When Amazon Inc announced the closure of Westland on February 1, 2022, there was deep despair in the Indian publishing industry. While Westland’s editors and authors worried about the books that they had assiduously worked on over the years, the closure posed serious questions about the future of the publishing industry and reading itself. However, soon enough, Westland found a taker. Ranjeet Pratap Singh, the co-founder and CEO of Pratilipi – an online platform where writers in as many as 12 Indian languages post their fiction for readers to read, rate, and discuss – sparked the initiative to enter book-publishing through this venture.

When asked about partnering with a traditional publisher like Westland, Singh said, “[they] publish in eight Indian languages, which is something we are greatly invested in. They believe in the power of translations, which we are aligned with.” The shared publishing ideals and love for the Indian languages make Westland and Pratilipi natural partners. It’s been a year since the collaboration and Westland has been in business. The publishing brand (and all its imprints) continues to thrive, and Pratilipi has also entered the publishing trade under its own brand with Pratilipi Paperbacks.

In a conversation with Scroll, Singh talked about this collaboration, the reading landscape of Indian languages, and how Pratilipi and Westland are “democratising” reading. Excerpts from the conversation:

What was the vision behind Pratilipi? How did the platform come to be?
I was born in a very small village in Rae Bareli district of Uttar Pradesh. I was a voracious reader since I was a kid; I read Hindi comics, novels, magazines whatever I could find. When I went to pursue my engineering I realised that reading material in Hindi was simply not available as much and had to shift to English. This bothered me a lot as I thought it should be my choice whether I want to read in Hindi or English – or any other language. Lack of access shouldn’t be a problem.

At the time I didn’t do much about it except crib to my friends that this isn’t how the world should be and that someone should do something about it. Eight years later when I was thinking of what to do next, some of the same friends told me, why don’t you solve this problem, and I decided to take a shot at it.

The broader vision behind Pratilipi is fairly simple; to give everyone a platform to share their stories with the rest of the world without any barriers of language, device, format, and geography.

Did you have any preferences at first about what kind of writing or genres the platform would host?
We were very clear that we wanted to start by focusing on long-form fiction, but had no other limitations. This was primarily because from a user’s perspective fiction is both wide and deep – multiple genres and many writers. Fiction also translates well into different languages and formats which helped our long-term strategy.

What were some of the discoveries that took you by surprise?
There have been very many things that have taken us off-guard but the biggest one is simply the sheer scale at which we now operate. When we started building Pratilipi, a lot of people said there aren’t enough writers in India who will write long-form literature – especially as we were not paying them anything. Today we have over 100,00,000 stories published by over 10,00,000 writers across 12 languages. Similarly, a lot of people said the new generation has a very small attention span and will never read long-form stories. Our stories are read over 550 million times every month. And we have barely started; I can’t wait to see where we reach in another ten or 20 years.

The second thing that has been most surprising is the participation of women. Of the 40 highest earning writers last month, 39 were women writers! Similarly, on the reader side; women spend 40% more time on the platform than men.

The third most surprising thing is probably the breadth of user demographics as well as their genre preferences. Just about 50% of our users are women and while 18-34 is our largest user base, 10% of our user base is people above 60 years old. Similarly, on genre, the long tail is very, very long. The top three genres combined only represent about 31% of the reads on the platform, with the remaining 69% spread across hundreds of niche genres and categories.

It’s been a little over a year since Pratilipi partnered with Westland. Can you tell me a little bit about the events and conversations that led to this decision?
We actually only got to know about Amazon shutting down Westland from the media. As soon as we did, we reached out to the Amazon team to explore if we could take over the entire team and operations from them. In parallel, we also reached out to VK Karthika and Gautam Padmanabhan of Westland to explore whether we like them and they like us enough to want to work with together. Over many conversations with Karthika and Gautam, we realised that our teams share many values and ambitions. We decided to try and do everything we could to work together.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t do a formal acquisition due to the strict timelines under which Amazon was operating. However, Amazon’s leadership team was very kind and said we could still talk to the Westland team and authors independently and see who wanted to work with us. Thankfully, almost all of the team and a large number of the authors came on board and now here we are!

How has the experience been thus far? Do you think Westland with its keenness for regional languages and translations was a natural partner for Pratilipi?
The experience thus far has been absolutely fantastic. More than just a strategic fit, the Westland team feels like a natural extension of the rest of the Pratilipi team in terms of our shared values and ambition. The team has continued to operate independently but has also very enthusiastically engaged in areas of synergy with the other Pratilipi units. We have already expanded our work in Indian languages, launched a new imprint called Pratilipi Paperbacks, included many Westland titles as a part of the Pratilipi Premium programme, leveraged many of the Westland titles across other formats, and there is so much more to come in the next year or so.

The first of Pratilipi’s paperbacks is already out. There are thrillers, pulp, romance. Can you tell me more about the choices of the initial titles?
Once we decided to extend our engagement with writing in the non-English languages through a publishing imprint with Westland, we sifted through the top-performing stories on the Pratilipi app. Many of these stories have been read over 200,000-300,000 times. They fall into the genre of popular writing. In trade publishing today, this is an important gap that needs filling. There’s very little crime, horror or romance being written for the print market. There are one or two iconic writers in some languages, like Hindi and Tamil, but other than that there is no list to speak of.

