‘What separates Bookish Santa from other players in the space is our curation’

Bookish Santa is one of India’s leading online book retailers for both new and used books. The platform is notable for being very strong on content, with a host of well-written book reviews, lists of book recommendations and carefully curated lists. Rajesh Kumar Choudhary, Founder of Bookish Santa, speaks to BooksFirst about how he got started in the book retail business, the challenges he faced in growing the business, recent trends in book sales in India and what the future portends.  

You studied accounting and taxation before setting up Bookish Santa. What was it that drew you towards the book retailing business? How did you get started?

I always loved books. I am from the generation that grew up reading Champak and Chacha Chaudhary during their lunch breaks. Once I was into a full-time job, the time I spent with books was reduced. At the same time, I always wanted to start my own business. I believed that starting a business and providing value to society was the best thing one can do with their career. During a random chat with my school friend, Tarun, we thought, why don’t we sell second-hand books online! And without much research, we simply registered a domain and started the next day, trusting that we will figure out our way. The first website was live in a day and we actually made our first logo in MS Paint. We learnt everything from YouTube and simply started.

Were you always a passionate reader, even before setting up Bookish Santa? What kind of books did you enjoy reading in school and college? How have your reading preferences changed/evolved in more recent years?

I was always a reader. I remember going to the weekly vegetable markets in my locality and buying cheap books which I’d read over the week and return the next week in exchange for a new book. I read everything I got my hands on – comics, storybooks, quizzes and even the manuals that came with various electronic equipment during that time. During school and college days, I was mostly read fiction; I devoured contemporary fiction. Like many readers, my reading journey started with Chetan Bhagat and the Twilight series. 

Now, I am more into reading non-fiction since I get to learn a lot from it. I am particularly inclined towards autobiographies – learning how people before me did it. Shoe Dog is my favourite book of all time, which I suggest everyone should read once. Apart from that, books around marketing, sales, communication and business take up most of my time now.

Bookish Santa sells both new and used books. For new books, do you work closely with publishing companies as well as self-published authors? How have these partnerships evolved in the last 2-3 years? What is Bookish Santa’s competitive edge over other online book retailers?

We started with second-hand books. We used to call them pre-loved books, a term we coined for marketing since ‘second-hand’ is usually associated with being cheap and would not work for status-conscious customers. As we grew, we started getting queries from our readers to provide them with new books, since they were getting pirated copies from online marketplaces. That is when we reached out to publishers to tie-up directly, so we could be assured about the authenticity of the books we sell. Niyogi Books was the first publisher kind enough to list with us and they connected us with other publishers in the industry. Gradually, we onboarded them and now we have more than 35 publishers and distributors in our fold. 

Unlike other online stores, we do not work on a steep discounting model. We have a standard discount which we provide across all books. However, what separates us from other players in the space is our curation. Our team consistently creates curated lists of books, which you can pick and read. That ensures that readers are able to identify good books which are not part of a bestsellers list, but which still deserve to be read. And our readers love such curation. The sense of community that was earlier limited to physical bookstores, we are building that online. A place where you can not only buy books, but also discuss them and find others who would be equally delighted to find another bibliophile. That is our edge that will be hard to replicate for others.

Bookish Santa has already been around for more than five years. What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced in all these years? And what have been some of the most memorable highlights?

We first started in 2017, when we still had full-time jobs. However, we couldn’t continue, since we were not able to devote enough time to the venture. So we shut down in January 2018. But we never got our closure; it always itched that we could have made it big if we would have dedicated ourselves full-time for the cause. So after contemplating for two years, we finally left our jobs in April 2019 and started full time. The biggest challenge as with any other start-up is survival and finding your niche. We believed that if we survive for long, we can thrive later. Also, finding our own unique audience who would care about the things we are doing and would be partners in our journey was a difficult task, which took a lot of time to figure out.

The most memorable highlight was when we received our first appreciation from customers about how they loved what we are doing and how they will tell their friends about us. That gave us the motivation to keep going through all the thick and thin that came later in our journey.

In terms of the kind of books that people buy from Bookish Santa, what are the top four or five trends that you have seen in recent years? What drives sales – good reviews, low prices, availability of used book options… or some other factors?

The major trend in recent years have been the spike in demand for non-fiction books. Fuelled by waves of social media influencers, readers are flocking to non-fiction books, reading which they believe may improve their lives. This trend has been seen mostly post-pandemic and we expect it to continue in the foreseeable future. Apart from that, regional books have picked up on demand. When we onboarded publishers who provide regional books, their sales surpassed the sale of English books in a few months and have been our focus area since then. We are doing pretty well with Indian authors, since we also try to actively promote them through collaborations and promotions we keep on doing from time to time. 

We are not a sales-driven platform. So there are books you will find at cheaper prices elsewhere in many cases. What customers love about us is transparency in pricing – we do not jack up the prices and then provide ‘discounts.’ Also, the infusion of human factor in selling books; you can call us or ask for recommendations on WhatsApp and you will always get assistance from our team members. The assurance that in case a buyer faces any trouble, they have a human and not a chatbot to talk to, brings in the much needed trust factor that our customers love. We are also developing a platform that will help local booksellers sell more books and compete with online marketplaces efficiently. The platform is under development and we will reveal more details about it once it is launched.

What is your take on relatively newer formats like eBooks and audiobooks? Are these commercially viable and is the market for these formats growing in India? Do you see Bookish Santa also extending its business with these newer formats in the near future?

As long as people are reading, it does not matter what medium they choose to read. Although newer formats like eBooks and audiobooks gained traction over the last decade, recent data by Neilson showed that readers are now again gravitating toward physical books. So, I’ll say, these mediums can complement a physical book, but they cannot replace them. Currently, we have too many things on our plate and would take a call on expanding into digital books in 2025. By then, the trend will also be much clearer and we will be making an informed decision accordingly. 

Bookish Santa has one of the best book reviews section among all Indian online book retailers. How challenging was it to build up this section and get the right people on board, who could write relevant, useful book reviews?

When we started, we always knew we have to give value to the community. One way was to create meaningful content and provide unbiased reviews. So we created an editorial team and invited readers to write for us. So anyone who reads a book and thinks they can write a good review can send a mail to our editors and they can get published on our blog. We check the submissions for quality and provide feedback when we are not publishing a review. Over time, we managed to create an amazing group of writers who are writing for us on a daily basis and we publish the content regularly. We publish unbiased reviews and recommendations from the community and keep it separate from our marketing initiatives. This has led to our blogs being loved by readers from across the country. The number of readers has been steadily increasing and last month more than 40,000 people read our blogs. 

What is the future of book retail in India? Will it be online-only in the near future, or will physical bookshops still be around in 10 years? Are you happy with the online-only model or would you also consider the possibility of opening up some physical Bookish Santa bookstores in major cities?  

Physical books are going nowhere. They are as relevant as ever as a medium of consuming information and bookstores are bouncing back from the dip in popularity they faced when online stores came on the horizon. We are currently happy with the online model but would love to have an offline presence as well. However, instead of opening our own stores, we would love to partner with other existing indie stores and provide value to them. In regions where there are no bookstores, we may come up with our own bookstore, but that is a far-fetched idea for now. 

More Stories:

Allahabad Apple astrology audiobooks aviation Banaras Banking best-of lists Bombay book marketing Calcutta corporate culture design food Formula 1 interviews Iranian Japan journalism journalists libraries literary agents Lucknow Madras memoirs memories motoring Mumbai music my life with books non-fiction Persian photojournalism Prayagraj publishers publishing retail science-fiction technology travel trends typography Urdu Varanasi wishlists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: