Shobhna S. Kumar was already a well-travelled social entrepreneur—born in Fiji, raised in Sydney, Australia; worked a bit in the US—when she moved to India eight years ago.
It was when she broke her ankle two years ago and could not literally travel anywhere that she decided to become a businesswoman as well.
After 20 years in the development sector, during which she worked with a multiple strata of people, she wanted her life of “transitions” to make one more—with Queer Ink.
Out of the closet: Kumar realized that it was difficult to buy queer books in India; even Amazon would not deliver them. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
She says about her partner, who does not wish to be identified: “We have been together eight years, we both had lives prior to this. We used our retirement funds to start Queer Ink because we believe in it.”
Kumar found that a lot of queer literature in India was academic, but the number of publications were not representative of the number of queer people in India. “My idea is to have a platform where all material, even in regional language, is available and to encourage people to write and publish,” she says.
Through her years of travel in India, Kumar realized that people could not find the books they wanted. People were just not comfortable going to a book store fearing unwarranted attention, which is how the idea of an online store germinated.
Then two years ago, laid up at home with a broken ankle and unable to go anywhere, the inability to find books that would help “keep my sanity” added to the frustration. Intensive research followed: talking to publishers, emailing people till it all came together in mid-2009 when they gave the first contract for the design of Queer Ink’s business identity. This followed a soft launch in April among friends and family, and from 2 July,the website could be accessed by anyone.
Kumar, 43, brings in the “non-profit element” into the purely business venture but her partner, a corporate employee, adds the expertise of a businesswoman.
The site gets about 250-300 hits a day worldwide—5% of these are orders. Kumar says they were not expecting any orders in the first six months. Now, they find that a higher concentration of people look at the site over the weekend, and then repeat the next weekend. By the third Sunday, there are orders.
“Before, you had to know somebody who knew somebody to get a photocopy (of a book or magazine that was either not available in book stores or people were too shy to buy),” says Kumar. “Now, you can own the book. I read somewhere that there were seven queer magazines in India but that’s not the right number. Local NGOs have their own magazines plus publications in other languages. They are all over the place.”
Queer Ink, says Kumar, is an online book store for all things queer, in India and South Asia. She defines queer literature as anything that’s not mainstream, “anything which does not fit in that little box of society”. She says it does not have to be only sexuality based. Queer Ink, for instance, does not sell erotica, but it does keep romance novels.
An early problem was when one of the Indian payment portals refused the contract for the website because they sold queer books on it. “They did not like the content but liked the online business,” says Kumar. Queer Ink then went to an American company and now, after upgrading, has an Indian portal.
The “store” functions out of the couple’s second bedroom in their suburban Mumbai home, with about 2,000 books worth Rs 8 lakh stored in three cupboards.
“If it fails, it fails,” Kumar says of their business. They feel it would not be feasible to have a regular book store—not just because of Mumbai’s high rents, but also to be able to get enough visitors.
Kumar says she has spent considerable time on the selection of books, having read 80% of them, which are “sensitive to Indian cultural and society norms” while following all cyber laws. The site also encourages people to write, which has resulted in them being inundated with short stories they now want to publish. She says Queer Ink works because of its resource of reading material and the complete discretion that it offers buyers.