Sunny Leone has probably never faced such a challenge in her life. Being at the vanguard of Juggernaut’s audacious new publishing venture – all you can read, but on a smartphone app – she will now show the way for whether the company set up by Chiki Sarkar with Durga Raghunath will be a success.
The environment seems ripe enough. David Limp, senior vice president for devices of Amazon.com told Mint that some three million Kindle e-books are now available in India. And that the combined readers and e-books business grew 200 per cent in 2015. While this establishes a growing culture of e-reading, the established base of smartphones in India – 200 million and counting – means that the potential for phone-reading is enormous.
“The good thing about the digital model is that your path to profitability is definitely quicker, because you are not spending money every time your book gets downloaded,” Juggernaut’s CEO Raghunath, said to Mint. "So immediately your economics has become more streamlined."
The walk from economic logic to real-life profits may be a long one though. There are several problems to be confronted along the way, and some are quite basic. I worked with India’s first e-reader, Wink, produced by EC Media – which didn’t succeed. Juggernaut could face the same pitfalls:
Finding content for people in a hurry
The books will have to suit the delivery model, which targets a class of readers who are mostly on the go and may never read at home or at leisure. This in turn may mean saying goodbye to what books have always stood for and moving to easier-to-read (“dumbed down”, the unkind might say) content. It is difficult to see narrative non-fiction or literary fiction being read on the app.
Keeping pace with technology
The traditional book has been fortunate in not having to deal with constant technological changes. Production and printing processes have evolved, but the reading process, not so much. However, a publishing company built around app-based consumption will have to keep investing in improving, modifying and feature-enriching its offering just to keep pace.
Said Saugata Mukherjee, former publisher at Pan Macmillan India, “Unless Juggernaut works towards becoming a technology company, it will be tough to keep up with the digital medium. Also, it should not fight the publishing battle. To succeed it needs to fight the likes of Youtube and Facebook.”
Becoming the Buzzfeed of books
There’s a very real danger that, in the battle to capture the reader’s attention in the jungle that is infotainment today, even a book-publisher will have to resort to clickbait, shareability, social media-dependence, and other forms of external attraction to even ensure sampling. Is the media-like interface of the Juggernaut app a pointer in that direction?
Ruled by metrics, not just editorial strategy
As on an online site or app, the consumer response to each book can also be tracked on a real-time basis. How many people are reading a sample of this book? How many are buying that one? Who’s reading the romances and who, the thrillers? If the focus of what to display and what to highlight shifts to consumer behaviour rather than the editors’ faith or reasoning, will the lowest common denominator dictate terms?
The Kindle’s already out there
Although Amazon won’t reveal just how many Kindle readers it has in India – between the device and the app – the installed base is obviously huge. And since Juggernaut is choosing to make readers come to its app instead of cashing in on Kindle users, this might make the task harder. After all, starting with a zero base of users makes the journey uphill for quite some time.
But this particular contest really goes to the heart of the matter. For, Juggernaut is betting that a huge majority of the readers it wants to acquire do not read the current crop of books in the market, whether they’re available on the Kindle or not. Might they still be tempted to put their books on the Kindle platform too?
Does phone-reading even work?
Scrolling through a newsfeed is one thing. But a long read – and yes, even 15,000 words is long by the standards of smartphone users – needs a screen that protects the eyes. This is where the phone may lag behind – geared as it is to be a multimedia device, for videos, games, photographs, and music, it isn’t the best device to read on as far as comfort for the eyes is concerned.
Moreover, the smartphone is inherently a multi-tasking device, which makes it difficult for a reader to concentrate long enough on the screen with the book. Facebook and Instagram are just a swipe away, after all.
Still, if – or once – Juggernaut succeeds, there are bound to be others in the business. What will this new version of publishing look like? Ravi Singh, publisher, Speaking Tiger Book, summed it up: “Publishing exclusively, or primarily, for smartphones and tablets isn’t new even for India, but nothing’s been tried with the level of professionalism and planning that Juggernaut is bringing to the venture. This won’t displace existing publishing models – I don’t think that’s the intention, either. It will provide an additional way to create and sell written content, and of course to buy and read it. My guess is that content will have to become even shorter, sharper, and the list will have to be fairly large. That would be the main challenge.”
It’s more than the future of a start-up that’s at stake here. It’s the fundamental reading habit of the Indian that’s being tested to see if it can sustain a business model and, even, an entire industry.