I woke up to some bad news yesterday. The Strand Book Stall in Mumbai is closing down. Last week, social media let out a silent sigh when Barnes and Noble, one of the worlds biggest and oldest bookstore chains, laid off 1800 workers overnight. CEO Demos Parneros, who Glassdoor ratings crashed with his decision, stated that he had a plan – to focus on efficiency with ‘smaller stores, fewer products, and profitability.’ My friend asked why I am mourning stores I didn’t have access to anyhow. No, I am not mourning Strand or Barnes and Noble in particular. I am mourning the death of the bookstore. I worry that one of these days, I will wake up to the news of the shutdown of the Blossom Book House, Bangalore. That feels like a stab in the chest with an ice pick. So, are books and bookstores dead? Have people stopped reading? Or is Amazon’s world domination complete? Let’s have a look.
Is reading obsolete?
Not really. The rate at which people are reading, at least in the USA, remains almost static over the last decade or two, according to a National Endowment for Art report. What is falling sharply, though, is the percentage of Americans who read literature. Percentage of literature readers in the States has fallen from 56.9% in 1982 to 43.1% in 2015.
One would imagine that with the low literacy rate in India, the country would be among the bottom-feeders in reading habits. Not true, according to the World Culture Index mapping of reading habits around the globe. India has maintained that top position since I first saw that map back in 2011. In the sample population (of literate adults) in India, the rate of reading is close to 10 hours a week. That’s a whopping margin over say the USA where it’s about 5 hours a week.
The reading habits of the Millennials in India are shifting. They are moving from classical literature to more contemporary writing. Non-fiction also features among most-preferred Indian reads. But, the love for reading is alive and well in the country.
What we learned about Kindles and Digital Books from the UK
There is an increase in Kindle Sales and Digital downloads in India over the last five years. However, let’s look at the West, where the tech change played out a few years ahead of us.
In 2011, Kindle downloads superseded paperback sales in the UK. Hardly surprising, since that was the goal of Mr. Bezos all along. What was surprising was the fight that paperback came up with. It is a myth that digital book publishing has a lower cost than the physical process. The costs are redistributed in the new format, but they average about the same. So, once the initial turmoil of the change settled, and traditional publishers took over the digital space, the ebook prices went up. For example, the average price paid for an ebook in the UK increased 7% to £4.15 in 2016, while the price of a hard copy increased 3% to £7.42. Naturally, sales of physical paperbacks went up by 4% last year.
India is running half a decade behind on this story. We are at the stage where Kindle is still (kind of) new technology, and people are amazed by the convenience of carrying multiple books in your pocket. But, soon, the readers of graphic fiction and non-fiction would realize the limitation of the clunky presentation and move on to tablets, or back to books. There is hope!
What we learned from Indie stores from the States
In the first decade of the millennium, the Indie bookstores started falling to the pressures of the bookstore giants in the States. Indie bookstores fell faster than Usain Bolt could finish a lap at the time. The legendary ones, the Madison Avenue Bookshop in Manhattan (2002), The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village (2003), Wordsworth’s in Cambridge, Mass. (2004), Cody’s Books, Berkeley, Calif. (2006), confirmed the prognosis. Indie bookstores had fallen prey to the chains and the looming pressure of Amazon.
But something weird happened. Instead of slowly petering down to extinction, the indie stores slowed down and then started to reopen at different places. By 2013, USA had more indie bookstores than it had in 2000. Analysts believe that the resurrection of the indie bookstores is really the readers’ vote for the small, friendly, neighborhood book joint, instead of the Book giants (like Borders, that died painfully in 2011). B&N staggered on for a bit and now seems to be struggling to stay above water.
I know it seems like a lost cause in India today, with Strand closing down, and most other Indie Bookstores looking forlorn and decrepit. They are being replaced furiously by Amazon, and even the Cross-word ilk is struggling to keep up. In fact, my local version has only about 20% floor space dedicated to books – the rest is junk of the world. So, in effect, we are walking the same story that the West did, a few years behind.
The Future, then?
Indie bookstores and paperbacks have a chance. True readers love to hold books, possess them. They are mesmerized by the overwhelming feeling of walking down the (book) aisle. It’s a marriage made in heaven, and that love story is not going away anywhere soon. However, it is possible that indie stores need to reinvent themselves. They need to have a brand and spearhead cultural shifts in the community. They have the chance to become the center of a reading revolution again.
I would take the example of a newish bookstore in Bangalore – Boithek, Koramangala. It is a Bengali reader’s paradise, and I would like to believe they are doing it right. They are not just sellers of the book, but guardians of a culture. They host events and herd together the reader community. The Indies of the future would probably follow that model closely, exactly like they did a hundred years back. The tired, bored bookseller must be replaced with a relatable influencer. And magic can happen!
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