Part 2: The Print Business
Last week we presented a report on how we were doing on the app side. If I had to summarise what we said, it would be that we were laying the foundations of growth and that we were beginning to make the rules our way. This is a work-in-progress with some exciting developments, some great innovations and some slow moves.
In print, it’s a completely different story. For one, we aren’t reinventing the wheel but plugging into an infrastructure of stores, established norms, press etc. So how have we done? There’s only one word – outstanding. We make about 10 cr of net revenues this year and we’ll make that number now year-on-year if we just continue at the same pace, i.e. with the same resources and editors. This year, we will make that number on about 34 books – and the reason this is exceptional is that our per title revenue are head-and-shoulder above everyone else. At the end of the next financial year, that’s 3 years on launching the print list, we’ll be completely profitable, i.e. after you’ve taken out every conceivable cost on the business. Any publisher who will be reading this will know how extraordinary these numbers are. I’m not sure any publishing company has achieved what we have in India within such a short time of launching.
So how did we do it?
I believe I have the best team in the world – no one manages schedules with the competence and calm of Jaishree, in Parth, Nandini and Siva, I have the most literate and intelligent team of commissioning editors. (I have a very very simple rule for editors: they have to read voraciously outside their work. Never trust an editor who doesn’t). Gavin, our Art Director has the widest visual range I have encountered of any designer – from thrillers to literary fiction to diet books. I’ll come to marketing in a separate section, but Hachette who sell in our books have given us huge stability and experience, which is what a young company like us needed. I’ve learnt more about publishing from Thomas Abraham, the MD of Hachette in the last two years than from anyone else.
You make money on your list by doing a balancing act. In fact, the publisher’s main role is balancing the list. What did we get right? India is on the whole a non-fiction market. If you want people to buy your books, 70% of your list has to be non-fiction. You’ll notice that right away on our list. We publish a small high-powered list of great novels – Amitabha Bagchi, Meena Kandasamy, Benyamin, but our bread and butter is non-fiction. Our view is this, keep the fiction list small and uncompromising. Do it not because it could make you money but because you love it. Let the non-fic pay its way.
Lastly along with this, you have to ensure about 4 books a year (at our level) that sell between 50-100k, depending on price. This year includes Sourav Ganguly, Twinkle Khanna and Rajat Gupta. My job in the company is to bring these books in and one of the most fun and liberating realisations has been that I feel completely confident in being able to do so year on year. It requires lots of persistence – I flew to USA to meet Rajat Gupta in prison to secure his book deal, for example – and a lot of hustling. But I love it.
Of course if it’s only non-fiction that sells, OUP would be churning out blockbusters. So how have we made our non-fiction work – the average non-fic in Juggernaut sells between 5-8k copies, which when coupled with the blockbuster sales means the list is deeply healthy.
This is, I think the Juggernaut DNA at work. First, we rarely work with agents, instead we spend our edit meetings talking about trends, what’s cool, what we have been hearing and what we’ve been reading. 90% of our commissioning comes out of this. The question we ask constantly, what are people talking and thinking about and how could that turn into a book?
Having the app has completely transformed the way we commission. I, for one, am more reader-centered than I have ever been. Do I need a 500-page tome on the history of the Supreme Court? No? But do I need a criminal psychologist to tell me why there are so many rapes in India in a short accessible way. Yes.
With so many text books being rewritten is there a place for short, well-researched but nicely written histories that set the record straight? In the last few years, we’ve commissioned books on Maharana Pratap, Shivaji, Aurangzeb, Kohinoor and Tipu Sultan publishing more popular history than almost any publisher. The decision to do so came strategically out of these commissioning meeting conversations, arising out of conversations that ranged from the reception of Padmavat to the changing CBSE curriculum.
When we first started out, there was a lot of chatter about the short books we were commissioning. And yet this bet has paid off. We don’t think most people want big books. And our small books are selling much more than them. The top 3-4 of our all time hits are under 40k words. Length isn’t the selling point, the books have to be good, but lengths aren’t the barrier to success either.
More pragmatically, it’s allowed us to create a list very very fast and the financial results are clear for everyone to see. That’s not to say we don’t do books at length, but you’ll see that we do more shorter, quicker books than anyone else. Another great impact of commissioning with digital in mind.
Lastly, being an independent company means we don’t have layers of authorisations needed to publish our books. I don’t think I would have been able to publish I am a Troll anywhere else – only one lawyer actually agreed to do the legal read. The list has been characterised by its punchiness and we feel we can easily do honest books on subjects that are controversial – from Mothering a Muslim to Shadow Armies (which has been sued by the Sanantan Sanstha), to of course our biography of Ramdev.
We’ve achieved a lot in a very short time. How did we do it? The team is fantastically driven and hard working. That’s been a part of it. But we’ve also dispensed with a lot of the necessary processes that large companies must adopt but which we can avoid as a smaller outfit. We don’t have jacket meetings where finding a consensus can often delay finding the right image. Instead Gavin works with the editors, I come in late and sales not at all.
We don’t do time-consuming P and L sheets for every title that we have to buy and have it signed off by lots of people – the math is very simple, if most novels sell not more than 2000 copies, you can’t pay much more than an advance of a lakh for it, and we apply the same across the non-fiction. Being a startup with limited cash helps, we simply can’t overpay for most of our books. For big books you can make similar calculations. My editors don’t need approvals from me to buy. We have an idea, we go out and make it happen and we know roughly how much we should pay. Our books are typeset using the same design and font – Caslon, a wonderful, very readable and elegant typeface – so we don’t spend time thinking about the small stuff.
Anyone who has any dealings with Juggernaut will know that our publicists constantly leave us! It’s about the hardest job in the office and it requires massive competence, efficiency and pressure to perform. And yet marketing has been a game changer for us.
What are we doing differently? One, the editors are involved in the meetings and we think very very editorially about each book. Most of my editors are ex-journalists and I’ve been immersed in publicity for most of my career so we can very quickly assess which publication might be the right for one for what story.
But what sets us apart is the time we take to position a book and how we pitch a story. So we rarely say to a journalist, “x is doing a book, would you like an interview?” But what we might say is, “Yasser Usman’s Rekha shows how Bollywood destroyed its heroines (a tangential thesis in the book), would you like him to write a piece on it” or “there seems to be a wave this year of popular historians who are churning out hits, would you like to do a story on the new historians (only some of whom might include our authors)?” This returns to the Juggernaut DNA – smart, focussed thinking from super literate, on-the-ball people.
Lastly, we have an excel sheet where every title we ever publish gets a day-by-day schedule which we then pass on to Hachette ten days or so before publication. I think we might be the only publisher to do so across the whole list. Natasha our digital marketing head creates her own campaign in parallel to this, but in sync with this schedule.
Why didn’t we do it before
The question I ask myself is why I didn’t do any of these before – I certainly had the brilliant team to make it happen! Apart from the app making me more reader-focussed, length conscious and newsy – I could have done a lot of this elsewhere. It’s a question I have often asked and used to beat myself up with too.
The first reason, of course, is the hunger of having your own outfit. But I think more seriously the very vulnerabilities that a small publisher enters with has been our strengths – budgets, size, and needing to create an impact as quickly as possible.