What is declining is the physical book-store. This makes distribution a problem. We have to find ways for readers to discover books. We have to think how to effectively market them. We may have to build an FMCG model. In fact, we are in urgent need of some game-changing ideas
When I ask Gautam Padmanabhan, the CEO of Westland, where he would like to have lunch, he suggests Peshawri, the Northwest frontier restaurant in ITC Grand Chola, Chennai. It is a surprise choice for a hardcore vegetarian. “I like their paneer tikka,” he says. So Peshawri it is. Padmanabhan has had a chaotic three months, promoting Amish Tripathi’s, Scion of Ikshvaku, the first in the Ram series. This was immediately followed by promotional tours for Anuja Chauhan’s The House That BJ Built. The usually low-key, taciturn Padmanabhan has had to play a different role as the publisher of best-selling authors.
As we walk into the truly grand ITC Grand Chola, Padmanabhan tells me that promotional budgets for Amish’s books can match that of a mid-sized Bollywood film. “There are only two authors in the country who belong to the millionaire’s league, Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi.” What he means is that they are the two authors who sell in millions. Then there is a steep fall to the 100 to 200,000 segment.
We settle down at Peshawri, and order paneer tikka and tandoori aloo to start with. “In 1987, when my father had a distribution and a small publishing business, we used to be grateful if we could sell 1,000 imprints. Even now, print order for many English books does not exceed 1,000 to 3,000. Only 15 to 20 authors have broken through to become best-sellers and we have eight of them with us.” Ashwin Sanghi, Rashmi Bansal (who was on Nielsen’s best-seller list for non-fiction for two years), Rujuta Diwekar (the famous nutritionist), Preeti Shenoy and a few others are Westland authors. “We recently signed Ravi Subramanian, the banker turned writer. We have some interesting emerging authors like Anand Neelakantan who looks at myths from the villain’s point of view and Christopher Doyle who blends science fiction and Mahabharata themes.”
Padmanabhan literally grew up with books. His father KS Padmanabhan started with importing and distributing higher academic books. “Selling academic books was good business. But the reader in my father made him open a book-store called Manas. I worked there one summer and knew that I had to be in the book business. The world of Agatha Christie, Arthur Hailey and Robert Ludlum was certainly more interesting than solid state physics!” Padmanabhan senior also had a small publishing business which did interesting projects. He read Sudha Murthy’s article in a newspaper and went ahead and published her book.
It is time to decide on the main course. Padmanabhan is very clear about what he wants. He asks for dal bukhara and tandoori rotis and I opt for khasta roti and mixed raita. Padmanabhan tells me that the year he joined his father’s business, David Davidar launched Penguin’s Indian publishing programme and Hemu Ramaiah pioneered modern book retailing with her first Landmark store in Chennai. “My father saw the potential of this large-format air-conditioned book-store. He got me working with Hemu to plan the initial stocking of the store with as wide a range of books as possible. We set up a joint venture a decade later, which finally resulted in our being acquired by the Tatas along with Landmark. The ground just kept shifting beneath my feet.” Westland publishing came under Tatas’ Trent umbrella and the focus started moving from distribution to publishing. Overnight, he had to make the transition from working for a family concern to becoming the CEO of a corporate publishing house.
Since 2007, Padmanabhan’s travel schedule has gone haywire. “Chennai is home. I don’t want to shift. Distribution is done out of Chennai. Corporate headquarters are in Delhi and a large chunk of writers are in Mumbai. We are all over the place. I manage.” All this hard work has paid off. Today Westland is among the top three publishers in the country.
In the early days of Westland, the company followed the traditional path, publishing literary fiction and non-fiction.
“We published whatever came our way.” The breakthrough came with Ashwin Sanghi who had self-published his first novel, The Rozabal Line, in 2007 under his pseudonym Shawn Haigins (an anagram of his name). He came to Westland for distribution. “I realised his book was very much like the hugely popular The Da Vinci Code and signed him up.” This was followed by getting Amish Tripathi on board.” Amish’s agent was a friend of mine. He asked me to distribute The Immortals of Meluha in the South. Within three or four months, 30,000 copies flew of the shelf. This was nothing short of spectacular those days.” The Shiva Trilogy has exceeded sales of 2.5 million. “We priced Amish’s books at R295 as compared to Chetan Bhagat’s R99. It shows that if content works, price need not be an issue.”
It is in the last decade that the reading demographics have changed. Padmanabhan feels that there is a large segment of population which did not grow up on Enid Blyton and Hardy Boys. They were beginning to read English books by Indian authors. The new authors fed into their resurgent Indian pride. It was no longer important that an author had to be published in the West to get recognition here. These writers also write in Indian idioms which lend themselves to translations.
Westland has steadily moved into translations. “We stuck our necks out with The Immortals of Meluha in Hindi. It did better than expected. The Shiva Trilogy in Hindi has sold over 2 lakh. “Hindi is a huge market. Hindi newspapers and TV channels are much bigger than their English counterparts. We are not selling translation rights of our successful authors any more. We are doing it ourselves. We are translating them into Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Tamil. The first Oriya translation of Amish will be coming out soon.” The Scion of Ikshvaku in Hindi has debuted as number 2 in Nielsen charts.
We are served Peshawri’s famous kulfi. I ask Padmanabhan whether he is feeling threatened by e-publishing?
“E-publishing is not a threat. The world over e-books have not grown beyond 30% of total book sales. The Indian average does not exceed 1-2%. Physical book is not going to disappear any time soon. What is declining is the physical book-store. This makes distribution a problem. We have to find new ways for readers to discover books. We have to find different ways to market them. We may have to build an FMCG model. We are in urgent need of some game-changing ideas.”