In 2017, when venture capitalist Suresh Narasimha founded his company Cocreate Ventures, he wanted to fund entrepreneurial ideas that were worth keeping alive. And one of the first businesses he acquired was JustBooks, a chain of lending libraries founded in Bengaluru in 2008 by an IT professional called Sundar Rajan. “I was aware of the effort that had gone into building the company,” says Narasimha. “And, personally, I believe that people will go back to physical books, in spite of all the innovations in digital reading.”
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His hunch isn’t misplaced. According to the data analysis firm Statista, global e-book sales trailed far behind printed book sales in 2020, more so in countries like India, where only 5.6% of the population bought an e-book as opposed to 24.5% who invested in physical books.
Over 10 years ago, when Rajan started JustBooks by a happy accident, e-readers were nowhere on the horizon. The Bengaluru-based software engineer didn’t like travelling miles to a library, so his wife and he opened one in his neighbourhood. Within six months, it had 2,000 members, much to the couple’s surprise. Over the next three years, what had started as a humble local enterprise would turn into a multi-branch network of libraries, spread over several cities across India (Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad, Gurugram, among others), yielding an annual revenue of roughly ₹4 crore (according to a Forbes report from 2011). The libraries offer tiered subscriptions.
A decade later, times have changed—and how. Before covid-19 played havoc with the fate of “non-essential businesses”, JustBooks was buying books worth ₹4 crore each year, Narasimha says—the sum that was its annual revenue a decade ago. “We are probably one of the biggest buyers of books in the country,” he adds with a touch of pride. Demand went up manifold as the pandemic pushed people indoors. “Ironically, it also created problems on the supply side,” he says.
JustBooks operates through omnichannel inventories. If a book you want to read isn’t available in your local branch, the company will source it from elsewhere—be it from another branch in the same city, its central warehouse, or even from a branch in another city. “We have long invested in free home delivery of books to customers, moving away from a store-centric to an online model to keep up with the times and growing preference for home-delivered services,” Narasimha says. “With the substantial reverse logistics involved in such processes, we had to build up our own infrastructure to run the business smoothly.” And it worked smoothly for years—until the lockdowns imposed restrictions on the delivery of non-essential items in 2020 (sadly, books are considered as such by the government).
Radha Sampath, a 58-year-old freelance editor living in Bengaluru’s Yelahanka area, hardly ever needed to visit her local branch. “I ordered three books twice a month and they were delivered to my home,” says the avid reader of P.G. Wodehouse and Maeve Binchy. After the lockdown and restrictions last year, delivery mechanisms were just easing up when the second wave struck, leaving the business reeling again.
It was time to think out of the box. “We decided to look at books as part of a knowledge-sharing economy,” Narasimha says, “so we launched two new experiments.”
The first of these was the creation of an online segment called “Culture Place” on the JustBooks site, to teach educational modules, mostly to youngsters. In the pre-pandemic days, children tended to be “seasonal readers”, as Narasimha puts it, with an uptick in their reading time during vacations. With covid-19 forcing them indoors, reading behaviour is not as predictive. Parents have their hands full, too, as they juggle life, work and home-schooling. Culture Place has proved to be a welcome addition in these circumstances. From learning to play the tabla or keyboards to training in mathematics and science, to storytelling sessions, a range of programmes are curated by experienced teachers and trainers, customised for children across a range of age groups.
“Young parents are my biggest customer base, making up 75-80% of the business,” Narasimha says. “The remaining 20-25% are mostly senior citizens.” Culture Place has modules for the latter too. “Reading, especially small prints or for long periods, can be difficult for the elderly,” he adds. “So we have a weekly session for 55+ year olds, who can have a book of their choice read to them for an hour against a fee.” It’s like having an audiobook read out live in real time.
The need to pivot to new strategies during the pandemic has thrown up other innovative ideas too, such as a new app to facilitate person-to-person book sharing. Here’s how Narasimha explains the model. Suppose you have 1,000-odd books at home, many of them gathering dust, but you are wary of lending out any to friends and strangers alike. JustBooks proposes that you put up part of your personal library on its platform—you can keep the books in its warehouse if you don’t have space at home. JustBooks customers searching the site can then borrow your copies against a fee.
“Basically, you make money by renting out your books and we will facilitate the exchange,” Narasimha says. “It’s zero revenue share for us—except for the yearly subscription fee you will be paying us for hosting your books.” The proposal is yet to be finalised but if it works out, it would be innovation 2.0—a step beyond audiobooks and e-books.
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