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Unique Selling Propositions
New authors are shaking up the publishing industry by devising innovative ways to sell their books
They are the sort of writers who couldn’t get past the security guards outside plush publishing houses. Their books were thrown routinely into the slush pile. But now, as a new generation of readers, famished for books about themselves, buy them by the lakhs, smashing all bestselling
records, they are sending publishers into a tizzy. Never before perhaps in the publishing business have so many editors got it so wrong for so long.
Chetan Bhagat, of course, was the original blunder. In the late ’90s, when he began peddling his first book, Five Point Someone, he was shown the door by every Indian publisher worth his literary salt. “Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things had just come out,” he says, “and everyone was looking for a book like hers. They just did not get my book.” But when his book inexplicably climbed up the bestseller list, and stayed there, the very publishers who’d looked down their noses at him, went chasing after his clones. They signed on any IIT or IIM graduate who thought he had a book in him.
Except Amish Tripathi. He was from IIM alright—and a banker to boot—but his novel was anything but campus romance. In fact, it was set in 1900 BC—a fantasised story of a real man, a Tibetan tribesman who migrates to ancient India and is recast as the god of gods, Shiva. Clueless about high literature, and a sports enthusiast in school and college, Amish threw in touches that nobody had tried before in mythological retellings: adventure, plot, romance and dialogues straight out of the campus novel everyone was publishing. The few publishers—out of the 20 he approached—who deigned to respond, told him to go back and write a campus novel, or one on office politics—anything but mythology.
“Indian readers don’t want to read Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth. Who likes to read books with a dictionary by their side! Aravind Adiga’s books sold only because his language is normal.”
Amish didn’t go to IIM for nothing: he pursued the project relentlessly. First, by getting it published by a small press, then taking over the marketing, and supervising the distribution. Clueless about how the books world operates, he decided to do it his way. “If the author doesn’t push his book, who will?” With 11 years’ experience as head of marketing in an insurance firm, Amish went at selling his book: he got a friend in the ad world to make a trailer of it—a film with a live model and sets with music—and loaded it on YouTube. He discovered that the cash counter was the heart of a bookshop, so he printed samples of the first chapter, bound them and persuaded the cashier to give it away free to customers. Sure enough, those who read the first chapter wanted to read more and placed pre-orders. Amish also spent hours on social media and in bookshops to ensure his book got noticed. It worked: within a week, The Immortals of Meluha hit the bestseller charts; within four months, it sold 45,000 copies; last month, it touched an astounding 1,25,000.
For Amish, the success of his book is a sign of a trend mainstream publishers have been slow to recognise. “I think India is changing, and people frankly don’t care for the kind of books big publishers were coming out with—stories of the British Raj or the struggles of NRIs. After a century, India is rich again, and people want to hear stories about themselves—about our call centre generation, or a Punjabi marrying a Tamilian or our myths told in a modern way. A few of us have just been lucky to be blessed with stories that connect with this mood.”
It also helps that this new breed of “authors by chance”, as one of them describes himself, are “not burdened by the purity of language” or the literary style mainstream publishers demand of their writers. In fact, nearly all of them dismiss literary writers as either too Western, too long-winded, too disconnected with Real India, writing books that nobody wants to read any more, in a style that “stresses you out”, requiring a dictionary by your side as you read. By contrast, theirs is an Indian version of an English everyone is comfortable with, a “dil ki bhasha” (language of the heart) in contrast to a “pet ki bhasha” (language of commerce).
By the time MNC publishers woke up to Meluha’s success, Amish had already been snapped up by former distributor and now Westland publisher CEO, Gautam Padmanabhan. For Amish, it was a dream deal: a publisher who didn’t insist on cleaning up his language, who was open to working with the author on marketing details, including addressing readers’ complaints of missing pages and lack of copies in bookshops anywhere in the country. And more important, he is willing to take risks no other publisher has dared so far. The second book of Amish’s trilogy, The Secret of the Nagas, due to hit bookstores in August, will start with a print run of 1,00,000 copies. Compare this with the first print run of Booker prize-winner and bestseller Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in the Tower: just 30,000.
Westland has also snapped up a few more authors who Padmanabhan believes have the potential of selling close to a million copies. One of them is weight-loss expert Rujuta Diwekar, whose first book, Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight, is close to the 1,00,000 sales mark. Her second book, Women and the Weight Loss Tamasha, began with a print run of 75,000 and has already sold 50,000 within six months of its release. In contrast, her first publisher, Random House, was more risk-averse, coming out with a first print run of a mere 5,000.
Rujuta, too, believes she has discovered how to connect with the aam reader. “Everyone is interested in losing weight—you can’t open a single newspaper without finding some ad on how to lose weight. But not one of them was talking about our homegrown wisdom on eating right.” Having read only three books in her entire life, Rujuta says she wrote her first book exactly like she speaks: a Mumbaiyya English with homegrown wisdom and asides. When her editors at Random House urged her to change the language, she insisted it wouldn’t work for her. “There are so many diet books I come across which you have to read with a dictionary by your side. Food is so intimate to our lives that when we talk of it, it has to have an instant connect.”
There’s another reason why Rujuta preferred to switch to Westland from her more prestigious first publisher. As a publisher who has a healthy respect for books that sell, Padmanabhan knows how to keep his bestselling authors happy. The arrogance of the more reputed publishers is off-putting, says Rujuta. Her editor at Westland, for instance, flew from Chennai to Mumbai to clear the final proofs of her book, and accompanied her on the multi-city book tour they organised for her. Westland, according to Rujuta, understands the value of relationships and that’s why she wants to stay with them no matter how hard the others try and tempt her away. Nearly every big author Westland has caught recently says the same thing. Clearly, Padmanabhan is hanging on to the old-fashioned attitude that most MNC publishers are forgetting in their race for the next big book—investing in a life-long relationship between the editor and the author that goes beyond mere books, and how to write and publish them.
However, for Rashmi Bansal, IIM alumnus and self-published author of two bestsellers that have each crossed the 1,00,000 mark within 10 months of their release, it’s not Westland’s gift for building relationships that tempted her to sign up with them as much as their impressive reach and stomach for massive print runs. Westland, for instance, started with a first print run of 75,000 for her third book of success stories of new entrepreneurs in June this year and has already crossed the 50,000 mark.
In 2008, when Rashmi published her first book of inspirational stories in the business world, she did the usual round of well-known publishers. But when she figured it would take over a year for her book to hit the bookstores, were it to be accepted, she decided to do it on her own. And along the way discovered what ails most publishing houses: editors feel they know better than authors about language and style, especially if they are first-timers; they don’t give a break to fresh and interesting voices that can really connect with mass markets; their pricing is too high; they’re unwilling to take big risks by going for large print runs; and they are making no attempt to reach out to the huge market outside the metros.
Recently, Rashmi says, tired of the endless entreaties by aspiring young writers who couldn’t find publishers to read their manuscripts, she invited them to submit their books to her. She expected 10 or 12 manuscripts at most, but an astonishing 60 turned up in her mailbox. Of course, most of them were hopeless—either weak imitations of what already exists, or just dull. But at least two were potential bestsellers. Someday, she says, when she runs out of books to write, she might open a publishing house to bring out fresh and interesting new voices. “This is a very confident generation, there are thousands of them out there writing books none of the publishing houses are willing to read.”
There is one publisher, though, who is doing just that—Jayanta Bose of Srishti, tucked away in a back lane of Delhi’s Shahpur Jat village, where cowsheds and stringcots coexist with boutiques. There’s nothing about this unassuming retired employee of Rupa to suggest it, but Bose has in less than four years of starting his hunt for commercial books unerringly spotted and published dozens of unlikely new authors who have become national bestsellers, four of them selling over 2,00,000 copies each and two crossing the 1,00,000 mark.
“Most publishers here are arrogant and talk down to you. I like to write exactly like I talk, but with most publishers, language becomes an issue. When they try to clean up my English, I had to say: it doesn’t work that way.”
One of them is American Express banker Durjoy Datta. Five years ago, as an engineering student, Durjoy decided to write a book—just for the fun of it. Already a blogger, he strung together various blogposts, loosely knit them together and did what all young English-speaking Indians seem to be doing these days: looked for a publisher. He submitted online to four or five of them, including Srishti. Srishti was the only one to get back to him—in three days. Despite its liberal use of campus slang, its liberties with grammar and generous use of the F-word, Bose spotted the genuine voice of a young man from the wrong side of Delhi trying to make out and move up. His book, Of Course I Love You...Till I Find Someone Better, was out in four months in 2008, and hit the bestseller charts instantly. An embarrassed Durjoy, who had kept the book a secret from his family, was forced to confess his guilt when his face appeared in a national magazine.
Since then, writing books has become something of an addiction for him. He’s written four already—Now That You’re Rich (2009), She Broke Up, I Didn’t (2010) and I am Single...! So Is My Girlfriend (2011)—their combined sale is an astounding 7.5 lakh copies. The royalty from his books is more than his salary, but Durjoy isn’t ready to quit his day job yet. “My books are entertainers, but it’s an unpredictable business. Who knows how long I can keep belting out bestsellers?”
So what’s the secret? Bose tries to unravel the mystery. Ever since he sensed a market in commercial fiction, he’s followed the same strategy. Love sells, according to him, especially in small towns. And when you combine love with the anxiety that goes with growing up in the New India—coping with board exams, parental aspirations, girlfriend troubles, job stress—it sells lakhs of copies. The first commercial book he published, Anything for You, Ma’am—An IITan’s Love Story by Tushar Raheja, began with a print run of 4,000 and ran out in 10 days. It has now crossed 2,00,000.
From the beginning, Srishti has a few rules: be open to fresh, new voices (among his finds is 17 year-old schoolboy Ritwik Mallik, who has already written two bestsellers and is ready with his third, even as his 12th class board exams approach); keep it simple (“our books are in Hinglish, not literary English); keep it short (manuscripts must not exceed 50,000 words so that books can be about 250 pages, with enough breathing space to make it easy reading); keep the overheads low (minimal staff, no fancy office, no book launch parties); price it at Rs 100, have stories set in India and about Indians, preferably from small towns. It is here and in villages that his readership is, says Bose, with a new generation of English-educated readers who are devouring his books. He is also not burdened with a brand name associated with unreadable literary novels.
So is the new writer ending the decades-long dominance of the literary novel on the publishing scene? Only time—and the bestseller figures—will tell.