The words arrived slowly and deliberately over the phone.
“But can’t you find it on Amazon?”
During the pandemic I was working out of a foxy mountain town. My grandfather, who lives in Chennai, wanted me to procure for him a particular type of green tea grown in the hills. I didn’t want to go chasing after the tea so I fibbed that I couldn’t find it.
My grandfather is 105 years old.
He hasn’t bought anything on Amazon but he knows of it as a place where you can find anything.
Eventually I found it on Amazon and shipped it to him.
The pandemic has changed Indian publishing dramatically. As a discount and convenience hunting population, we had embraced e-commerce platforms, but there was a significant section of people who preferred buying offline. That behaviour has changed. Any offline establishment which isn’t essential (grocery, government office, airport) or doesn’t offer a social experience (mall, restaurant) is going to struggle.
It’s common knowledge that bookstores have been suffering for years. The pandemic has become the shove off the cliff. In the past few months a number of stores have announced closures or have moved out of the pricier markets because they couldn’t stave off the landlords. The landlords themselves are trying to stave off the banks, who are trying to stave off the government.
E-commerce platforms have brought vendors with more sophisticated technology on board – technology which can predict inventory shortages before they materialise. This makes them an even more attractive destination to purchase from, as they convert the cost savings into discounts. Walden Books in Hyderabad has downed shutters after being in business for 30 years. Wayword and Wise of South Mumbai, known for its expertly-curated collection, is contemplating closing down. Iconic bookstores around the world, such as Shakespeare and Company of Paris and Strand Book Store of New York have gone public with their fight for survival.
In India, a number of media houses announced cuts, salary freezes and delayed payments during the pandemic. This meant features sections in traditional media have shrunk. Which has a spillover effect on the number of books that can be reviewed and showcased to consumers. For all the benefits that e-commerce platforms offer consumers, at the end of the day you can see one web page on one device with the potential to doom scroll.
So, this coalescing of pandemic induced changes has caused a massive discoverability problem for a book not written by a celebrity. India probably has one of the steepest long tail to bestseller curves. Non-fiction publishers will have no option but to hound people with 50K followers and get them to write books.
Books on investing
Robinhood is a global stock-trading offering stock brokerage services which are ultra-cheap and fully gamified. This has led millions of millennials bored stiff at home during the pandemic to sign up. Before you can say Covid-19, a lot of these new users have been buying and selling stock. For expert advice and motivation, they’ve been watching The Wolf of Wall Street on loop. For the first time since the invention of financial markets, large market moves are being driven by individual retail investors.
Zerodha has pulled off a Robinhood in India. They have completely disrupted the Indian brokerage market with their zero brokerage offerings. Most of their new customers are under the age of 30. If you are an uninformed but enthusiastic market participant, you will lose your shirt. But this spells good news for books on investing which will tell them why they lost money.
Most Indian books in this area are too dense or too flimsy, and cannot hold a candle to The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, which was written in 1949 and still features regularly in Top 100 category-wise sales lists in India. Saurabh Mukherjea, who founded a Porfolio Management Service called Marcellus, wrote Coffee Can Investing: The Low Risk Road to Stupendous Wealth, published in 2018. The book has done really well but sales have been supported by the fact that Mukherjea is an articulate and visible presence online. He mentions his book at every given opportunity and it is closely tied to his investment philosophy.
But now, the pandemic has minted a new type of retail investor, which will lead to a shift in the kind of book on investing being published in India. The classic American investment book covered the entire gamut of investment instruments and how they are correlated to each other – for instance, they would hold forth on how the T-Bill rate and maturity affect stock prices.
This is too much information for today’s retail investor who wants to hear a story without too many numbers. The new type may tell stories about companies instead. Mukherjea does a particularly good job of this. His Youtube videos covering Asian Paints, for instance, has over one lakh views. The problem with the investment book space is that holes can picked in any investment theory and, unlike cookbooks one can’t get the author to make the dish, taste it and then decide to publish.
I expect a number of books to appear over the next couple of years, offering trading strategies where stocks are bought and sold within the day or the hour. Buy these with abundant caution. These books won’t come with a “money-back” warrantee if you lose in the market. Indeed, there will be lots of books published about venture capital and angel investing as these areas of business rapidly mature in India.
The pandemic induced salary cuts and delays means that Indians are now compelled to think about personal finance beyond the holy middle-class trifecta of fixed deposits, gold, and down payments on property. On an average, property purchased for investment in the past 15 years has not appreciated greatly in value. Rental yields are at about 2%, which has contributed to a new chorus online of renting being better than buying.
To make sense of this strange new world, personal finance professionals will almost certainly produce a fair number of books. Anil Lamba, a personal finance coach is one of the most prolific authors in the genre. Lamba’s books include Financial Affairs Of The Common Man: Master the Art of Personal Finance Management; Eye on the Bottom Line: Figuring Out the World of Figure; and Flirting with Stocks: Stock Market Investing for Beginners. They are hard to miss because he’s on the cover staring directly at you, almost daring you to start loving your numbers.
