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Charting His Own Course
In an industry that takes pride in following a path cast in stone, Anish Chandy’s diverse background brings in a new breath of fresh air to the publishing sector in India
Photo Credit : Tarun Gupta
After having put in more than seven ‘outsider’ years in the industry, I can conclude that only publishing is the best qualification for publishing. As strange as it may sound, it makes perfect sense in an industry that defies conventional business norms and operates by its own logic. The most discerning publishers and editors don’t take a second glance at educational qualifications, diploma certificates, job experience and so on, if they feel that a candidate doesn’t have the right instincts for the business. As a result, Indian publishing has witnessed several new faces who may not have any qualifications on paper but whose ‘publishing sixth sense’ more than made up for the so-called lack of experience.
One such face is Anish Chandy, Head of Business Development and Sales at Juggernaut Books. Before joining Juggernaut, the 34-year old Chandy ran his own literary agency, Labyrinth, and worked as a Senior Commissioning Editor for business books at the publishing major Penguin Random House (India). Even in his erstwhile non-publishing career, Chandy, a graduate in business studies from Sydenham College, has done everything from selling CEAT truck tyres in the rural interiors of Maharashtra, working for an animation startup, to working in the Business Intelligence department of the software giant Infosys after securing an MBA from the T.A. Pai Management Institute. Perhaps this is why it is hardly surprising to note when Chandy candidly admits that his break in publishing arrived when he was trying out yet another venture: setting up a bakery enterprise with an old friend. “I bumped into someone who worked in Penguin’s (now Penguin Random House or PRH) editorial department. Until I met her, I hadn’t actively thought of publishing as a real job or industry. I thought her job was very interesting. She mentioned that Penguin was looking for a commissioning editor for their business books imprint, Portfolio, and that I should meet them. During the interview, the interviewer asked me to think of 10 ideas that could become books and sent me a few pages of a really badly written manuscript to structurally edit,” he says.
Chandy got the job and started commissioning business books under Udayan Mitra, who was the publisher of the imprint at PRH then. Juggernaut’s founder Chiki Sarkar, who was then the publisher at PRH, told me that she found him too smart for publishing and felt that he might get bored of the business very soon. “I remember even telling him that,” admits Sarkar. Chandy’s ex-colleagues recall him as a ‘contrarian’ who brought a fresh, different approach to the business of books, one that often led to feverish discussions during commissioning meetings.
In an industry where it matters to give honest feedback, Chandy comes with the right talent. He is sharp, no-nonsense, and blunt (at times uncomfortably so), frequently dismissing some proposals as ‘Sunday magazine features’ and ‘very niche.’ He feels that bluntness has come from the commercial nature of the books he was handling and his obsession with sales figures. He adopted a similar attitude towards the authors he commissioned and published. “The author won’t get a second shot at writing the same book, so might as well give him the bad news during the writing process so the book can be improved before it is too late,” says Chandy.
At Penguin, Chandy pulled off a big coup by poaching long-time bestselling Rupa author Ravi Subramanian for a two-book deal reportedly worth Rs 1.25 crore. He also edited and published the highly controversial tech evangelist Ankit Fadia. He was at ease working with both Indian and global agents and presses, acquiring from them books like David Graeber's ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’, Pavan Sukhdev's ‘Corporation2020’, Al Pittampalli's ‘Read this Before our Next Meeting’. Some of his more off-beat acquisitions include Buddhist writer Gyonpo Tshering's compilation of inspirational quotes ‘The Road to Happiness’, and Unreal Times founders’ Karthik Laxman and C.S. Krishna’s spoof ‘The Unreal Elections’.
Soon after Penguin and Random House merged in 2014, Chandy quit the company and started his own literary agency, The Labyrinth. That the relatively new commissioning editor exercised considerable clout with his authors was evident from the fact that most of his authors began to be represented by him. In addition to this, he managed to sign the mass market romance queen Nikita Singh and sold her books to HarperCollins for a fairly large advance.
Another big client was the ex-cricketer and commentator Sanjay Manjrekar, whose memoirs he sold to HarperCollins. While Chandy continues to represent his existing list of clients, his job at Juggernaut doesn’t give him any time to pursue agenting, not even on the side. At Juggernaut, he handles the publisher alliances for the digital platform, exploitation of rights and sale of physical books.
On his views whether a book should be published as print, digital or both, Chandy says that the decision is a function of quality of writing, subject, author, marketability and market conditions. He admits that because of lack of retail expectations and printing costs, it is the digital platform that allows them to experiment and take more risks. In the early days of the firm, there was no definite clarity on what would go into print or digital. Sometimes, there are divergent views from editors on the print book potential of the book. “At Juggernaut, we don’t have the cushion of a blockbuster imports list or backlist which allows the local frontlist to function at an operating loss year after year,’ he explains when asked why he has to be very particular about acquiring a book and committing to a print edition. He is bullish about the regional publishing scene, an attitude that is reflected in Juggernaut’s decision to have a Hindi publishing division and also make works of Hindi writers available on their mobile app. “There are many first-time readers and a lot of book fairs in mofussil towns,” he says.
Mumbai-born Chandy has fully ensconced himself in the Delhi-centric English publishing industry and has even made many friends in publishing. One such friend, Arpita Das of Yoda Press, attributes his success to his “unique ability to recognise quality of content and link it to the best marketing solutions available for that title”. ‘He really gets the business, understands the challenges, and loves books. It's a terrific combination’, she adds. The love of books, then, is a must, whether you come from a publishing or non-publishing background. Chandy reads across genres, his favourite authors being Paul Theroux, Coetzee, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Scandanvian Thriller writers, Shehan Karunatileke and William Dalrymple.
Sarkar feels that apart from being well read, he is also very analytical and a stickler for process and efficiency. According to her he is the only sales head she has worked with who is constantly looking at things from the perspective of a bookseller. On being asked how publishing is different from other organised sectors he has worked in, Chandy says, “Publishing is, in many ways, the opposite of IT, where I came from. Each book is a brand new journey with a binary result at the end of it. It’s a hit or a flop. IT was all about processes, documentation and stakeholder management.”
When asked if he has commissioned any of the 10 book ideas on the basis of which he got his first break in publishing, he answers, “Yes a couple of them did see the light of day – a biography of Vijay Mallya by K. Giriprakash and ‘Tip of The Iceberg’ by Suveen Sinha.”
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.