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Dear Booksellers,

We publishers would be an extinct race without you. Without you to display our books, talk about them to your customers, reorder them when they sell, remember them when they are out of stock and celebrate them when something good happens, we publishers might as well give up the whole enterprise.
We love the fact that you also give place of pride to Indian authors, that Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghvi and Preeti Shenoy now rub spines and corners with Jeffery Archer, JK Rowling and Sidney Sheldon. You have long acknowledged and honoured the Vikram Seths and Amitabh Ghoshes anyway.
Why then, dear booksellers, this disdainful attitude towards Indian children’s books?
I visited four retail outlets today. Two were chain shops, two were independent bookshops. But in all of them the situation was the same. In one tiny corner, either at the far rear of the shop or somewhere else equally inconspicuous, is a tiny shelf or two, labelled Indian children’s books. Often nearby is a gleaming wall of shiny international children’s books. I found the corners only after specifically asking for them, in two cases I had walked by them searching but failed to locate them.
I have been in the business long enough to know those tiny shelves do not represent the annual output. I have probably personally edited and commissioned more books in two years than those shelves hold.
Please give the books a space in the light, please know the names of some of the authors, please be a little proud of them.
Who knows, they might make you proud too!

Sayoni

PS: There are many stores which are exceptions to this, and we are proud and happy to be working with you.

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14 thoughts on “A Letter to Booksellers

  1. Just when I was about to mail! I was in Chandigarh this week and visited the most prominent book store of the city two days in a row. And everyday I had to ask for Oops which was conveniently stashed behind the cash counter?!? The only book on somewhat prominent display was Deadly Royal Recipe. Pretty sad.

    LAst week on a visit to Saket Mall at one of the bookstores there, I found Moin stacked with books for adults and Oops – ‘yeah it is here somewhere but cant locate it right now…would you like Roald Dahl instead?’ Sigh!

  2. Spot on, Sayoni. We have been crying hoarse about this for a long time now. Not only Indian books, good books are also been given the step-motherly treatment by most sellers. Consumers often know nothing better, and pick up the usual suspects like Geronimo Stilton and pat themselves on the back for encouraging their kids to read.

  3. if it gives you any consolation…walked into one of the chain bookstores in Vashi, Navi Mumbai last weekend and found a dozen books of Mainik Dhar’s ‘Zombistan’ displayed prominently(book’s cover can be seen by the casual browser)in the children’s section. The rest of the Indian children books were stacked one on top of another lost behind shelves dedicated to international children authors.
    Only books which provide high margins to the booksellers seem to be dominating shelf space.
    Its time we create a movement to promote ‘Desi Indian children books’ and endorse bookshops which support and encourage our books.
    Should we wait for a messiah to save the Indian books or unite and do our bit to save the future?

  4. Sayoni, I was abt to mail you last week.
    Went to Higginbothams in Chennai.
    They have Moin and the monster, Monster songster by the truck load.
    Pretty good selection of children’s books, randomly arranged I would say, but it is there :)
    The staff were quite helpful and looked up all the books I asked for and pointed me in the right direction.

    Cheers
    Anitha

    • Thank you all. And I am very happy that you guys are keeping an eye out for our books.
      The problem covers all publishers though: Puffin India, Scholastic India, Karadi, Young Zubaan and everyone else is just crammed into that one small hidden shelf!
      Of course there are wonderful exceptions: HIgginbotham’s, as Anitha mentions; in Delhi Eureka and KoolSkool and some others are wonderfully supportive of Indian children’s books!

  5. Sayoni, I have always assumed that Scholastic and Tulika prefer selling through different channels? Their online selling and selling directly to schools is very very strong right?

  6. So true! Such a vicious cycle. Indian kids titles rarely go beyond one print run because they were never displayed/stocked and hence never sold in the first place! Time to collectively think of a new, inexpensive, labour-light way in which to tackle this problem. Please share solutions or any marketing successes and we will use them too.

    • We wish we knew! We are trying to make as much of a song and dance about all our books as we can–because we really love each of them and think that they deserve to be widely read–but we are not sure how much this is getting across. In bookshops in Delhi, where we are, we go and lobby the bookstores, write to the owners and managers–who are always very nice in response. Maybe we can at least all try this in the cities where we live? It will happen–but I want it to happen while I still can celebrate!

  7. That booksellers, the retailers and average bookshop to be precise, don’t display children’s books prominently and don’t take efforts to promote them is a lament that is as old as children’s publishing in India! But what incentive does a small bookshop, and we know there are several, have to do so? The margins are wafer thin at the retail end and the overall numbers are so low it doesn’t make business sense.

    Let’s take the case of this fictional retailer, a small neighbourhood bookshop, owned by Mrs.ABC, a woman with a deep passion for children’s books. Someday, she hopes, her bookshop will be the go-to place for quality children’s content. She will go out of the way to promote children’s books to see that happen.

