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Wednesday, November 18

Bangalore Book Festival 2009

For the first time I was on the other side of the table in a book festival and it turned out to be a lot of fun. The feeling when somebody finally, after a lot of deliberation picks up a book and says that he wants to buy it, the whole money exchange ritual which happens after that, seeing people find something to smile about or laugh at in one of the books - all of them make it worth while to sit jobless behind the counter for hours.

So while as an exhibitor I quite enjoyed it, I don't think it was particularly great for a real book lover. There was nothing that you could not find in the few book shops around Church Street, it was choke full of religious stalls and despite the tall claims, almost all major Indian publishers were absent - Rupa, Harper Collins, Random Hous e, Hachette India, Westland, Rajpal being the once who come to mind. I remember seeing Katha stall also but even they were missing this time. So at the end of it all, you end up in the same old stalls - Blossoms, Select Book Shop, Bookworm etc and pickup some volumes at a little extra discount.

And I also ended up doing the same. This year we bought only 7 books - as compared to 27 last year - primary reason being the guilt of all the unread books that are piling up in our house and secondary being the lack of time to explore. The 7 books are:
  • The Life and Times of Pratapa Mudaliar. Original in Tamil by Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai. Translated by Meenakshi Tyagarajan. Katha.
  • Katha Prize Stories Volume 3. (Storied published between 1991-93)
  • India's Unending Journey by Mark Tully.
  • An Illustrated History of Transportation by Anthony Ridley
  • How to Self-Edit by Dianne Bates. Emerald Publishers.
  • A Practical Key to the Kannada Language by Rev. F. Ziegler. Reprint by Asian Educational Services
  • Scar Tissue - 8 lives, 8 young women. Edited by Nikhat Grewal. Women Unlimited.
As you can see, my love for history & collections continues. We also almost bought the full set of "Mahasamar" by Narendra Kohli - the awesome retelling of the epic Mahabharata. But the price tag of Rs. 2500/- proved to be too steep. We already have the first 2 books which we found in Reliance Timeout. Hunt is on for the remaining ones!

People tell me that Delhi and Kolkata book fairs are better in the sense they are bigger and you can find almost anything you are looking for. Let's see when I get a chance to go to one of them.

So what was your impression of the Bangalore Book Festival 2009?

Tuesday, June 16

Ownership is the key!

This article about Room To Read in Business Week caught my attention, (through a Google Alert set up on Self Publishing). Specifically the last paragraph which I reproduce here:

While Room to Read's accomplishments so far are quite impressive, John isn't satisfied. Children aren't using the libraries enough. Of the 5.6 million books in the libraries, only 1.3 million have been checked out so far. So Wood's local teams are working with schools to make the library experience more compelling to children. Self-publishing content is another piece of the strategy. The more books the organization can publish in local languages that are sculpted for young readers in those places, the more likely they'll want to read them. Unfortunately, it costs about $12,000 per book for writing, editing, and printing expenses.

While generating more engaging content, content tailored to local culture, environment and in local languages is very important, I think there is one more important cultural aspect, at least in India, which is at play here. And that issue is ownership.

To understand this, we can look at the experience of providing computers, often old ones - imported from west on charity grounds, to schools in rural areas. In a lot of cases, the computers are not used because they are simply locked up by teachers for "safe keeping". Since the children are mostly poor and there is hardly any maintenance budget with the school, they are very hesitant to let children have free access to the devices. In other words, they keep the ownership of the machines to themselves.

In books, the problems of maintenance are not that high but my guess would be that mindset remains the same. The ownership of the library remains with the teachers, or some other person with authority. Combine this with all sorts of biases present in the society, those considered bright, good at studies, favorite of the teachers are more likely to get access to the library. On the other hand, those whose needs are not fulfilled by the traditional education - potentially good sports-persons, children with learning disabilities - considered slow for lack of understanding etc are more likely to stay away or kept out - depending on how aggressive the biases are.

