MW 20TH Anniversary Special: Is India Reading Anymore?
What he said about India was right, but the assumption about the book market was as wrong then as it is now, and the numbers still don’t stack up 20 years later. For a country that had mostly struggled on all socio-economic indices, survival and getting by was the priority even after several decades of Independence. Reading for leisure was rare, and it didn’t help that good bookshops were mostly limited to the upmarket/downtown areas of prominent cities. Post-liberalisation, the promise of growth attracted prominent international publishers into the Indian market and local publishers stepped up too. Organised retail also saw significant investments from the mid to the late 2000s. Hundreds of bookshops mushroomed to tap into the market, which now had disposable income and an insatiable desire to read. Publishers started printing more and more locally, and competitive pricing only helped grow sales.
The bookselling infrastructure was still limited for a country our size, but the new bookshops and all the investment helped a great deal. With over a decade of economic growth, the Indian middle-class, with more money in their pockets, suddenly had access to bookshops like never before. In this newfound space, the publishing industry, especially Indian writing in English, began to flourish. Every bookshop or retail chain curated a list of their own, so there was an all-round growth in all genres and categories. On the online front, the delivery and promise of further growth raised expectations, but the first few attempts came a cropper. In 2014, finally, there were at least four key online retailers, which eventually changed the dynamics of how books were being bought.
Bookshops, especially the ones funded by corporate money, eventually found it difficult to compete against the reach and the deep pockets of the online players. Some 500 bookshops went out of business. The online retail giants were locked in a battle to outdo each other, leaving the number of serious players to just two by 2017. The industry stuttered, but still reported growth albeit at a slower pace. The genres, which have grown over the years, only reflect the demographics and reading preferences. Access to books over the last 10-15 years has seen a massive surge in regional language publishing, with several bestsellers crossing hundreds of thousands of copies in mass-market fiction, mythological fiction, self-help and so on. All that success has led to new or first-time readers, who eventually form the base of readership in other genres too. With unprecedented access to news and social media, the quest to know more about what’s happening around us has been driving the readership of general non-fiction titles of topical interest too.
Online sales are now estimated to be over 50 per cent of the overall sales. No old book is difficult to get, and readers can always search and order from the comfort of their home. The limits of the bookselling infrastructure now seem to have been leap-frogged. However, quite paradoxically, while you can search and find practically any book ever published, serendipitous discovery of books isn’t quite what it used to be. Booksellers provided the publishers plenty of shelf-space and it is as much of a win-win arrangement for them as for the readers and authors. One could always browse, and within minutes, choose from display of hundreds of new books, which was sometimes the only chance to be discovered for new authors.
Contrast that to online buying — if you know what you want to buy, online platforms provide great service, but discovery of new books to your taste is another story altogether. With just two large online players and their homepages driving limited discovery of a handful of books, the bestsellers are growing bigger. Earlier, each bookstore’s and every region’s bestsellers list was a varied assortment with some common titles. Now, however, it seems that our country is reading a homogenised selection. Is that healthy for diversity of thought? I’ll let you be the judge of it. What’s suffered with limited avenues for display and discoverability, is the quintessential midlist — a large number of titles that only sold a few hundred to a few thousand copies but helped publishing companies stay profitable. Online sale is great, but let’s not overlook the fact that bookshops are part of our cultural heritage and can help in nation-building. So, every time a bookshop closes, it should be cause for concern.
Hundreds of bookshops may have shut down, but scores of lit fests have emerged as a silver lining, as have the massively-visited bookfairs which give readers the opportunity to be among books and authors they love. E-book sales are growing too, but the ebook vs paperbacks debate, in any case, is meaningless as publishers aren’t printers as such. Despite the massive ups and downs that make publishing a rather challenging business, there are more readers than ever before, which only augurs well for times to come. We still aren’t anywhere close to the stage where the number of readers has even the remotest correlation to the population of our country, so there’s all to look forward to. Onwards and upwards then.