Over the past few years, more than just a few bookstores have started operating online. Flipkart, of course, is the most reputed of them, having started operations in 2007. This proliferation of bookstores is seen by many as an efficient and convenient way to get books delivered at one’s doorstep, often at prices that are highly discounted as compared to the local bookstore and at zero shipping costs. With most stores now offering customers a cash-on-delivery (COD) option, not having a credit card or being reluctant to use one on the Internet is no longer an issue.

More than triggering sales and, in the process, posing a huge threat to physical bookstores, these webstores have changed the dynamics of the publishing industry itself. Here’s how:
a. Online sales, coupled with print-on-demand, means that books can never go out of print. After they are ordered, hitherto out-of-print books can be printed and shipped to the customer. For the customer, it means that old books can now be obtained. For publishers, it means an evergreen backlist. The number of books that publishers have to manage suddenly gets bigger because none can be ignored. No book can be neglected any more and “it is out of print” is an excuse that publishers cannot use and simply won’t stick

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b. Publishers can now hope for new markets. Webstores being as they are, accessible anywhere, can trigger sales from areas that may not be considered by publishers as a “regular market”. Additionally, with migration within India now being a norm, it might not be unusual, for example, for a publisher of Bengali books to find a buyer in Kerala. Physical bookstores will not address such demand primarily because distributors in all their wisdom might ignore, or be unaware, of this demand altogether. Marketing of books therefore becomes challenging because one can never guess where the next order may come from

c. Prices are under pressure. The larger the online platform, the greater is its ability to both extract large discounts from publishers and offer similar, large, discounts to buyers. We saw this behaviour in the case of Amazon and other retail giants and can be forgiven for believing it might happen here too. Although not documented, the effect of the nascent e-commerce market on books sales is quite apparent – sales to individual buyers have fallen and many bookstores now rely on institutional sales to stay alive. That is because online bookstores can demand, and get, larger discounts from publishers as compared to physical bookstores, especially since they deal directly with publishers by bypassing distributors. They then pass on a large portion of this discount to consumers. With lesser overheads than in physical bookstores, they can probably afford to do so. Large discounts plus free shipping automatically translate into sales. Many buyers will privately confess that they have browsed at bookstores but bought online. Some distributors will also tell you, off the record, that many online bookstores sell at a loss. Since they have themselves given them those titles, they should know. What drives online bookstores to offer such deep discounts is anyone’s guess.

There is another aspect to this, although it is mentioned here purely on hunch and cannot be backed by statistical evidence. Is it possible that what is marketed as a potential bestseller is then sold at a higher discount, which in turn leads to higher sales in a self-prophesying kind of way?

If that is true, then in the absence of visibility (due to the absence of “shelves”), books that are in no way lesser whether in substance or style, get lost only because they were not marketed as bestsellers are or were ignored by book reviewers or because the publisher concerned could not offer a large discount. This leads to a downward spiral. As these books sell in small quantities, the miniscule sales discourage publishers and authors, who decide that such subjects are taboo for which there aren’t any readers, from attempting other, similar books.

All this leads me to believe that discounted prices may not be the way to go. True, it delights readers but in the long term could lead to homogenization of material being produced in books. Perhaps the Indian book industry should seriously consider a Fixed Price Book Agreement like the one in effect in Germany and elsewhere. I have noticed that many physical bookstores hold their ground and insist on selling books at the listed price. It does seem like buyers haven’t objected. For how long it will remain that way is anyone’s guess.

While online bookstores have made book buying convenient and books cheap, they have certainly raised many issues that need urgent consideration.

A platform that offers an opportunity to hear the best and brightest minds speak is one we’d never pass on. So when just that happened, thanks to the Tehelka sponsored ThinkFest, we made sure we attended the entire programme, all three days of it. While the venue and some comments made there could have been avoided, the event in itself provided a lot of food for thought.

While laying out the agenda of the conclave, the editor-in-chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal stated that Tehelka saw the need for ThinkFest because “India will grow not because it has a large number of consumers but only when there are more ideas”. He said that intellectual capability needs to be celebrated and that diverse ideas, from the sciences and the arts, need to be presented so that the human mind can then make most of these ideas.

In a strange way, I think independent publishing, and even the model of publishing that we at CinnamonTeal service, does quite that. It allows diverse opinions and ideas to be voiced. At a session on “The Difficulty of Selling Excellence”,  Kiran Rao(of Dhobi Ghat fame), actors Imran Khan and Abhay Deol and producer Dibakar Banerjee, took turns

Image rights reserved by chris8800/flickr

and spoke on how it was difficult to produce movies that “deviated from the formula”, yet were made by producers and directors who believed they had a story to tell. Ms. Rao lamented the lack of space that the creative arts had here in India, the space to express itself without being bothered too much about issues like distribution and budgets.

