By Madhusree Chatterjee
The ongoing Delhi Book Fair 2013, hosting nearly 200 publishers based out of the national capital, is resonating with two ominous pointers of the reality confronting the Indian market — the gradual weakening of the rupee against the dollar in the international money market and its spiraling northward journey of prices across consumption segments triggering rethink on existing book business models.
Books have not been spared of the slide in the value of rupee as well. On August 27 (2013), when the Indian rupee hit a record of Rs 63 against the US dollar , the book fair at the Pragati Maidan in New Delhi went on a frenetic overdrive announcing unheard of bargain deals to push the printed piles out. In the last two months, the prices of books – across categories – have battled a sudden and sharp 20 per cent price hike to tide over the rupee turbulence. Cost of importing papers and printing have gone up as well as the human overheads, publishers, wholesalers and distributors at the fair complained.
Bargain is the buzzword at the weeklong book bazaar that opened Aug 23. The deals are throwaway, verging almost on the ludicrous. Big Indian publishers like Om Books International are offering direct bargains of as high as 90 per cent discounts while smaller ones have sought recourse to ingenuous marketing with deals like “3 books for Rs 100” and “20 books for Rs 600”. The highest selling books with the maximum discounts are children, entertainment and lifestyle titles with some priced at Rs 20.
For a mega capital city like Delhi that is home to the oldest second hand market at Daryaganj, the bargains surprised the odd visitor. “It is such a relief to be able to buy books for Rs 50 and Rs 100,” said Mehak, a class VII student of a public school in Gurgaon in National Capital Region. `
It is a reflection of a larger trend countrywide in the publishing sector. The steady slump of the rupee against the dollar has forced publishers to push up prices of books by at least Rs 100 in the last two months. Medium and small scale distributors and wholesalers – who throng the Delhi Book Fair every year— have been bearing the onslaught with an array of enticing buyers’ packages.
Pratap Publishing and Distributors’, a medium local distributor and publisher of education and general books , is selling fiction and children’s books at nearly 80 per cent less than the original MRP. “People have to read books and buy them. The discounts will lure them to check out the titles. The steep increase in prices of books have forced the younger generations of readers to move to the Internet,” Praveen, the proprietor of Pratap Publishing said.
The dollar is steeper and importing books have become expensive, he explained. “Multinational publishers have increased prices of their titles. A book that cost Rs 199 even a month ago has been revised at Rs 299. Large publishers are scrambling to stay afloat in this season of crunch. But how do we justify the price hike to buyers,” he said.
Publishers said despite the hike in import price and cost of book production in the country, importing books was cheaper. Indian publishers often have to import paper to publish quality because the ban on felling in forests have shrunk raw material supply for paper in the manufacturing industry. a bulk of publishers of children’s books and pictorial texts offshored to China for publishing where the costs make business sense.
At the overcrowded counters of Om Books International, which imports foreign bestselling titles and publishes its own books as well, the clearance bargain prices were almost “alarming” to believe. “62 per cent discount”, screamed small flaps on two illustrated collectors’ encyclopedias of Rock and Jazz music. The hefty volumes with pictures, histories and lyrics were priced at Rs 995, down from its original price of Rs 2,610. A coffee table volume of the complete works of William Shakespeare was up for sale at Rs 795, nearly 70 per cent less than its original price of Rs 2,610.
“It is unbelievable,” exclaimed a book buff from Delhi University rummaging through piles of compendiums. However, local publishers articulated an unaccounted for fear.
The off-shoring of imported titles— out of fashion on bookshelves in the west — is eating into the local print market. “It makes more business sense to import cheap foreign titles in bulk now that prices of books printed in India are rising,” said a leading Delhi based wholesaler of books, refusing to be named. The random import of affordable books by Indian stakeholders to keep their distribution and wholesale business afloat have made the country a virtual dumping ground for “discarded” titles from the west- and now even from China and Japan. Wholesalers and distributors channel these books at fairs for a pittance – lending the excitement of bargaining to the instant market – for quick gains.
