Indian authors commanding more shelf space: Crossword chief

Kinjal Shah, CEO of Indian lifestyle bookstores chain Crossword Bookstores, talks to Swetha Amit about the changing reader preferences in India over the years, the success of Indian authors and the factors that have helped Crossword thrive in the backdrop of the threat to booksellers by ecommerce in recent yrears

Kinjal Shah, CEO of Crossword Bookstores  
Photo credit: Crossword Bookstore  

You have completed two decades of promoting books and serving customers in India. What changes do you see in the tastes and preferences of readers over the years?
There has been a huge change over the years with regards to readership. For one, we see Indian authors getting a lot more importance than they ever did earlier. In fact, we had started the concept of the Crossword Book Award back in 1998 primarily to promote Indian authors. At that point in time, one out of 100 books was from an Indian author. However, today among the top 10 books, you find at least 60 per cent being authored by Indian writers. This clearly indicates that there has been a shift in the consumer preference in favour of Indian authors over international authors. Even the Indian consumer segment in terms of readership is growing.

When you had started the concept of the Crossword Book Awards back in 1998, did you ever anticipate the rise in popularity of Indian authors to an extent as it is today?
This was exactly what our vision was when we started the Crossword Book Award. We were confident that Indian authors would make their mark. Today we are proud that Indian authors are getting more accolades not just in the country but internationally as well. However, the vision that we started in 1998 is just half done and we need to take it to a larger scale as we see a huge opportunity.

Crossword book award is in its 13th year and we are planning to make this year's awards the biggest till date. It's scheduled sometime around April-May. We have our biggest sponsor in Raymond and it will be called the Raymond's Crossword Book Award. We also have immense support from Kotak Bank and Club Mahindra.

Our objective is to promote the books that win an award in our stores and within the country. We also want to ensure that good writing gets a lot of coverage.

What changes do you see in today's authors as compared to the previous generation?
Authors like Chetan Bhagat initially showed the way how to reach the mass audience and how to generate numbers. After that we had a lot of authors including Ravi Subramanian, Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi and Devdutt Pattanaik.

Indian authors have a mass appeal and are able to reach out to a larger audience because of their active participation in marketing and promotional activities. These rung of Indian authors not only come up with great products but also engage in a number of activities to reach out to consumers.  They participte in activities like book launches and interactive sessions with the audience. They are also active on social media and connect with the customers through blogging and Twitter. So this 360 degree approach is what sets them apart. While the previous generation of authors had great products, they were not able to connect to the audience and consumers like the way today's authors can.

Initially it was the linguistic style of British authors and classics that made a mark. However recent trends seem to indicate the preference for a simple style of writing. What do you think has brought about this change?
Literary fiction is still a big category. In fact authors like Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth do exceptionally well when they come out with their books. I would not say that the tastes have changed drastically. However, Indian authors as a customer has a much more mass audience as compared to a literary audience. For instance if I bring out a Jeffrey Archer, I will probably sell 5,000 copies in a month whereas a book by Amitav Ghosh will sell, say 2,500 copies a month. So I think the numbers are there and there are customers belonging to both segments but they are very different from one another.

The literary audience is more discreet and niche. This segment consists of voracious readers who end up reading five books a month. Whereas the mass audience will probably read only two books in a month. The latter prefer easy reads and are not so particular about the language or vocabulary. The customers in both these segments are very different from one another.  However, both show a high growth rate which is a good thing.

Mythology seems to be a big rage now, considering how books authored by Amish, Ashwin Sanghi and Devdutt Pattanaik are selling like hot cakes. Did you ever think that a long-forgotten subject like this would gain tremendous popularity with today's audience especially the Gen Y?
Well I think a lot of credit goes to the authors because they truly believed in the subject. In fact in Amish's case, he was rejected by every publisher in the country as they did not see scope in mythology.

However, Amish showed great conviction and he was very clear in his vision with regards to his product. So he published it himself and followed it up with great marketing. We ensured that we gave him the right platform like we do for the other authors. With Amish we showed immense support by placing orders and putting it up on our 'recommends' lists. If you look at the initial numbers, 60-65 per cent of the copies were sold in the first three months and the number just increased thereon.

It's difficult to estimate what will work and what will not work with customers. It's all about ensuring that the right product comes out accompanied with some aggressive marketing. I think once both these things are done in tandem, success will become fairly visible. But the product still remains an important factor as one can't afford to market a bad product.

What worked with Amish was the way he had portrayed the character of Shiva in his book. He brought in an emotional connect and a human touch, which became his USP. With regards to mythology, there weren't many books besides Ramyana and Mahabharata, which would cater to the age group of 18-40 for the Indian customers. Amish's trilogy series was able to cater to that segment and hence it became a hit with the masses.

What genre of books is trending these days?
We are seeing the fiction category especially doing well today. This includes a large part of the Indian fiction. Romance seems to have picked up amongst the audience with the likes of authors such as Ravinder Singh and Sudeep Nagarkar.  Crime fiction is also gaining popularity followed by thrillers. The children's section is also gaining momentum for us. Our stores are experiential stores and our objective has always been to inculcate reading habits. We have managed to create that appeal in children by focusing on the availability of a wide range of books.

In the non-fiction category, certain genres are selling well which include health & fitness, cookery and some self-help books such as astrology. Business books, biographies and autobiographies are mostly title-driven. So you will find an autobiography of Steve Jobs or  Sachin Tendulkar doing well but only in the initial few months after which it wears down.