Although the speakers were talking about Bollywood, we felt quite familiar with the issues being discussed. Lamentable as it may be, it seems like the first issue that must be discussed by publishers deliberating on a book is the book’s marketability and its chances in the marketplace. The merits of the book, its intrinsic quality and the importance of the topic (or plot) it addresses seem to be of secondary nature. Publishers are quite unwilling to take a risk because the book might not find distributors, let alone buyers.

This conversation on stage, by Ms. Rao and others, came at a time when I was reading Aaron Schiffrin’s “The Business of Books“. He states how, increasingly in the United States, certain books are not being published either because a)they serve too small a market (and may therefore have print runs in the hundreds, not the thousands) and b)because the issues being addressed may be ideologically different than those that the owners of the publishing house believe in. While the second reason is something that may not happen in India (although I cannot attest to that), I am sure the lack of a “perceived market” for a title prompts publishers not to publish that title. So never mind that there might be a few hundred readers who might be interested in a particular book; since it may not result in a print run of a few thousands, the book is often not published.

Case in point: Mahesh Nair, a photographer by profession, with the permission of the Indian Army, authored a coffee table book titled “Iron Fist, Velvet Glove” that was published by CinnamonTeal Publishing. The book juxtaposed the military activities of the Indian Army alongside its other, humanitarian, activities in a format that had interesting visuals and even more interesting text. Every distributor we have approached has refused to distribute the title because they feel no one will be interested. With all respect to their wisdom in the matter, we feel it would have been better for the readers to decide that.

Besides, the theory that publishers (or distributors) know what readers want is stretching the truth a little. Like Steve Jobs once commented, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. This self-delusion that publishers have, of believing that they know everything about customers’ tastes probably led many to believe that a story about a boy wizard would never sell. Many such stories are well documented.

Left with few alternatives, CinnamonTeal is trying hard to develop other initiatives to boost its sales. In many cases it might be about developing its own channels. In the meantime, we are taking quite seriously this exhortation to provide a channel that will allow other voices to be heard. We have been contemplating a publishing imprint for some time now, one that follows the “regular” model of publishing for books of a certain genre, and we can promise you that that will happen soon.

Beginning in 2007 we opened our online book selling platform to other publishers who wished to sell their books there. Dogears Etc. was intended to be a platform for the sale of used books alone but when publishers requested that we provide a platform, we simply couldn’t refuse.

Even today we are among a few Indian book selling platforms that allow purchases from outside India. This has proved tremendously beneficial to the publishers who have listed their books there and to our authors who have readers based outside India. The facilitation fee we currently charge is a low 20%, and while we intend to keep it that way for long, those in the know will realize that it is way below what is normally charged in India.

Today, we are pleased to include FunOKplease among the publishers listed on our website. The Mumbai-based publisher has a relatively small catalogue but one that produces books that are exquisitely designed and with an eye on children. Given the relative paucity of books that address the needs of children in India, FunOkplease is a welcome initiative. We wish them well.

To view and purchase their books, do visit http://www.dogearsetc.com.

Yes, we still call it that.

We spent the last weekend in Bombay (or Mumbai to whom the old name doesn’t appeal). The nature of our work there left us with much free time so we decided to do the next best thing – scour for books.

We spent some time at the Strand Book Stall, which, crowded and cramped as it is, still continues to amaze with its sheer selection of books, and at the newly opened Kitab Khana, which is situated near what used to be simply called Fountain and is now called Hutatma Chowk.

Kitab Khana is an amazing place for bibliophiles. Seems like the owners have deliberately chosen not to have the bookstore crammed with shelves, instead allowing visitors to move freely within the store. The books stocked are also of a different variety with more attention being paid to Indian literature. Some books not usually found, like the Paris Review Interviews, are also available here and should delight a bibliophile no end. Unlike the Strand, Kitab Khana offers good discounts to buyers.

Given the time we had to ourselves to just roam around we chanced upon a group of 5-7 hawkers, not too far from KitabKhana itself, selling what seemed an excellent collection of used books. These guys know their books and it seems like the knowledgeable book buyer will get what he/she is looking for. Between there and a similar place in Matunga, we found copies of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and The Autograph Man and four volumes (out of six) of Winston Churchill’s books on the Second World War. All for Rs. 400. Given that these books couldn’t be found at any regular book store, it was a delightful experience finding them. Many such books rarely available at bookstores, or even online, could be found here.

Photo Courtesy: Akshay Mahajan (lecercle - flickr.com)

Which brings me to my point. Bookstores still have a future. The ease of making a purchase online notwithstanding, and the large discounts available there, bookstores allow one the experience of leafing through the pages, the convenience of comparing two texts to find what you are looking for (especially where non-fiction is concerned), the ability to gauge the quality of the pages, the fonts and the readability in general and the comfort of just being able to browse through spines and look for a title that interests you. If bookstores ever triggered an impulse purchase it had to be its brick and mortar variety.

