Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inside an Indian Bookstore

I'm in Bangalore, the tech capital of India, where even the Cook pines look like cell phone towers.

My favorite "tourist" activity in a country new to me is to go inside ordinary stores. A walk through grocery store will give you a much better understanding of a nation's cuisine than their best restaurants. You'll see strange foods and smell strange smells, and you'll see familiar foods presented in unexpected ways.

So I just had to visit a bookstore here. I chose a medium sized one, situated on the second and third floors of a building in a busy shopping district. Like bookstores anywhere else, Indian bookstores find it profitable to stack lots of non-book items- in this store, the entire second floor is taken up with DVDs, toys, games, teddy bears and Ganesha figures.

In this bookstore, six of seven aisles are devoted to English-language books. The seventh aisle is devoted to books in the local language, Kannada. Kannada is spoken by a total of 60 million people in southern India, which is a lot more than than speak many European languages, but in India it's a minority.

As you might expect from Bangalore's status as a tech capital, an entire aisle of the bookstore is given over to computer-related books. The prices of these books were higher than I thought they would be. For example, the latest edition of Programming Perl was 750 Rupees, or about 17 US dollars. In the US, it's 33 dollars at Amazon. (Wow, that's pretty expensive!) Books aimed at the Indian market are priced lower- 150-300 Rupees.

You might wonder how programming books can command such prices given that many good ones are available in free html versions in a region with a per capita income only 1/40th of the US; even a software developer's salary is a fifth that of his US counterpart. Part of the reason may be that it's still unusual for people to have access to the internet at home. Print works better here.

By all reports, the ebook reader market in India is be poised for an explosion. If you think about it, a cheap ebook reader would be a really good way for Indians to take that free-on-the-web ebook home from the office. The bookstore I visited had a single ebook reader for sale- it's displayed in the book section on top of other luxury items such as the plastic-sealed copy of Dan Brown's Lost Symbol.

Infibeam's "Pi" ebook reader sells for 10,000 Rupees, or about $225. It's made in Taiwan and looks like a stripped-down Kindle, with e-ink display, but no keypad and no wireless connectivity. It supports all sorts of ebook formats, and most of the 22 official languages in India. The marketing slogan for the Pi is "Read eBooks Anywhere!" and the availability of free ebooks, including the "top 100 from Project Gutenberg", is prominently noted. The Infibeam website (which exhibits sincere flattery of Amazon) offers a wide selection of eBooks. Stieg Larsson has a good share of the Pi at 433 Rupees (close to the $9.99 Kindle pricing); he was nowhere to be found in the Bangalore bookstore.

While the Pi is first ebook reader targeted at the Indian market (Kindle is also available) there are a number of competitors waiting in the wings- I'll cover them in another article.


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