Gaurav Shrinagesh looks a bit alarmed as I set up my twin recording equipment before we head into our conversation. Occupational hazard, I tell him—it doesn’t hurt to be extra careful, as one learns the hard way. “It’s all good as long as you don’t put any of it on social media," he laughs, referring to the recording.
For the man at the top of the subcontinent’s largest publishing conglomerate—Penguin Random House (PRH) India—the 48-year-old keeps a relatively muted public profile. He does not have social media accounts and prefers to remain behind the scenes . He is unequivocal about being the brain behind the business and not the publisher. “I am an administrator," he says. “I have to discuss acquisitions with my publishers (Penguin Random House India has four at the moment, heading the commercial, literary, children’s and mind-body-spirit programmes), but ultimately I trust their judgement."
Chiki Sarkar, the former publisher of PRH India, who also worked with Shrinagesh at Random House India (RHI), ratifies this assessment. “Gaurav is a no-nonsense, straight-up numbers-driven guy. He left the editorial and publishing part to the editorial team and was always honest about not being much of a books person," she says. “As a result, he wasn’t interfering and never cast judgement on your choices. He...would be involved if there was a big book/author or a legally/politically sensitive title."
That said, Shrinagesh exudes a quiet confidence, champions views that are close to his heart, and is not afraid of taking unpopular decisions.
In 2013, when Penguin and Random House merged globally to form PRH, Shrinagesh was appointed CEO of the India division. By that time, he had spent almost two decades with Bertelsmann, the company that is the majority shareholder in the combined entity, having worked in Germany, the US, China and India in various roles. Curiously, he began his career in the digital content division, which was then trying to build a music platform to host music content. “Let’s say we were two decades too early," he says.
In 2009, when Shrinagesh was offered the role of managing director of the relatively newfound RHI, he took it up without a second thought. “The romance of book publishing and the opportunity to oversee RHI’s business in the subcontinent were huge incentives," he says.
As the two market leaders joined hands in 2013, Shrinagesh was left with the task of marrying two distinctive work cultures.
“One of the first things I did was to move to a new location," he says, sitting in his seventh-floor office in a Gurugram high-rise, overlooking the offices of several multinational companies. “Some people appreciated it, some didn’t. But for me it signified a fresh start for a new company that was created out of two existing entities—the two trade jewels, as it were."
The bigger challenge was to bring together Penguin Books India (PBI), a company with over 25 years of history and market dominance, and RHI, an organization that was then not even a decade old and trying to find its voice. “We didn’t want to put one over the other," says Shrinagesh, though PBI, the larger of the two brands, with more recognition in India, had the upper hand in the subcontinent.
As is common with mergers, some of the employees remained, while others left over the next few years, most notably Sarkar, who started her own company, Juggernaut Books, in 2015. But, in the end, it was the common passion for publishing, shared by PBI and RHI, that gave PRH the stability it needed. “As long as the future is clear and we have the buy-in of everyone working with us, we can take the company to the next level," Shrinagesh says.
In spite of his focus on the business arm of the company, he sounds genuinely awestruck by the power of publishing to touch millions of lives. “We are a new-age company with a stake in the romantic world of book publishing," he says. “We are in the impact business. We make 300 investments every year (that is the number of titles PRH India publishes ). Lots of people ask us if that’s too many. I say maybe it’s too little."
One of the ways to make a publishing model work is to publish in the double digits and increase sales by volume. “But we want to take a diverse list of books to a diverse population with very different tastes," Shrinagesh says. “At the same time, we have got to be mindful of what we publish because in India we have different religions and cultures, as well as a legal system that—I am very clear about this—we will adhere to. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we censor ourselves."
PRH’s emphasis on diversity has led to a list that covers a spectrum of often conflicting political values. Its roster of writers includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wrote a self-help book for schoolgoers called Exam Warriors last year, and “peace activist" Gurmehar Kaur, beloved of the liberals. Shrinagesh takes a pragmatic view of such dichotomies. “Let’s keep the politics aside, I advise my team. I tell them to take the positive view," he says. He is also unambiguous about the importance of having a strong commercial list. “We shouldn’t apologize for it, " he says.
The success of the commercial sellers makes it possible for the company to invest back into the programme and keep the literary list monetized, Shrinagesh says. “At the end of the day, all authors want to make a living, so the books have to sell, right?" But while PRH is known for its big hitters—Shrinagesh speaks of Sudha Murty and Ruskin Bond, the rock stars of the children’s list, in glowing terms—the company is also mindful of its mandate of getting in new voices.
“It’s harder to get fresh names into the fiction list, considering the nature of the beast," he says. “Do we end up satisfying every potential writer? Unfortunately not. Do we want to jump in and say that everyone can write? Notionally, that’s a good idea, but there is a tremendous value that an editor brings to a writer."
In spite of his obvious fondness for printed books, Shrinagesh believes the key to intelligent publishing and to staying relevant in the game is to remain format-agnostic. Be it e-books, audio books or page-to-screen adaptations, he sees opportunity, not a threat, in every new development. “I think we have a substantially larger digital marketing team compared to other publishers," he says, which speaks volumes about the company’s aim to amplify the reach and discoverability of its books. PRH’s growth ambitions are evident in its other expansion plans as well.
Last year, the company acquired the iconic Hindi publisher, Hind Pocket Books, for an undisclosed sum, signalling its goal to establish a hold over the regional-language publishing market in India. And, this year, PRH entered the South-East Asian market by launching its Singapore-headquartered operations. “I am very bullish in that region," Shrinagesh says. “Indonesia, Malaysia—these are aspirational societies with a huge interest in content in English."
With a list of 93 titles in its first year, PRH South-East Asia is taking several Indian writers—especially in the non-fiction, self-help and wellness segments—to an international readership. Authors like Shashi Tharoor, Shrinagesh says, already have a major presence there. Krishna Udayasankar, a Singapore-based Indian writer of commercial fiction, is another prominent pick in the region.
In spite of PRH India’s vision of spreading its operations, it is true that Asian markets remain price sensitive for all publishers. A doomsday scenario of diminishing readership and falling sales figures has gained currency over the last decade, adding to the pessimistic forecast. But Shrinagesh differs on both counts. “Our sales by volume and value both continue to rise year by year due to the diverse voices we publish," he says. “And people are now consuming ever more content in different forms and on various devices. As creators of content—be it in print, audio, e-books, long-form or short-form—we see a tremendous opportunity to grow the business."
As for the pricing, the average sale price of a PRH title, taking into account discounts, is ₹200. “We buy paper at global rates, our running costs have risen over the years, but we still manage to keep the prices reasonably affordable," Shrinagesh says. “We try our best not to deprive readers of their ability to buy a book they want."
When he’s not at work brainstorming over the next big plan to scale up business, Shrinagesh is most likely to be found with his family—his wife and two children, aged 10 and 7. They are a family of avid travellers. “We have just come back from a trip to Vietnam," he says. And while Shrinagesh loves to holiday in Asia, the city that is closest to his heart is on the other side of the world.
“New York," he says, with a big smile. “I keep telling people to spend time in that city if they ever have a chance—even if it is just for a year. It is pure magic."
Your favourite travel destination?
What are you reading now?
I am devouring Thich Nhat Hanh’s books at the moment.
What do you do when not working?
My family (wife and two children) is my No.1 priority.
What is your favourite book?
‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand.