The man who gave Indian publishing some of its bestselling writers – including Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta, Preeti Shenoy, and Sudeep Nagarkar – is the quiet, reclusive founder and CEO of the Delhi-based Srishti Publishers. His name is Jayanta Kumar Bose. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that today’s steady flow of fiction written by young people for their peers, some of which dominate the bestseller charts, originated with Srishti. In a rare instance of talking about his publishing strategy, Bose spoke to Scroll.in about his philosophy, his writers, and the future. Excerpts:
You worked in the sales department at Rupa & Co. for several years before founding Srishti Publications. Tell us a little about publishing in those days.
I started my journey with Rupa in the late 1970s, initially with their accounts team in the Delhi office. But soon after, a couple of months later, I was asked to switch to the marketing and sales team. Later I headed the marketing team at Rupa-Harper Collins (a joint venture in India back then) at the national level before being given the responsibility of the publishing and editorial team as well.
I worked closely with prominent authors like Salman Rushdie, William Dalrymple, Gulzar, Ruskin Bond, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Anurag Mathur, Sunil Gavaskar and several others. I was also instrumental in paving the way for the entry of prominent international publishers like Penguin, Pan-Macmillan and Ladybird to India.
Publishing was a nascent industry in India back then, and the focus was primarily on popular international authors and a few Indian literary authors. Most Indian authors who shot to prominence then were published abroad.
I still remember the empty shop we were greeted with when we organised a book-signing session for a Booker-prize winning author at an upmarket bookstore at Khan Market in Delhi. However, the same author was mobbed by readers when his next book was banned in India, and the ensuing controversy around it made him popular here.
Srishti began as a publisher of serious translated fiction and published several renowned names in Bengali literature. What was the market for translations like then?
Srishti has always promoted original Indian literature and we always felt that there is a huge treasure trove in regional literature. In a country as diverse as ours, English was the most common language to bridge the gap. We started the trend of publishing regional language literature by prominent authors across various languages like Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Odia, etc. It was a huge untapped market, where we had the first mover’s advantage before a few other publishers jumped in.
It is a well-known fact that it was the monumental success of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone that made you switch your focus entirely to what came to be known as the campus novel. What were the earliest successes on your list? And how did you find those writers?
We were one of the first publishers in the commercial fiction market. The campus novel/chic-lit/rom-com genre was something which we always found intriguing, considering two factors. India has a young population, a majority of whom are in colleges and schools. And secondly, rom-com movies have been some of the highest grossing films in India.
Our move into this genre was not a derivative of Chetan’s initial success with the genre. (On a comparative scale, he was still an up-and-coming author when we published our first book in this genre.) The key to our plan to enter this market was finding a good manuscript.
We received a manuscript by a young IIT-ian named Tushar Raheja. Our editor read his book in two days and said it reminded her of PG Wodehouse. We decided to publish his book, after suitable editing to bring it down from a gargantuan word-count to a more crisp level. Anything For You Ma’am went to become an overnight bestseller. Actually, the number of our hits in this genre is endless. Quite a few of them manage to sell a good number of copies every year even today.
We found most of these authors through one simple route: unsolicited manuscript submissions by young chaps who felt “if XYZ can write, so can I”. At that time, there were not many literary agents, and certainly none who would entertain commercial fiction.
We have an editorial culture of going through the slush pile on a weekly basis, sifting through them and replying to everyone individually within two to three weeks of submission. Our editors go through each and every manuscript and select what they want to publish. With a rejection ratio of almost 92%, we make it a point to send a reply to authors even when we are not publishing their work.
Even today nearly 85% of our publishing list comes from this source. This is one of the major reasons we have published so many unknown voices who later shot to prominence.
Many of these campus novels were indistinguishable from one another in terms of writing, premise and characterisation. Yet most of them sold much more than the average fiction title written in English for the Indian market. What would you attribute this to?
I don’t agree with your characterisation of these books. Each of them had a different storyline, personal in nature for the author. They were written from the heart and placed in settings that the audience could relate to. All of these books had something unique to this genre – a connection with readers.
The young authors of today write about their own day-to-day life, and romance, relationships and heartbreaks are a part of this. However, they are not restricting themselves to this, but have also evolved into writing about relevant social issues and malaises by voicing the concerns of a whole generation. These young turks have moved on from being unknown young writers to opinion-makers and leaders amongst the youth.
I think you’re the only publisher in India who used to request prospective authors to submit their picture along with a synopsis and chapters. How important is appearance for this genre? Do you think it has played a role in the success of, say, Durjoy Datta and Ravinder Singh?
Appearance does play a role in this genre, though it does not define success. However, the reason we requested for a picture was quite simple – back then our office was in a location where outsiders would not be allowed without prior approval. Hence the requirement of the picture, when they came to sign the contract or visited us later.
But then, some of the pictures we received would range from funny to downright hilarious. One of the popular authors of today – the “king” of his genre – had sent a picture of himself showing off his muscles, shirtless. We asked him to shoot a picture in formal clothes for the book, and chose a photograph which had a more poised and pensive pose. I still see the same pensive pose in all his new pictures and promotional material.
Once the campus novel had been explored to its full potential, Srishti shifted its focus to mythology. Of late, you have been publishing a lot of crime novels. What has the success rate been like with these new genres?
We have published books in genres as varied as fantasy and mythological fiction, all the way to satirical fiction, political novels, and spy thrillers. Some of these books, particularly the thrillers, have done phenomenally well and have gone on to become bestsellers in their own right. Currently, we have a few of our thrillers in the Top 100 bestsellers of Amazon/Kindle. We have not exploited the potential of the fantasy/mythological genre. Satire is something we feel we are yet to explore fully, though it has done well for us till date.
Several bestselling Srishti authors have left you for multinational publishers. In hindsight, do you feel you could have retained them? Are you in touch with any of them?
The word “srishti” refers to the creation of the universe by Brahma. The creator creates and nurtures; the nurtured choose their own path.
We started off with the principle of giving debutant authors a chance and making them the next big bestsellers. We have been following this ever since. Moreover, there are also authors who have had their books published by bigger names in the industry and and have then come back to us. It’s a two-way road. We look ahead at the challenges of creating more such bestselling writers, because there’s no dearth of talent in India.
Also I have always felt that we should support our authors and help them grow. We have even gone to the extent of supporting two of our young authors, who left to start their own publishing house, by distributing their books and giving them the rights to bestselling books to start their own publishing list. That partnership did not survive, but I feel we did the right thing in supporting new talent in whatever way possible.
The decision to part ways, however, is never taken frivolously, and always with a heavy heart, but it is done after considering the best options for everyone concerned. I am not only in touch with quite a few of them, most of these authors still send me a signed copy of their new book, seeking best wishes. A few of them, especially Preeti Shenoy, makes it a point to acknowledge us in all their books, which is quite magnanimous.
If I am not mistaken, most of Srishti’s manuscripts were outsourced to freelance editors, who were mainly English professors. Do you have a full time editorial staff now?
We always had a full in-house editorial staff. Our editorial team was earlier headed by Dr Rani Ray, a scholar with great credentials, who gave form to our translation programme back then. Currently our editorial team is being guided by Dr Purabi Panwar, along with Stuti Sharma, who is one of our senior editors, with a team of talented and young editors with some experience.
How has your son Arup’s involvement changed Srishti’s outlook?
Every organisation needs young blood to stay in touch with the times and reinvent. Arup had always been an avid bookworm and devoured books by the dozen even when he was in school. After completing his MBA and working for a year as a corporate risk consultant, he decided to join Srishti to follow his passion for books.
He currently runs not just the publishing programme, diversifying our list into new genres, but also manages marketing and growth strategies for new verticals and new markets. Our digitisation and global availability programmes are his personal projects and it has been an absolute pleasure working with him for the past four-and-a-half years.
How is Srishti planning to keep up with technological advancements?
To quote Heraclitus, “change is the only constant”, and our industry is not a stranger to it. We have constantly adapted to, and thrived under, change. We are not only present on multiple digital platforms – including mobile books – but are also actively planning and working with new upcoming platforms.
How successful these will be remains to be seen, but we are not shying away from these changes. More than half of our catalogue is available on these platforms, and Arup is working on a project with a target of 85-90% digital availability of our catalogue before the end of this financial year.
You are known to be superstitious, ensuring that the titles of your books have just 19 characters and that book contracts are signed on a Wednesday. Do you continue to follow these rules, and do you have any others?
We have no set rules per se regarding signing of contracts or titles, though I do consider both 19 characters in the title and Wednesdays to be auspicious. However, if you notice, many of our bestselling books do not have 19 character-titles. Nor were the contracts signed on Wednesdays. The first few of our successful titles in the chic-lit genre had 19 letters, which was by coincidence, and hence the belief was born around it.
Srishti published Chetan Bhagat’s brother Ketan Bhagat. Did you ever try and approach Chetan himself? Have you ever met him or spoken to him?
We have always been keener on creating and promoting new authors. Hence we never focused on acquiring Chetan or any other established authors from other publishing houses.
Do you enjoy reading the kind of books you publish?
Since my early days at Rupa-HarperCollins, I always made it a point to read whatever books we were selling. This habit was driven home by a few knowledgeable booksellers – who themselves were very well-read. As a publisher I feel it is compulsory to be aware of the content we are publishing.
This is a habit that I still have, and although I might not be able to read all the books we publish, I do make an effort to read most of them. Arup makes it a point to actually read all the books before they hit the market and can be quizzed in detail on the storyline of any of the books published during his time here.
This is a habit which has percolated to even our sales and distribution team. Whenever they have some time you can see them grabbing one of the latest releases. We encourage all of our employees to take home any book they like. On Saturdays, we have an open house at the office to discuss and get feedback from them about the books in terms of the storyline and their likes and dislikes.
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