One sees several authors leave high profile corporate jobs to become full time writers. Do you think writing has become a far more lucrative profession than it was earlier?
Over the years there has been an increase in interest towards writing. This is because of the volume that the current lot of authors have been able to churn out and the royalties that they have been able to sign.  With the money and the royalties coming in, writing has become a far more viable proposition. It is definitely a better profession than earlier. I am not sure if people will leave corporate jobs to start writing. However, there are a lot of Indians who are keen on authoring a book sometime and the success rate of the current crop of authors is certainly igniting this interest.

You have launched two new additions to your service portfolio - the gift card and a publishing initiative. Could you tell us more about it?
The gift card option was basically launched to promote the gifting culture which is quite popular in our country. We wanted to use books as an effective medium for gifting and we wanted to give an option to the consumers to choose from a wide category of books. So we have the gift card option ranging from Rs250 to Rs1,000, which is a redeemable card and can be uploaded with the denominations of the customer's choice. It can be used across our chain and also used online.

The publishing initiative is called 'The right place.' Now if you see in the case of authors like Amish or Ashwin Sanghi, their first books were self-published because no publisher gave them the kind of respect they deserved. So we thought that with our network of 96 stores and the 3.5 lakh customer base, we would help our customers, who were interested in authoring a book, to publish their works. Along with this, we would also ensure the availability of their books in our stores.

In the earlier era, prospective authors would come to us with the manuscripts and we used to point them to the publishers. But we soon realized that publishers at times have their own constraints in terms of monitoring and taking a number of books. So these authors would go to other self-publishing initiatives. With 'The Right place', we made sure that once customers signed up for the program, we not only help them get their manuscripts printed, packaged and edited but also ensure that these books are available and marketed to all our consumers.  It's basically a program to help our customers make a one stop shop instead of taking them through the roundabout process.

The sign up is very simple. If you have a manuscript which is ready, just share it with our product team. They will go through it and connect you to the right editors and publishers who will help you to get the book packaged. Once all this is done and the book finds place on our shelves, then we will help you with the distribution and marketing.  It's a fairly simple program and we don't do a lot of shortlisting here as the authors fund the publishing in this case. It is beneficial to the authors as they get 35 per cent of the royalty as compared to the normal 8-10 per cent, which they would get if they opt for the normal publishing process.

The advantage we see here is the enthusiastic response from first time authors who are keen on signing up as they see a faster method to bring out their book. Once they are able to sell the numbers ranging between 3,000-5,000, then it becomes relatively easier for them to find a publisher as they would have already proven that their books are bestsellers.

We are hoping that this will be a great initiative and our plan is to target 100 books next year. We already have seven books signed up. Not many people are aware of this program. However once we get it right, then we are planning to market this initiative in a big way. 

How do you see the threat from the e commerce sectors like Amazon and Flipkart? One also sees several bookstores, which seem to have downed their shutters lately. What has helped Crossword survive?
We definitely see a threat from the online segment as they have been penetrating deep into the market. This is mostly because of the aggressive and unviable discounting they are offering and at times giving away books below cost.  However, this is not a sensible business strategy in the long run. Right now they are able to afford these discounts because of the amount of funding they get from financiers. After a point you will gradually see their discount rates coming down to more realistic numbers.

We have a realistic approach to the business and our vision is quite clear. In India, considering the population and the readership that has potential for growth, we will need good bookstores.  There are several cities which do not even have a single bookstore such as Patna and Bhubaneshwar. So we see a great potential in these places. In fact we have just opened 10 stores this year and we are planning to open another 12 stores in six - eight  months as they are in the process of completion. 

Also with regard to the pricing, an average price of Rs200-Rs300 is not a category or a merchandise where a customer thinks too much before buying. It is mostly an impulse purchase. Most of our stores are located in malls or high streets. So people who walk into the mall or these streets may just buy a book on an impulse rather than waiting to go home and purchase it online for that Rs20 discount.

There are a few factors which has helped Crossword thrive despite stiff online competition. First, we have always looked at opening the right size for the right format depending on the catchment area. This ranges from anywhere between 500sq. ft. to 25,000sq. ft. For instance in a bigger catchment in Pune we opened a 25,000sq. ft. store whereas in a smaller catchment in Thane, we had opened a 2,000sq. ft. store. 

We have actually done a catchment to catchment study. Second, we ensure consistency in terms of our offering. We have always maintained what our proposition is from day one and we have ensured that customers have enjoyed the same propositions. For instance if we do events, then we conduct events putting our heart and soul into it.

I think maintaining this consistency has helped. And, last, we have made an effort to identify the right books for the customers. Several books get released in a year so it's really important to understand our customers well and identify the right kind of books for them. Our buying team has played a significant role in this process. So overall all these aspects put together has helped us grow and thrive despite the stiff competition that has been on the rise.

What are your future plans? Where would you like to see Crossword bookstore a few years down the line?
We are seeing a lot of opportunity in second and third tier towns. In fact we just opened stores in Raipur, Ranchi, Goa and Surat. At present we are in 33 cities with 96 stores. Our plan is to add up another 10 stores in the next six months and 10-12 stores every year.  We plan to do this in two ways. One is by ensuring that we cover the cities that we are already present, by opening more stores there. The second is to get into newer cities.  Out of the 96 stores we have, 50 stores are franchisee-operated and this is considered to be a much faster expansion model for Crossword. We are going to use this franchisee model to grow in a much faster way in these newer cities in the next 2-3 years.