In Kolkata, where book fairs and boi para (book town) are the quintessential cultural accompaniments growing up, the business of books is typically a male dominated scene. Take a walk along the famous College Street – an almost 2 km long stretch in central Kolkata, lined by the city’s prestigious academic institutions and numerous roadside bookstores, and you will find a skewed gender ratio among the business owners of the area.
And it’s not just the Bengal capital; women continue to have a low presence as ground-level book sellers or book business owners across India. This is despite the emergence and acceptance of women writers in the past decade, that has undoubtedly played its part in closing the gender gap in the publishing industry. The trend, however, doesn’t hold true for the book-selling industry, yet.
“In Kolkata, the books industry is predominantly run by men. Women are either in the editorial board or are writers. There are not many women who own a bookshop or are running books business on their own,” says Sushmita Bose, who runs an online book business, called Spectral, on Flipkart.
It was in early 2017 that Sushmita, after years of dealing in books and working with prominent brick and mortar bookstores, decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge. She registered herself as a seller on Flipkart and kickstarted her book business from Boral, on the outskirts of Kolkata. Today Sushmita’s book business operates across a numbers of ecommerce portals.
A dream come true opportunity
An avid reader and a graduate from the Calcutta University, Sushmita, now 37, has spent all her life surrounded with books, fascinating a career that also has something to do with books. In fact, her first job was with Apeejay Oxford bookstore, where joined in 2006 and spent four years working as an online executive, while simultaneously pursuing MBA in Operations and Customer Service.
By 2015, she was at the junction of e-retailing, working as the ecommerce manager at the Emami-owned Starmark, which had partnered with Flipkart at the time.
“From there I got an idea about the marketplace and became interested in joining the online platform to build a business of my own,” says Sushmita.
She soon quit Emami, and in 2017 she became a registered seller on Flipkart. “I love to be around books, and I’m elated that I’ve been able to achieve something in this space. Having my own business, and that too being a seller of books, is like a dream come true for me,” she adds.
A roadblock along the way
According to Sushmita, e-commerce platforms are the most dynamic and accessible mediums for people like her, who do not come with extensive resources but have nifty ideas to scale and reach a vast number of customers across the country. But online selling also comes with certain hurdles.
In Sushmita’s case, the challenge was to deal with the stereotypes in the book industry, seasoned by the stark absence of women entrepreneurs in this space. “Often, I was advised to start selling jewelleries, saris or cosmetics,” she says. “I had to put in a lot of efforts to convince publishing and distributing heads that I am serious about the business. Once they understood how firm and resolute I was, they started guiding me, and now they are the ones who help me whenever I face any challenges.”
What started out as an attempt at leaving the comfort zone and chasing a lifelong goal, is today a promising business. Sushmita, who sold hardly 50 books a day in her initial days of selling online, now sells 450-500 books daily.
“When I started selling on Flipkart in 2017, I used to earn Rs 30,000-40,000 monthly,” she says, “But within a year, my business saw a turnaround, and now I earn Rs 40-50 lakhs monthly just through my online business.”
Eyes on the prize
"Everything you want is on the other side of fear." Jack Canfield’s words hold particularly true for Sushmita, who not only gave up on the safety and security of the corporate life, but also took a plunge into uncertainty when she became an online seller.
The plan moving ahead, she explains, is to expand her online business further. And while raking in the big numbers, she also hopes to create more job opportunities for people of her region, especially for women hailing from families with no stable jobs.
“I want the women to become the men of their families,” she says, highlighting the need for women to gain financial independence. “I want more and more women to work, so that they can groom themselves, learn, and achieve what they want in life,” adds the dynamic entrepreneur.
(Edited by Athira Nair)