To make the book buyer’s experience more enjoyable though, bookstores will have to be more than just shelves with personnel milling around. Attendants will have to be knowledgeable about books and be able to guide the buyer on that journey called book buying. The store itself will have to allow for lazy reading and comfortable browsing. A hurried environment just won’t do.

Many distributors are reluctant to work with self-published authors and this remains the ultimate challenge that such authors face, one that renders their book inadequate no matter how well written and produced. At CinnamonTeal we have tried our best to provide distribution services for the titles we have published but these efforts have largely been confined to India. Many authors want their books to be available globally. Our association with LightningSource International (LSI) provides just that.

Starting this month, we have entered into an agreement with LSI, an international POD distributor as a result of which we will be able to offer POD distribution services and make our titles available for buyers in Europe, North America and Australia. This agreement, allows us access to a large number of distributors and retailers.

We hope that this service will go a long way in making our titles accessible to a larger audience. We have always believed that our authors have told some beautiful stories. We are glad many more can now read them. This service is available only for the books we have published

To know more about this service, email us at publishing@ dogearsetc.com

Europe Australia & New Zealand USA
Adlibris ALS Ingram
Agapea Biblioquest Amazon.com
Aphrohead Booktopia Baker & Taylor
Amazon.co.uk DA Information Services Barnes & Noble
Bertrams Dennis Jones & Associates Espresso Book Machine
Blackwell Footprint Books NACSCORP
Book Depository Limited Garratt Publishing
Books Express Holistic Page
Coutts Information Services Ltd. James Bennett
Designarta Books Koorong
Eden Interactive Limited Peter Pal
Trust Media Distribution (formerly STL) Rainbow Book Agencies
Mallory International The Nile
Paperback Shop Ltd. University Co-operative Bookshop
Superbook Deals Westbooks
The Book Community Ltd. Wheelers NZ
W&G Foyle Ltd.
Wrap Distribution

After your book has been written, edited and laid out and ready to be printed, you need to start thinking about ways to market it so that people know about your book and set out to buy it. Book marketing, perhaps, is most ignored by authors when they could themselves be the most passionate salesperson their book could have. While we do provide a wide range of marketing plans, here’s a list we put together for our authors to do themselves. Perhaps something you could borrow from?

Online promotion:

1. Have bloggers review your book. Choose relevant bloggers. For example, if your book is on science fiction, send it to bloggers who are sci-fi aficionados

2. Add a “signature” to your email. Signatures should be brief and “punchy”. Add a link to information about your book if possible

3. Get friends to add your link to their email signatures

4. Create a free website (blog) for your book. These are free and easy to set up. For blogs visit http://www.blogspot.com/ or http://www.wordpress.com/. For websites, visit www.weebly.com. Alternately you can contact us and we will set up one for you. When you set up one, make sure it is easy for people to find ways to contact you.

5. Post extracts of your book on your website or blog. Although this may see counter-intuitive, posting such free content allows your book to come up during search results. It also makes readers want to read more

6. A download of a few chapters of the book along with a discount coupon for purchase of the entire book. Or an online game where the winners get a discount on purchase of your book

7. Comment on other peoples’ blogs, especially those on topics that match that of your book. Comment intelligently and don’t brag. Sign off with your name and with a link to details of your book.

8. Guest blog on other sites that will allow you to.

9. Invest in social media such as Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and Orkut. The investment is of time, not money. This is a whole new beast called “social media marketing” and if you are here, you have probably heard of it already

10. Send out free press releases. Google “free press releases” and you will find many such services. Your press release should be brief and should contain the words users might search for.

Offline promotion:

1. Invest in getting your book edited and in getting a good cover designed for your book. Nothing turns readers away as much as an error-riddled book does. Similarly, an attractive cover can help market your book.

2. Dig into your mailing list – email every contact and tell them about your book. Ask them to promote your book in turn.

3. Similarly phone your friends and tell them about your book.

4. Contact your local newspaper. Ask them to do a review of your book. There is a certain prestige that comes with being a reviewed author. Give free copies away for reviews

5. Contact your local FM station and ask them to do an interview. Promote your book there

6. Make post cards for Diwali, Id or Christmas. Promote your book on it and send it to friends and acquaintances

7. If your book is on a niche subject, offer your services as a speaker when a seminar or conference is held on that or on an allied subject.

8. Promote your book at social meetings and gatherings.

9. Depending on the audience for your book, keep your book for sale in “unusual places” like coffee shops or supermarkets. People who frequent these places often have time to spare and money to spend. An attractively placed book might just trigger an impulse purchase

10. Arrange for readings and book signings if your environment allows it. Have them in prominent bookstores in your neighbourhood. In places like Bombay and Bangalore, weekly bingo is a common occurrence. Have your book launched before or after one such or similar meet. Cafes are another place where you can promote your book