Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. Contemporary Indian literature
  3. Workshops
  4. Contemporary Indian Literature, Workshop, Presentation 6

Contemporary Indian Literature, Workshop, Presentation 6

Presentation by researcher Arunima Paul at the London workshop

Buying and Selling Contemporary Indian Writing in English: The Booksellers' Sense of the Market

Since this paper will be looking at the different ways in which books are being sold by booksellers today, it will draw certain classifications between booksellers and modes of book-selling in order to grasp the variety of goals and strategies involved in this activity. It shall look at how particular modes of selling impact upon the commercial success of Contemporary Indian Writing in English (henceforth referred to as CIWE) within the Indian market. This paper will attempt to explore distinctions between the business models employed by the different kinds of bookstores operating in a place like New Delhi. The terms 'business model' here refer to the following features of a store- the nature of ownership, the organizational structure of the store, the 'format' of the store – including its financial scale, spatial dimensions and the kinds of promotional events and activities that are conducted by it to boost book sales. Not only do bookstores differ in the kinds of business models they work with, very often, they fuse features of varying models together. This paper shall try to classify bookstores in Delhi into primarily three categories. These are:
• The Chain bookstores
• The Small/privately owned, niche bookstores
• Roadside/pavement bookstores

Nature of Ownership and Location

• The Oxford and Crossword Chains:

Crossword Bookstores Limited came into existence in 1992 and today has 43 outlets all over the India. Till October, 2006, Shopper's Stop held 51% of shares in the chain while ICICI Emerging Sectors Fund held the remaining 49%(1). Thereafter, Shopper's Stop went on to buy-out ICICI's share. It is now 'a wholly owned subsidiary company of Shopper's Stop Ltd.'. With outlets in India's major metros, the chain now plans to expand to cities like Coimbatore, Kochi, Chandigarh and Nagpur.

The company has conceptualized its retail outlets as what are called 'lifestyle bookstores'. However, these bookstores follow three kinds of formats- corner stores, brand stores and flagship stores. The corner stores are small in size, while the brand stores have an area of 3,000 to 8,000 sq. ft. The flagship stores usually occupy an area of over 8,000 sq. ft. These stores could be either company-owned or franchisees. The smaller outlets are usually located in 'high traffic points' like shopping malls, high streets, department stores etcetera where customers are likely to make impulsive purchases. In their designing and interiors the emphasis seems to be on 'maximum comfort' and bringing 'world-class' standards to India book retailing. This along with other chain bookstores like Landmark and Oxford also stocks music CDs, DVDs, CD-ROMs, stationery and house cafes. Internet kiosks may also be introduced at these outlets in the near future. All these strategies aim at prolonging the amount of time that a customer may spend in the bookstore by providing additional incentives for walking into the store. Hemu Ramaiah, the founder of the Landmark chain of bookstores says in an interview that, '”India shops as a family... and not every member has the same interests... My idea was to have a family store where the entire family could find something of interest.”' She also reveals that after books, audio cassettes are the next leading item of purchase at her stores. Similarly, the Oxford Bookstore at Barakhamba Road in New Delhi pulls customers with another kind of incentive- its Cha Bar is filled to capacity during lunch hours by professionals from the numerous corporate offices in the adjoining area called Connaught Place.

Similarly Oxford Bookstore – which was originally Oxford Books and Stationery in Park Street, Kolkata was re-created in its 80th year by the Apeejay Surrendra Group (1995)(2). This bookstore which has now expanded to eight cities in India also works with three formats for its outlets. These are - “Oxford Junior” which specializes in books for children. Secondly, the “Oxford Express” which is a smaller retail outlet, usually located within a mall. Finally, there is the “Oxford Bookstore” which is of much larger dimensions and located on a single and exclusive plot.

Thus we can see that both these chains try to place their outlets within spaces of mass leisure consumption like malls, so as to secure high footfalls and thereby tap into the same pool of disposable incomes. The corner-store outlets target smaller residential areas with more specialized collections while also stocking the newer releases and current bestsellers.

• Eureka and Fact and Fiction:

'Eureka: Books for the Young' and 'Fact and Fiction' on the other hand, can be seen as smaller niche bookshops which continue to function as individual ventures in book-selling. For shops such as these, location becomes an even more important factor. As Swati Roy, a co-owner of the shop told me, they began the shop from a residential apartment in the interiors of New Delhi's posh residential colony C.R. Park. Due to the obscure location of the shop, very few people even knew of its existence and therefore their sales were very low. Thereafter, they have now moved to the local shopping complex in Alaknanda which is also just across the road from Don Bosco School. The three more schools in the vicinity only added to the potential market for this niche shop, and Swati agrees that following the shift in location, Eureka has developed a larger and more regular clientèle. She also said that the bookshop tries to capitalize upon the specific socio-cultural and economic profiles of the residents of the colony – which is educated, professional, middle-class Bengali-dominated. The store tries to address the cultural aspirations and anxieties of this particular milieu in its selection of books.

Ajit Vikram Singh's 'Fact and Fiction' is also located in the fashionable Basant Lok Market in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. This market now also houses the multiplex Priya Cinema and also many boutiques and fast-food joints. Since this area also has many foreign diplomatic offices and a substantial expatriate crowd, all the shelves directly behind Singh's chair and within his arm's reach are populated by tourist, 'Lonely Planet-like' books on India. However, Fact & Fiction has also made a name for itself as one of the very few shops in Delhi that keeps books on esoteric subjects like travel-writing, adult graphic novels, historical romances. Nevertheless, Singh told me during our discussion that he does not see his own shop as a very literary one but instead as a shop for anyone who reads widely.

• Pavement booksellers:

The bookseller I spoke to, has been running a shop on a pavement adjoining the local market in Mayur Vihar Phase III for fifteen years. He sells both magazines and books. During our conversation he asked me why I had traveled four kilometers from Patparganj to buy books from him. He told me that for most booksellers like him, the pool of customers is a very local one. The books he stocked included- cheaper editions of English, French and Russian classics; the usual range of Ludlums, Grishams, Haileys and Clancys; the old block of Indian Writing in English like R.K. Narayan; a range of recent hits by the likes of Shobha De, Manju Kapur and Robin Sharma, diasporic fiction by writers like Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri; he had some of Monica Ali's novels; P.G. Wodehouses, and a lot of pulp fiction like Harlequin romances and Silhouette love-stories. All these categories are represented attractively in the first row of display that greets the eye and alternative works by these authors are readily available. There are both original as well as pirate editions of the same works. While perusing through the stock, I also met the distributor who supplies books to this bookseller. He told me that the books come from both organized national-scale booksellers like India Book House as well as booksellers from the Old Book Bazaar of Daryaganj who often act as distributors for the smaller roadside booksellers.

Purposes and Means of Book-selling

In this section, I shall be looking at the ways in which these various bookshops and booksellers project themselves and how this impacts upon the selling and purchasing of CIWE today. Both chains – Oxford and Crossword claim to have worked toward bringing international publishing and book-retailing to India. Thus, they project themselves as agents for bringing in the systems, principles and 'higher standards' of corporatist retailing that have come to establish themselves in the West. These include granting the greatest comfort to the consumer and converting the purchase of books into a luxury experience.

However, these bookstores promote themselves as not merely shops or sites for sale and purchase but often as spaces for socio-cultural events. They emphasize on the proverbial civilizing function of literature, arts and culture. On its website, Crossword claims that it has set out to become 'a point of cultural and social interaction where authors and poets hold court, where children are regaled, where people gravitate to be informed, to be entertained, even enlightened.' Book launches are also often organized around day-long debates, panel-discussions and performances which emphasize the topicality of the subject that the book deals with. For instance, Oxford Bookstore in collaboration with OUP organized day-long events at all its primary outlets in the country on the need for sex education, sexual myths and marriage and on censorship (putting together panels with eminent actors, media personalities, authors) to release Janet Fine's co-translation of the Urdu work Lazzat Un Nisa or The Pleasure of Woman. All the chain bookstores have now come to invest heavily in such book launches. Their websites also have texts of numerous author-interviews which are used to build a public profile of the author. The website for the Oxford Bookstore gives the contents of interviews with authors under the following links- “Author Corner”, “Talk Shop” and “Chatter Box”. This in turn also becomes an affirmation of the bookstore's power to grant visibility and recognition to writers and their works. The bookstore itself gets attention from the media as the generous venue for discussions on matters of social importance and by aligning itself with writers, it attempts to set itself up as an organ of enlightened public debate within civil society.

Due to logistical advantages- like getting hold of the author for a book release, a reading session or an interview, Contemporary Indian Writing in English features and aids heavily in these efforts by the bookstores. For instance, 95% of the author-interviews available on the Oxford Bookstore website are those of contemporary Indian writers in English. The themes on which these writers write mostly pertain to Indian contexts, consciousnesses and anxieties. There is a continuity between the specific subjects of the works on the one hand, and the aspirations and apprehensions of the socio-economic section of society that has the purchasing power for these books on the other (Chetan Bhagat). Therefore, it is possible to argue that if book-selling has remade itself over the past decade or so in urban India, CIWE has played a crucial role in this process since it lends itself more easily to these processes as well as their target audiences. However, these ventures are conducted in collaboration with publishing houses. As Manpreet - the Senior Executive for Marketing, Public Relations and Information at Oxford, New Delhi told us, the bookstore frequently pools in resources with a publishing house to design an event around an occasion, such as a festival during which fiction or non-fiction books relating to that occasion or festival or its culture might be released. One example of this is the range of historical books (by William Dalrymple, Ramachandra Guha, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Boria Majumdar, Pramod K. Nayar and Julian Rathbone) and anniversary editions being brought out this year by publishers like Penguin and Roli around the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the 1857 Uprising and the 60th year of independent India. These are placed in special sections in bookstores and offered with a discount of 15-20 percent. The strategy works as the books and the event corroborate each other and the concatenation of the two opens up commercial possibilities by generating curiosity about the subject in question. This also involves clever and innovative packaging of books. In this case it is about selecting as well as creating 'the right time to package nationalism and sell history'. Also it is interesting that Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi which would normally be categorized and marketed as a 'history' book addressing a more academic audience, is here packaged as good non-fiction for any reader.

Since Eureka targets a young audience, its events include treasure-hunts for children in the course of which they are required to read through books they might not ordinarily pick up. While the store stocks what are the current international fads in children's reading like Harry Potter and other fantasy books, Swati and Venkatesh, its owners, try to push children as well as their parents to read Indian writing for children. They often promote books in ways that will appeal to parents who have migrated from their original cultural roots and are afraid that their children might not inherit and learn to appreciate any of that heritage. As is commonly known, C. R. Park has a very high population of what are called “Probashi Bangalis”. This tack has succeeded in creating a demand for a lot of children's writing translated from the Indian languages. Thus in a shop like Eureka, CIWE has found newer markets through the category of children's writing.

Fact and Fiction by contrast, doesn't invest in any promotional events but it does benefit from the image it has built for itself over the decades as a shop for eclectic and rare books for the truly adventurous reader. However, both Eureka as well as Fact and Fiction despite their desire for and insistence on being distinctive bookshops, feel compelled to stock the current bestsellers in Indian writing so as not to turn away customers having learnt about them from the media, come to buy them. In fact, in both shops, the current bestsellers are placed on the very first shelves one approaches upon entering. This compulsion testifies to the indispensability that CIWE has acquired for itself in the reader's mind-space and preferences, as well as on the racks.

Transformations within the Production-to-Consumption Conduit

CIWE is also inextricably linked with larger transformations that have been occurring within the formerly segregated functions and processes of publication, distribution and retailing. While publishers have been working very closely with bookstores in the promotion and sale of their books, bookstores like Oxford and Crossword have ventured into publishing in recent times. Oxford Bookstore has been organizing the “e-Author” creative writing contest for four years now. This much-publicized competition is touted as India's largest online contest. This competition recognizes the new genre called e-writing in English. It locates itself within the larger cultural process of the emergence of Indian Writing in English as an innately 'Indian' literary tradition. The panel of judges includes high-profile authors like: Amitav Ghosh, Samik Bandopadhyay, Shobha De; and initially, the competition invited the 'first chapters of novels by unpublished, budding writers'. The selected three winners' first chapters would be published online on the bookstore's website. In its fourth year, the requirement was changed to the submission of two short stories with the selected writers sending in three more stories in the second round of the competition. The total cash prize for the competition has gone up from Rs. 35,000 in 2002 to Rs. 1,00,000 in 2006. The backgrounds of the prize-winning writers provided on the website reveal most of them to be young, urban Indian, foreign-educated professionals or hitherto unpublished creative-writers.

Instituted in 1998, the Hutch-Crossword Award proclaims itself to be the Indian equivalent of the Pulitzer, the Booker and the Commonwealth Prize; and it rewards the best of Indian writing in a year. It has now expanded to include the following categories: best work in English fiction, best work in Indian Language Fiction Translation and best work in English Non-fiction. However, these awards have gone to already-established and acclaimed writers like Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Suketu Mehta and 'Indian language writers' like Krishna Sobti. Both the above mentioned awards: e-Author and Hutch-Crossword show the cultural and commercial dominance of English language and literary production within both the Indian trade book industry and within the economically dominant, urban Indian sensibility at large. Publicity and recognition of this scale can be accessed by a work only when made available in the English language. Garnering a great deal of media attention, these awards typically draw upon the acknowledged/established literary and commercial standing of the author-judges and in turn they become a means by which the bookstore ascribes to itself the power to calibrate the merit of creative-writers and to confer recognition upon them.

Oxford Bookstore now also gives away the “Indian Young Publisher of the Year Award” to young entrepreneurs with 'a smart, fresh, innovative business plan'. The panel of judges consisted of – the Director of Literature, British Council; a resident editor of The Times of India, a professor of English literature from Jadavpur University among others. This year the award went to S. Anand, the founder of Navayana Publications, an independent specializing on Dalit (lower caste) literature. This becomes an innovative mechanism for bringing alternative kinds of publishing into focus and within the gamut of popular Indian writing that a store such as Oxford retails. It can also be seen as the popular book-selling apparatus granting visibility to other more specialized but marginal ventures. As the winner of this award, Anand is given the opportunity to participate in a ten-day tour of the UK publishing industry, competes for the International Young Publisher of the Year Award 2007, the winner of which gets a cash prize and a stall at the London Book Fair 2008. Thus, the reward is the opportunity to imbibe and import the methods and principles of publishing in the West and also being able to exhibit one's wares at the global arena and trying to secure a market for them there. Thus there is a constant awareness of possibilities in markets abroad as well as an effort to replicate within the Indian market, the means of publicity successfully deployed there- such as high-profile literary awards.

Eureka not only promotes and sells children's writing but also publishes a children's magazine called Heek. While the magazine contains fun and informative activities for children like quizzes, it also publishes short stories by children on themes such as travel or even violence in the Kashmir valley. Thus the bookshop has also tried to develop itself as a source of the alternate kind of children's writing it itself upholds in its selection of books.

The major chain bookstores have also come to develop direct ties with major publishers such as Penguin, Harper Collins and Random House which are now tending to eliminate the distributors from the equation. Other bookstores like Om Books Limited after having been a major retailer and distributor has also started publishing. Prakash Book Depot which is one of the largest book distributors in the country and which has been publishing coffee table books till now has also decided to venture into high-end books for children before becoming a full-fledged publisher. Both Om Books Limited and Prakash Book Depot are investing more and more heavily in developing high quality, interactive websites which carry a lot of information on their books (including reviews) and encourage customers to purchase books online by offering heavy discounts. These large discounts become possible when the function of book-selling is taken on by the distributor himself. Therefore, it appears that an integration of the earlier specialized functions of publishing, distribution and retail. These transformations are of relevance to our project since the greatest degree of emphasis is laid upon the attractive marketing of CIWE books. At all these websites as well as bookstores the eye is greeted first by the Top Ten fiction and non-fiction lists. For instance, while Crossword has a general “Crossword Recommends” list which includes both international as well Indian Fiction, it also has an exclusive “Indian Fiction” list at its stores as well as on its website. Oxford Bookstore's “Best of 2006” list for instance, places Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone next to The Alchemist and The Da Vinci Code.

What remains a conspicuous absence at all these spaces is Indian literature in the so-called 'vernaculars'. Oxford had apparently introduced shelves for Hindi and Gujarati literature but these were jettisoned as the books did not move. The pavement bookseller I spoke with explained to me that there were no Hindi novels in his stock because those who can afford to buy books wanted to read only English stuff while those who read Hindi couldn't afford any books at all. On being asked about discounts on his English books, he said that he gave a 10-15% discount on original publications while the pirate editions were sold at their original lower prices without any additional discounts. When I tried to negotiate with him on Anita Nair's Ladies Coupe, he said he'd only offer “pyar and mohabbat” with the book, nothing else. He told me that the biggest movers over the years have been R. K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond. In recent times Chetan Bhagat, Jhumpa Lahiri and Robin Sharma have been the bestsellers. However, what also needs to be acknowledged here is the lack of any distinctions between diasporic Indian Writing in English and IWE for the Indian market in both the promotion and sale of books as well as in the consciousness and choices of the buyers and readers, particularly when our project pivots upon this very delimitation.

Conclusion

To conclude, this paper has tried to underscore the commercial dimension to the success of CIWE within the Indian book trade. It has tried to show how its growth as an indispensable presence within any bookstore in urban India today is inextricably linked with its amenability to current modes of book promotion and retailing.

References

(1) Shopper's Stop, which started in 1991, is today the largest chain of Department Stores in India and provides the leading national and international brands in clothing, footwear, home furnishing and other luxury products. ICICI Ventures , a Private Equity firm, bought a share in Crossword through their Emerging Sectors Fund. The firm is one of India's premier venture capital firms with over $1.4 billion in investments.

(2) The conglomerate Apeejay Surrendra Group, started as one of the pioneering ventures in steel imports in India in the 1950s. Since then it has ventured successfully in tea, hospitality, shipping, real estate and retail and financial services.