The pandemic came as a blessing in disguise, benefiting both readers and sellers
Make a tour, if you can, of the traditional book hubs in the capital and you will find many of the shops elbowed out by T-shirt shops. The Covid-19 pandemic has only deepened the gloom.
And those who have clung to the trade will surely be found trying hard to drive away their slumber, with few visitors browsing their old stocks of books published decades ago. If asked about a latest book, published abroad and became a bestseller, they will give you a blank look.
This is what Sabbir Ahmed Sohag, a third-year student of Jagannath University and himself a bookworm who gathers collectors' editions of books from noted writers, finds out the situation to be like.
He discovered, to his frustration, that almost no shop operating in the country is able to help grow his collection.
So, he and his classmate Redwanul Haque took it upon themselves the task of setting up an online bookshop during the raging pandemic. They named it Paperbee, and would import and sell quality books.
Sohag is among the many who contributed to the huge boom of the new wave of online bookshops in the country. The pandemic came as a blessing in disguise, benefiting both readers and sellers.
A large number of online bookshops, mainly based on social media, came into being within a short time. The Book Way, Booksmith, Histopia, House of Words, Paperbee, Go Bookish, Papercut Books, Bookspider BD, Paperback, Boikunjo, and Booker's are only a few to name. Almost all of them took off around the pandemic timeline.
The locked-down readership spontaneously reached out to the online sellers, boosting their sales big time.
These mostly small-scale bookshops generally operate through Facebook only and cater to a niche audience. Despite being low profile, they are gaining momentum for their unique collections.
This feat they are achieving by importing and distributing the works of not only famed novelists but also prolific social and political figures.
If someone wants to buy "The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008" by Nobel laureate Paul Krugman or "Poor Economics" by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, they must turn to these shops.
Be it an international bestseller like "Ready Player Two" by Ernest Cline or Friedrich Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil", they have got it all along with James Joyce, Stephen King, Noam Chomsky, Pearl S Buck, Richard Dawkins and other famed names in between.
For instance, The Book Way is relatively new among the book shops operating online. But, their book collection comprising books by foreign authors is starkly different from traditional e-shops.
Taposh, the co-founder of The Book Way, while talking to The Business Standard, reiterated that the pandemic has given a great boost to the online readership.
"We opened the shop online in late March. Initially, we had little response but as the days went by and the pandemic hit the harder, we noticed that the sales increased almost four to five times our average," he said.
The Book Way, run by three people, imports 30-40% of their inventory from abroad as per customers' demand. Taposh started the shop as a side venture with his friends.
"There is a risk factor: importing books that are not in demand among the buyers," he said, adding that most of their imports are bought from Amazon and other global book shops.
On average, the shop sells books worth Tk1,50,000 per month. "At one point last year, we even saw our sales reach Tk3,00,000," he added.
Taposh noted that the increase in demand also indicates a new type of readership, away from the traditional large scale e-shops.
"Most of our orders are for novels, stories and non-fiction books. We manage our inventory depending on public demand," Taposh said.
Paperbee owner Sohag also witnessed booming sales throughout 2020.
"Despite my love for collector's edition book, Paperbee started as a store for supplying comics to the Dhaka youth, but later amid growing demand, we started selling original novels and non-fictions imported from India," Sohag told The Business Standard.
His shop saw three-fold rise in income during the heights of the pandemic. "People love to read in their off-time. Our sales skyrocketed during the general holidays. We sold books worth Tk90,000 a month, which is almost three to four times our average sales," he said.
However, Sohag also noted that the market for online bookshops has become oversaturated.
"Paperbee tries to deliver original prints to the customers but we are facing stiff competition because some shops tend to print pirated pdf copies of books available online and sell them as local prints at a much cheaper price," Sohag said.
A co-founder of Booksmith said the business model of Facebook-only shops is profitable because they import books in limited numbers.
"Our shop has some customers who order book on the page regularly. I am a book lover myself, so I tend to order books that I too enjoy reading," he told The Business Standard.
He remarked that despite being small in size the relatively newer bookshops attempt to be dedicated to the readers. "We are doing this out of love for books and we do not compromise on the quality," he added.
Sharing his views with The Business Standard, writer Ahnaf Tahmid praised the development of the country's online bookstores.
"With the help of online bookshops, not only books of the locals but also rare books written by foreign authors are reaching the readers' doorsteps, which is an amazing feat," he said.
The author also expressed his view from a writer's perspective. "Nowadays, online bookshops are also playing a big role in promoting new books by many new authors," he said.
He, however, noted that the commercial aspects of such bookshops need to be regulated.
"Waiting for books to be delivered is definitely a chore, but you can get some rare stuff you won't find anywhere else – that's an added benefit," Arefin Mizan Abir, a regular customer of online bookshops, told TBS.
Mizan particularly focused on a key aspect of these online bookshops – the fragmentation of their collection and poorly organised inventory.
"It's hard to know if a shop has a particular book you are looking for; so these shops, especially if they do not have a working website and just operate from their Facebook pages should properly categorise or introduce a more useful book searching system to save us, buyers, more time," Mizan added.
According to the e-Commerce Association Bangladesh (eCab) data, Rokomari alone has sold over 90,000 books on average in a month throughout 2020 followed by 2,000 books of eBoighor and 1,500 of Durbeen.
Mizan thinks that despite the gap, these fresh Facebook-only shops are expected to soon catch up with the big boys. "The newer shops cater to the specific taste of a buyer. At least they are sincere in delivering rare and uncommon books as well as newer books that are globally acclaimed. I think they have a bright future ahead," he said.