Will Digital 'Juggernauts' Raze Traditional Bookstores In India?

26/10/2015 11:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

I asked a friend recently for her copy of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's recently published (controversial) masterpiece that had us fidgeting on our feet as soon as news spread about the discovery of the manuscript.

"Just download it on your iPad na," was her immediate response. Which was succeeded by a look of utter disbelief when I told her that this was the one thing that I was very old-school about. That I need the touch, feel and smell of an actual physical book in my hand to satisfy my OCRD as I call it -- Obsessive Compulsive Reading Disorder.

I knew why she was so surprised. I have always been an emphatic cheerleader of the digital world in all its app-for-everything, click-to-access, device-driven, futuristic splendour. Having worked in the marketing and advertising space for many years, the importance of having a heavy digital footprint was a constant driving force and the need to adapt to the ever changing and evolving customer mindspace induced the need for consistently churning out creative ideas to stay ahead of our game.

"Chiki Sarkar, former publisher at Penguin-Random House, is attempting to further diminish the gap between readers and their reading material by targeting the consumers' biggest weakness today -- mobile phones."

The publishing industry is no exception. With some publishers spearheading the industry towards a truly game-changing "digital revolution", the traditional brick-and-mortar booksellers and conglomerates that started it all are confronted with potential doom. When one of the oldest bookstores of Delhi Fact & Fiction, recently shut shop after an admirable 30 -plus years in business, it was a reality check not just for many other bookstores but also customers like me who are still accustomed to their conventional book-in-hand routine. In a recent article , the owner of Fact & Fiction, Ajit Vikram Singh said, "Some advise me on staying alive in a marketplace run by the internet... I am rather sceptical of my relevance in the current market scenario."

I don't blame him. The "writing" is on the proverbial wall.

As hard as it is to accept, the internet today is changing the landscape of virtually every business, and if you don't adapt, you lose. Online sellers like Amazon, BuyBooksIndia and Flipkart have already revolutionised the game by bridging the gaps between books and their consumers through click-to-order platforms on the internet, setting in motion the souring of the business of on-ground bookstores. The blogosphere too has changed the modalities of reading and writing, with many talented writers making the blog their preferred medium of individual expression and opinion.

And now in another futuristic, revolutionary move, the indefatigable Chiki Sarkar, former publisher at Penguin-Random House, is attempting to further diminish the gap between readers and their reading material by targeting the consumers' biggest weakness today -- mobile phones. Together with her partner, Durga Raghunath, a veteran in the digital publishing space, Sarkar's new company, Juggernaut, aims to become India's first phone publisher bringing a plethora of books in many genres not only to bookstores and iPads but also to mobile phones. Why? "If India is going to live on the phone, if we're going to become a one-device population, then Indians will also read on the phone," is her reasoning. Can't really argue with that.

This is undoubtedly a brilliant move opening a whole new avenue in publishing today. With books, novels and even short stories in the pipeline, Sarkar is confident that by shifting some of the focus on to mobile users, Juggernaut's mobile reading app will tap into a much wider demographic, addressing an ostensibly growing need for content, not to mention the potential for readers to interact with authors and vice versa.

I'm all for it. And like Sarkar points out, writers will be too as this opens for them yet another platform to showcase and sell their goods. They will be only too happy to engage their readers for early promotions.

But what of our good old musty-smelling, page-turning, book-mark-friendly physical books? While it's unlikely that physical bookstores, libraries and paperbacks/hardcovers will be obsolete any time soon (Juggernaut will be publishing paper books too), there is no doubt that conventional printing and publishing face an uncertain future. Newspapers and magazines, after all, are already struggling to stay afloat in the face of the unbeatable competitor -- the internet.

My hope is that we don't lose too many old favourites like Fact & Fiction that offer the one thing that the internet can't -- a personal touch and a therapeutic ambience. Having said that let's not take away from the fact that e-books and mobile publishing also facilitate environment-friendly practices as the lack of paper means less trees being cut.

While I applaud Sarkar for bringing the next big thing in publishing to our door and wish her much success for her new mobile endeavour, my bookshelves will continue to fill up, hopefully with some exciting new titles from Juggernaut too!

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