Art & Culture

Dear Indian publishers: Stop comparing books to sucky coffee

Kalyani Prasher
Kalyani PrasherJun 25, 2016 | 19:24

Dear Indian publishers: Stop comparing books to sucky coffee

Arrogance about the people whom you want to sell your wares to is not a great idea – have you learnt nothing from what happened to the Congress party?

“When people can buy a coffee at Starbucks, why can’t they buy a book for 300 bucks?” was a question at least two people asked at a recent discussion on Facebook, on the pricing of books for the Indian market. Someone had, quite reasonably, asked if we should reconsider the cost of books seeing how they fly off the shelves when discounted.

Several people, mostly publishers, got really upset, asking why the potential Indian reader won’t shell out a few hundred rupees on “good books”.

I’ll tell you why: they think that sucky coffee at Starbucks is better than your best book.

Arrogance about the people whom you want to sell your wares to is not a great idea – have you learnt nothing from what happened to the Congress? – understanding their buying patterns might be more useful.

There was a time, at least a decade ago, to sit and discuss why people are not buying books, to beat your chest and do hai hai about how people don’t recognise the value of “books that matter”. It is now long past the time to get a move on, experiment, take risks, and get people to buy one less coffee and one more book.

This is why I was particularly furious when someone talked down about a recent addition to Indian publishing that took the approach of figuring out how people are consuming content, and tapping that.

Like everyone, I looked at this company with a certain caution and dismay – mobile books? app? what? – and, like most others, decided to wait and see before passing any judgement.

At least someone was doing something!

“It is not a publishing company, it’s a technology company!” someone on the above discussion said.

First of all, it does not matter one bit how you classify the company in your mind. It matters that someone decided it was time to do something different and, with over 100,000 downloads, seem to be succeeding at it.

“Downloads are not users!” came another reply. Yeah and those books being returned by the hundreds to your office have users? This is the kind of old-men old-thoughts argumentation that led the UK out of the EU. Young people do not think like you and young people are those who need to start buying books from you because that’s over 65 per cent of the Indian population.

"Its competition is Snapchat not publishers!"

Sigh. Yes, defeat the emerging competition by refusing to acknowledge their existence. What is this? A pigeon complex?

I used to be like you. Back in 2005, when some of my friends started reading books on the computer, I couldn’t believe it. How could anyone read an MS on the comp? A book must always be printed and in your hands.

I still buy only printed books but the world around us has changed. Soon the comp became the tablet and then people started reading books on the mobile. It’s true, it’s happening, and 100,000 downloads within a few months of operation is telling us that.

One of my favourite bookstores in Delhi, Fact & Fiction, shut down last year, bringing the truth that people are not buying “good books” home the hard way. That was a bad knock for me and my friends, everyone silent and sad for many days.

There are people who still buy only printed books but the world around us has changed.

In the years leading to Fact & Fiction closing, the owner Ajit Vikram Singh’s son wrote about how Indian publishers, in an attempt to balance the excel sheets, contributed to its downfall. 

This piece made me think: there is always a market of all kinds of things, all kinds of books, we just have to take the right books to the right market. We were Fact & Fiction’s market – we were few but we kept it going but then the publishers decided they were going to tell us what to read by flooding the market with “books that sell”.

The market that will download a book on an app and read it on the mobile on the way home is huge. This approach can make people read for the first time, whose parents never read a book, and that’s simply superb.

I am still suspicious of the kind of books that will block the limited space on the bookshelf – whether it is online or offline – but at least someone has begun the experimenting.

An author friend recently addressed under 25s at an event designed for them – the horror the horror! – and came back with gruesome tales of people who had recently heard of “someone called Maugham”. Most people in his comments said he addressed “the wrong group”. What does that even mean?

A group of young people at a literature festival in Bangalore – not even uncultured Delhi – is the wrong group to talk about books? It’s shocking how blind we are to reality.

Here is our task: Stop telling people how to spend their money and make them spend it on books. Maybe it’s looking at pricing, maybe it’s something else.

We can achieve this by experimenting, innovating, breaking the status quo. We may try and fail or succeed, but we will never achieve this by spending hours, say over cups of coffee, discussing how stingy and misguided the potential Indian reader is.

Last updated: April 23, 2018 | 12:33
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