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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.