The power of one
Why selling one book is more difficult than selling a million books
What’s harder than selling a million books?
Selling one book.
Let me explain.
From February 2000 till 2013, we sold over a million books on India’s first e-commerce site Fabmart.com (later rebranded Indiaplaza.com). So I know everything about selling books, right? I thought so too.
Recently, I released my first book Failing to Succeed: The story of India’s first e-commerce company and I was confident of selling several thousand copies. Hey, I can do this, piece of cake.
The book went up online for pre-order. I was taken aback. My book urges e-commerce companies to push up margins and both Amazon and Flipkart promptly launched it online with a 30% discount!
This was good though. Industry profitability can wait till my book became a bestseller. Small problem though. The shipping date was two weeks away. Customers were not going to wait for an unknown first-time author.
A friend called from London. He loved the book and said it was a winner.
Was Amazon shipping globally first?
“No, you stupid!” exclaimed my friend. “Kindle”.
Yeah, of course. But how many in India read e-books? I still wanted the physical books to start shipping.
My friend from Mumbai said she was moved by the book. “Wow, Kindle works!” “No, you stupid, you may have pioneered e-commerce in India but people still shop offline. I saw it in a small boutique bookshop and grabbed it.”
Made sense. Online shopping was less than 1% of retail in India. But the big chain stores still didn’t have it on display?
I called a friend at a large bookstore chain.
“Hi, congratulations on your book. I have been reading great reviews online.”
“Yes but I do not see it at your stores.”
“Oh, it must be on its way. We have some procedures to follow before stocks reach the stores. Also, this is a crazy month because we are still getting familiar with GST. You should have launched last month.”
OMG. Someone told me I timed my start-up all wrong but my book couldn’t have been timed better. Suddenly there’s GST.
Meanwhile, my book was climbing up the Amazon ranks. It was now around 600, up from over 300K and 45 in business books, up from 100K. This was good.
Amazon suddenly slashed the discounts. Had someone there read the chapter on profitability? The book was out of stock on Flipkart. Awesome. They probably committed stocks of several thousand books and it rapidly went out of stock. I excitedly called the publisher but he drawled: “No, it’s just a technical glitch”.
I wished I could send out a promotional email to all customers and get some momentum going like I used to at Indiaplaza. That would have been fun.
A friend from Bangalore called. She loved the book and promised to post a review on Amazon.
I felt like an Uber driver in Bangalore: “Five star kodi, madam.”
The publisher texted the book was flying off the shelves.
“Which shelves?. I cannot see it anywhere!”
“The small stores have it and airports will have it shortly.”
OK, I was travelling to Delhi and could check this.
The copies were stacked up in the airport bookstore. One customer strolled in and picked up one. He read the blurb at the back, flipped through a few pages and then briskly walked towards the checkout counter, book in hand. Wow, an order. I followed the customer as he queued up to check out when his phone rang.
“Hi Arati, what’s up? How have you been?”
He listened to something from the other end. Suddenly, he turned, placed the book on some shelf and briskly walked out without buying while still talking on his phone.
“Really, how did this happen? I cannot believe this.”
Neither could I. I ran behind him. “Sir, this is a good book. Please take a copy. I will sign it for you. I am the author.”
He kept walking briskly, still busy on the phone.
It was time for my flight. As I rushed to board, I checked the Amazon rankings. It was up. Hmm, encouraging. I called the publisher.
“Hi, how’s the book doing?”
“Terrific. How many copies have we sold so far?”
“We do not know exactly, but it is doing well.”
I was not sure how to respond.
As I was settling down in my seat, my phone rang. Mint.
“Hey Vaithee, congratulations on the book. Wonderful news.”
“How’s it doing?”
“Terrific. How many copies have you sold.”
“Oh, I do not know exactly but it is doing extremely well.”
“Oh. OK.” Silence for a while, then “Hey, you said you would do a column for us.”
“Yeah, that’s right, have been busy with the book launch. Will send it shortly.”
“Cool. But don’t forget, we are a business daily. Write something relevant.”
“Yeah, sure. In fact, I am grappling with a business problem and maybe I can write about that.”
“What’s more difficult than selling a million books.”
She thought for a while, then suggested: “Selling 10 million books?”
“No, not at all.” I laughed. “The answer is one.”
“You mean just one book?”
After a long silence, “Sounds interesting. How does this work?”
“Can’t tell you more. Spoiler alert. Read the column.”
And now that you have read the column, please read the book.
K. Vaitheeswaran is an Internet entrepreneur and author of the just released book, Failing to Succeed: The story of India’s first e-commerce company. Mint has written about him and Indiaplaza in detail here
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