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The New Faces Of India Ink

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He isn't a literary lion on par with the Vikram Seths and Salman Rushdies. But when local star Chetan Bhagat began a pan-Indian marketing tour last month, hopes were sky-high for his new book 2 States: The Story of My Marriage. Publisher Rupa & Co has its presses working overtime, and hopes to sell by year-end around 1 million copies of the book that is priced to move off the shelves at a super-cheap Rs 95.

Bhagat, who burst out of nowhere a few years ago, is credited with creating a whole new market among the 18-23 year olds with his ‘IIT-IIM fiction', which did not exist before (until he had tapped out his tales on his keyboard). Whatever his sales, it is a safe bet; they will be astronomical by traditional Indian publishing industry standards. "I want to do a million in the first 10 weeks. I do not think it has ever been done before," says Rupa & Co chief Kapish Mehra.

The Indian publishing industry was once a midget on the global stage. Most authors were considered lucky if they racked up sales of 3,000, and a book was declared a bestseller if it hit 10,000. But a new page is being turned. The industry is turning into a force to be reckoned with. The four or five biggest players are bringing out larger numbers of books, and even novice authors are selling in bigger numbers.

"At the top level, numbers have changed dramatically. Now a book would have to sell more than 25,000 to be considered a blockbuster," says Ravi Singh, editor-in-chief, Penguin India. "Everyone's parameters of what constitutes a bestseller are going up and up," adds Chiki Sarkar, chief editor, Random House India.

 Green Leaves
Fuelling the growth of publishing are the chain stores such as Crossword, Odyssey and Landmark, and even Reliance's new chain, Time Out. They are all on expansion drives, defying even the economic slowdown that gripped the industry between September 2008 and this July.

Go scouting for books in Delhi, and you can choose between nine chain stores. Or take a drive around the stores in Hyderabad, which has been getting the full impact of the retailing expansion in recent months. Landmark opened a new store in August and followed that with another in September. It has a third small store at the new airport in Hyderabad. Odyssey too has opened a store there recently.

The retail boom is attracting new players. Last month, Roli Books, a specialist publisher, took the plunge by opening CMYK, which it says will be a boutique store focusing on art, architecture and design books. The first CMYK opened in Delhi's modest Mehar Chand Market, which was better known till recently for small general and electronics goods stores. The second branch of CMYK has opened in the premises of a Mumbai art gallery.

Roli's boss Pramod Kapoor says he will be experimenting with different formats next year, and once he gets the format right, he aims to go on an expansion push starting 2011. "There are so many publishers now. If we have our own bookshop, we can give more exposure to our own titles. And we will also import books from around the world," he says.

The new muscle of Indian publishing is showing in different ways. Two years ago, when the rights of star Amitav Ghosh's forthcoming novel went on auction, there was one crucial difference from earlier years. In the past, India was firmly part of the little league, and rights to the Indian market were tagged along with the UK. This time, bidding for India was done separately, and Penguin India paid around Rs 50 lakh for India alone for the series of three books. More recently, Penguin is said to have paid Rs 1 crore to historian Ramachandra Guha for a series of six books.

At a different level, Hachette India recently snapped up the rights to journalist and author Gretchen Peters's Seeds of Terror about the Taliban. The author's agents felt the subject would interest Indians, so they carved out a separate deal for this market. Another indication of the growing importance of the Indian market is that many authors, even the new ones, are now represented by foreign agents who find there are enough pickings here to be worth their while. Says Renuka Chatterjee, chief editor, Westland Books: "Earlier, the returns from India were so low, they were not willing to even sniff at it."

The buoyant mood in the publishing industry has been fuelled this year by a couple of surprise hits that show the Indian public is willing to keep turning over the pages. Take the controversial winner of the year: politician and scholar Jaswant Singh's close-up look at Jinnah and his role in the Partition. Helped on its way by the rumpus swirling around it, the book has already sold 50,000 copies, and publisher Rupa has so far had a whopping 20 reprints.

"For Chetan Bhagat's new book, I want to do a million in the first 10 weeks. I do not think it has ever been done before.If that is not intellectual enough, take a look at Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice, which came out in July. The book — unlike Sen's earlier, The Argumentative Indian, which was more approachable from the reader's point of view — is a complex look at certain economic and philosophical topics. But that has not stopped would-be readers reaching for their credit cards and buying about 24,000 copies in the first few months since it hit the stands.

Other star writers are also turning out strong performances. Nandan Nilekani's Imagining India sold about 50,000 copies, and was the star performer of 2008 for Penguin India. This year, the Infosys tag has again proved a winner, with the company's chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy's book coming up trumps, and selling almost 45,000 copies. That is a phenomenal number, especially considering it is a collection of speeches given by Murthy, and not an overarching state-of-the-nation report like Nilekani's magnum opus.

