The grubby secret of Indian publishing is that after all the wine-and-cheese launches have been wrapped up, books don’t sell, authors don’t get paid. Could a mobile publishing app that went live last week be the change it needs?
Juggernaut, the digital publishing house, founded by Chiki Sarkar and Durga Raghunath, believes it is the disruptor come to deliver. For starters, the phone is where the reader is at. So, the bulk of the books it produces will be mobile-first. The books will be shorter, between 20,000 and 30,000 words. Enthusiasm for the Great Indian novel will be muted, even though short stories will find a natural home in the phone. You will be able to rate each book, and authors are bound by contract to answer readers’ questions. In the Indian consumer market, price is key: each book has been priced between Rs 49 and Rs 149. The big deal was to tie up with mobile wallet firm Paytm, which helps make purchases seamless. Only a few of the books will have a physical life.
The refreshing thing about Juggernaut’s ambition is that it wants to make the book a mass consumer product, and not be content with the laughably low Indian bestseller mark (3,000 or 5,000-odd copies). “We are not interested in creating something niche and meaningless. We want to show that we can create blockbusters,” says Raghunath, when we meet at their south Delhi office early April.
Where are the readers? Juggernaut’s looking at you. The intersection of the 40-50 million people who read news online and a large wallet-paying audience is where her readers lie, says Raghunath. “All of these people read on their phones but they are not reading books.
If I can get them to sample one crime story, try Juggernaut for one day, I think we have a chance,” she says.
The app, with its intuitive design and attractive interface, invites readers to explore. While reading anodyne e-books and pirated epub files can be a bit like eating cardboard, Juggernaut creates an ecosystem which is definitely fine dining.
But what of the books? Sarkar, former head of Penguin Random House India, says, “The app will have commercial material primarily: strong on celebrity, a strong crime list, a strong love sex and romance list. Alongside it (there will be) very smart, very sharp non-fiction,” says Sarkar. The first batch of books includes a collection of erotic stories by Sunny Leone, Indian Superfoods by Rujuta Diwekar. One of their releases this year is a short book on the Kohinoor diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand. “People are interested in history but are daunted by the idea of an 800-word book,” says Sarkar.
Across the world, the digital has flattened the landscape of publishing, making editors and publishers rather redundant, as the success of FanFiction.net or Wattpad — a storytelling app that has been embraced, among others, by teen writers — would attest to. Eventually, you can also self-publish on the app. “Publishing (in India) is very closed, very incestuous. To democratise writing, you need to have a writing platform that helps you to discover new writers. So, anyone can publish on the app, and if a book does well, we can acquire the book,” says Raghunath. Is it time to turn the page?