India Dispatch: E-books are soaring in popularity on the subcontinent as a young population turns to devices such as the Amazon Kindle to get their fix of literature. And the market is only set to grow, giving providers a major opportunity.
Indians love an electrifying read
Indian and international companies alike are striving to tap surging demand for electronic books in India, one of the world's fastest adopters of e-books.
Amazon launched its India Kindle store last month offering Indians more than one million e-books priced in Indian rupees, including international bestsellers and classics as well as books from a range of Indian authors such as Ravinder Singh and Amish Tripathi.
"The market for e-books is at a nascent stage in India," says Ajit Joshi, the managing director and chief executive of Infiniti Retail, which runs the Croma stores that became the first official retailer to sell the Kindle in shops. But with Amazon's basic Wi-Fi e-reader priced at 6,999 rupees (Dh473.36) at the stores, it is substantially more expensive than in Europe and the US, where the cheapest Kindle, supported by adverts, can be bought for US$79 (Dh290.15).
Amazon joins Indian companies that have already been tapping this interest in e-readers in India, with Infibeam, an e-commerce company based in Ahmedabad, launching its Pi e-reader two years ago, while EC Media, based in Bangalore, brought its Wink e-reader to market soon after.
India is one of the leaders globally in terms of adoption of e-books, with 24 per cent of Indian internet users saying they had bought e-books in the previous six months, according to respondents surveyed by Bowker Market Research this year. That compares with 21 per cent in the United Kingdom and 20 per cent in the United States.
"Over 50 per cent of respondents from [India] said that they are likely to buy an e-book in the next six months, a prediction that would double the number of e-book buyers in India," Bowker said.
There has been an "overwhelming response" to the Kindle in India so far, Mr Joshi says, adding, "It is too early for us to share any sales figure at the moment, less than one month after the launch of the product in his shops.
"Over the years it has been observed that customers are gradually moving toward virtual reading and are increasingly purchasing e-books online," he says. "Internationally, e-readers have soared in popularity."
The online shopping website Indiaplaza reports growing demand for the imported e-readers it sells.
"The market is certainly growing year on year," says K Vaitheeswaran, the chief executive and founder of Indiaplaza.
Sales of the Kindle from the online store increased by up to 50 per cent in August compared with the same month last year.
The store also sells the Barnes & Noble's Nook but this is not nearly as popular in India, he says.
"Either the people go and buy the Kindle or they buy a Samsung Galaxy or and Apple iPad." The appetite for tablet devices in general is surging, says Mr Vaitheeswaran.
The Kindle Touch, which sells for about 8,700 rupees on the website, is the most popular model from Kindle's range among its customers in India, he says. This is significantly higher than the price it goes for in Europe and the US.
"That's because we also have to pay customs duty on it," Mr Vaitheeswaran says.
He anticipates further growth in demand for e-readers. "It will definitely continue to grow."
Publishers in India are also trying to keep pace with the rise of the e-publishing phenomenon.
"E-publishing in India is at a very early stage so, at the moment, it is impossible to tell how e-books will impact on physical sales here," says Caroline Newbury, the vice president of marketing and publicity at Random House India.
"However, so far Random House India hasn't seen any negative effects on physical sales with e-books complementing, rather than detracting from printed book sales."
The publishing house is working hard to convert its older titles into e-books and digitising its new titles simultaneously, Ms Newbury says.
RockASAP.com, a mobile commerce website in India, launched its own e-book application at the 14th New Delhi International Book Fair this year, as it aims to capitalise on the demand.
The company offers e-books that be can be downloaded on tablets and mobile phones.
More Indians are using their mobile phones to read books, as the screens on smartphones get larger and people often prefer to carry just one device, says Prem Prakash, the associate vice president at Handygo Technologies, the parent company of RockASAP.com.
He notes a somewhat surprising trend that e-books are one of the top internet searches in India alongside jobs, news and weddings.
The company started out by specialising in regional content in local languages.
"Out of the total book market, 55 per cent of the Indian book industry has been dominated by the regional content," says Mr Prakash.
"The differentiator that we have is that we started with procuring and acquiring only regional content first. Then we started getting India's top 20 publishers, international top 20 publishers."
"When we go to a publisher, our objective is to give the most sellable or most popular content to out reader and also to give a kind of bonus sell or an aggressive surplus sell to the publisher because he has been selling those physical books. We go as a solution provider for their book distribution."
The e-book market is not necessarily "stealing" business from the traditional publishers and book sellers but, rather, it generates new customers, he believes.
It helps "a publisher to distribute to people who are not coming to their bookstore" he says. This is largely driven by India's young population who are spending more time on the internet. More than half India's population is under the age of 25.
But Amazon and others are creating an increasingly competitive market, Mr Prakash admits.
"Of course, they are competitors. They are a big name."
Still, many are confident that, despite its swift rise in India, it will still be several years before the e-book might be able to completely replace physical books.
"People will continue to buy books, that's clear," says Mr Vaitheeswaran.
"I think that will continue for the next seven years. I don't think that's going to change so fast."