Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Guys at Traffic Lights

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?


Patricia Stoltey said...

This is a fascinating social and economic problem, isn't it? The trouble is, the book stores could not allow this plan to succeed because it would cut into their business.

We often take a fatalistic view of book and audiobook pirates, selling ARCs on EBay, and other infringements on author rights or royalties, saying that at least our books are reaching more readers that way.

Anonymous said...

An ingenious solution! Why not write to some of the publishers and suggest this as a solution?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I've never seen poverty like that. So disturbing.

I think it's a great idea. Patricia is right, though--the bookstores would come after us with guns blazing.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Elspeth Antonelli said...

One certainly can't condemn him for trying to earn a living; can one? I found the news that he didn't know his own birthday very unsettling.


Jan Morrison said...

I love that he was going to create his own birthday. Excellent! And perhaps he creates his own family and community too. Also excellent. He sounds like an entrepreneur. Maybe he could sell a collection of your Drabbles?
I think that the mainstream book folks wouldn't go for your enlightened idea but perhaps authors would. It is so fastly becoming a different world - hard to say what will happen next.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

Coming back to reply after much more than a month- Sorry.

I did write to a publisher about this, and his answer was the he was willing to try it out provided he only had to go through one distributor to reach all the sales people. Sometimes I wish I were more entrepreneurial than I actually am - there are opportunities here that go beyond just social work!
@ Patricia - the only way to accept it is to take the fatalistic view of it. To be honest, if I see a pirated book of mine, I would perhaps be a bit sad about losing income, but I will be a lot more happy than sad because that is proof that my book has been accepted! But then, I don't write for a living, or ever intend too.

@ Fiona - I did take your suggestion, and it is not downright dismissive.

@ Elizabeth - the book stores are the ones who would be most affected, but then how many of them are there where selling books is the main soruce of revenue.

@ Elspeth - till I joined the organisation I now work for, I am pretty sure I didn't even suspect people like him existed, but they do :-(

@ Jan - yes, full marks for survival, isn't it?


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