New Delhi: In September 2015, Chiki Sarkar, former publisher and editor-in-chief at Penguin Random House India, and Durga Raghunath, former vice president (growth) at restaurant search and review website Zomato, founded Juggernaut, a digital and mobile-first publishing venture. The release of Juggernaut’s book catalogue in November created quite a stir; it featured first-time authors like Prashant Kishore, the high-profile political campaign strategist, and adult film actress-turned-mainstream movie actor Sunny Leone.

Before the app for the digital publishing house goes live on Friday with 100 book titles, Sarkar spoke in an interview about the writers, the pricing model for e-books and how 2016 could well be the year for redefining the celebrity author. Edited excerpts:

How did you manage 100 titles for the app in six months?

I’ve never put out a list this fast. And a list I feel so happy about. I think not just Durga (Raghunath) and me but the whole team has felt sort of charged up and energized. The minute we set up, the first thing we did in editorial is we rewrote the contract. We didn’t rewrite it in some terribly dramatic way but we just wrote it in simple English.

One of the big things on the Juggernaut list is lots of unknown names. So, one is you find someone unknown and you give them a contract that sounds friendly and easy, then the stage from offering to signing up happens in a much simpler way. So that has been a big reason why we have signed up the number of authors that we have.

The second is the way we offer to pay our writers. It’s roughly in three different slabs. For a young unknown author we pay this much, there’s a different range for a well-known author with a strong concept, and if it’s a very famous person we have another range. Once the ranges were clear to us, we didn’t fuss too much about the print run or the exact earnings... Our acquisition process is flatter here...

It’s the editor’s decision very simply to determine what level is this book at... So for us the process of buying books has been very easy. We have signed up 100-plus books in six months. And the app will go live with 100 titles out of which 50 are Juggernaut’s own originals. And the other 50% are partner books.

What are partner books?

On the digital side, what you will see in the next six months is that Juggernaut will be an umbrella under which a lot of independent publishers will put out their books. Some exclusively and some not exclusively. I don’t think we are thinking of ourselves as a sales platform in that sense but we want to be a platform where you want to come and read.

How did you manage to get Sunny Leone to write for you?

I went to meet her manager. The proposal we gave for her was to write short sexy stories... not pornography but where the woman is equal to the man. That was our big brief to her and she loved that idea. There were conversations with her manager. He liked our proposal, then I met with Daniel, Sunny’s husband. He asked me detailed questions about the app, the vision, how the editing process would work. They were very interested in how sexually explicit the story should be. They’ve been totally professional, completely brilliant to work with actually.

How is she as a writer?

She is brilliant. It was my biggest surprise, to be honest. She said she found it very stressful and hard, but she has a natural sense of the story. What we worked on together was to put the stories in very Indian scenarios like call centres, malls, a late night flight on a budget airline, cinema halls, a small town. I think she wanted us to give her that input because she feared that when it comes to India we probably know India better than she does. She said, “I don’t want to write about young girls because I don’t want older men fantasizing about under-aged girls in my stories." She has surprised me with her insights. She is very grounded and... very professional in terms of deadlines and deliveries.

So there will be 14 short 3,000-word stories, out of which she has written 12. We will go back to her for the last two. We will launch with seven and then push another five, all as part of our appointment viewing catalogue. But then we might do the next set in a very different way. It’s all experimentative at this stage.

What about Prashant Kishore?

I met Prashant Kishore when he was working with prime minister Narendra Modi and he had come to talk about a book (for him) and at the time it didn’t work out. But we stayed in touch. Last year my dad (ABP Ltd promoter Aveek Sarkar) kept saying—Lalu (Prasad) is going to win (in Bihar)—way before anyone else said it. There was a moment before the results where I told him (Kishore, who worked on chief minister Nitish Kumar’s victorious election campaign) you have to write and he said what kind of book? Then I called him... I said we’ll get Sankarshan Thakur (a journalist) on board. He really trusts and respects Sankarshan. Getting a highly competent co-writer immediately makes a person feel you’re taking it very seriously. And it works better operationally for us also. We are planning to launch his book by September-October.

What’s your pricing strategy for e-books?

Essentially, the way we thought about pricing was 50% of the MRP (of a book). Remember a lot of the material that Juggernaut publishes is to length. So our non-fiction in particular ranges from 15,000-30,000 words, so if you do the math, an average book is 60,000-70,000 words and it’s roughly priced at 299. So our pricing is in keeping with that. We have looked at word length, we’ve looked at how much would that book have been priced at in physical retail and we roughly halved it.

For a bunch of books we didn’t use that rule but instead looked at what the subject was. For example, we have a fantastic writer called Shyam Bhat, who is Deepika Padukone’s shrink, and he’s written this book about how you can deal with heartbreak using psychiatric principles. So can a psychiatrist help you deal with heartbreak? And that we thought was a really fantastic idea, he’s a brilliant writer. That book we have priced low because we are really bullish; we feel there is a whole young population that could actually read it.

What about the other writers in the catalogue?

I had a good equation with Sharmila Tagore. I’ve known her as I’ve grown up because of an old family connection. I have worked with (television journalist) Rajdeep (Sardesai) before. The hardest for me has been Rajat Gupta (the first Indian to head McKinsey who was jailed for two years on charges of insider trading in 2012) . I’d been chasing him for eight months. The more high-profile a person, it becomes that much more complicated.

Which are the genres that you think will be big on the mobile phone?

If you look at what’s happening in East Asia, America and the West, there are three areas that have worked in e-books: erotica, crime and fantasy. Anything that requires privacy will work on the phone. Shyam Bhat will work on the phone because if you’re depressed and you’re unhappy you may not want to buy that book in a physical bookshop.

Even sensitive health-related stuff, any subject where someone is shy of exposing their vulnerabilities, will work in this format.

Erotica has always worked on e-books, traditionally. If you look at data in Europe, UK and America, 50 Shades of Grey was the big example. Fantasy and crime are also big. In China, for example, computer-serialized reading is primarily fantasy. Any e-book company will tell you that its main genres are erotica or crime. These are like the world’s most popular commercial genres.

Are you looking at raising more money?

We will look at it in the second half of this year. The first thing we want is for the app to be out.

How have reading habits evolved in the Indian context?

For any book, whether it’s by a classic writer like Ruskin Bond or a Sudha Murthy or a Khuswhant Singh or a commercial writer like Chetan Bhagat, simplicity is, and will remain, the hallmark of popular Indian writing for a long time until we become more socially and culturally sophisticated in terms of our education levels, etc.

The interesting thing about India’s book sales numbers has been that the bigger writers are selling more and more and the average writer still remains small. Lastly, there aren’t too many breakout books so if you look at the Nielsen charts in a given year the same writer appears on its chart all through the year for a book he/she may have written 5-6 years ago. So it’s a fairly odd market. I’m not sure that exists anywhere else in the world.

If 2015 was about political tell-all books, what will 2016 be defined by?

I think you’ll see celebrity writers in various forms across the board. And there will be books that they will write which will not be memoirs or about their lives. For instance, actor Emraan Hashmi’s book about his son’s battle with cancer—The Kiss of Life.

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