The foreign bestsellers too — of all literary hues — are flying off the shelves. In the non-fiction league, writers such as Thomas Friedman, whose The World Is Flat has become a catchphrase of our times, has sold more than 200,000 copies over the years. And one of the biggest winners has been Shantaram, the gruelling story by Gregory David Roberts of life in Mumbai's slums, which has sold over 300,000 copies since it first came out in 2003. Even Kiran Desai's Booker-winning The Inheritance of Loss has sold more than 60,000 copies. HarperCollins CEO P.M. Sukumar says the book had already sold over 20,000 copies even before it made a splash by winning the Booker.

"At the top level, numbers have changed dramatically. Now, a book has to sell over 25,000 to be a blockbuster.At a less intellectual level, Stephanie Meyer's four-book Twilight series — classified as ‘vampire romance' — have sold over 200,000 copies. Even internationally, Meyer is one of Hachette's big winners. Inevitably, the global fiction blockbusters are also finding plenty of takers in India. One such is Dan Brown's long-awaited The Lost Symbol. It has already sold 80,000 in just a few weeks, to become one of the year's top sellers.

But importantly, at a different level, the publishers are coming up with non-fiction winners. Management writer Gurcharan Das's latest, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, released over a month ago has already notched up sales of over 10,000 — not a bad number considering it is priced at Rs 699.

Even first-time writers are rocketing into bestseller charts. Take US-based management consultant Karan Bajaj's first novel Keep Off The Grass, his tale of a wet-behind-the-ears NRI banker's roller-coaster return to India in quest of his roots. It racked up sales of 25,000 copies in six months, becoming one of the unexpected success stories last year for HarperCollins.

My Friend Sancho, a romance about a tabloid reporter on the crime beat by Amit Varma, also became a chart-topper for publisher Hachette, with 15,000 copies flying off shelves in the first few months. Its success was an encouraging start in the Indian market for Hachette, which has chalked out big growth plans.

" The small towns are still not served at all. So the growth cycle is not over yet. There is huge potential waiting to be tapped.It is not just fiction that's on a roll. Fitness expert Rujuta Diwekar — best known for her client Kareena Kapoor with her size zero figure — penned a diet book Don't Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight, brought out by Random House India. The book has taken the publishing world by storm, selling 75,000 copies in under a year.

Booking Profit
Also, now the publishing landscape has changed dramatically, from when Penguin India was king of the heap, with no rivals, the arrival of international publishers with big-ticket authors has stirred up competition. Random House, billed as the world's largest general book publisher, set up shop here three years ago. There is also Hachette, which boasts imprints such as John Murray, Orion and Hodder & Stoughton, and has lured away ex-Penguin chief Thomas Abraham to head its operations. Hachette plans to bring out 15-18 books this year, and wants to raise this to 50 in two years. "That is the optimum number," says managing director Abraham.

Other top publishing names are beefing up their presence. HarperCollins, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, has stepped up its presence, and the Tata-backed Landmark Group has joined the publishing pack through its publishing arm, Westland.
To sell all these books, the book industry's retail network has grown vastly in the past few years. So, if you think there are more book outlets than ever before, you are right. Chains such as Crossword, Landmark, Odyssey, Oxford Bookstore, Gallery and the RPG Group's Books & Beyond have charted growth strategies across the country despite the downturn. Says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Landmark: "We did feel the pressure for a couple of months. But things bounced back once the sentiment changed."

"There are so many publishers now. If we have our own bookshop, we can give more exposure to our titles. And we will also import books.T.S. Ashwin, managing director, Odyssey India, says the company is planning expansion in southern and western India — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Delhi. West-focused Crossword is also eyeing the south, with plans for store openings in Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore over the next few months. "The next move is obviously in the south," says Crossword's Sivaraman Balakrishnan. But rural India is still mainly left out in the cold in this expansion. "In India, the chains are an urban phenomenon. It will take many years before they reach B and C cities," says Abraham.

And one store that is reaching out to smaller centres is Crossword. It has opened up in 11 tier 2 cities such as Nagpur and Jaipur. Odyssey is also testing the waters in small towns such as Trichy, Salem and Calicut. Says Ashwin: "We intend to open in cities such as Vizag, Vijayawada, Mysore and Mangalore, in the next year."

The publishing industry is unusual in that the lack of stores is a key factor holding back growth. And it could be years before that changes. So, the publishers are hunkering down for the long haul. Says Abraham: "The small towns are still not served at all. So, the growth cycle is not over. There is huge potential lying untapped."