But even leaving aside any bias from the teachers, I understand that most of them don't even realize the biases built into the system, the feeling that something is yours generates a totally different level of engagement. It allows children to use the facilites in most imaginative ways possible. For about a year, I worked with the BRiCS project in Media Labs, IIT Kanpur. This project conducts workshops where they teach children to create toys from simple material and tell stories around them. The aim is the make learning more hands on and visual. One very important principle of the project was that as far as possible, children who make the toys should be able to keep them - the concept of ownership. One can build very cool toys with expensive sets like Lego Mindstorm but ultimately, these will need to be disassembled and given back to the school since every children cannot afford those sets. So we tried to develop cheap alternatives to the same, incorporating general scarp available in the immediate environment. And children just loved their messy, odd looking creations built out of that which they could keep.

So if I were to find a way to encourage children to read more books, participate more with the library, I would try to put in place an ownership culture from the beginning, where children own and manage the library. Of course there are issues of mishandling and torn books and who bears the cost in those cases. That is where we need to innovate - technologically to create stronger, better suited books and financially - figuring out a scheme of collective responsibility.

Disclaimer: I have no knowledge of how the Room to Read libraries are setup and managed, may be they are already following the principle of ownership. The point of above is to stress the importance of ownership for any such initiative.

Thursday, June 11

Couple of WTFs to set the ball rolling again!


  • Slumdog star Rubina to pen biography!

While I am all for people trying to make use of the popularity of these kids for good cause (the proceeds from the book will go to some charity in.. France!), this is stretching it too much. She is all of 9 years old.

  • Somebody applied to our company with this cover letter:

I am writing to apply for any job opening is there in your company. ... I believe my education, skills and experiences fit your requirements...

Again, don't get me wrong. I know searching for a job can be quite tough but then you have to keep your game up in the tough times and not write such sloppy letters. If you are applying to "any" job, how does your "education, skills and experiences fit our requirement"?

Regular programming will resume in a while!

Friday, March 20

The Seagate Contest

I went to the BlogCamp Bangalore few days back and listened to some of the talks. A nice talk by Ashish Gupta of Helion Ventures was the highlight of the day for me.

Another interesting thing was a contest being run by Seagate who were the main sponsors of the event. They have launched FreeAgent External Hard Drives in the capacities of 500GB and 1TB. Now that is a lot of space! Challenge is to come up with a creative use for all this space.

What immediately come to my mind is a book mobile. A book mobile is a van that is Internet enabled and has print-on-demand equipment on board (a b/w printer, a color printer, a binder and a trimmer). The van goes around and prints books for people who want them. The biggest problem for deploying this van into more rural areas in the availability of Internet. But with the huge space available with Seagate FreeAgent drives, we can put all the available books - from Internet Archive, from Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, from Digital Library of India - on this drive. This drive will become a replacement for the Internet on the van and will make available all those books to those who will otherwise not get access to this material easily.

The same van with an additional scanner can be used to drive to all the families, institutions where rare manuscripts are available, old records of value, photographs of the yore and scan them in front of the eyes of owner (with so much storage available on the run, there will be no need to take the material to some central location for which it may be hard to get permission from the owners). All this scanned data can be brought back and merged in to a huge digital archive.

I think using FreeAgent drives like this will make this world a better place :-)!

Wednesday, January 28

Two quick tips for image refreshing and download dialogue

As we are moving to use more and more "AJAX" on pothi.com, I keep learning new things everyday some of which really entertain me :-). So let me put them down here.

  • How to make sure that an image refreshes from server and not from cache?

    Suppose you have an img tag and the file in its src attribute is being updated on the server through a ajax call. Now we have to make sure that when the src file changes, the image on the page is also refreshed. On its own, the browser will simply use the version of the file in the cache. To avoid that, you can simply attach a GET query to the end of the image url. So src="test.png" becomes something like - src="test.png?random=<any randomly generated string>". For the random string you can use the surrent time stamp. Short and sweet :-)
  • How to show a download dialogue for files that browser usually opens without asking?

    Browsers usually have a mapping of MIME types and applications. If they get data of a particular mime type and know how to handle that, they will open it i.e. pdf files. In order to force the browser to show a download dialogue which gives an option of either opening or saving, you have to send a header something like this - 'Content-Disposition: attachment;filename="test.jpeg"' . This can be done in php using the header function. A more detailed article is on apptools - http://apptools.com/phptools/force-download.php

These are small things with quick solutions but can sometimes prove to be the final stumbling blocks. I hope somebody will find it useful.

Sunday, January 18

वादा

"तुम भी प्रियतम?"

"अब छोड तुम्हे मुझको आगे जाना होगा,
अब नयी मंजिलें रह रह पास बुलाती हैं।
अब तुमसे जोडा नाता बंधन सा लगता,
अब नयी सुबह कुछ नये क्षितिज दिखलाती है।"

"अलविदा प्रिये!"

-------------------------------------------------

"तज कर अतीत को और भविष्य पर दर्ष्टि जमा, 
जीवन पथ पर आगे को मैं बढ आया हूं।
हाथों के बंधन पैरों के कांटों बदले,
टूटे वादों की किर्चें संग ले आया हूं।

अब नये स्वप्न मानो आंखों मे चुभते हैं,
अब नयी दिशा, अंजान डगर सहमाती हैं।
अब द्रढ निश्चय से मेरा कोई साथ नही,
ना नयी चुनौती अब उत्साह जगाती है।

किस तरह से अब कोई नया नाता जोडूं?
नाता फ़िर से एक दिन बंधन बन जायेगा।
और तोड के बंधन फ़िर आगे जाना होगा,
क्या यूंही अभागा ये जीवन कट जायेगा?"

Friday, January 16

Book Retailing in India

It has been long since e-commerce made its debut in India but it is still to catch on in a major way. The absence of Amazon from Indian market is a major indication that it is not yet considered a lucrative enough market by big players. A lot has been said about it, tons of research papers written, lots of  workshops/panels have probably discussed it to death. I have not read any of them and so pardon me if what I am going to say sounds very amateurish.

As somebody who is betting on a business model that has Internet distribution at its core, it is very important for me to understand why e-commerce has not caught on in India and what would it take? There is a first obvious bunch of reasons that comes to mind - lack of broadband penetration, lack of good online payment mechanisms ( which includes lack of widespread credit card use and absolutely pathetic state of Indian payment gateways), lack of good logistic providers ( some are way too costly while others are simply not reliable, you can read the horror stories all over web and then I can tell you some of my own experiences) and simply bad e-commerce websites (as put to me by one of the players in the space, pointing towards an old competitor). We all know and understand these and save for the last one, can hardly do anything about them other than pray.

But this post is about a different aspect. I was in US for 2 years and the overarching theme of retail sector there and economy in general seem to be a destruction of giant brick-n-mortar chains at the cost of more efficient online alternatives. Amazon is of course there, Zappos is there and the whole e-bay thing. The current recession has only amplified the vows of physical stores. In short - large scale organized retailers are incumbents in the new economy that is taking shape.

Turn to India and the picture couldn't be different. The organized retail sector in India is just getting started. The last few years have actually seen the spread of the model from groceries to stationary, shoes, electronics and everything else you can think of. Deep pocket, large players are entering the space one after another in a mad rush. Again the current slowdown has brought down the expansion speed but the trend is not over by any stretch of imagination because the fruits of a more integrated supply chain managements are just beginning to be felt by the common masses.

Let's talk specifically about books. Today we have several large format book store chains around - Landmark, Crossword, Depot, Timeout and others. And the customer experience is just so much better in them as compared to normal book shops - you no longer need to know the name of the book/author you are looking for, you can go and browse the books, read them, discover new authors right there in the book store - none of which is possible in an old format store. The choices available are much wider. The point is - the new format retail is a much bigger deal for books as compared to let's say grocery. Most of the time you don't have to explore and discovers new groceries. But in books - that is the name of the game. There is a value add besides simply the price.

