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Covid-19: How India’s book trade is hit by the pandemic

Physical retail and indie bookstores are the worst sufferers

Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

The Covid-19 outbreak is playing havoc across a spectrum of businesses all over the world. But one of the worst affected segments is the book trade. Since the e-commerce boom, the number of physical book shops around the globe is dwindling. And now the few that remain are being forced to close to minimize the risk of contagion through contact.

In India, the struggle is all too real, especially for chain bookstores that are typically located in airports and shopping malls. While the former is seeing significantly less passengers due to travel restrictions, many of the latter are closed until 31 March by orders from different state governments, based on an advisory from the Centre.

“The market is grappling to take stock of the current situation, which has been very fluid," says Nandan Jha, SVP-Sales, Penguin Random House (PRH) India, the top trade publisher in the country. Apart from big chain stores in the metros and airports, booksellers in non-metro cities are also reporting a drop of more than 25% in sales, he adds.

While work from home is being encouraged for their editorial staff by the publishers, for booksellers and distributors, the realities of their profession don’t allow for such strategies to be implemented seamlessly.

“The books have to reach bookshops from our warehouse and we have lower manpower across the spectrum right now," a spokesperson at HarperCollins India (HCI), the number two presence in the Indian trade market, told Lounge. In light of this situation, HCI, as also PRH India, are considering postponing the releases of some of their titles.

Expectedly, sales of e-books have started recording an upward movement as more people are keeping to their homes. Publishers are offering discounts on digital formats to leverage interest. If you are housebound with time on your hand, now is the time to browse online retail channels closely.

In general there may be a spike in buying books related to health and well-being in the next few weeks, HCI predicts. Jha adds that genres such as spirituality, fiction and children’s books are selling more than others. “This could simply be because these genres provide a certain reading experience suitable and preferred right now," he says. “Some bookstores reported spike in sales of children’s books, which could be attributed to parents ensuring more recreational choices for their homebound children other than video and TV content."

The challenges faced by independent bookstores are even grimmer. Bahrisons, the iconic book store in Delhi’s Khan Market, reported a slump in business. “At this juncture there are no customers, the market is mostly empty," says Anuj Bahri, the proprietor. “We have sent an advisory on our social media platform to encourage our customers to use their delivery services." Bahrisons delivers books for no extra cost within Delhi and for a charge across India.

Champaca Bookstore, Library and Café in Bengaluru have closed temporarily till 23 March, postponing their upcoming events. Champaca is urging customers to buy gift vouchers from their website (selling at a 10% discount), which can be redeemed within one year at the store. Bengaluru’s other iconic indie bookstores—Blossom, Bookworm, and Gangaram’s Book Bureau on Church Street—are open but bear a deserted look.

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