To paraphrase Jeff Bezos, we are in Day 1 of the post-pandemic investing and finance book space. Since finance is a vast ocean of noise and information, I expect the books to become more specialised over time. People will write about trading in cryptocurrency, futures and options in various commodities, properties in micro markets, financial arbitrage for the salaried man, and how to extract some financial juice out of a vacation home. All of these books will represent the shift from wealth protection to the implied promise of getting rich very quickly.
From corporations to start-ups
Netflix founder Reed Hastings wrote No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, published in 2020, and his co-founder Marc Randolf wrote That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix, published a year earlier. You might think these books could have cannibalised each other, but fuelled by Netflix’s popularity, sales for both these books have been impressive, to say the least.
Since Flipkart came into being, startup coverage in the media has been constant. One of the early movers in the books-on-start-ups category was The Golden Tap: The Inside Story of Hyper Funded Indian Startups by Kashyap Deorah, published in 2015. Since then, books have kept pace with the changes in the startup ecosystem.
One of the challenges with books on startups is over who gets to control the narrative. Legendary startup origin stories trotted out in public are often far removed from the truth. Is the story best told by an insider or investigative outsider? Best friends turned co-founders end up squabbling, venture capitalists who have invested in the startup tend to want the story to be aligned to the current commercial interests of the firm, and there’s always non-disclosure agreements everyone seems to have signed.
When the literary agency I work for pitched Mihir Dalal’s Big Billion Startup: The Untold Flipkart Story to publishers, it generated a lot of interest. The founders of Flipkart did not speak to Dalal for the book. But the proposal ticked the boxes of the author having relevant track record as a startup sector journalist and Flipkart being the poster child of Startup Inc. Around the same time TN Hari and MS Subramanian who work at Bigbasket wrote Saying No to Jugaad: The Making of Bigbasket.
Books on start-ups are by definition not about mega corporations. About a year ago, I met Harpreet Grover, the co-founder of a firm called CoCubes. Like most people, I had not heard of CoCubes, so Grover ran me through the story. It was the roller-coaster ride of two founders in their 20s who went on to sell their startup ten years after they started. At one low point in their journey they didn’t have money to buy beer.
It was a rare profitable exit from an Indian start-up. The numbers involved in this exit were nowhere near Flipkartesque. And yet this made a strong case for a book, because the smaller deal size made the story more accessible. They had a roadmap for building a small to midsized company from scratch and, more importantly, for selling it. Someone reading this book could actually use this roadmap. Grover and his co-founder Vibhore Goyal wrote Let’s Build A Company: A Startup Story Minus The Bullshit. No one can really promise you that if you read a book, you’ll be able to build another Flipkart or Bigbasket.
The primary driver for sales of these startup books in the pandemic is that many people are sitting at home and reassessing their choices. Does it make sense to set up a one-person company rather than work 9-to-9? Instead of being an engineer in an outsourced function of a global tech firm, can I move to a beach town with five other developers and become a vendor to my current employer? Can a bolt of inspiration like the Netflix idea strike? One of the early ideas that Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph discussed was making customised dog food, before they decided to start Netflix.
Thankfully, the moment for explicit self-help-business books which start with “7 Ways to Succeed at…” might have passed. Books that benevolently cover legacy businesses which focus on the next generation inheritor might not find too many takers. Everyone’s really interested in the DIY underdog story.
Ambi Parameswaran’s Spring: Bouncing Back From Rejection found readers because there is a lot of rejection going around. Receiving advice from a distance from someone who hasn’t gone through the grind themselves feels irrelevant in the pandemic.
The question is: Will Indians return to bookstores once the pandemic is over? In China, “revenge shopping” is a phenomenon where people return to buy goods with a vengeance once the lockdown lifted. It’s unclear if that will be replicated in India. Unlike fiction, where books are sold all over the country in a somewhat uniform pattern, business book sales tend to be dominated by urban centres which are deeply penetrated by the e-commerce platforms. Some of the more experienced buyers even wait for better discounts online.
If consumers don’t return to stores in large numbers, and e-commerce purchases account for the bulk of book sales in the cities, there will be a number of changes to the way business is transacted. Will smaller independent publishers, who have always suffered from offline problems like unpredictable returns of copies from the market, and credit and payment problems decide to sell exclusively through online platforms? Will bookstores that survive the pandemic pivot their business model to selling shelf space?
In some ways, it appears all roads lead online – reviews, conversations and buying. Even literature festivals and book awards are being conducted online. E-book sales have jumped during the pandemic, though they are still not meaningful enough as a proportion to make an impact on publisher bottomlines. In the last few months a number of people have written a book, published it on Kindle, and then had a little Zoom launch party with friends.
Will some of the more popular writers – especially in the business and investment segment – begin to self-publish? Will these people who are micro-brands – with social media followings of more than 50,000 people, for instance – decide that they can do this themselves? And can this change the supply side of such books, with publishers as gatekeepers being eliminated from the mix? The year 2021 may tell us.
Anish Chandy is the founder of Labyrinth Literary Agency.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.