‘The quality of discussions is a determinant for attendance at SwapBook! meets’

Based in Mumbai, Pravin Subramanian is the founder of SwapBook!, a community for those who love books and who want to meet up with like-minded reading enthusiasts – not just to swap books, but to share thoughts, views and opinions on a wide variety of subjects. For now, SwapBook! meets are only happening in Mumbai, but we hope that will change and these meets will come to other cities as well in due course. In the meanwhile, Pravin talks about how he got started with SwapBook!, the challenges he faced, some memorable moments and, of course, his own favourite list of books that he’d recommend to all.

You have a degree in information technology and you work in finance. So how / why SwapBook!? Tell us about your interest in books and how you came upon the idea of setting up something like SwapBook!?

I believe my occupation and educational background have no influence on my hobbies except for the occasional scope for enhancing them. Reading is only one of my many interests and continues to be one that has lasted the longest since childhood until date. Back in 2011, I was fresh out of B-school and a few years into a corporate career. Growing up lonely at school and college, I didn’t have too many friends or friendly connections to fall back upon. Secondly, my reading habit and unquenchable curiosity meant that I couldn’t relate to casual conversations. With the Internet transforming the Indian landscape, online met offline briefly in a beautiful way between 2008-14. Lots of meet-up groups spawned and there wasn’t any group dedicated to readers who may want to meet and swap opinions and books. Indeed, the idea that readers are reticent and largely asocial was the trending myth at the time. Instagram today will tell you just how wrong that is with a casual search by the keyword, bookstagram. Following a discussion with my cousin and then some close friends, I decided to kick off SwapBook! with a meeting in June 2011 at Prithvi Café, Mumbai.

SwapBook! has been around for more than a decade. What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered in the beginning? What have been some highlights / most memorable moments in this 10-year journey?

Back in the day, meet-ups were just beginning to appear on the cultural landscape. Events that are today accepted without batting an eyelid – such as standup comedy, food walks, photo walks and the works – weren’t around then, and getting people to attend a meet-up to talk about books was tough. It was a super-niche category though that doesn’t imply there aren’t enough readers. Social media platforms still hadn’t become community-oriented yet and getting a relevant audience was always a challenge.

That said, years later we still faced the challenge of finding the perfect reader. Reading as a hobby isn’t a perfect category unto itself, with different categories of books and readers with varying degrees of interest. A book club is as interesting as its readers and that way we were extremely lucky to get some highly erudite readers at the outset. To try and find more readers like this was an uphill battle. Posting free events on Facebook and Meetups.com meant a lot of time had to be spent on moderating the events and the online group to ensure conversations remained civil, relevant and safe, especially for women who were the bulk of the regular attendees.

Speaking of memorable events, there are too many to list down. From people meeting at SwapBook! and eventually tying the knot to a runaway hit walk by Jane Borges reliving moments from her book Bombay Balchao. The event went on to become a part of Mumbai’s cultural calendar. Many events like these have transpired over the years.

SwapBook! does not have a dedicated website or FB page etc. So, how does SwapBook! function – how do you organise your offline meets and book-swap events, and how do you reach out to all those book enthusiasts who may wish to attend?

SwapBook! relied on Facebook for a long time to post meeting notifications until event aggregator platforms like Insider.in came in and helped our event reach relevant people. Facebook and other social media networks had or have vested interest in promoting events and often, a niche group like SwapBook! got under promoted or not promoted at all. That said, we still have a nominal presence on Instagram and Twitter which occasionally send one person or two, to our meets. It could also be poor social media programming skills on my part since it was my efforts alone at organising and planning events.

A SwapBook! meet in progress. Books, coffee, conversations – looks like fun!

In which cities do you currently hold SwapBook! meets? In which places has the turnout been most encouraging? Tell us about the people who attend? Any unique/funny/memorable incidents that may have happened during your SwapBook! meets, which you’d like to recount here?

