Online book stores in India are a confused lot as according to the latest US data from The Association of American Publishers (AAP), the iPad isn't just proving to be a category creator but it is threatening to be a category killer as well. The threatened category is our very own "physical books" or hard-copies with variants like hardcover or paperback. The AAP data shows that in January as well as February 2011, trade print sales witnessed double-digit declines, thus confirming our worst fears that digital sales is cannibalizing print. So "e-book" is the disruptive innovation that we love to hear about and if the online book stores are increasingly focusing on e-books then it's not a surprise. Isn't it? Let's now shift our focus to India. I know it's a bit abrupt but please bear with me.
The Indian Scenario
We can say that in the US, the digital version could very well maul the printed ones. By the way the traditional print newspapers have already learnt it the hard way. So should the online book stores in India go the same way, i.e. shift their focus from the printed versions to the electronic ones? After all in India things are a bit different as online book shopping in India is currently growing at 50% y-o-y driven solely by print sales. Most of us know that India is under-penetrated with low literacy levels (65%) vis-à-vis US and has low internet connectivity. Thus even "print newspapers" is a growing category in India. So how can the advent of e-books affect their counterparts i.e. the printed books? Will online book stores in India achieve more growth in e-book segment than printed books? To answer these question let's go through a major happening centered in India. It's the case concerning the telecom boom.
Books and Telephones
First let's have a look at the analogies between the two cases, i.e. e-books and printed books vis-à-vis the landlines and the cell phones.
- Both are mediums, one for the written form of words whereas the other is for the spoken form.
- On one hand, we had mobile as the technology of the future which was more of an evolved form of landlines while on the other hand we have e-books who seem to be the cell phones for the printed.
- Add to that when mobiles arrived, India was under-penetrated by the landlines as is the case with printed books when e-books are already making news abroad.
It has been seen that "the mode that would dominate would be the one that would provide better experience". Based on this observation, our analysis would try to predict the future landscape for the book market in India. Let us take the landline-mobile case study forward. As late as the year 2000, landline accounted for more than 90% of the Indian telecom subscriber base while 10 years later the scene has reversed and the cell phones account for almost 94% of the subscriber base. If you look at the evolution of the telecom industry, when cell phones were launched, their USP was mobility whereas landlines had voice clarity and lower cost as their USPs. With mobile being a more dynamic technological space, it soon overcame the barriers of cost as well as clarity. But in the process, its dynamism rubbed off on the wire-line space as well as the two technologies did have some similarities. As a result, it was the advent of mobiles that really propelled the landlines. While wireless space saw a CAGR of more than 75% over the decade, even the wire-lines registered a handsome double-digit growth in the early 2000's mainly driven by better telephone sets and the network effect created by boom in cell phones. After all if the son, studying in a metro, had a mobile then the parents, staying in tier II cities too were tempted to go for a landline.
Now comes the e-book and the printed book debate. The customer experience provided by the iPads and the kindles has suddenly given a big push to the e-books. Thanks to these tabs online book stores in the US witnessed negative growth of printed book sales. But in India, the e-books can give the printed books a big push as was the case with the mobiles.
- With publishers spicing up their offering with apps, graphics and video or variations like audio books, and so on, it will encourage more people to read.
- Smarter content say smaller paragraphs, better graphics etc. developed mainly keeping in mind the e-books readers, will lead to more reader friendly "published" books.
- The printed form carries a lower burden of anti-piracy measures so publishers may be a bit wary of pushing too soon for the e-books.
- With the tabs steeply priced, books by Indian authors may still wait before making a beeline for the e-book format.
Thus while e-books may create the buzz and lead to better content and thus attract new readers, physical books still seem to have the fundamentals in place to ride the wave and grow steadily in the coming future.