IN LATE 2008, BINNY BANSAL, co-founder of the online retailer, Flipkart.com, noticed that there had been several orders for The Handbook of Goat Farming (authored and published by the Engineers India Research Institute). These orders, “one or two every week,” were being placed by farmers in the hilly regions of Hamirpur and Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh to Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu. Flipkart has sold more than 400 copies of the book, which talks about everything from the economics of goat farming to the types of goat feed. Nearly 45% of Flipkart’s book sales (it sells around 2.5 lakh books every month) are to small towns where brick-and-mortar bookshops don’t offer variety. “Most of the times we use the Indian postal system for our deliveries because no courier company has that kind of reach,” says Bansal.
Tapas Rudrapatna, product management strategist at Flipkart, says that apart from books on goat farming, the reading habits of people in middle India are not much different from those in metros and cities. Fiction makes up about 70% of sales, with Chetan Bhagat, Ruskin Bond, Devdutt Pattanaik, and Ashok Banker being some of the most sought after Indian writers. M.K. Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, along with Wings of Fire (A.P.J. Abdul Kalam) and Open (tennis ace Andre Agassi) are the other favourites from places such as Bhabua (Bihar), Gondia (Maharashtra), Shimoga (Karnataka), and Periyakulam (Tamil Nadu). Flipkart gets an order every two or three days from small towns like these.
“Sometimes it’s a guy from South India posted at an oil refinery in the north west of the country, ordering a copy of Ponniyin Selvan because he cannot find it there,” Rudrapatna says. In the last year and a half, Flipkart has sold more than 219 copies of mystery thrillers by Babu Devkinandan Khatri—the first order of the six-volume Bhootnath came from Lohardaga in Jharkhand. Rudrapatna also talks about this “set of customers” who log on only in the first week of every month to order the entire series of Mills & Boons. About 25% of the 250-plus Mills & Boons sold every month go to tier III towns.
It’s not just Flipkart, Sathish Balakrishnan, co-founder of Jumadi, an online retailer of books, music, movies and gadgets, says the remotest place they have delivered to is Malana, a village with a population of about 4,000, in Himachal Pradesh. It took them 11 days to get The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, to the village situated at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. “We usually get orders from people in the age bracket of 25 to 40,” says Balakrishnan.
Jumadi, which has sold about 10,000 books since it started last November, has been reaching villages such as Mallapura in Karnataka and Boha in Punjab. The remotest places Flipkart has delivered to are military outposts (“We can’t give the exact addresses because these are confidential”). And what’s most popular with soldiers? Along with The US Army Leadership Field Manual, it’s Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries.