photo credit: AnyhooI find it strange that I hardly ever talk about books on my blog, given that I read a lot. You’ll find many reviews of movies, albums and whatnot, but hardly any books. Odd, because I own an extensive book collection – I’ve totally lost track of how many books I have. I’ve donated many over the past few years, and I have quite a sizeable collection at some of my relatives’s place rather than at home. Then there are many many e-books that I have. I’ll try to remedy that over the next few months.
photo credit: Hi PandianI prefer buying books during the annual Delhi Book Fair or the biennial International Book Fair in Delhi, just because of the sheer variety of books that you can get. I rarely buy books from bookstores, that too if some new book comes out for which an e-book version is not available which I desperately want to read. I have no preferences among bookstores in particular; I don’t hunt around for deals, I just go to whichever bookstore is most convenient for me to go to at the time I feel like buying. Thus, given a choice, I would prefer to buy books online when these I-must-have-this-book urges spring up.
Till now, this has not been possible India. Shady websites being passed off as ‘online bookstores’ have been around but I know for a fact they aren’t reliable. Ordering from them simply wasn’t worth the trouble – it was far more easier to even trek across the whole city to get a book you wanted. The first people you need to avoid are the Snake Oil Merchants Inc trio of Indiatimes Shopping, Rediff Shopping, and Sify Shopping. As far as I know, these guys have no inventory of their own: local dealers sign up with them, the Snake Oil Merchants pretend they have the book, and pass on the order to one of these local dealers. How quickly you got your book and in what condition was decided by Snake Oil Merchants Inc by flipping a patented 10-sided coin they have, 9 sides of which say “Take the money and forget about ‘customer care'”. Friends of mine who were gullible enough to end up, say, pre-ordering a new Harry Potter release repented their decision when orders were left undelivered for weeks on end (the whole point of pre-ordering is defeated!).
Then there’s Indiaplaza and Futurebazaar. I think they got their websites by the same company, because both show similar and irritating errors. Start adding something to your shopping cart at any of these sites – and poof, in an instant your order choices will be lost because ‘we encountered an error’. Suffice to say that after such ‘errors’ I didn’t have the courage to try Russian-rouletting my way to their payment page.
Even more depressing are dedicated bookselling sites and publisher websites. Navigating Penguin India’s website is a terrifying experience requiring nothing less than a black belt in at least three different kinds of martial arts. Please, Penguin, designing is a website doesn’t mean you throw a few GIFs together like Lego blocks. Heck, try searching for books which books – I tried to find some books which I know have been published by Penguin India, and they didn’t turn up. Oh, it didn’t tell me right away of course. You have to try and trick the Penguin India website into thinking that you’re Chuck Norris, and if you fail to do that then it shows the error message above. Once you do succeed in fooling it (I roundhouse-kicked my laptop screen) it tells you that the book you know exists, doesn’t. Other Indian publisher websites aren’t worth talking about so I’ll give them a miss.
Among dedicated bookselling sites based out of India the most prominent ones are First & Second and A1Books. Both claim to India’s ‘largest’ / ‘number 1’ online bookstore, but till now I have been disappointed with their inventory. Many times when I’ve tried to search up books at these two places I came up with zilch results. Many times these guys claim to have books when they are in fact out of stock, but take your order anyway. Prateek was telling me today of how he faced such an issue with First & Second once where they took an order for an out-of-stock book and it took ages to get a refund.
I have been fairly apprehensive about buying books from online stores in India – until now. Lately I have been hearing a lot of word-of-mouth praise for Flipkart.com. So when Amit Varma’s book My Friend Sancho was released recently (review coming up soon!), I decided to give Flipkart a shot.
The first thing that caught my eye about Flipkart was the no-nonsense attitude. There are no tall claims about being the largest / longest / biggest / highest / smelliest anything in India / world. They don’t keep pushing DVDs, flowers, box of chocolates, or any other crap like some other bookstores either. A list of bestsellers, search box – that’s it. Footer is a bit messed up, but it gets the job done. It seems that a lot of users keep asking them for free PDF ebooks…
You don’t pay for courier charges if the order value is above Rs 100 – which should be the case 9 times out of 10. Once you select the books you want, you can quickly create an account and proceed to checkout for payment. You have multiple choices for paying – credit card, debit card, Internet bank account, ItzCash card, cheque / demand draft. Credit card payment processing is done by Axis Bank’s payment gateway, which charges the lowest transaction fee out of any credit card processing gateway (I know because I do quite a lot of online transactions). Opting for cheque / DD obviously means you’ll have to snail mail it to them and then wait for your book – this option is mainly kept just for the heck of it on most e-commerce sites though I’m certain hardly anyone would be using it.
By far the most accessible option for everyone would be to use an ATM / debit card or an Internet banking account. These payments are handled by CCAvenue, the processing gateway that every effing startup in India seems to use. CCAvenue charges merchants a lower transaction fee so this is what most startups end up bootstrapping for payment processing. I hope CCAvenue dies a miserable death. Their servers can be unreliable and sometimes reject payments from legitimate cards, or simply time out while processing. To their credit however, CCAvenue never makes a wrong charge and even if the transaction fails due to a timeout error or something else, they send you an email informing you whether the transaction could be carried out or failed. You can then go back to the merchant site and place the order again safe in the knowledge that your card has not been charged.
Flipkart promises to deliver your order within three business days if the order is placed before noon on the day of the order. I placed my order for My Friend Sancho in the late evening yesterday, so I expected it to take at least two days to reach. I was pleasantly surprised when I found it had arrived early today morning! The packaging used is excellent – they shipped in a paperback-size cardboard box. The quality of packaging is good, no chance of the book getting damaged during transit.
Everything with Flipkart is almost-perfect – you can forgive them for the messed up front page navigation because their core strength is solid. What sucks really bad in Flipkart is its search feature. There is no ‘advanced search’ (none that I could find) which would allow you to search by title, author, publisher or ISBN to lookup a book. If you can find out from elsewhere online, ISBN is the fastest way to track down the exact copy and edition of whichever book you want. Right now, Flipkart’s search is simple text-string match. You can’t “enclose search terms in quotes” to search for exactly that phrase. Consequently it might take a long time to hunt down a book if the title or author name has common surnames / common phrases. Once you get a book, then you can easily look up other editions (hardback vs paperback) and compare prices. I also liked the fact that if a book is out of stock then it is clearly listed as such, with the option to set up an email alert to be triggered as soon as the book is available in their inventory again. I suggest that you use Yahoo! Search / Google Search to hunt down the book you want if it’s getting agonizing; restrict results to Flipkart by adding ‘site:flipkart.com’ before your search term in Yahoo! / Google.
I’ve found an online bookseller that I can trust, ships for free, delivers on schedule in proper packaging and even throws in discounts on books. They got it right by sticking to one thing – selling books – and doing that one thing extremely well. Flipkart might just have become my preferred method of buying books.