Can anything break Chetan Bhagat's stranglehold on India's book charts? In the past couple of weeks, not one but two potential contenders to the supremacy of Half Girlfriend, Bhagat's tearaway bestseller which keeps selling in huge numbers week after week. The biggest challenge came from Sachin Tendulkar's autobiography, Playing It My Way, co-written with Boria Majamudar. The other book that looked capable of making a dent in Bhagat's booty was Rajdeep Sardesai's account of the historic elections, 2014: The Election that Changed India.

The real story of these books in the marketplace, however, was not just the absolute numbers sold. Of course, that figure is important as a measure of popularity, but publishers, being corporations, are far more interested in the revenues that their books bring in. Naturally, the price of the book makes a huge difference here.

Consider the price-list. At Rs 899, Tendulkar's autobiography costs a whole Rs 300 more than Sardesai's book, priced at Rs 599. And Bhagat's book, with a sticker price of Rs 175, costs only about a fifth of Tendulkar's book. So, from the publishers' point of view, selling one copy of Playing It My Way is roughly equivalent to selling five copies of Half Girlfriend. As for 2014: The Election that Changed India, selling two copies of it would be the same as selling seven copies of Bhagat's book.

Raking it in

Looked at another way, then, Hachette India would have to sell only one copy of Tendulkar's autobiography for every five copies of Bhagat's novel to make the same amount of money as Rupa from their respective top-sellers. Likewise, Penguin Books would have to sell just two copies of Sardesai's book for every seven of Bhagat's. So, both these publishers could actually have sold far fewer copies of their books than Bhagat's and still have taken in the same, or even more, revenue.

As it happened, Playing It My Way did in fact outsell Half Girlfriend by a significant margin in the first week after its launch, nudging Bhagat off the pole position. With the fivefold difference in price factored in, that meant a very good week for Hachette at the box-office with this book, well ahead of Rupa's takings. Of course, when you look at lifetime sales, Half Girlfriend, having been released several weeks earlier, is still way ahead. As for Sardesai's book, it came in second on the non-fiction charts only to Tendulkar's, which also meant a lucrative week for Penguin from this title.

Price comparisons

What does all this mean for the business of publishing? That price matters, and not in the most obvious way. Some books will sell even if they’re expensive. Rs 899 is steep by the standards of books; even after discounts, Tendulkar’s autobiography costs about as much as two weekend movie tickets at a multiplex. (That's not a facetious comparison, for this is what books often compete against.)

Runaway successes like Bhagat’s cannot be planned. The publisher who gets such an author thanks their lucky stars every single day. The rest have to chase the magic of books like Tendulkar’s, which can sell very large numbers despite a steep price. But then  such titles do not come often either. How many autobiographies can a Tendulkar (or a Shah Rukh Khan or a Rajinikanth) write?

That actually leaves books like Sardesai’s as the ones that publishers can plan for twice or thrice a year. Their focus on current affairs expands their reach, and they can be priced well higher than popular fiction in order to ensure a spurt in revenue. The marketing task is easier, too. It is, after all, simpler to sell about one-third as many books as Bhagat’s in a given week and make about the same amount of money.

Which of these three books have you bought and read?