Book distributors are crucial in the supply chain of books from publishers to readers. Gaurav Sabharwal steers Prakash Books, one of India’s leading distributors of trade fiction and non-fiction. With offices in Daryaganj, the heart of the books’ business in northern India, he has witnessed a sea of changes in the business over the past few years: the growth in Indian writing in English, the closure of bookshops, the arrival and dominance of e-commerce, the merger of Penguin and Random House, the need for good warehousing…
Shreya Punj, assistant editor at HarperCollins India caught up with him to learn more about his business and his views on contemporary publishing in India. Excerpts from the conversation:
Prakash Books has been in India for over 65 years now. What was business like back then – what kind of books were in demand in India and what role did Prakash Books play?
My grandfather started the business in 1948, my father joined it in the 1960s and I came onboard in the year 2000 after I finished my higher studies in the US. Book-selling in those days was very different – television was still primitive, so the hunger to read was a lot more and book sales were quite robust. Our distribution centre that time was in Connaught Place [now we are based in Daryaganj], and there used be a huge line of booksellers who’d wait for stocks to arrive; the demand was huge. The quantities they would order were very high and the price points were very low.
What transitions have you seen since you joined in the year 2000?
You see, in that era, the movies India produced were bad, and if you see now, the quality has improved. The same happened with books. In publishing, there was a phase during the nineties and in early 2000 where the quality of books being published in India was actually quite mediocre. Book sales were largely driven by imported editions. I think it was in 2005 or 2007 onwards that local publishing from India really started developing. And today we are at a stage where nearly 30-35 per cent of the titles in Nielsen Bookscan’s top 500 list are by Indian authors. I think that’s been the major change – from not even 3-5 per cent, we have jumped to almost 35 per cent, and this is primarily trade [fiction and non-fiction] I’m talking about.
Sure, but in children and young adult (YA) categories, the charts are still ruled by international authors.
Yes, except maybe for your ABC or Panchatantra or Amar Chitra Katha. You still have that segment but if you want to establish an Indian author in fiction this genre, you won’t find anyone beyond Ruskin Bond. We don’t have an Indian Enid Blyton or Jeff Kinney.
So, is this because the content isn’t there or is it a question of branding?
It is a bit of both. Publishers have not yet found the right content … [it] needs to be really good. Also, there is that aspiration aspect, especially for children. As parents, you may have the mindset to expose them to the same authors you read you read when you were young.
What do you think is the proverbial sweet spot keeping in mind the quality, content of a well-produced Indian book in this segment?
Price is very elastic. Having said that, you can still sell a Harry Potter for Rs 899 and some of the other international books are even more exorbitant and still sell over one lakh copies. With Indian authors, I think the challenge is that because we are trying to establish them and so that elasticity is there but if you raise the price too much, people wouldn’t want to experiment. Here it is about getting people to pick up stuff they haven’t before and for that reason alone, the MRP matters. A sweet spot, I think, would be below Rs 200.
Did you always want to be in the books’ business? At what stage did you decide to come onboard and what role did you play in expanding the business?
So when I joined Prakash Books, my father was already doing electronic distribution. Prakash Books was run by twenty-thirty people. Today, we have over 300 people, across the country. So we’ve grown quite a bit and I’m glad I joined and actually helped expand the business.
The transformation happened when we started thinking like a distributor rather than just a seller of books. We started thinking about how do we serve our publishers better, putting best practices in place and also became ready for e-commerce, a contemporary publishing ecosystem vis-à-vis other distributors in the country.
So if you look at 2007, there were about fifteen-twenty large distributors. There was Westland (as a distributor), Media Star, India Book House (IBH), Dolphin…and many other names. Most of these don’t exist anymore. Ten to fifteen of them have collapsed and now there are only two major distributors left—India Book Distributors (IBD) and Prakash Books. So we adapted in time. When the e-commerce boom began, we were ready with the technology and warehousing and all these advances helped us grow our business.
How did you have the foresight to see this online explosion in the market place?
There were a few things we did well and on some we missed the boat. Amazon launched in the US in 1994, so we always knew it would eventually come to India as well, it was just a matter of time and scale. In the year 2000, when I came to India [after completing my studies in the US], we launched a website called PrakashBooks something dot com … I don’t even remember the exact domain. The website got no traction because back then, no one was buying anything online. Then in 2006-07, Sachin and Binny Bansal launched Flipkart and I came onboard as their first supplier. What Sachin and Binny did really well, was the technology aspect of online retail. So we started working with together and learning together. This gave us a lot of experience.