We have over 900,000 people writing actively on the app series with great hooks, in styles that are accessible to all in terms of language and complexity. Our aim is to democratise reading. Our intent is to create an imprint that will have something for everyone at very affordable price points; there are many psychological barriers with regard to pricing in the language markets; the tier two and tier three markets are highly price sensitive.

The idea is to fill entire shelves in bookstores with books that will build a dedicated readership over time and will, alongside this, gradually build for bookstores a dedicated customer base. You get addicted to one book from a series, you buy them all. Our authors have super fans on the app; we aim to create super fans for authors in the trade as well.

The initial list of titles is a mix, really. Of Pratilipi authors and of established mainstream novelists who have also begun publishing non-exclusively on our app. So for instance, in Bangla, we started with the Drakhni series by Rima Goswami Das, who is followed by close to 46,000 unique readers, or super fans. The first season of Drakhni has been read over 50,00,000 times. It tells the story of a king who sacrifices a queen every year to appease his ancestral deity.

From Hindi, we picked the Aghoranand series, written by Anil Shekhar “Amas”, who works with the Madhya Pradesh government but has been a tantric in the past. This riveting series is based on his experiences in the tantric world. Amit Khan, who has written over a hundred crime novels in Hindi and works in Mumbai as a scriptwriter, is also a big hit on Pratilipi. We picked two books from his list. One of them is the first title in the Commander Karan series, which has also been adapted into an audio drama for Spotify, in which Sonu Sood plays Karan Saxena. Another Hindi story that has been read over 50,000 times, Bade Gharane Ki Bahu, falls in the horror/paranormal category. It’s the story of a marriage taking place in a cursed palace. I can envisage it being developed for OTT into a film like Bhool Bhulaiyya.

For Tamil, we had no doubt that we should start with Rajesh Kumar, the king of Tamil crime fiction and sci-fi. He has written over 1,500 novels in a career spanning 50 years. We’ve just released two of his murder mysteries: Nilependre Nilavukkum Per and Flat No144, Adhira Apartments.

Westland’s design team has created fetching covers for these books. The logo and the general look and feel of the books are designed to make the buyer feel they’re worth every rupee spent. Also, we have precise data on which genres work in each of the 12 languages we publish in our literature, audio, and comic book apps. Our selection is based on this. For instance, romance works very well in Malayalam, and contract marriage stories and horror are doing well in Hindi, on the literature app and on our audio and digital apps too. Stories about witchcraft perform well in Bangla.

We will, over the course of this year and the next, be publishing stories in other languages like Marathi and Malayalam.

The Aghoranand series.

How has the collaboration between Westland’s editorial team and Pratilip’s writers been? Has the partnership seen a greater number of people writing for the platform?
We are happy to have joined hands with Westland Books. It is a team of discerning people who have a keen understanding of trade publishing. Within months of them starting with us, several books appeared on shortlists for major literary awards.

A robust list of new books is already out in the market, Manoj Mitta’s eye-opening Caste Pride being the latest. Writers like Anand Neelakantan, Devdutt Pattanaik, Manoranjan Byapari, Kavita Rao, Kabir Bedi, Perumal Murugan, Amish, Ashwin Sanghi, KR Meera, Sara Rai, Nilanjana Roy and Rukmini S, among others, are already on their list. Besides, they are publishing not just in English but in eight Indian languages, which is something we are greatly invested in. They believe in the power of translations, which we are aligned with.

Also, we actively exchange notes and brainstorm with the team on which of their books can move into formats like audio, podcast, movies, web series and so on, and similarly which stories from our apps can move into p-books and e-books. Pratilipi Paperbacks is one such project. Ours is a forward-looking, ambitious collaboration, and I see all of us sharing a rewarding experience working together.

As far as the previous question is concerned: All of Westland’s books are going up on the app behind a paywall as premium content. So in one sense, we have added many new writers to the app. The idea that drives us is that we hope to become the largest storytelling platform in the country, with IPs of all sorts – text, audio, comics, motion comics, podcasts, films, games – and conceivable formats.

What are some new innovations on the platform that users can look forward to?
We have started monetising literary products and our aim is to create a more sustainable income sources for our creators. We have begun using AI to create our webtoons, record our audiobooks, and build deep data models continuously and iterate on them to serve robust personalisation for our readers.

In what fundamental ways does Pratilipi hope to revolutionise the traditional publishing industry?
We don’t think of ourselves as being in the publishing industry. We think of ourselves as being in the storytelling industry. Pratilipi’s strategy is simple and threefold.

  • Enable people to share their stories in any language, format, or geography.
  • Build data models to predict which of these stories have the potential to be successful
  • Share those stories in as many languages, formats and geographies as possible.

Our belief is that even though we may be the first to start this, the industry as a whole will gradually become more democratised, more interactive, and more integrated as well.

'Bade Gharane Ki Bahu', 'Drakhni', and 'Nilependre Nilavukkum Per'.