In an age when intellectual-property theft evokes images of MP3 files being downloaded illegally from the Internet, Kumar and his fellow booksellers might seem like quaint throwbacks. Yet he and his colleagues remain the single biggest threat to India's book-publishing industry, which generates some $1.5 billion in revenues a year. You see them everywhere in Indian cities, perching on busy sidewalks hawking new editions of everything from pulp thrillers to the autobiography of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch to the latest novels from highbrow writers such as Salman Rushdie. Up to one quarter of all books sold in India are copies printed without the publishers' consent, according to Sukumar Das, president of the Federation of Publishers' and Booksellers' Associations of India. P.M. Sukumar, vice president of sales and marketing at Penguin India, estimates that piracy slashes his company's sales in India by 20%. "If the problem is unchecked," Sukumar says, "it will seriously harm the book industry."
Many of the street-side booksellers are migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, India's poorest states, and are almost illiterate in English. Yet they're surprisingly sophisticated where it counts. They master enough English to memorize a list of significant authors and identify them by their book covers; they're also highly attuned to the tastes of the Indian reading public. Diwakar, a 19-year-old book-hawker, rattles off the names of his top sellers with ease: "Barbara Taylor Bradford, Sidney Sheldon, John Grisham" and, of course, "Harry Potter." They also know that pirated editions of The Joy of Sex are always in high demand, as are copies of Hitler's Mein Kampf. Says street-side seller Vinod Jain, 21, who always keeps Hitler's book in stock: "I don't know why they want it, but it's a red-hot seller."
But the halcyon days might be numbered. The book industry has launched 300 raids on pavement sellers in the past two years, according to Das of the publishers' association. Kumar laments that because of the raids, he's been forced to become an honest dealer—with disastrous results for his bottom line: his daily turnover has dropped from about $85 to about $5. "I wouldn't say the problem is under control, but we're fighting back now," says Penguin's Sukumar.
Whether or not book piracy ends, one veteran of the street-side industry thinks the future is bleak. "No one's buying books these days," says Pramod Kumar (no relation to Praveen), who sells an assortment of books and magazines in Connaught Place. "They're all watching TV serials." After 22 years in the business, he says he's thinking of changing professions. With a grin that exposes two rows of blackened teeth, he confides, "The future is in CDs."