The other day, I was talking to one of the youth from our programme. He lives on the street, and makes a living by selling books and magazines at traffic lights.
Magazines are sure shot sellers, he informed me. He buys them on credit, and always manages to sell them all. Books, by which he means pirated copies of books, are quite another story, he told me. There was a time when he could make a killing on them, but sales have been down ever since the pavement booksellers who also double up as circulating libraries started stocking them.
“How can we compete with them”, he asked me. “I sell a book for fifty rupees. They sell a book at sixty rupees, but give back forty rupees when you return the book after reading it. Why would anyone want to buy the book from me when they can read it so much cheaper otherwise?”
I had to nod in agreement. This aspect of book piracy was one that had never thought of before.
“But I still stock some books”, he continued. “People still buy Brinda, the Secret, Chicken Soup and that Ferrari book (The Monk who Sold his Ferrari). It is these new books that I cannot sell anymore.”
After chatting a little longer, he wandered off.
An hour later, he came to my desk and offered me sweets.
“What is the occasion?”, I asked.
“Have the sweets and I’ll tell you”, he said with a grin.
“If you won’t tell me, I won’t have your sweets”, I bargained with a smile.
He grinned. “Assume it’s my birthday.” After I broke off a piece and popped it in my mouth, he continued, “Well, it’s not exactly my birthday. I don’t even know how old I am. But I have decided to celebrate today as my birthday.”
I couldn’t even start to comprehend a life so different from mine. Even at 38, I have only to ask, and my mother and father-in-law drop everything and rush to help. And here is someone who has never known anyone who could even tell anything about himself. If he ever lived in a house, he doesn’t remember it, and he calls the wide open streets of the city home.
I am still ethically as opposed to book piracy as I always was. But if trading in pirated books is the only thing that stands between starvation and survival, I find it difficult to condemn it outright.
Which brings me to a possible solution. The discounts that some book stores offer their customers proves that the margins in distribution could be as high as 35%. Why, then, can’t book publishers directly use the boys who sell books at traffic lights to distribute their books? Lower margins would mean lower book prices, and any reduction in the price gap between genuine and pirated books can only bring down the demand for pirated books. Or it is too simplistic a solution?