Bang for the book – Times of India
Once upon a time (to borrow from Chetan Bhagat) Indian authors were lucky if they sold 5,000 copies. But a bunch of home-grown authors have rewritten the books business. Sunday Times looks at the making of a must-read
If the full, front page ad in this newspaper announcing Chetan Bhagat’s new book convinced you (well, those of you who were not busy thinking up half-jokes) that homegrown authors were selling as fast as Xiaomi mobile phones, you may be reading too much into it. One skeptical writer – and a Bhagat competitor – suggests the promotion was actually about Flipkart taking on its ecommerce rival Amazon. “With (Bhagat’s) book priced at Rs 176, and Rupa making Rs 20 a copy, Flipkart would have to sell a million copies to be able to afford the ad. The math just doesn’t add up,” argues the author.
But Kapish Mehra, managing director of Rupa Publications and Bhagat’s publisher, argues the move was well thought out, as Bhagat has, in fact, sold over a million copies each of the five books he’s written. The initial print-run of his new book titled Half Girlfriend is likely to be 1.5 million copies. “Revolution 2020 sold 10 lakh copies in 100 days. Chetan’s sales climb from book to book,” says Mehra.
It’s not just Bhagat who is churning out bestsellers. Overall sales of books in India too are growing -data from a defined retailers’ panel compiled by Nielsen BookScan suggests that the book market grew by 11% in volume and 23% in value in 2013 as compared to 2012 – indicating people haven’t just increased book buys, but are willing to pay more too. The demand has led publishers to redefine what constitutes a bestseller, from 10,000 copies sold to 50,000 (see box).
These lists, dominated by international titles a decade ago, today feature more Indian names, including non-fiction bestsellers like Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar and Devdutt Pattanaik. Kinjal Shah, CEO of Crossword Bookstores, says 10,000 isn’t considered a big deal. “These days, even literary authors like Amitav Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri cross the 50,000 mark easily. In mass fiction, books priced between Rs 100-299 sell up to one million copies.” In the second category are writers like Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Ravinder Singh, Ravi Subramanian, Anuja Chauhan, Sudha Murthy and, more recently, Durjoy Datta, Anand Neelkantan and Preeti Shenoy, a group of storytellers who rely on desi themes, simple language, low pricing and innovative marketing to boost book sales beyond the 50K mark.
Publishers and authors both admit that bestsellers are not just written, they’re made -by marketing. “The average Indian reader goes through 15 books a year and already has a list of preferential authors. How else do you make that reader give your book a try?” asks Ravi Subramanian, bestselling author of If God was a Banker (2007). Authors are under pressure to create a ‘tsunami-style’ momentum for their book launches and are using diverse means to create brand recall. Bhagat did a video trailer while Subramanian devised a ‘Litcoin’ Facebook game for his upcoming release If God was a Gamer, a thriller revolving around bitcoins. Participants collect litcoins by sharing, etc and can redeem coins for book-related merchandize. Author Ravinder Singh launched a song by Shaan to promote his last book Like It Happened Yesterday (2013).
But Singh believes marketing innovations can only take you so far.
“What you need is word-of-mouth publicity ,” says Singh, who handles all his Facebook fan pages, posting once a day even when between books.
With innovation being all important, an advertisement like Bhagat’s scores big. Mehra specifies Flipkart’s exclusive dibs on the book are limited to online sales; offline, the book will be available to all from day one. Bhagat, whose books are reportedly top-sellers across categories on Flipkart, admits that the e-tailer has placed a “very big” advance order in exchange for exclusivity. A canny move, but Bhagat refuses to put his success story down to his business instincts. “I can’t treat my books as products. It’s my compelling content that inspires readers,” he says.
PROSE OR PRICE?
Mehra, the first in the business to push prices down by making Bhagat’s Five Point Someone (2004) available at Rs 96, admits low cost encourages impulse buys, but that alone cannot ensure a book’s success. “Every book is different, you need to understand how to handle it,” he says. Natwar Singh’s One Life Is Not Enough, for instance, was a timely release, with controversial content, a strong marketing plan and cross-country availability . Although priced at Rs 500 (hardcover), it has already sold 60,000 copies since its launch on August 1. One category that has been doing well -thanks to the buzz around elections -is political books. But Modi biographies and political tell-alls like Sanjaya Baru and Singh are seen as situational successes, whose triumph their authors cannot replicate.
READ THE FINE PRINT
But before celebrating this new chapter in Indian publishing, industry insiders point to the fine print -sales may be soaring, but it’s the same authors notching up numbers. ” Amish and Chetan Bhagat are outliers,” says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO West e land, revealing that only a dozen or e so Indian writers today sell upwards y of 50,000 books. As the publishing industry transitions, with offline re tail giving up market share to online retail, he estimates it will be extreme ly difficult for new authors to break through. Authors who command Rs 1-crore advances and 17.5-20% roy alty (the usual figure is 7.5-10%) today are few. ” After 2007, there have been no new authors, just a few smaller versions of Chetan Bhagat and they are exceptions. How many authors are selling over 10,000 copies?” says Subramanian. Shah of Crossword concurs, pointing out how Amish’s The Immortals of Meluha has been on the Crossword bestseller list for three years. While Flipkart says they are “overwhelmed” by the pre-orders, Bhagat admits this style of promo tional deal is a one-off for the indus try. “Very few authors can make this kind of money ,” he says.
WHAT’S TOPPING THE CHARTS
So what’s the magic number to get you on a bestseller list? It’s 10,000 though even authors agree otherwise we’ll have to come up with new terminology, like they do in Bollywood calling it a Rs 100-crore that the bar is quite low. “Every Tom, movie,” Singh says.
Dick and Harry is a bestseller today,” Putting a specific time period says author Ravinder Singh. The to books sold would be an even number, arrived at by the publishing smarter move. Shah of Crosswords community at a time when literary admits that Amish’s Shiva series, fiction was published in limited num Fifty Shades of Grey, Dan Brown’s In bers, has been easily achieved by ferno and Jhumpa Lahiri are difficult a dozen or so Indian authors today. to dislodge from the bestseller list.
Singh, for instance, whose last book “A lot of our authors are aggrieved Like it Happened Yesterday sold as these books continue to sell very 2.5 lakh copies, had an initial print well. There are some books that run that exceeded 10,000 copies. “It have been a part of our charts for should be at least 50,000 to one lakh, more than 52 weeks,” he says.