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A library in your pocket 

During the lockdown and since books in the digital format have done relatively better in India, the format is still in its early days compared to the markets in the West

The pandemic has had a profound effect on peoples’ lives and everyone is trying to adjust to the ‘new normal’. People have their own quintessential definition for it. Or simply, Covid-19, will change the way we are habituated to doing things. Reading, or the means of consuming literature will also see a change. Lockdowns to control the spread of the pandemic meant many of the bookshops were shut–books are not an essential commodity–and Amazon and such online retail outlets shut shop for non-essential items for nearly two months. The digital format–ebook and audiobook–was the only option available for bibliophiles.

In India, though the ebook and audiobook business is still nascent and reading habits are sticky, unlike in the West. In the US the ebook business was valued at a billion dollars in 2019. However, during the lockdown, there was a rise in the sales of digital books–both ebook and audio-books. Publishers are tightlipped about the actual numbers, but digital format books have, to some extent, given a supplement to their otherwise sagging sales.

For Srishti Narain, 25, whose academic plans were derailed because of the pandemic, this was an opportunity to binge read, something she imagined doing all her college life. Time has always been a nagging constraint in the past, not during the lockdown though when availability of new books is a constraint. Last year on her birthday, her brother Kshtij gifted her an iPad. She found a good use for it during the lockdown, to download books and read like there’s no tomorrow.

“I have no idea what I would have done without the ebooks and audiobooks,” she says and acknowledges, “The way I consume literature has diversified, if not changed.”  She read all the five volumes of Game of Thrones authored by R. R. Martin. “I have seen all the seasons, at least a couple of times. And I must say with all emphasis that reading was a very different experience,” she says. She also read essays, classics, literary fictions, omnibuses, you name it. “It’s a good feeling that you carry a library in your pocket or handbag,” she says and adds, “It’s also very convenient.”

She has been exploring various digital formats for consuming literature, also audiobooks. “My brother says you’re not a good listener. I proved him wrong. I like audiobooks and can listen for hours,” she laughs. So she can now consume literature while making coffee, exercising, or doing other mundane things that don’t require one’s full attention. “I often imagine travelling by train for long distances just to be able to listen to a book,” she says.

Also, when you’re reading something if you come across references that you’re interested in, you had to wait for days or weeks to get your hands on books which might be sold or out of print, but not now.

A library in your pocket

Srishti shares her fascination for the beatniks’ literature, and one book that inspired their iconoclastic world view was the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “All I had to do was go to an app Store or Google Play (has a nominal subscription fee, Amazon is charging Rs 199 which is a fraction of the price in the US and Europe), pay, and start reading,” she describes.

There are multiple publishing formats available, literally at fingertips, to choose from like Mobi, EPUB, and KF8. There’s fierce competition to improve the reading experience, almost making it quintessentially personal. Most of the major publishers have digital content as their mainstay–Amazon, Georg Von Holtzbrinck, Hachette Livre, HarperCollins Publishers, McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson, Penguin Random House, Rakuten Kobo, Simon & Schuster–a trend that has not yet caught up in India, but during the lockdown and since the digital format has shown promise.

In the West , the audiobook market is growing faster than that for ebooks. Many people are spending good money, like Srishti, to enhance the whole experience by buying smart speakers or AirPods or wearables, also devices like Google Home, or Echo. “I like to cook while Alexa reads out short stories by Kaffka or PG Wodehouse,” says Srishti.

And there are many like her. The ‘new normal’ also includes changing reading/listening habits, technology makes it easier by the day, now so many smartphone dedicated e-reading devices are available like Kobo or Nook.

Freelance editor Simar Puneet shares her experience, “Last year when I resigned as Editorial Director at Aleph Book Company, my colleagues gave me a Kindle as a farewell present. Before that, I would sometimes determinedly read on the Kindle app on my phone. Since I got my own Kindle, I’ve read about two dozen books on it. When the lockdown began, I reached out for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a copy of which I had at home for a while,” she says.

Simar, like Srishti, found this enforced solitude the perfect time for pleasurable reading, both digital and offline. “I picked it up on a whim and was soon lost in the sixteenth-century world of the Tudors that Mantel exquisitely conjures in her trilogy. Part Two, Bring Up the Bodies, was borrowed from a friend; passed through a locked gate like smuggling contraband. When the lockdown slowly eased, my first stop was Midland Bookstore to procure the triumphal finale: The Mirror and the Light.”

Like all bibliophiles, Srishti and Simar love to hold a book in their hand, each copy has a destiny of its own, quite distinct from its author.

India’s leading literary agent and publishing commentator, Kanishka Gupta, explains, the lockdown phase “was a good opportunity for ebooks and audiobooks to do well and finally establish their presence in India. He points out that the books that did well were mostly in the genres of self-help, mind-body-spirit, not fiction especially debut and literary fiction.

There are some isolated successes–like Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits, which was first launched in the digital format. Gupta is categorical, “Ebooks can never be the main source of revenue for publishers in India” and sums up, “Although the big publishers pumped in a lot of money into ebook and audiobooks, it didn’t really have an impact on sales.”

It’s true that old habits die hard, like reading, but they finally do change. Technology has revolutionised the way we live, and, soon, the way we consume literature.

(Cover: Srishti’s favourite pastime during the lockdown: digital consumption of literature)