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
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.