You have a huge warehouse in Noida and we hear it’s very hi-tech. Tell us about it, its total area, what happens there?
It’s not hi-tech, it’s just well organized with good systems in place. Nobody in India has a warehouse like Amazon or even for that matter like HarperCollins or Penguin Random House in the US. But purely by Indian standards, we have a slick operation in terms of scale and technology.
Our Noida isn’t very different from, say, the HarperCollins warehouse [in Faridabad]. What we do additionally though, is consolidation on behalf of offline and online retail. We deal with 200-odd suppliers or publishers locally and about thirty-forty publishers globally, and we consolidate their inventory. Our warehouses contain books for about 150,000-200,000 ISBNs.
We don’t necessarily stock a large number of copies, but we have tremendous range. We represent the top thirty per cent of almost every small publisher as well. Today, if Amazon has an order coming in from a customer, as an Amazon seller the staff at our warehouse can quickly requisition those stocks and despatch immediately.
Let’s say I place an order on a website like Flipkart or Amazon through your store, what happens then?
There are multiple things that happen at the same time. We stock about 20,000 ISBNs in the Amazon warehouses as well. These are the real bestselling titles. And for the rest, the Amazon orders come to our warehouse and we just ship it from there. This is just the online part. Seventy per cent of our business still serves offline retail.
We know Indian bookstores are finding it hard to keep up with the discounts and deals offered by websites. Meanwhile, small and indie bookstores abroad are witnessing a spurt in sales due to curated lists and a more personalized experience. Should Indian booksellers do the same?
The booksellers which were meant to close down have already done so. The ones that remain, did see a growth last year, e.g. Bahri Sons, Full Circle, Om Bookshop and Sapna Book House. Independent bookstores or smaller chains will always survive. The organized chains will struggle, unless they reinvent themselves on the lines of Waterstones in the UK. Also, I don’t know why brick-and-mortar stores are competing with online retail for the same products by offering discounts. They should focus more on the experience and on expanding their product portfolio.
Do Indian publishers bring out too many books? Are we saturating the market with too many frontlist titles every month, leaving trade with little time to sell through?
Yes, I would say that. If you want to be profitable, sure; you choose your battles and that’s your strategy. But if you’re looking at it from an intellectual standpoint, we can never handle too many books. Everyone is writing a book these days; they should first get the exposure they deserve and then over a period of time we can look back and evaluate what has worked. But from a commercial aspect, bringing out too many books is like a venture capitalist (VC) investing money in today’s start-ups. If you expand your portfolio too much, you will never have economies of scale.
What about book discoverability? What can the Indian publishing system do to make new authors and good authors be discovered by newer readers? The closure of physical bookshops is not helping.
There are two-three things that publishers can do. One, organize themselves better as a body and encourage the culture of reading more. We need to expand readership. Until we do that, we won’t have money for marketing. For example, Jeffery Archer sells millions of copies but we don’t have an author like that in India. So first, we need a base. Now, whose responsibility it is to create that? Well, we need to figure it out. Our [publishing] federation hasn’t done a very good job in this aspect and someone needs to it, either by working with the government or with another industry body.
Do literature festivals help?
Yes! They have done more to encourage reading than any other initiative.
And the second thing publishers need to do?
They need to do more marketing. With the amount of books being published, if you think your book will be discovered in a bookshop—sorry, that isn’t going to happen. The physical availability of a book in shop does not make a difference. If someone wants to read it, they will buy it online. The objective is to generate sales, it will happen only when it’s been marketed well. The desire to read needs to be created.
What books have surprised you by their success in the past two-three years?
There are so many, far too many! I have a long list.
Maybe titles or authors you were wrong about, based on early impressions?
Well, we were wrong about Ravinder Singh, and also Amish Tripathi.
You’re also a major distributor for HarperCollins. We celebrate 25 years in India this year. How has the experience been working with us?
Our experience has been great. HarperCollins has grown in the last ten years and we have grown with it. Of late, the growth has been faster. I think this year has seen a lot more aggression on all fronts. Khullam Khulla has done really well and so has Adiyogi – both have been huge. The brand is becoming bigger and Ananth [Padmanabhan] has a lot of spot-on thoughts on making it even bigger.