Q1) why would anyone re-invent the wheel by opening a new eCommerce site for books? When there are many kinds of players: from giants like Amazon, Flipkart to dime a dozen sites all over the internet what difference do you set out to make?
R1: Though the VBF functions as an eCommerce site as well during the fair days the overall scope of it is much beyond that.
VBF will give the regional publishers an edge over Amazon or Flipkart in terms of the listing, transactional fee, and ease of tracking orders, settlement, and delivery. They track their dashboard on their own just like posting on Facebook.
If a publisher chose to list a book with mrp less than 100 on Amazon it is almost like they are selling the book at production cost or even less. That way the losses incurred are huge. Any Amazon reseller will already know it. These disadvantages are carefully negated in the VBF.
Q2) How can you call a static/cataloging site with fancy terms like Virtual Book Fair?
R2: when a payment gateway is integrated it is no longer a cataloging site. There won’t be dynamic changes in the way things are listed. But unlike a regular e-commerce site, with the kind of activities that are planned around the VBF, the site will be vibrant during the fair and non-fair days.
Q3) Given the current circumstances post-COVID 19 let’s assume that VBF gets a warm response. What will be the support like when physical book fairs start happening regularly?
R3: We see the way how people transact after the implications of demonetization and GST. Habits are hard to be formed. But once they get a hold of the feasibility aspect of it, they don’t complain. Post pandemic ordering anything from food, grocery, medicine has become the new normal for many. Especially the tech-savvy ones and who are working remotely.
Given a chance 8/10 times they are going to opt the VBF conveniently. More likely so even after the pandemic is over because the undue advantage that proximity to the physical fairs happening locally (Chennai, Madurai, Coimbatore), nationally (Delhi, Kolkota, Jaipur), and globally (Frankfurt, Sharjah, London) offers are extended to the people in other cities, states and countries through VBF.
They can keep track of the lit fests, book launches, and other major highlights of any bookfair through VBF. After making a list of stalls they want to visit and books they want to buy they can plan their visit and the author meets at their convenience from any corner of the world. VBF will bridge the distance between the publisher, reader, and sellers and keep them connected throughout the year.
Q4) Amazon, Flip kart or any other e-commerce player for that matter doesn’t take a subscription fee from the publishers for selling their books online. How enthusiastic will be the publishers to pay a fee to come onboard on the VBF?
R4: It is a deception. At VBF the publisher pays the subscription up front. In other eCommerce sites, they pay it in the form of various fees which are very tedious to keep track of. Amazon gives publishers the visibility to its humongous customer base on its landing page for its vendors at a premium. But there is every possibility that other products hog all the limelight. It is like taking a bookstall in a trade fair. The very structure of that giant eCommerce site doesn’t give them the flexibility when it comes to featuring other trade-related activities pertinent to books.
But at the VBF the focus is concentrated purely on the print books and its derivative formats (audio and eBooks). There is no way the visitor attention is diverted beyond the realm of books. No ranking or rating system gives aggregators an undue advantage. Publishers subscribing under the lowest slab enjoy the same privileges as the one subscribing under the highest slab. If they build an eCommerce site from the scratch a decent site with payment gateway integration would cost nothing less than Rs.50, 000.
Q5) What if I don’t make a profit out of selling books on the VBF?
R5: ROI should not be measured in terms of sales alone. As explained in the last question, a person who pays a subscription fee as low as Rs.3000 for selling 10 books gets a fully functional site worth Rs.50000 and more. To us it’s a profit of Rs.47, 000 to begin with. Besides, let us explain using a worst-case scenario. Let us suppose that a person who paid Rs.3000 makes a sale of Rs.15000 only in a year. Given the fact that we give trade discounts up to 40% to a retailer, here we are selling directly to the customers at 20% and save 20%. Even after shipping waivers, we save up to 20% on the MRP which gets the subscription fee back. We are giving 2 copies as a compliment to any newspaper or magazine for reviews. If each title’s average MRP is Rs.50 then 2 copies of 10 titles make it Rs.1000. If we send these books to 10 such magazines or newspapers the net amount is Rs.10000. As a promotional expense if we take it at the production cost i.e 30% it’s Rs.3000. No magazine guarantees any volume of inquires let alone the sales conversion. In this perspective, the subscription you pay is better served at VBF.
A publisher who goes live on VBF with 1500 titles by opting for the Rs.50000 slab doesn’t incur a loss even if they don’t make a single sale if they consider it as money invested on a good website. But if they are so particular about profit in terms of money the same logic that worked for the lowest slab holds good here as well. Let’s see how:
There are 4 fairs (minimum) in a year. Each fairs duration is 1 month. A publisher’s subscription period is 365 days. So irrespective of when they join they ll be a part of a minimum of 4 VBFs in their subscription period. If they can do a sale of Rs.2, 50,000 overall they recover the subscription fee by the same logic at 20 %( Rs.50, 000). Likewise based on one's preferred slab they can easily do the math.
Let us see what it is like if we were to take part in 4 physical book fairs in a year. Irrespective of the language or the number of titles displayed single-stall rent will be close to the same Rs.50, 000 for a lesser number of days and restricted to a particular locality. Transport, salary, accommodation, and a few other misc expenses are not taken into consideration here. Given a choice as a customer wouldn’t you opt to buy your books through VBF rather than a physical book fair post COVID?
Q6) Why restrict VBF to a time frame? Why can’t it be a fair that runs throughout the year?
R6) If we were to reply in a single phrase – ‘For all practical purposes’. To elaborate a little:
1. It takes the fizz out of the book fair if it is not time-bound.
2. Publishers need a breathing time for updating stock, make changes to the look and feel before the next spell. They need this time to concentrate on their production and other selling endeavors.
3. The non VBF days which are almost 2/3 of a year could be exploited by the indie book stores.
4. At a market place level also VBF could use those breaks to improve the operations based on feedbacks and enhance the overall buying experience.
5. Running errands like attending to website-related glitches, postal settlements, addressing grievances, could be done. Sale made time-bound gives us leverage over margins with – payment gateway, postal charges, hosting.
Q7) Audio and eBooks are given the same shelf space in a VBF which is unlikely in a physical book fair. Won’t this sabotage the chances of selling a physical book?
R7: As discussed before, the ultimate objective is to expand our reader base. It includes readers from all walks of life and belonging to all age groups. Even as per the global book scan surveys done by Nielsen physical book sales are still going strong. But it is more so because of the non-availability of a book in all three formats.
VBF believes that a hybrid model is slowly evolving, where a potential buyer opts to take all three formats and switch between the three based on whether he\she is traveling (physical Book), reading with lights off (e-book), or eyes closed (audiobook). The textbook definition of a book publisher is going to change. They are bound to do make the content available in all formats possible. Anyone who has applied for a new ISBN via the MHRD site would know. The embracement of the new ONIX 3.0 is a definite indicator.
Q8) Why can’t I just be content with my website? Technically speaking why should I invest in building another website within a website?
R8: In marketplaces like Amazon and Flipkart an aggregator is most likely to be listed ahead of the publisher when a potential buyer searches for a book because of the sheer catalog size. Even in a physical market place, it is for the one-stop shopping experience a customer goes to a mall even though there is a separate retail outlet for a product somewhere else in the city. People will catch on to this trend easily.
Q9) Old habits die hard. The direct interactions that we get to have with the customers in a physical book fair are priceless. Even if VBF manages to match the sales of the physical fair I don’t think we would enjoy it the same way. Wouldn’t the customers also prefer the same?
R9: Rivers were the primal highways of life. We have transport via roads, air made possible today. An individual’s affordability and time constraint decide the mode of transport. Isn’t it? We still call it shipping irrespective of the mode of freight. Like ways, our business models are also bound to change.
Very few publishers or booksellers who take a stall in a physical bookfair keep connected with their customers on the non-fair days. But VBF gives a chance for the publishers to stay connected with their customers throughout the year, cater to their book needs at an individual level.