SwapBook! began in Mumbai and over time spread across Nagpur, Hyderabad, Delhi and Chennai. But over time, all of these chapters closed due to inability of the regional event organisers to make time for it. Mumbai has been the most enthusiastic in terms of responsiveness and reception and Bengaluru the coldest, with several initial attempts made at organising a chapter resulting in poor or no turnout at all. Maybe it has to do with the city’s traffic woes.

The social dynamic at a SwapBook! meet is a large number of women who attend our events. They are the avid readers, debaters and dissenters. Men too engage, but not with the same fervour. There are notable men who read and debate quite well but as a percentage of the attendees, they are much fewer than the women. Up until 2022, when we restarted meets following the Covid lockdown, the average age of a member at our meet was 40. This was not deliberate but somehow always manifested this way. The current demographic is under 30 but the women still outnumber the men.

While I thought the meets may be transactional at the outset of starting SwapBook!, I soon realised that people come for the discussion and the quality of discussions is a determinant for attendance, especially if one expects repeat audiences. Currently, the draw is well balanced between the spread of books on offer and the quality of discussions, and 95% of the audiences are repeat audience.

Speaking of funny instances, Donald J Trump once gave the idea of COVFEFE (whatever that means remains unknown) and I used the term in the event title. Mid-Day Mumbai gave us free coverage and a person turned up for the meet, carrying a book ghost written by Trump himself. He claims to have met the man and be on familiar terms with him. This is one funny instance that comes to mind among many…

In addition to the cities where you already organise SwapBook! meets, any plans of expanding to other cities in the near future? Any thoughts on working with small, local libraries, bookshops that sell used books and/or online book retailers who sell used books?

I have come to learn the hard way that unless there is skin in the game, there’s no reason why someone should make time month after month for SwapBook! Unless they are truly motivated about reading and the idea of SwapBook!, they will not sustain. Hence, I’m happy to let meets happen in Mumbai alone. A regular from our chapter here is migrating to Bengaluru soon so maybe you could expect him to start a chapter there. Fingers crossed for that.

I’m glad that you’ve broached the topic of preloved books. Back in 2018, a dear friend (no prizes for guessing that she’s a SwapBook! member) thought of a novel idea of promoting preloved booksellers via a walk-in sale at her office space, CoWrks in Mumbai. Leveraging on our network of book resellers, we hosted a three day mega sale at the said premise. The sellers clocked business worth an estimated One Lakh Rupees and the next year, the event became even more eventful with poetry slam, jashn-e-qalam, Humans of Bombay, author meets and suchlike in addition to the sale.

Do you personally read a lot of books? What kind of books do you like? Any favourite genre? Any favourite authors? Do you do most of your book buying online or do you prefer going to actual bookshops? Would you like to name some of the most memorable books you’ve read, which you would also like to recommend to other readers?

Yes, as the founder of SwapBook! and it’s most regular attendee; I believe it’s important to be constantly reading and bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to the table. I am a non-fiction aficionado with interests largely in politics, history and science. However as we speak, I am beginning to explore historic fiction written in foreign as well as Indian languages and translated into English. I buy most of my books from our preloved book sellers.

Regarding my list of books, here’s my life list of memorable, must-read books that I’d recommend to anyone.

1. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

2. The Stranger by Albert Camus

3. The Swerve and The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt

4. Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt

5. Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

6. A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

7. No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

8. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

9. The School of Life books by Alain De Botton

10. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

11. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

12. Which of Us are Aryans? by Romila Thapar

13. Rebel Sultans by Manu S. Pillai

14. Lords of the Deccan by Anirudh Kanisetti

15. Tears of the Begums by Rana Safvi

To the above list, I would add all books by Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson, and any book by Audrey Truschke on Indian history.

For those who may be interested in attending the next SwapBook! meet, bookmark this page. You can also find SwapBook! on Instagram (@swapbookofficial) and Twitter(@subbuscribbles)

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