What the bestseller lists at India’s online bookstores tell us

In April this year, I wrote two blog posts (part I of the post here and part II here) that discussed what could be the MRP (Maximum Retail Price) per page for a bestselling book in India. I found the exercise fun (though at times tedious), and educating. And I hope that the readers and followers of this blog could learn a thing or two about the book market in India.

This time around, I thought of repeating the exercise albeit with a few changes. The methodology of data collection and the sources of the data remained the same as before, and I collected the raw data on July 20th, 2104. Therefore, all information, indicators and the ratios calculated for the purpose of this post may change with time. As before, I am also including the data sheet (yay, excel!) towards the end of this post, and those who like playing with numbers may find it useful.

But before I begin, I am summarizing the key findings below:

Figures 1 and 2 show the summary results from data collection. I think the table for most part is self explanatory, so I will focus on the comparison between the two months. And for reasons mentioned later in this post, I have compared the data across four online retailers only (Amazon.co.in, flipkart.com, google Play (India) and Infibeam.com).

The MRP per page fell between March and July across all sites except Infibeam, where the price actually rose. Since we are comparing MRP and not the discounted price, it does not mean that Infibeam is selling books at a lower discount compared to its competitors. It is likely that their bestseller list has a different set of books that are priced higher than the competition. The reason why MRP per page fell for fiction books could be because the sets of books that featured in bestseller lists in July and March are different.

Comparison of MRP per page of books across sites
Information compiled from Amazon (India), Flipkart, Google Play (India), Infibeam and others
Comparison of MRP per page of books across sites
Comparison of MRP per page based on Top 20 bestselling books: Information compiled from Amazon (India), Flipkart, Google Play (India), Infibeam and others

And here are the findings:

  • Bestseller lists are still entirely dominated by traditionally published books.

My take on this, as before, is as follows: Self publishers, have faith. The Indian self- publishing and ebook market is untapped, so sky is the limit!

  • The bestseller lists are still dominated by Nonfiction books such as Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis and study guides for Competitive Exams. One can clearly factor in the impact of Competitive exams (which as I said before are mostly held in May and June every year).
  • I was surprised that most of the Fiction books that feature in the bestseller lists were published 2 years ago or even prior. Among the books by International authors, The Fault in Our Stars and The Monk Who Sold His Ferrarri featured across multiple sites. Books by Indian Authors who write fiction, particularly Chetan Bhagat & Ravi Subramanian, have not featured prominently, though both authors are releasing their new books in the coming weeks. The bestseller list for fiction may change in next quarter- and I hope for an update to this post in October 2014. The books by Amish Tripathi (The Shiva Trilogy) still feature in the top 20 lists, but they now figure in the teens. In April, his books were mostly in the top 10 across multiple sites.

The above point makes me wonder: Is there such a dearth of good books that publishers have to keep reprinting a book that was written in 2003? (The Monk Who…)

Bestseller books on Flipkart
Snapshot of bestsellers on Flipkart- July 2014
Bestselling books- Flipkart.com
Bestselling books on Amazon.co.in

OR I wonder…

Are the publishers really doing a disservice to Indian readers by not publishing Indian edition of books such as those by Jonas Jonasson to Indian market?  Look at the price of these books in the figure below! Someone is really on some high grade <<insert the name of the first controlled substance that you can think of>>.

Jonas Jonasson book price in Rupees
Price of books by Jonas Jonasson on Amazon.co.in

I have not read any of this author’s books, but I was in Frankfurt and Berlin last month and I could see his books in multiple bookstores.

Or are the publishers simply trying to cash in on the popularity of a few known foreign authors (Dan Brown, Rhonda Bryne, Jeffery Archer, and the likes) and Indian authors (Amish Tripathi, Chetan Bhagat, Ravi Subramaniam…) and keep milking them?

The same site (Amazon) has listed a Low Priced Indian Edition of  Power of your Subconscious Mind by Michael Hutchison. Why can’t this be repeated for other authors? Alternately, will sites such as bloody good book help in bringing books by new talent in the bestseller list?

  • Time to drop Kobo for now from further analyses. The average MRP of their top five or six selling books is over Rupees 1,500 or over $ 25. These are mostly cookbooks, and these books seem way overpriced for Indian market. Moreover, their list is dominated by one author’s books: Lawrence Block. The see the screenshot below. It almost looks like spamming the website. I hope Kobo will fix this as soon as possible.

    Lawrence Block- Kobo- India
    the Top 20 selling books on Kobo (India page) are dominated by books written by Lawrence Block.
  • I also plan to drop data collection from Crossword and Landmark bookstores in subsequent editions. My focus is on ebooks- and the traditional stores are not really selling them in volumes, ans I feel that tracking these two sites may not be worth the effort. I have provided links in the raw data sheet for those who are interested for their own analyses.
  • I was able to find some indication of how much the bestselling audiobooks are priced at – again in terms of MRP per page. This information, however, is for the audio version of Amazon’s top 20 selling books only. Infibeam was the only other site where I could see some information on audiobooks. However, they had only two items listed under ‘bestseller’ category for audiobooks. One was sold as cassettes for Rs. 3,300 (that is over 50 dollars!), and the other one was in Hindi. I dropped the latter form consideration because Hindi is not in the data set yet. In a future iteration, I plan to fix that.
  • Use the data with a grain of salt. These are ‘spot’ values and not trends, and prices of ebooks particularly on Flipkart seem heavily discounted. Some of the bestsellers are listed at Rs. 2; so obviously that is not the usual MRP. This could lower the Average MRP per page than it actually should be. I have not removed the outliers. Also, on Google Play, sometimes there is a mismatch between the number of reviews that are shown next to description of the book and the actual number of reviews.

What’s next:

  • Going forward, I think that Amazon, Flipkart and Google Play should remain the main focus, with maybe Infibeam if there is some useful information there. I might also take a look at bookadda and other sites that have been recommended by many people across various forums. As a ‘control’ of sorts, I will also try and include names or articles that appear in newspapers, such as this one. ( I commented about it a few days ago in a twitter post)

    Asian Age Bestseller List - 28 May
    Asian Age Bestseller List
  • I hope we can get some more information on Audiobooks. Once ACX becomes available in India, this might be an easier task. Till then, one has to keep looking.
  • In the next quarter, I will focus on Fiction only and look at the non-top 20 books also maybe expand horizon to top 50 because Nonfiction books (read: study guides for competitive exams) are really clouding the data.

 I also plan to take a look at which books consistently figure across sites. And before I forget, here is the data file : July-2014-Top-20SellingBooks-India.

If you like this post and find the information useful, please leave a comment in the comments section below or message me on Twitter at @amarauthor.

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150 books as Royalty Payment

Well, sort of.

But first, my apologies – I have not posted on this blog for nearly a fortnight. But yesterday, a phone conversation prompted me to write this post.

I had a very interesting discussion with Dr. Sujata Niyogi, author of seven books on numerology. She is also a consultant, advisor and an expert on all things numbers. She got her PhD at the very young age of 70 (yes, you read that correctly), and published her first book when she was nearly 75. She is working on her eighth book. I am proud to add that she happens to be my aunt.

The reason I am writing about her is twofold. First of all, I am amazed by the amount of effort she puts into research. She spends several hours in the library every day researching. Now some may say- reading books in a library in order to write books: Isn’t that a dying art? Isn’t that old school? Why not simply google it up? But as she told me,

“I am not that technology savvy. I prefer going to the library every day, taking notes, and then compiling this information into the first draft. Then, I have someone type it out for me in Marathi. Following a few rounds of reviews, I send the manuscript off to publishers.”

Marathi, my native language, is spoken largely in the state of Maharashtra in India. With 73  million speakers, there are more Marathi speakers than the entire population of United Kingdom.  Marathi happens to be one of the most vibrant markets for publishing in India, with several bestselling authors who have evoked interested in the printed word for generations.I will write more about the  Marathi book publishing industry in a later post.

Coming back to the topic: 150 books as Royalty.

Dr. Niyogi asked me about what sort of royalty I was expecting for my novel, and then went on to tell me her experience with traditional publishing. For example, her publisher took nearly two years  to publish her first book after she had submitted her manuscript. And the first royalty check came a year after the book was released. Three years to see the first check is a long time. She also mentioned that there was very little transparency in the process. For example, one had to rely solely on the publishers’ sales figures, and it was difficult to verify them independently. Moreover, the author has no control on the reprints. And then one has to follow up with the publishers multiple times to get the money. In other words, the system is heavily leaning in favor of the publisher. Some of this may obviously be known to many of you, so no surprises here.

But to counter this problem, Dr. Niyogi summed up in one line:

“Ask your publisher for a check up front for an amount that is equal to the selling price of 150 books.”

In other words, if the selling price (MRP) is Rs. 100, you ask for a royalty check of Rs. 15,000. If the MRP is Rs. 200, you ask for Rs. 30,000 and so forth. While these are very small amounts, and will hardly enable writing as a career option, her method will make sure that the writer does not lose money in the process.

Dr. Niyogi spends nearly 2 months per book on research. A visit to the library costs her Rs. 200 in commuting costs. Assuming 20 visits to the library every month, the cost of commute amounts to: 200*20*2 = Rs. 8,000

The person who types out the first draft charges nearly Rs. 6,000. In other words, the amount of money Dr. Niyogi spends up front for every book is:

8,000 + 6,000 = Rs. 14,000.

If one relies on the royalty received from sale of books for recovering this investment, one may have to wait for three years or even longer. But remember, it may take more than three years to recover the up front investment, because the royalty depends on the sales of the books, and sometimes the books may not sell at all.

Then we must also re-visit what we learnt in our financial literacy classes. Had this money been invested at say at 10 percent interest rate compounded annually for three years, the 14,000 rupees would have become nearly Rs. 18,600.

For a first print run of 1,000 books, and a MRP of Rs. 200, you get your 30,000 Rupees, and you don’t have to worry about the timelines, follow ups, compound interest or any other issue related to royalty payments. So while you wait for your book sales to take off, the 150 book principle can come to your rescue.