Retailers attract readers with e-book sections and apps that would enable book sales from handsets.
Preetham Venkky has not been to a brick and mortar bookstore in over a year. Yet, the chief catalyst of Bangalore-based Catalyst Labs claims that he buys two books every week by logging on to online bookstores. He reasons, “I’m an avid reader of non-fiction books and many of the titles in this genre are not available in offline bookstores.”
With bibliophiles like Venkky slowly turning to the Internet for their book shopping, online retailers too have begun to spruce up their stores. Online book retailers like Flipkart, Infibeam, Rediff Books, Indiaplaza and the most recent entrant uRead, are building dedicated digital book (or e-book) sections on their websites, and launching mobile apps that would enable book sales from handsets.
Infibeam, an e-commerce retail portal that claims to have 10,000,000 books and 500,000 eBooks on its site, has launched four 3G-enabled mobile phone devices that come with built-in apps that enable users to buy books from their mobile devices. Notes Vishal Mehta, CEO of Infibeam, “With 3G coming in, mobile apps will be critical to help e-commerce.”
Innovative ways to boost online sales
“The Indian book market (excluding text books) is currently valued at around Rs 2,000 crore, with Rs 150 crore worth of sales coming from the online segment,” says Purnendu Kumar, associate vice-president, Technopak India. According to Technopak estimates, online book sales have risen by 15 per cent each year since 2009 and are proportionately increasing with the number of Internet users.
To increase their user base, online book sellers are looking at different ways to promote their sites. Use of search engine optimisation (SEO) is one of the ways to bring new users to the website. “We have an in-house team that optimises our site so that we get priority listing on leading search engines,” says Piyush Goel, co-founder, uRead.com, which launched its e-store two months ago.
The website is targeting sales of over 2,000 books a day by next year. uRead is also exploring social media platforms like Facebook to generate word-of-mouth around the brand. Other ways that e-bookstores increase stickiness is through fostering an online forum which helps build a community of loyal users.
Mobile platforms to draw more users
Online book retailers are pulling out all stops to ensure that their websites are available on multiple platforms. For example, uRead has not only optimised its website for web browsers like Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Firefox, but the website also works on Apple and BlackBerry devices. “It is currently undergoing testing for Google’s Android and Nokia’s Symbian platforms,” says Goel of uRead.
Flipkart, one of the first online bookstores that launched in 2007 with 50,000 titles, said it has seen over Rs 25 crore in revenues last year. Now, Flipkart is slated to launch a Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled website next month. “This will allow mobile phone users to access the site, which includes browsing the catalogue as well as paying for books via the mobile phone,” says Sachin Bansal, CEO & co-founder, Flipkart.
Admitting that customers remain reluctant to use credit cards online, the cash-on-delivery service has helped online bookstores to increase their user base. The cash on delivery also provides online bookstores with additional savings, as they avoid paying commissions to credit card companies. Flipkart and uRead also admit that mobile payment gateways will be an opportunity that will be explored in the near future.
In a bid to consolidate their position, newer entrants like uRead boast of ambitious plans to launch mobile applications (app) in the future, which will be made available on app stores. Beginners who download the applications will receive benefits like massive book-based discounts, priority shipping and discounted e-books. According to Goel of uRead, “A large chunk of future consumers will be using handheld devices compared to desktops and laptops and hence creating an app is relevant,” says Goel.
Consumers will continue to buy books online
A Caris & Company report shows that the current base of 81 million Internet users in India will touch 180-200 million by 2015. The spurt is attributed to growing Internet and broadband penetration in the country, the launch of 3G networks, and a burgeoning middle class taking to the gadget culture. The report also shows that e-commerce is set to take off and will reach Rs 2,250 crore by 2012 (up from Rs 630 crore in 2010). Both estimated trends indicate a growing potential for India’s online book retail industry. Besides offering physical books, online bookstores plan to offer consumers e-books. With the uptake of 3G and increasing penetration of high-end technology devices, the market for e-books is set to grow.
The adoption of e-books on online bookstores might open avenues for a new set of customers. As 28-year-old Rahul Kelapure, a visually impaired legal consultant, at a leading public relations firm in India explains, “Previously, I used to buy physical books and convert them to electronic copy. Now, I simply buy popular e-book titles online and listen to them through a screen reading software. I buy these on a website called bookshare.com and download them either on my PC or phone”, says Kelapure. “If Indian book retailers offer such books at attractive prices, I will definitely consider buying them,” he adds.
Nonetheless, Kumar of Technopak believes that the launch of e-books in India will also come with its own set of challenges. “A major risk will be the advent of pirated e-books, which will affect the e-book industry in the same way that it shook the music and movie industry,” he says.
Even as online bookstores continue to grow, industry analysts do not expect physical bookshops to shut their doors. For many consumers, the pleasure of leafing through the pages of a book in a store cannot be replaced. However, people might use the online bookstore as the primary source for browsing before purchasing a book offline.