Home / News / India /  Pandemic a boon for books, bane for bookstores

The ongoing covid-19 pandemic has disrupted many industries across the world but it has also boosted demand for quite a few sectors. One such beneficiary is the publishing industry, which has seen a surge in demand since the pandemic struck. Google Trends data show that searches for books this year were relatively higher compared to last year’s figures across countries.

Though still behind major countries in book-related searches, India’s figure, too, has improved considerably since March. After reaching a one-year peak during the lockdown months, the search interest has declined but continues to be higher than pre-pandemic days.

Within India, the maximum search traffic for books came from the southern states, and from Maharashtra, Delhi and Uttarakhand.

Search interest was the highest for English-language books, followed by Hindi ones. In general, search interest for books in each language was higher in states where it is spoken: Telugu books were searched the most in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and Marathi books in Maharashtra. Across the country, searches for novels were the highest in Tamil - driven by searches from Tamil Nadu - followed by English.

Among fiction genres, romance and thrillers saw more searches. In the nonfiction category, biographies, autobiographies, business and mythological books captured the most attention on Google. One genre that worked well was self-help and books on mental health, reflecting the mental toll of a crippling lockdown.

Children’s books also saw increased interest, both on Google search and in sales.

“Kids, unfortunately, have been inside homes, unable to go to school or play outside or visit friends," said Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO of HarperCollins India. “We have seen a major increase in sales of learning and activity books, especially in the primary age level (3-9)."

As the world increasingly turned online, e-books saw a surge in demand. HarperCollins India claimed e-book sales had risen over 75% and the publisher organized its second e-book “mega sale" last week.

Hachette India, too, had similar results. “E-books doubled in sales," said managing director Thomas Abraham. “But that doubling was not particularly significant because ebooks themselves are a low value category."

Audible India country head Shailesh Sawlani said changes in lifestyle due to the pandemic had accelerated the rise in consumption of audio books. Screen fatigue, he said, was a factor that had led a lot of people to proactively explore audio content.

When books find interest, how can piracy be left behind? As interest in e-books went up, so did web searches for “free downloads". This number has come down after the lockdown was lifted, possibly when delivery services for paperbacks resumed. But it still maintains a sizable lead over Google searches for “buy online" or “delivery".

The problem could only rise with more online activity. HarperCollins India, for one, is spending a lot of time and resources to mitigate the risk of piracy, said Padmanabhan.

Some brick-and-mortar booksellers dismissed the threat of ebooks, arguing that they continue to remain a niche segment. Chiragh Oberoi, the chief executive officer of Crossword bookstore chain, said he did not see a threat to book-stores from digital products.

Smaller bookstores face a tougher challenge. Along with e-books, online marketplaces such as Amazon and Flipkart pose an existential threat to small bookstores. For now, bookstores are themselves leveraging technology to reach loyal readers.

Mirza Touseef Baig of Midland, a Delhi-based bookstore operating since 1978, said 90% of its orders after the lockdown came through Instagram and WhatsApp. The bookstore has collaborated with delivery service Dunzo in the National Capital Region to ensure books reach customers. Another bookstore, DC Books in Kerala, has tied up with Swiggy to reach its readers.

Clearly, bookshops and publishers are being forced to innovate, even as the pandemic opens new avenues for them. But Abraham said these are just “immediate or short-term measures and will not be enough to compensate for normal sales".

“The biggest USP of brick and mortar (bookstores) is discoverability by browsing and curation done by good stores," said Abraham. “That is vital to the book ecosystem and we hope that comes back quickly."

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