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Mike Bryan | The buccaneer bookseller

Mike Bryan | The buccaneer bookseller
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First Published: Sat, Jun 14 2008. 12 14 AM IST

Fine print: Bryan is a connoisseur of old fountain pens. (Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint )
Fine print: Bryan is a connoisseur of old fountain pens. (Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint )
Updated: Sat, Jun 14 2008. 12 14 AM IST
Aptly, Mike Bryan, CEO and President, Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, is a bibliophile. His home in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, 35 miles west of London, is overflowing with books and in the nine months since he took up his current assignment in Delhi, his house here has almost filled with books.
It was not always thus. “I didn’t read very much till I was 16,” he says. “And then I started going out with a girl who read a lot. She had this wall of orange. I suddenly realized that girls found boys who read very attractive.” It turned out to be a lasting affair —not with the book lover he was dating, but with books. And, also, it appears, with a certain book publisher. The wall in his old flame’s room was orange because it was lined with Penguin paperbacks with their distinctive orange spines.
Some years passed, and books also brought Bryan and his wife, Heather Adams, together. He was working as a manager in a bookstore in the north of England and she was the “Saturday girl” there—which means, he explains, that she came to work only on Saturdays.
Fine print: Bryan is a connoisseur of old fountain pens. (Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint )
Heather, Bryan says with evident pride, was the CEO of the exhibitions division of Emap Ltd, a large UK-based media group, before she came with him to Delhi in September 2007 and joined him in Penguin India as a commissioning editor for business books. “After 24 years, once again we are working in the same company,” he says.
“Our first six months here, I was constantly asked if I was settling in,” Bryan says with a chuckle. “And then, abruptly, the inquiries stopped. I guess that means you are settled in.” Since he joined Penguin in 1980, Bryan seems to have worked in practically every corner of the globe—so far, he has lived in nine countries—and probably doesn’t take very long to adjust to a new place.
For instance, he already has set preferences when it comes to Indian wines. I met him over drinks one recent evening at H2O, the bar at the Ambassador Hotel in central Delhi, and he was happy to see his favourite on the wine card. “Sula Sauvignon Blanc saved my life here,” he says, and asks for a glass. But we are informed that Sula is not available, would Grover be fine, sir? No, Grover won’t quite do it. The waiter leaves and then returns to say that they did have Sula after all. Bryan is visibly happy.
“See, I’ve been here long enough to know which wine I like,” he says. “Just as I have been around long enough to know what ‘heavy snacks’ mean.” For a second, I don’t know what he is talking about. “Took me about four weeks after I got here to figure that one out,” he continues, and by then it sinks in. When we place our orders, I point out that for all his familiarity with local tastes, the “heavy snack” he has ordered is quintessentially English—chicken tikka masala.
The story of Penguin India’s domination of the English language trade (non-academic) publishing market in India begins in 1987, the year it came out with its first seven books (among the authors—Dom Moraes, Ranga Rao and Sunil Gangopadhyaya). Twenty years later, it brings out 200 new titles a year. There always were other established publishers and, over the years, some formidable players such as HarperCollins, Random House and, most recently, Hachette Livre (headed by Thomas Abraham, Bryan’s immediate predecessor at Penguin India) have set up shop in India. But Penguin continues to be leagues ahead of the competition.
“David Davidar was a genius to get the whole thing off the ground,” says Bryan early in our conversation, referring to Penguin India’s first CEO and publisher, and the widely acknowledged architect of its success story. When I ask him about the secret of Penguin’s success, he attributes it to the company’s vision. “Penguin has always been very internationally minded as a company,” he replies. “No one has that kind of reach in export markets around the world. We are the world’s most recognized brand in books and we have worked very hard (in India) to add value to that brand.”
This doesn’t sound like platitude when one considers that Penguin decided to set up shop here back in 1985, when India was all about the command economy and the Hindu rate of growth, and “India Success Story/Economic Miracle” would have sounded like a good sci-fi fantasy book title.
That is ancient history—Bryan says that over the last few years, the book market here has been growing at 25% every year. And while other international publishing biggies are scrambling to get a toehold—in part by poaching from its stable of editors and other personnel —Penguin, with an estimated market share of 15-20%, is ideally placed to make the most of its early-mover advantage.
“It’s exciting. They used to say that America is the land of opportunity. Now they say that about India,” says Bryan. “India is very aspirational. There is a thirst, an ambition. People want to get on. I was out last evening and I don’t think I ever saw so many Mercedes cars at one place, including the smartest two-seater sports model.”
He is excited about two new Penguin titles, both very different, but with similar sounding names, that he feels capture the spirit of today’s India. There is You are Here, a novel by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, a 20-something journalist and blogger. He describes it rather fulsomely as: “Very clever, very mass market, very young, very India, very sexy, very entertaining—it is really quite cutting edge. I hate to use the word ‘funky’, but that’s what it is.” The other, You are Hired by Nasha Fitter, a guide on how to get a good job and keep it, is described in comparatively sober terms as, “a brilliant book”.
One of Bryan’s publishing dreams, it turns out, is to discover the Indian Tom Clancy or John Grisham—a writer who will deliver the global English language mass-market best-seller. “India has given the world Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh. There has got to be a Dan Brown somewhere waiting in the wings,” he says.
I suggest that his team of editors at Penguin probably doesn’t share his enthusiasm for “low-brow” mass-market writers, and he demurs. “I like my William Boyd and Rushdie, and I also like my Tom Clancy and Dan Brown,” he says. “How can you look down on Dan Brown when he has sold so many books?”
Besides wine, Bryan’s discrimination is also very much in evidence in his collection of old fountain pens which date from 1885 to 1920. These are currently housed in a bank vault in England. The most prized pen is a 1905 Waterman—there are only five in the world, and he tells me that he got his at a tenth of its market price on e-Bay.
“Sounds very fascinating,” I say, and Bryan replies with an apologetic smile, “Only if you are anal-retentive.” He has friends who share his passion for old pens, and Bryan makes it a point to add that they are not “trainspotters”. I have heard of the movie but don’t know what it means. “Boring people,” he replies. “The kind you won’t enjoy having a drink with.” For some reason, he sees his hobby as a manifestation of what he calls his “obsessive-compulsive disorder”. I conclude that this self-deprecation must be an English thing.
Not in the least deprecatory is Bryan’s take on India. It is exciting, young, on the go—like the new Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan novel. Questions on what he doesn’t like here elicit a few words on the traffic, the honking, the difficulty in being able to walk to a place, and the fact that people don’t queue up at airports. Even these come with caveats —honking must be a cultural thing, as vehicles have signs saying “Horn Please,” and Delhi’s evolution is geared towards the motorcar, which is why good walkways aren’t a priority here.
Of course, Bryan is being gracious about his host country, but he is also being upfront about his very real excitement at the business potential here. He comes across as the ideal publishing CEO—a book lover and a consummate professional who can tell an opportunity when he sees one. “I am not saying India is the Wild West, but it is not burdened by regulation right now,” he says as the evening winds up. “There are deals to be cut.”
Born: 18 May 1956
Designation: CEO and president, Penguin India
Education: Higher national diploma in business studies from Liverpool John Moores University
Work Profile: Bookseller before joining Penguin in 1980; international sales and marketing director, the UK and the US, 1995; senior vice-president of Penguin International, 1999. Set up several branches in Europe and Asia, including Germany, France, Singapore.
Favourite Book: ‘Three Men in a Boat’ by Jerome K. Jerome
Favourite Wine: White: Were Dreams, Jermann, Veneto, Italy;
Red: Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
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First Published: Sat, Jun 14 2008. 12 14 AM IST