The Dot-Com Bookstore

KD Singh has been a bookseller for 38 years. When you enter his bookstore – The Bookshop – located in the posh neighbourhood of Delhi’s Jorbagh, you will find him sitting contentedly at his desk, working. He won’t mind if you strike up a conversation with him about his latest read; at 70, he has a refined taste in books. His cosy, yellow-lit bookstore looks like a relic from another simpler world, where people would go to bookstores to buy their books, a time when online bookstores were unheard of and the publisher-distributor-bookseller-reader structure worked in harmony.

When Flipkart.com was founded in 2007 by Binny Bansal and Sachin Bansal (they are not related to each other) – ex-IITians and former employees of America’s ferocious online retailer Amazon.com – little did readers and booksellers imagine that it would revolutionise the book business in India. Selling over two lakh books annually, Flipkart is now the largest bookstore in India, and may be set to become a billion-dollar enterprise. It provides customers across the country with hassle-free service, a choice of over seven million titles, and brutal discounts. Students swear by Flipkart, and so do those looking for imported editions and rare titles. In Pondicherry, where there is only one good bookstore, it is a source of comfort to bibliophiles.

According to CEO Sachin Bansal, 10,000-12,000 people buy books from Flipkart every day. While half the orders are placed by customers from big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, Flipkart delivers more than 1,000-odd books through government book-post to small towns where courier services are still unavailable.

                                                                  

As Amazon plans to make its presence felt in India in 2012, could this spell a further transformation of the book trade in this country? The online e-commerce giant is reportedly in talks for a major collaboration with leading websites such as Flipkart and Letsbuy.com. Though Flipkart has rubbished claims of a possible selling out to Amazon, it is hard to say whether they will be able to refuse a great offer.

Will Flipkart’s clientele shift their loyalties to Amazon? The big player might need to learn a trick or two from its Indian counterpart. The most important difference between Amazon and Flipkart is the payment mechanism. In a country where credit-card culture isn’t as widespread as in the West, and where buyers still feel reluctant to reveal their credit card numbers on the internet, Flipkart’s cash-on-delivery method has worked well, and accounts for nearly half of all purchases made on the site.

However much one might rave about online booksellers, Amazon has destabilised the book industry in the US, leading to bankruptcy of the famous chain Borders, and shutting down of other revered independent bookstores that could not adapt to Amazon’s uninhibited expansion. Could a similar phenomenon in India threaten independent booksellers? Not so much. What about bookstore chains? Probably yes.

“The rise of online bookstores has massively affected bookstore chains that depend largely on ‘fun-list’ books and bestsellers, whereas we concentrate on literary fiction, and therefore remain relatively unaffected,” says KD Singh. “An indie bookseller should be a voracious reader and passionate about books. Flipkart may make recommendations based on your past purchases, but there is room for loopholes. Whereas, if I see a regular customer picking up a book he may not like, I stop him from buying it. In this way, he would end up saving more money than while buying from an e-bookstore!” he adds with a laugh.

The attitude toward online bookstores in India and abroad is similar, insofar as readers and compulsive book buyers have a sentimental attachment to the physical experience of buying books; they still give importance to flipping through the pages of a book before buying it. However, because of space constraints, Indian bookshops are unable to stock books that cater to the needs of different sorts of readers, and this is where online bookstores have an upper hand. “I buy a lot of literary criticism as well as obscure genre fiction. No sane bookshop owner would cater to those areas. If you have unusual book needs, it’s much easier to buy online,” says Sunday Guardian columnist Aishwarya Subramanian. Come to think of it, what could possibly hinder you from enjoying browsing books online? “I love clicking on an author name and finding a whole page of other books by her that I can now order,” says Subramanian.

As book sales in India grow by 50 percent each year, and Flipkart’s turnover continues to impress, a much larger share of the Indian book trade will be carried out online than before. More than half of Flipkart’s customers are working men between the ages of 20 and 35, a statistic which shows that in a country where good independent bookshops are scarce, young people increasingly prefer to shop from online bookstores – something they can do in an instant from their desks.

K.D. Singh of The Bookshop (copyright: The Delhi Walla)

Nonetheless, readers who cherish visiting their favourite bookstores, discovering new books, and relying on the recommendations of well-informed booksellers like KD Singh, know that independent bookstores have to be kept alive. “The experience of returning to a bookstore is nostalgic and magical for me,” says Mira Dutta, who teaches English at a coaching institute. “It reminds me of the time I spent as a child with my father scouring for books in Calcutta.” As the online market for books grows, independent booksellers need to know their books well and provide customers with a wholesome experience. While modern Indian readers do not have qualms about ordering discounted books from an online bookstore, they still prize the satisfaction of entering the warmth of a bookshop, meeting friendly faces, sniffing a book, and feeling overwhelmed on seeing the shelves stocked with handsome paperbacks.

On my bookshelf at least, Ondaatje’s The English Patient bought from The Bookshop lies atop Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – which I purchased from Flipkart.

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