Providing the Joy of Book Reading for Everyone in India; In Conversation with Gunjan Veda, Co-Founder IndiaReads
“I have loved books all my life. Friends from school remember me as a bookworm. I was always under the impression that people didn't read books because they weren't interested, but I was wrong. To begin with, many parts of India didn't have access to books. For many people, textbooks were the only books that they had ever seen. And this wasn't even in the peripheries!”I was just as surprised to know what Gunjan Veda, Ex-Officer on special duty to the Planning Commission of India shared. From the thoughts and intentions of a fellow journalist, who has seen a lot more of India than most people her age, comes IndiaReads, an online portal striving to make books accessible to everyone in India.
This is the interesting story of Gunjan's experiences as one of the youngest consultants for the Planning Commission of India, recounting her moment of reckoning that led to her starting up and plans for the future of her cause.
Born in Burhanpur
Gunjan, a post graduate in International Relations studied various conflicts while in school. Post her studies, she applied what she learned to help resolve the troubled times in Manipur due to the Manorama Incident. Her work was recognized by the planning commission of India, and she was appointed as an honorary consultant and later as an officer on special duty for the Planning Commission of India.
“During my stint at the Planning Commission, I frequently travelled to remote places and Bohranpur was one such place. During a visit to a school, I asked
my usual question of favorite authors and there was one boy who asked me something to the effect of 'It is easy to talk about books and question us on favorite authors, but where are the books?'” Recollected Gunjan.“And that's when I realised that books aren't as easily accessible as I thought they were. Even tier 2 cities like Jodhpur wouldn't have new books. There are a few government libraries which are very good, but these also wouldn't have the latest books. The same with schools; people concentrate on co-curricular activities, but as much emphasis on a good library is not given. That is pretty much what lead to IndiaReads.”
Gunjan told us that for a person in Aizwal, to buy books, they would plan a trip to Kolkata once every 6 months to buy everything at one go. “My aim was to get the books to reach this person in Aizwal and similarly everywhere else in India and to an extent, we're doing that,” said Gunjan.
IndiaReads provides an online library service and a book sales service. It consists of a 3 member founding team, Gunjan Veda, Mahendra Mehta and Shrawan Chhajer. It now has offices in a few cities across India where they have attained a critical mass of users. “I'd like to say the converse, but the majority of our users are from the cities. This is because they know about us in the cities. However, we've had people from villages in Punjab, tea plantations in Coorg and other small towns reach out to us for books,” admits Gunjan.
Logistics and Operations; Getting Books to Doorsteps and Back
“We started up in 2010, we've spent about 2 years in getting the logistics right. While there is a good distribution system in India, reverse logistics was something that we couldn't find a solution for. We had to decline business from some places in the past because of this reason. But now, through partnerships with courier companies, we've set up the logistics for all of India and are looking to push on the business front,” shared Gunjan, on the challenges faced in setting up IndaRead's logistics.
“However, we've noticed that people buying from remote areas are not afraid to spend money online using their credit and debit cards. Demands for cash on delivery only come from cities, where they are aware of it. So we believe that the only barrier is the fact that people don't know about our services and we want to do more of that from now on,” said Gunjan.
Gunjan Veda is an author of 2 books. One of the books, Beautiful Country, was co written by member of the Planning Commission of India, Sayeeda Hameed. “We did a book launch at a college, along with another author, Oswald Parreira, who was doing the same for his book, Newsroom Mafia. The
book launch was post a panel discussion for the students of that college, and what we found was the 80% of the students bought one of the two books,” said Gunjan.Now this was amazing. Here were two authors, and their books that no one had ever heard of, and an interaction between them and an audience could prompt a purchase. This is the foundation of the IndiaReads Literathon.
“I always wanted to take quality authors to various colleges in India and launch their books in those colleges and facilitating an interaction between the two. Honestly I didn't see the business side of this, but apparently it works!” Said Gunjan on the Literathon “Another aspect that I feel that we're different from others is in the quality of the books that we have. At the world book fair, our stall was the smallest, but it drew the largest crowd at the conference, only because of the quality of books that we had. Again, not a business decision, but it worked.”
You can find the schedule for the Literathon here.
Post interview, over some tasty Roti's and Dal Makhni, Gunjan shared with me that there were offers for IndiaReads to become a multi-brand ecommerce portal, which the leadership team of IndiaRead's promptly refused. Many people in their place would have taken the offer, but this display of integrity speaks volumes of the people on which the organization is built on. Besides, who quits a job at the planning commission to start up but an entrepreneur with a strong sense of purpose.