“The fact that Indians love to bargain for consumer goods makes the job easy,” a leading Delhi-based publisher at the fair said. “In the long term, the bargains don’t pay. People – mature readers – are still willing to pay for good books,” he said.
As a result, the Delhi Book Fair is wearing a festive look- festoons, banners, flaps and posters are screaming discounts of every kind.
At the kiosk of Diamond Books, a red and yellow poster screamed, “Buy three books, and get one free” while Har Anand Publishing offered “10 books for Rs 350” and “20 books for Rs 600”. The publishers are cashing in on children’s books that are more flexi-priced and have a ready market. Children’s books, along with education books, have been sustaining the publishing industry since 2008. Publishers are turning their spotlights to mass fictions to offset losses. While children’s books survive on exports and institutional sales, education books sustain with the help of government support, tie-ups, mergers, digital printing and the new media. The growing e-book market is slowly making inroads into the shrinking physical print pie with easy access of readers to electronic readers and computers.
In India, most books printed indigenously work up maximum print runs of 5,000, which by conservative estimates is “big”. Self-publishing has not really taken off in the country where writers still depend on the nearly 19,000 small or big registered publishers publishing nearly 100,000 titles every year. Unofficial estimates put it at 60,000. Estimates by the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) say the annual turnover of the Indian publishing industry Rs 10,000 crore.
At the Delhi Book Fair, Evergreen Publishers, a publisher and distributor of educational books, was selling World Atlases Rs 20 and baby books for Rs 50. “In the education, discounts work in two ways. We have to promote our books at cheap prices and our books must reach children across every segment of buyers. Discounts on affordable books generate demand and evinces interest in expensive books … We cut costs in house,” B.B. Saxena of Evergreen Publishers explained.
A buyer, who purchases an expensive book, usually picks up a cheaper one, he said.
Pointing to a general knowledge book for children modeled on “Kaun Banega Crorepati” published by Evergreen, Saxena said, “the book was being sold at Rs 20 at the fair”. The price (MRP) of the book last year was Rs 185. The publisher said “Bollywood and television reality shows was a big draw for children”. Any publication that uses Bollywood or television shows as imagery to connect to mass readers “finds a little more market “.
Prince Kohli, the owner of Kohli Book Distributors in the national capital, confessed to being “hit by the rupee slide”. “It has an effect on imported titles and expensive Indian publications. Good books are going out of the reach of common man,” he said.
In the last decade, the mercurial changes in the money markets have been manifest in strange ways in the Indian publishing industry. A sharp polarization between multinational publishing houses and local publishers has fuelled new debates about pricing and changed the nature of the industry.
While local publishers accuse foreign publishers with India operations “of subverting the publishing market with their deep pockets, multiple imprints, competitive pricing, international support and gobbling up smaller entities with acquisitions and merger deals”, the foreign publishing houses hint at “declining quality brought about by cheap local publications aimed at the mass market”.
Last year, the local publishing fraternity was alarmed when “Penguin Books and Random House announced a merger” for cross-over books. “The financial vagaries are effecting changes in the industry,” a publisher said.
The spiraling book prices have prompted a quaint trend on Ground Zero. The trade in used books has become brisk, Ravi Nagpal of General Book Store, one of the largest trader of used imported books in the capital.
At the book fair, he made killing selling imported used “titles” like Ladybird books, some out of print in the market, Enid Blyton as old as 1950, original editions of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, Penguin classics, lifestyle books and popular best-sellers for prices between Rs 30 and Rs 150.
“For the last five years, I have importing used books in bulk and sending them to markets in Calcutta (Kolkata), Chennai and Patna that have large markets for cheap books,” he said. In Delhi, the business in used books has grown in the last three years at the second hand book shops all over the city. “It counters piracy of books . Sale of used books is authentic,” Nagpal said.
Agreed Shreya, a class VIII student from Shalom Hills School in Gurgaon; and her parents, “Every year, we buy loads of used books from the Delhi Book Fair for the family. After reading the books, we donate them. It does not pinch”.
Prices and intelligent marketing are the bottomlines of any business in developing India. And they are certainly changing the way we look at and read our books.
PS: The Delhi Book Fair is organised by the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation and The Federation of Indian Publishers