    Meanwhile…

    We talk about bestselling children’s books as having sold copies in thousands. Just to put it in perspective, if a book sells 10,000 copies across 1000 retailers across India, that’s 10 books sold per retailer. If Mrs.ABC’s margin is 40% (that’s on the higher side, I shall tell you about that in a bit), and assuming a Rs.100 price per copy, she has made 400 rupees. 400 rupees in how many months for one title? Do a little analysis and average the number of months (or years) it takes for a book to sell 10,000 copies and you have the answer.

    Note, in case we forget: margins do not mean profits. Profits are margins minus Mrs.ABC’s costs, of running the shop, staff, taxes and everything else in between.

    Coming back to the retailer’s margin, you probably know that a small bookshop usually orders in smaller consignments, by virtue of being, well, smaller. Let’s say the retailer invests (or commits) 1000 rupees per consignment, she gets a margin of around 33% and not 40. (A retailer can get 40% when she orders for higher values, say 50,000 rupees per consignment. And remember, a consignment for a small retailer is usually for an assortment of books, not for a single title.). Reworking the sales of our earlier book, 10 copies at 33% is 330 rupees, without giving any discounts to the customer.

    But who buys without discounts right? So Mrs.ABC dishes out 10% off on the price. The margin now is 23% per book. 230 rupees for 10 copies sold.

    Now let’s say Mrs.ABC prints 2 colour A4 posters at the local print shop to advertise the new book and new discounts. It sets her back by 50 rupees minimum. The margin is now 180 rupees.

    But wait, Mrs.ABC is passionate about children’s books and wants to do whatever she can to promote them. She pushes the right buttons and pulls the right strings and manages to gets the author over, has a little reading and do, and spends a total of 360 rupees on the event, for 4 new posters advertising the event, tea and cookies for the guests/audience and other things. The event is a huge success and she sells twice the number of copies, 20 in all.

    Only, this time, she has made no money at all. What went wrong here?

    The publisher, meanwhile, has collected around 50% (correct me if I am wrong) on all copies sold. I’m not saying 50% profit, just 50% on cover price. Behind the scenes, however, the publisher pays/has paid Rs.X out of that 50% towards royalties, to get the book designed, typeset, printed and shipped to the distributors.

    Combine this with the onslaught of online retailers like you-know-who, who are loss-leaders in the game. Backed by dollar millions in venture capital and angel investments, they lose money on every copy of every title sold and it doesn’t matter. How could you possibly pack and ship a 100-rupee book by courier after having sold it at 60 rupees and still make money? The average Indian online buyer may browse at a book shop but will finish the order online, for the amazing discounts and free shipping the online retailers offer.

    You have to think beyond the obvious to really make the trade worthwhile for the average corner bookshop (of a certain standard). They too, are fast becoming a rarity. The future needs a rethink of the fundamentals of the trade, nothing else will work.

    Rethink the rules. Change the way the trade works, make it worthwhile for the average bookshop to sell the books. Empower them to make money off your books. Make the business of selling your books more of a business. After all, “The business of business, is business itself”.

  8. Shyam, many of the problems you have pointed out are very valid, but I think you are missing the main point. Mrs ABC makes exactly the same margins whether she is selling an Indian children’s book or a Mills and Boon.

    • Agreed, Duckbill. But Mills & Boon makes sure (unfortunately it means that they spend huge amounts of money) that people come to Mrs. ABC’s bookshop to buy their books. The average international bestseller has a sufficient marketing budget to make people sit up and take notice and finally to make the numbers work. Mills & Boon practically sends Mrs.ABC her customers and all she has to do is to have them stocked on her shelves. When the customer comes in for the Mills & Boon, she finds the Mills & Boon and buys it. Mrs.ABC has to do very little to make her buy it. She would, I’m sure, gladly sell more children’s book if you could send her the customers.

      If people really want children’s books, they will buy them. Don’t you?

      It is definitely not (just) the publishers who are to blame here… the average Indian buyer is a fickle one. We are all about “value for money”, aren’t we? From my experience with publishing I can say that children’s books don’t fall in that category of the buyer’s perceptual mind. The biggest battle is right there — in the mind of the buyer. To change that mindset is a different ballgame altogether! Aunty M looks good carrying a Mills & Boon, but not a children’s book. How do we change that? Poor Mrs.ABC is stuck in the middle, with no solution.

      We produce children like nobody’s business in India, but we don’t buy enough children’s books. Someone’s looking at it the wrong way for sure!

      While it is a chicken-and-egg situation, unless the numbers are big, the whole equation doesn’t work, it seems. If your print run is in the couple-of-thousands and you have a marketing budget that is say 5% of gross sales, it is a doomed project. How can you then have posters of your books sent out to Mrs.ABC, be on TV, have ads running on TV, in newspapers and magazines, have glitzy dos and still make money? How will Aunty M be pushed to want your book?

      My 2 paise :-)

  9. Pingback: India: Profiting by managing a propensity for chaos | The Frankfurt Book Fair Blog

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