Innovative Publishing

While you weren’t looking (or reading), Savi Sharma sold 100,000 copies of her romance

Meet India’s first woman writer of mass market fiction to cross that mark.

Is Savi Sharma for real?

Savi Sharma who?

Does the book title Everyone Has A Story sound more familiar? No?

The Indian publishing world is scratching its head over this phenomenon, and that’s when it isn’t trying to sign Sharma up for a multi-book deal. That’s because it took just about 100 days for a novel titled Everyone Has A Story, written by someone almost no one had heard of, to sell 100,000 copies. The maths is easy – an average of 1,000 copies sold every day.

The book was on Nielsen top ten for 24 weeks, seven of those in the first position, six in the second, and ten in the third. It has almost 1,500 reviews on Amazon. To call it the sleeping hit of 2016 would be an understatement.

It began life as a self-published book. After the first 5,000 copies were sold in quick time, established publishers began to chase Sharma. She went on to sign a two-book deal with Westland, for Everybody Has A Story and one more novel. This was followed by a second two-book deal, with advances reportedly based on print-runs of 100,000 copies each. Westland has already sold more than 95,000 copies of Sharma’s novel, and will launch her next work in February 2017.

Unusual beginnings

No matter how hard I try I just can’t get Sharma to tell me exactly when she decided to be a writer. “I used to contribute to my school magazine Abhisarg but that was just a once–a-year thing,” Sharma told Scroll.in. “My first piece was a poem about choices”. After finishing school, Sharma, like many small-town young women her age, started studying for a Bachelor’s degree in commerce at a university in Surat. At the same time, she began preparations for the gruelling and seemingly never-ending Chartered Accountancy course.

“It was in the first year that I started maintaining a diary”, she told me. (Maintaining a diary appears to be the first step towards writing a book. Ajay K Pandey, author of the bestselling You Are My Best Wife, also started pouring out his memories in a diary soon after his wife Bhavna’s untimely death.) Sharma started reading books in her first year in college, thanks to recommendations from her friends. “I started with Chetan Bhagat, Durjoy Dutta and Ravinder Singh.”

Sharma recalls reading another book besides the works of the trinity: Mandar Kokate’s Oh Shit Not Again, a novel that exhorts readers to find out, among other things, a grandmother’s reaction when porn is accidently played in front of her, or the consequence of spiking the drinks of at least a hundred guests at a party. When I asked Sharma why she didn’t consider reading some of the more serious fiction in the library she said, “I was new to the world of books and so read what my friends were reading at the time.”

Before Everyone Has A Story, Sharma had written and abandoned another full-length novel, an undistinguished college romance titled Silent Love. A love story about a clueless playboy Atiksh and his long time friend Jianna, the plot, which involves mischief, a temporary parting and an epiphanic denouement, seems straight out of an Ayan Mukherjee film starring Ranbir Kapoor.

“Even though my friends liked it I didn’t,” Sharma said. “The only thing that worked for me were the names of the main characters. I am particularly fond of Jianna, which means ‘god is gracious’ in Italian. In fact, I am going to name protagonists from my future books after them.” What she did, though, as a precursor to her big hit, was to get 10 copies of Silent Love self-published so that she could test its impact on her close friends.

It was by reading pulp romances closely, even when in the thick of her two demanding university courses, that Sharma identified what she felt were gaps. “For instance, Nikita Singh put in emotions in her novel The Promise, yet it was not inspiring,” Sharma said. “I think love should inspire us to become better people.” And what made Sharma take upon herself the role of the universal messenger of inspiration? “It was something that came from within,” she said. “All writers should write things that they feel deeply.”

And so she began writing what was to be Everyone Has A Story, completing the draft in four months flat. She was so convinced about the book that she abandoned her CA course despite the years of hard work and study she had put in. “My parents wanted me to reconsider the decision and consult my CA professor and school principal, but I had made up my mind.”

Selling techniques

How did this novel ratchet up the kind of sales it has? The plot features a dreamy Meera who is desperately in search of a story, right from the start of the book:

“I guess, having stories stuck in my own soul was the reason I needed to hear other people’s stories. But I didn’t just want to hear stories; my heart was aching to tell a beautiful story which would change people’s lives, or at least mine.”

Her search ends when she comes across a young corporate executive named Vivaan, who is also in search of something ( although not a story!), at a cafe where a well-known author is launching a book. The novel follows the story of these two characters, told from the alternating points of view of Meera and Vivaan. Far from featuring the racy, colloquial prose that commercial fiction in India adopts, the writing appears dense and meandering, often bogged down by passages like this one:

“It’s not a story and maybe it’s not love. It’s about something more real than stories and more powerful than love. It’s about you. Yes, you. Real and powerful. I have never been happy with someone. I wanted to be with different people at different places with different  feelings. I wanted to explore everything, know everyone. But then I explored you. And I found you are not just ONE, you are an infinity. An infinity of love, care, trust, respect, understanding. A universe of inspirations, aspirations, hope and happiness. Maybe you are the universe out there which I explore. Or the universe in me that I seek.”

Not surprisingly, critical reviews of the book were less than laudatory. In a Goodreads review, author Madhulika Liddle called the book “tiresome”, writing, “It lacks depth, the characters are one dimensional, and the story reads like a very predictable Hindi film.”

Did Sharma ever worry about losing out on her readership because of her turgid style? “No, I knew I had written something meaningful that would resonate with people.” Perhaps it was a combination of this confidence and of the stories of tardiness among publishers Sharma had heard that made her bypass conventional publishing. “Not even a single query was sent out to any Delhi-based publisher,” said Ashish Bagrecha, Sharma’s marketing manager and partner-in-crime.

As his day job Bagrecha runs a mobile app-maker start-up. Also a writer, Bagrecha self-published a short novella several years ago, and is planning a full-length novel in 2017. “Savi’s first draft was in pretty good shape and I only gave her a few minor suggestions regarding the plot,” he said. Bagrecha drafted the selling strategy for the book, keeping the target audience in mind.

The self-published book – printed at Thompson Press, with the cover designed by Bagrecha himself – was put up for pre-order on Amazon “We set up a seller central account to keep track of the sales and rankings on Amazon,” he explained. A Facebook page was set up for promotions, with the strategy of using “inspiring” quotes from the book. Examples?

“Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone is a writer. Some are written in the books and some are confined to hearts.”

“ If emotions were colours, I know I would have witnessed a beautiful piece of artwork in a few seconds.”

“Yes, you can still love more, learn more and love more than you’ve done so far.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Wake up and run towards the beautiful life you deserve’.

Soon after the first run of 2,000 copies sold out – it took 10 days – and 3,000 more were ordered, both Westland and Penguin Random House India responded to the numbers they were seeing on the Nielsen charts. “Both of them wrote to me at the same time,” said Sharma. “The mail from Penguin Random House landed in my other inbox so I didn’t see it for a while”. She chose Westland because she felt an immediate connection with the editor.

Why didn’t she continue to self-publish? “The book was not available in brick and mortar stores and it would also help to have a good marketing budget from a major publisher,” Sharma said.

What publishers wanted

In one crucial respect, Sharma represents the trophy that publishers in India have been looking for: a seriously bestselling woman writer of romances, a yin to the yangs of the Ravinder Singhs and Durjoy Duttas. Said a publisher specialising in the genre: “Savi’s story is remarkable because no other Indian woman commercial fiction writer, be it Anuja Chauhan or Nikita Singh, has crossed the magic sales figure of 1 lakh.”

It isn’t with a female equivalent of the male perspective love story, though. Whether by accident or by design, Sharma is probably India’s first writer of inspirational romance, an offshoot of conservative Christian writing in the West that has dedicated readers and publishers. She said, “I didn’t call it inspirational romance with that intention, but just because I felt like it.” Quite.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.