New Delhi: India’s sprawling rural market has been a honey pot for sellers of soap, two-wheelers, mobile telephones and several other consumer goods. Pankaj Kurulkar is trying his hand at something new—books.
An electrical engineer by training, 45-year-old Kurulkar ran a networking and hardware solutions company for 15 years, before he put Rs3 crore of his own into Granthayan, a chain of mobile bookstores that travels the length and breadth of Maharashtra selling mostly Marathi books. Kurulkar says he plans to later replicate his business model in other states, focusing on books in their regional languages.
Regional flavour: Pankaj Kurulkar in a Granthayan mobile bookstore.
There could be several rough patches to negotiate. Only 59% of India’s rural population can read, according to the 2001 census, and reading material itself is limited outside the cities. Local languages have also had to face the growing popularity of English. “The situation is pathetic. People are migrating from vernacular language to English medium, and not at all passionate about reading Marathi,” says Kurulkar, who writes novels and short stories as well.
“Rural areas don’t see anything other than newspapers and textbooks. So good, affordable reading material, which is simple, is the need for the day,” says Rukmini Banerji, a programme director at non-government organization Pratham, which prepares an annual report on the status of education measuring student literacy. “Nothing is easily available like you can go to the paan (betel) shop and get gutka.” Pratham’s publishing arm, Pratham Books, which prints cheap children’s books, also has plans to enter the rural retail market next month, according to managing trustee Ashok Kamath.
Even in Mumbai, by Kurulkar’s count, there are only nine bookstalls that sell Marathi books, to cater to a Marathi population of about three million.
Granthayan’s business was inaugurated in August, with 10 custom-designed Tata trucks functioning as mobile bookstores. The vehicles, 18ft long and 8ft wide, were fitted with shelves, tube lights, ceiling fans, scanners, cash machines and even their own generators, to resemble a typical mall storefront. The company says it plans to own 100 trucks and move into several other states by the end of the year.
Others have tried similar initiatives before, often non-profit trusts that want to promote reading. Granthali, a Mumbai-based organization started in 1975, distributed books at cost in remote areas in Maharashtra. It was possible to do that in the 1970s and 1980s, says Granthali founder Dinkar Gangal, because the organization relied on volunteers, who are hard to find in today’s economy.
“Now it needs to be done effectively,” he says. “It is very tedious, and accounting is the most difficult part.”
To date, Kurulkar says, his trucks have visited 28 out of the 35 districts in Maharashtra, and covered 80% of the state. The trucks follow pre-set routes—up and down the Mumbai-Goa highway for instance—and stay in a neighbourhood from a few days up to a week, depending on the amount of local business. Each truck has a staff of three, with a driver, an accountant and a helper on board.
According to Kurulkar, Granthayan has sold around 100,000 titles in the first three months of operation, and stocks both Marathi and English titles, though, he says, 75% of the company’s stock and sales are in Marathi.
Spiritual and religious titles such as Jnaneshwari and Samarth Ramdas’ Dasbodh sell best in rural areas, he says, but English volumes, including books by Chetan Bhagat and Robin Sharma and Paulo Coelho, are the fastest movers in cities such as Pune and Nagpur.
Kurulkar has put his network engineering skills to good use in Granthayan. The trucks are fitted with global positioning system (GPS) tools that allows a central office to track routes and inventory even as the mobile bookshops roll through rural Maharashtra.
The project is also an effort to encourage more authors to write in regional languages. Kurulkar attributes the poor print run of his novels to the lack of booksellers with adequate reach (the print runs of the Hindi and Marathi editions of Kurulkar’s own books were 500 and 1,000, respectively). “For English books, Crosswords, Landmark are there,” he says, referring to Crossword Bookstores Ltd and Landmark Ltd, two large book retailers in India, “but small, regional languages books are not available.”
Part of the problem, though, is that regional language literature itself is in short supply. “Printed work will have its own place, but a very small place, especially in the regional languages,” says Granthali’s Gangal, who points out that the first Marathi book was only published 200 years ago. “There was no written tradition, it is an oral tradition.”
To increase regional language content, Granthayan has also started a Marathi publishing arm, with plans to produce a dozen books a month. This month’s titles include two posthumous novels written by well-known Marathi author Gangadhar Gadgil. The company will give a 30% royalty to each author, and plans to print translations of Nobel and Man Booker prize winners, and expand into other languages over the course of the year, according to Kurulkar.
“Selling 1,000 copies used to take more than five or six years,” says Kurulkar. “Now we are printing not less than 5,000 copies, and will sell in less than one year’s time.”
Granthayan also has a toll-free number to take telephonic orders for books. The company will deliver the ordered books anywhere in the country, for free, through a deal with the Indian postal service. The mail order services are still in the trial phase, but, Kurulkar says, they have received orders from inside the state.
Kurulkar cites labour as his biggest challenge. “Skilled manpower is too low,” he says, “those who are passionate about selling books. We are not getting quality staff.”
The government, in conjunction with social sector organizations, has sponsored several programmes to get books and other reading material to children across India. Pratham, an organization that works in primary education, set up libraries in rural Maharashtra that may serve as a guide. Pratham assumed mythological stories would be the most popular, but sent books on nature and science topics as well.
“All those books were picked for reading, not the story books,” says Usha Rane, a programme director for Pratham based in Mumbai. “When we interviewed parents, they said, we want information books, on computers, or how an aeroplane is made, send these books for our children.”
For adults, too, she says, biographies on Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as books on topics of social interest such as caste, were also popular.
“People don’t go out of their way to buy books,” says Rane, “but if they see them right at their doorstep, there is a lot of scope to sell books, for good quality books.”