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.

On the 29th of March, 2010, Mira Koreth’s bookpad at Banerghatta Road, Bangalore registered its first sales. For us at fivex5, it was a vindication of our belief that fivex5 was a concept whose time had come.

First some background. fivex5 was conceptualized as an alternate channel for selling books not because the other channels had dried up but because they were proving to be inefficient and expensive. Those familiar with the brick-and-mortar supply chain will tell you why it is expensive. Publishers get only a small pie of book sales and the money is realized after many days. More importantly the supply chain is hardly efficient. Only a tiny fraction of books make it to the large bookstore chains. The situation gets even worse as one moves away from the cities and towns.

The online store was supposed to change all that. Online stores do provide a much larger catalogue to choose from and offer large discounts that benefit the buyer. But publishers still gain little and the low Internet penetration in India is not helping matters. Websites can support Indian languages to a very limited extent so displaying titles in languages other than English remains a challenge. Besides, customers are still, albeit to a lesser degree, reluctant to pay for the books using their credit cards. Finally, many customers would still rather hold and feel a book before buying it.

If there was ever a possibility of marrying the catalogue-rich feature of online bookstores with the personal attention and rural reach that only brick-and-mortar stores can provide, fivex5 can make that happen. While there is a large online catalogue to choose from (and at the rate publishers are joining in, it can only get better), customers still get a chance to hold a book and view it before buying it.

With fivex5, we hope to develop many small bookstores instead of a few large ones. These will be scattered across villages and towns thus providing publishers with channels to the remotest of areas. What we have also observed is that people in many cities have also expressed a desire to own a bookpad. This can only mean that the presence of bookstores in large cities still leave an unsatisfied need for books.