The biggest battle in India’s English language book bazaar is coming up. In the blue corner, and still the defending champion, is Chetan Bhagat, whose fifth novel, Half Girlfriend, is believed to have a sales target of one million copies. Even if it doesn’t get there, half a million may not be out of reach over the lifetime of the book.

In the red corner is the challenger, Amish, who has already proved his bestselling punching power with his Shiva trilogy, and on whom his publishers have now placed a huge bet, having claimed to the media an advance to the tune of Rs 5 crore for his new trilogy, the first book in which becomes available on June 22, 2015.

Many battles

While dethroning Bhagat may not be Amish’s primary mission, it may well be an outcome of the charge he is leading to sell even more copies of The Scion of Ikshvaku, the first book in his new Rama trilogy, than of all the Shiva trilogy put together. Neither will be an easy task, since both Half Girlfriend and  Amish’s own The Immortals of Meluha continue to sell serious numbers of copies week on week.

This is also a battle for the book between two homegrown publishers, Rupa Books, Bhagat’s publisher, and Westland, which publishes Amish. Although both are smaller in business terms than their multinational competitors Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Hachette, none of the global companies has an author as big at the box-office as Bhagat and Amish.

Marketing first

It is, of course, a telling commentary that both the champion and the challenger, financed by their publishers, have brought modern-day marketing and branding strategies into their battle for the top honours. That’s not surprising, since both Bhagat and Amish are MBAs from the Indian Institute of Management – Ahmedabad and Calcutta, respectively – who went on to work in financial services.

This time, Amish has fired a blitzkrieg that comprises near-saturation advertising on, with whom he has struck a number of deals. These include prominent banner advertising on the home page, a TV commercial for the Kindle featuring him, and an exclusive release of an excerpt.

In addition, he has launched a book-trailer that is undoubtedly the most polished and niftily-executed such work in India so far. Amish has always targeted filmgoers, and this glossy video shows his intention of reaching out to this particular segment. On top of all this, the media has been primed as well, and an explosion of coverage is imminent.

Of course, Amish has already reached a stage where he not only has a readymade readership for anything he writes, but also great expectations from his fans. But even so, he will have to pull off something remarkable to beat Bhagat.

Pre-orders and sequels

That Amish will top the charts for several weeks is obvious, since Half Girlfriend was actually released some eight months ago. The first battle, however, will be the one of the pre-orders: will Amish have got more buyers to pre-order his book than Bhagat did?

The entire number of pre-orders usually shows up on the charts the very first week, which is why the campaign to get those pre-orders is now the primary target of pre-launch marketing activities for potential blockbusters. What really matters, though, is what will follow in weeks 2 through 20 or so: that’s when the long-term trend will be established.

Of course, being the first book in a series means that there will be renewed interest every time a sequel is released. So, in that sense, The Scion of Ikshvaku might eventually outsell Half Girlfriend. And both books will also see sales jumping if turned into movies.

Bhagat’s own blitz in the run-up to his novel in 2014 was spectacular as well. In a first-ever for India’s book business, Flipkart put out front page advertisements in The Times of India to make the most of its exclusive arrangement to be the only retailer that people could buy Half Girlfriend from in the initial period. And Bhagat is a popular newspaper columnist, TV panelist, and Twitter communicator, all of which give him the kind of reach that Amish is nowhere near as yet.

In many senses, then, this is a battle of equals. Of course, there’s no loser in this battle: even if Amish’s sales overtake Bhagat’s, the latter will still be just as phenomenally successful as he is now. But if the man with the numbers in his book titles is overtaken, don’t expect him to relinquish his position easily.