Bookseller tries ‘buy online, pay offline’ option

By Kazim Alam, The Express Tribune

KARACHI: After seven years of sluggish customer response to the online purchase option, Liberty Books has now introduced the ‘cash on delivery’ offer, wherein customers pay in cash after receiving their merchandise at their doorsteps.

“Pakistanis hesitate to use credit cards online. That’s perhaps because of cyber crimes,” said Sameer Hussain, Director of Strategy and Business Development at Liberty Books.

The ‘buy online, pay offline’ offer promises to deliver books for a minimum order of Rs500 anywhere in Pakistan between 48 and 72 hours at no extra charge.

Liberty Books introduced the online purchase option in 2004. Its response has been dismal, as less than 5% of the total revenues come from online sales. With the country-wide launch of the first-of-its-kind offer, Liberty Books expects its online sales to go up by at least 10%.

The share of online purchases in total sales of books at Paramount Publishing Enterprise is 5% as well. With 11 retail outlets across Pakistan, its online operation has also received a lacklustre response over the past many years.

“Few readers buy books online. One, the number of credit card users is still relatively small in Pakistan, and two, somehow people have a perception that there’s little regulatory oversight vis-a-vis the online use of credit cards,” said Raza Wasim, Media Manager at Paramount Publishing Enterprise.

Paramount also offers the cash-on-delivery option to its customers, albeit at a very basic level. Wasim says the company delivers orders only in those areas of Karachi that are close to its two retail outlets in the city. Therefore, this facility is not available in Landhi and Bin Qasim towns, he said.

Small market size

Hussain says the answer to the question as to what makes a book ‘bestseller’ varies from country to country. “Even if a book sells over 200 copies in the entire country, we call it a bestseller. That’s because the Pakistani market is very, very small. In India, however, about 200,000 to 300,000 sold copies make a book bestseller.”

Citing the example of an Indian book titled “Nadir Mashroobat,” Wasim said Paramount could sell only 1,000 copies in six months in Pakistan. “Before we imported it, over 350,000 copies had already been sold in India. That’s the kind of difference between Indian and Pakistani markets.”

The significant difference in the market size cannot be attributed to the population factor only. Liberty Books and Paramount – each of them claims to have 30% share in the retail business in Pakistan – say that 90% of the books they sell are imported. India, on the other hand, has a thriving publishing industry with easy availability of locally produced cheap paper.

Moreover, India has far more local writers willing to work with publishing and retail companies than Pakistan. “We asked aspiring writers through newspaper ads a few years ago to write books for us. In response, we received just three emails. Imagine the response a major Indian publisher would get, if it asked people to write for it through a newspaper ad,” Wasim said.

Piracy

According to Liberty Books’ estimate, pirated books take away roughly 50% of the total retail business in Pakistan. Hussain says it is futile to expect the government to crack down on piracy in books. “What can we expect from the government if it can’t even control the illegal trade in music and movie businesses, whose volumes are a lot bigger and more visible?” he said.

The pirated version of Radiant Way, a popular series of books for kids by Paramount, was available in market at half of its original price within days of its publication, Wasim said, adding that Urdu Bazaar and Khori Garden were flooded with pirated versions of engineering and medical books originally published or imported by Paramount.

“You can’t carry on unless you’re a passionate reader yourself. You’ve got to have a real passion for books. Profit margins alone can’t ensure your survival in this business,” Hussain said.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 6, 2012.

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