On the other hand, this is also a fact that books are one of the best selling online items in India after ticket bookings (Air and train). In a especially price sensitive market like India, they have a clear advantage (although combined with the expensive shipping, that gets diluted). The large number of languages in India present a totally new challenge for distribution and creates many types of long tails (inherently smaller languages like Tulu, the groups of people living away from the main language area - Tamils in North) which are again ideally suited to digital solutions but none of the current players seem too keen on them. Increasing petrol prices are kind of ambivalent - they probably encourage users to avoid driving to retail stores but they also jack up the logistics costs in form of fuel surcharges.

The question I wonder about is - In this situation where these two models are seeing simultaneous evolution, how will they interact? Will we see a Indian Amazon emerge which will soon start kicking butts of big retail stores? Will the Indian retail chains adapt to Internet better and sooner then their US counterparts have managed (given that Indian companies have already seen how it can turn out)? Will we short-circuit to the future that seems to be taking shape in US or will we reach some different equilibrium point? All these are interesting questions and those making right bets will emerge at the top. But as we know from the Quantum Physics - "The very process of observation affects the results of observation." Similarly these bets are also going to decide what future turns out to be.

Exciting times!

OCC Bangalore

10:30 AM on Sunday mornings. That is the time when Open Coffee Club Bangalore meets at some pre-selected venue - usually a nice and cozy coffee shop or a newly-opened-looking-for-some-exposure restaurant. It is a great way of finding out good places to have coffee and off beat food. For example, I discovered Tam's in Koramangala through one of the meets.

While for me this is a good enough reason to get up every alternate Sunday mornings and head to OCC meet, you might find the entrepreneurship aspect of OCC more alluring. Essentially OCC comprises of folks who are somehow related to entrepreneurship, startups, ecosystem - those sort of things and cannot afford to drink on Sunday mornings. So they (me included) end up getting together and talk about issues that affect us, opportunities that we can use and generally get to know each other. The diversity of the group is amazing. A sample of people from the most recent meet in ZOE, Indiranagar - A chartered Accountant, A fashion and image makeover consultant, A social entrepreneurship enthusiasts who was visiting form USA where he is doing his MBA, publishing (yours truly), energy (Amarinder Singh - one of the organizers), A recent college grad who sold his laptop, bike, mobile to raise money for his maiden venture, guys from companies like thoughtworks, handicraft, advertising and so on. And since we had a meet on just the last Sunday, many of the regulars actually didn't turn up. So now you have an idea!

The best thing about OCC remains its very informal atmosphere. The thing to realize is that not every one in startup ecosystem is extrovert and good at networking which seems to be a must have quality to enjoy and make use of most of the events organized around startups. You are left in an arena with lots and lots of folks and you are supposed to "network" with them. Doesn't work for me. I much better like the OCC format where everybody gets to say something about themselves and probably have some discussions and in the end you are free to go and talk to anybody. At least you have some idea about the other person before the "networking" starts.

In almost every meet, I have found someone useful to talk to or some other people have found it useful to talk to me (I hope :-)). This time we had some really interesting folks. One of them is working on a service where you can backup the data on your sim card on the servers of the operator. So they plan to sell this technology to the mobile operators, a strategy on which house was divided. Some people thought that operators may just go ahead and copy the idea since technology is cheap in India while others had the experience that once they see the value, operators are usually quite supportive. Another person had the idea of saving energy in sign board display by using sideways glowing optical fiber instead of tube-lights. They have only recently started working on this and fiber is being sourced from China(?).

Some people also came up to me at end and talked about the print-on-demand and books in general. One question that came up was that in the age when the movement is towards e-books and everything digital, it seems a little retrograde to do something which takes you back to print. The answer to this requires a whole post which I will do later. But the short answer is as the e-books become more popular, the need for print-on-demand will go up since long runs from offset printing will become more and more unviable.

All the above is only "the tip of the iceberg" - as they say - and that too only from my point of view which is again distorted by the lag of one week between the meet and writing the post. If you are in Bangalore and interested in startups in any capacity, do drop in. The meets are free but it is good to order something in order to justify the usage of the cafe/restaurant where the meet is happening. A budget of Rs.100 will take you quite far in OCC :-). For latest information, you can follow OCC Bangalore on twitter : OCCBangalore. The next meet is scheduled to be on 18th of January, 2009. Please mark your RSVP here - http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/1486394

Sunday, January 11

Demopits' experiences at Headstart 09

I went to see the demo pits of Headstart 2009 at the NIMHANS convention center in Bangalore today. It was nice of the organizers to make these free thus providing good opportunities of interaction to the participating companies and also showing poor entrepreneurs like me that they care ;).

Over to the companies, there were some really nice ones. I found the demo from Artin Dynamic most cute (I know that is probably not a compliment a startup expects but can't help it). Basically how about having a power supply with a USB interface to the CPU. Now when the CPU is off, it basically cuts off the power supply thus eliminating the zombie usage completely. The product is called SPARA. Nice!

Then there were two companies that seem to be doing NLP analysis of the data in order to get structure out of them. One of them was alertpedia which monitors some selected websites in order to match the new additions against structured queries specified by the users. Whenever a match occurs, the user gets a alert. So you can say things like - I want to monitor "Bikes on sale in Bangalore" and it will be treated like a structured query. The second company was Meshlabs and the product was zimesh. The guy at the stall said that they do complete parsing of the data. Some of the data comes from various RSS feeds and also users can add any content into the system. Here the data seems more noisy and I am doubtful how well the algorithms perform and how scalable will they be as the site usage increases. Another thing would be to identify duplicates - something which they might already be doing but I forgot to ask. They were vague about the details on the NLP part and I didn't push too much :-).

Entrip guys were smart to have a Mac which makes everything look that extra good :-). But their site does have some eye candy. The basic premise is that you can plan your travel and then share the experience post travel. They have integration with lots of services like flickr, youtube, blogging platforms but why are they calling in "travel blog" or something like that, I don't know. It sounds very boring from the name. A team of 6 people from Pune is working on it for about a year now and they have launched few days back.

Then there were many more like wisdomtap, jobeehive, iduple, tringme and others. From a startup's point of view, I don't think they would have found many customers there but it is sure to give more visibility to them among the investors, bloggers, press and in the ecosystem in general.

There were also panels and talks for 2 days which I didn't attend. From what I am reading, the keynote of day 2 delivered by Ashish Gupta looks quite interesting. Read about it here - Ashish Gupta of Helion Ventures.

Wednesday, January 7

Recession kills the small guys first!

Found this on a forum. In the time of recession the first casualties are the small guys. Although the common sense says that the first casualties should be the big guys - small guys don't have investors on their backs pushing for growth at all costs, they are more flexible and adaptable to situations and so on. But the fact remains that all the systems are build for the advantage of big guns and it is with great difficulty that individuals or small publishers make their way in. So when the crunch time comes, they are the first ones to be thrown off the boat.

So the question arises - how do we build a recession proof distribution channel for the individual authors? Of course Amazon is already one option but how can we go beyond Amazon? And what about a country like India where digital divide is so huge - how can we use all the technology at our disposal and make publishing/books available to those who don't have access to it and miss it the most?

We've seen something devastating to small pubs happen here in Canada in the last month: Chapters / Indigo, the largest chain in the country (includes Coles and others) has removed any time limit that they have to return unsold books to distributors. For distributors who deal with small or independents, this is disastrous, because if Indigo returns a book 10 years from now, the distributor has to try and return the book to the publisher. If they bought the book from a self-publishing author, that's sometimes impossible. This means that many distributors are dropping self-pubs from their rosters altogether to avoid the cost overhead. (One of my authors was dropped a week before Christmas, just before we launched a huge online marketing campaign.) This means that self-publishing authors are now almost eliminated from the "normal" book-selling channel here in Canada, and will be forced to rely on Amazon as their retailer in almost all cases. I help all my authors with things like on-line direct sales, and affiliate programs, but the traditional channels are a major publicity outlet, if not a huge profit outlet. Indigo's policy stinks anyway - who could be helped by that except Indigo themselves? It's creating an elitist book market.

Something to chew on. Ideas are welcome. Execution, more so.