists are always looking to score free books. What can we do if they are from the press? We cannot just give away books.

I would visit schools, colleges and libraries every day. Sometimes we got orders, and sometimes we did not. Mostly, books are submitted for approval to these institutes. After a few months they are either billed or returned. The payments take any time between one and six months. But all this was before the lockdown. In my profession, field visits are the only way I can hope to get any work and make an income, and this is not possible anymore.

The lockdown and after

Since I don’t own a physical store, I haven’t sold a single book since our last event on March 7, 2020. It was at the IIC, and was not very well attended. Already people were not stepping out much because of the Delhi violence. Now with the lockdown and the inevitable lull in book events that has followed – all of my scheduled events from March onwards have been cancelled – I don’t think I’ll earn even a single rupee at least until December.

Even if the schools reopen soon, do you think they will let me enter the premises? They will keep out whoever they can. Also, I sell general books, not textbooks, so in that sense what I sell is not “essential”. I don’t expect book launches to start any time soon either, because of the health risks.

The commissions have always been very slim in my business, but truth be told I have never looked at how much money I am making. I just hand over whatever I make at the end of the month to my wife. There have been many people who came up after me in the business, and they are now big publishers or distributors. I never made it big like that, I could have…but we’ve managed somehow over the years.

These days schools, colleges, libraries, teachers, publishers, book distributors and book clubs are neither making or receiving any payments.The books sent for approval are gathering dust in the libraries. I recently requested a school in Noida to post my cheque but the accounts people refused. They insisted that I come and pick it up.

I couldn’t go, and when it was finally deposited, I had to pay a penalty. This after giving them a 25 per cent discount and delivering the books to Noida myself. I have taken this issue up with the school and now I’m writing email after email explaining the situation. I have not heard from a single publisher either in all this time, about pending payments or supplying books. The only “work” I’ve done so far is returning some books lying with me to a couple of publishers.

Publishers are adapting now, releasing ebooks and launching books online. I was listening to a programme on FM Gold the other day, about a Hindi publisher who is offering short stories and excerpts from books on WhatsApp. My work had anyway shrunk when online bookselling started gaining popularity around 2016. Schools stopped buying books for Diwali and people’s birthdays. There was a time when the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary used to sell like hot cakes, but I haven’t laid my eyes on one in years.

Now, with the industry mostly shut down and no public gatherings on the horizon, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Although my son, who is studying for a PhD from IIM Indore, has said he will not let anyone in our family read ebooks, I am worried about the future…will there be business for Akant Books after this?

As told to Kartikeya Jain.

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