book bazaar

Chiki Sarkar launches a new publishing company with audacious new digital strategies

In a first for Indian publishing, Juggernaut is being financed by marquee names from corporate India.

There’s a new publishing company in town, and not everyone might know just what to make of it. It’s called Juggernaut. Like the chariot and the god. It’s been started by Chiki Sarkar, former publisher at Penguin Random House India and its earlier avatar, Penguin Books India.

Juggernaut, where Sarkar is Publisher & Founder, has marquee investors, which is a first in book-publishing in India, where the money usually comes from multinationals or homegrown, family-owned businesses. The three whose identities have been disclosed so far are Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys and the man behind the Adhaar biometric identification project, among other things; William Bissell, Managing Director of Fab India, and Neeraj Aggarwal, MD of Boston Consulting Group, India.

Most significantly, much of Juggernaut’s focus is going to be on digital publishing. While the classic printed book will still be part of its portfolio, its strategy for taking sales beyond the 3,000-copy-orbit that the average title has settled into will be on digital formats. For this reason alone, Juggernaut could change the landscape of publishing and reading in definitive ways if it is successful.

The digital thrust is evident in the company’s choice of CEO. Durga Raghunath, CEO and Co-founder, comes to Juggernaut from Network18, where she founded Firstpost.com and went on to become CEO of Web18, via Zomato, where she spent a few months focussing on audience growth. That a publishing company has reached out to the online space in its search for a CEO is a telling indicator of where its strategy lies.

The core editorial team comprises, besides Sarkar, executive editor & co-founder Nandini Mehta; executive editor & co-founder R Sivapriya; and managing editor and co-founder Jaishree Rammohan. Art Director & co-founder Gavin Morris will take care of design, rounding off the team that left Penguin Random House around the same time as Sarkar. On the business side, Raghunath is joined by Chief Product Officer Saurav Roy – possibly the first time a publishing company has such a role – and CFO Neel Karinje.

With about Rs 15 crore gathered in the first round of investments, Raghunath and Sarkar now have the time and space to  travel the path they’ve charted out. However, with scale being crucial to success – for this is no boutique publishing business  bringing out a dozen books a year – Juggernaut will have to raise its processing capacity significantly. In 2016 it aims to publish as many as 50 titles.

Said Raghunath, “Much of traditional publishing is broken. Commissioning, marketing, sales. It’s an opportunity to build from scratch.” Here are the ways the company hopes to change the game:

Where books will be read

The three-word answer: phones, phones, phones. Juggernaut is betting that a large enough proportion of the 200 million-odd mobile Internet users in the country will start reading on their mobiles. While reading habits in Japan are an inspiration, Raghunath and Sarkar both know that this audience exists only in theory at the moment.

Merely converting readers of paper books to digital versions will obviously not be enough. Sarkar often cites the case of Sanjaya Baru’s book on former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which had everyone talking about it just before Elections 2014. And yet it sold less than 100,000 copies. While that’s huge by traditional publishing yardsticks, Juggernaut wants its hits to be bought by many times that number. So, the phone.

How books will be read

Sarkar’s bet is three-pronged: traditional paper, e-books, and phone-reading. And her company will publish in any, or all, versions, depending on the specific strategy for each book ‒ simultaneously in some cases, progressively in others. She said, “So the [traditional] book remains very central, especially for our literary and big name authors, and we are being distributed and warehoused by Hachette, a major publisher here with massive reach.”

But expect innovations like serialised novels, shorter chapters, appointment reading (what to read at midnight), genre fiction, and other experiments to draw in intensive phone-users who may not, however, be reading anything in the form of a book at the moment.

How books are bought

With physical bookshops dwindling and online sites not able yet to bring volumes back to book-sales, leave alone boosting the market, new channels obviously have to be created. For Raghunath, the opportunity lies in the enormous boost in online payments that India is going through, as people start using electronic wallets in particular with increasing levels of trust.

From ordering cabs and groceries to e-shopping for even apparel and furniture, the comfort with making online payments has grown to a point where inducing people to buy a digital version of a book is no longer a payment-related challenge. So, Juggernaut will look to partner with online payment systems to lower the barrier for buying. It is significant that Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of PayTM, the popular online payment app, is an advisor to Juggernaut.

How often books are bought

To Raghunath, repeat purchases hold the key. “The hits team will deliver great titles,” she said. “Then, we have to have the buyer coming back for more.” In some senses, this is a step almost no publisher thinks of – building a base of customers and creating an ongoing transactional relationship with them, beyond the book they originally came to buy. The strategy comes not from conventional publishing at all, but from successful models of online transactions of the kind that PayTM offers.

How authors will write

Can writers used to the traditional format be persuaded to move? Will they agree to different forms of payment for digital editions? Can they change their writing styles? Raghunath agreed that the catchment area may have to be enlarged. Said Sarkar, “We have managed to attract a whole range of new writers who have come to us solely for the phone, for example – voices from genre writing, entertainment spaces, and those who have already carved an online life for themselves.

However, she added, those who have published in the old format are interested too. “Previously published authors and celebrities whom we might naturally put into the physical format are also very excited to have an additional, extremely promising, new life for them that allows them to build their own communities, and market their books in new ways,” she said.

There’s little doubt that Juggernaut will bring in a completely new strategy to book-publishing in India. If they’re successful, both the publishing market and the book as an object could see its biggest makeover in recent times. Will we see a generation of readers poring over their phones to read their favourite authors, genres and titles?

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