INDIA INK 2
The Crest Edition
THE TIMES OF INDIA
Swapping pie charts for plots
The world of Indian publishing has been swamped by the suits. MBAs, bankers, VPs and CEOs are busily turning out novels. Is their prose more riveting than PowerPoint? Yes, say the resounding sales figures HEMANT SHIRODKAR
SAVVY SUITS: Authors like Ravi Subramanian are using their business acumen market their books. (Below right) Sarita Mandanna applied the lessons she learned at Wharton and IIM to construct her narrative
JOEANNA REBELLO FERNANDES TIMES NEWS NETWORK
f PG Wodehouse had stayed with banking, we could have had any or all of the following scenarios: the mid-term death of a banker; the early collapse of British banking; the slow death of the Victorian butler (and other English personages) from public memory; and the embryonic death of a writer. It’s a good thing Wodehouse exited the London office of HSBC two years into training and threw himself unstintingly into writing. Bankers today turn authors without quitting their high-powered jobs. And they’re not the only ones. The writer’s world has recently been overrun by professionals from all corporate quarters — whether finance, FMCG or telecom. And the pen-pushing cuts across rank, with everyone, from brand manager to CEO, deciding they’re as interested in print as pie charts. Publishing is witnessing a corporate takeover, and we’re not talking bookstore franchises. The suits are after popular imagination. While it may be open season for anyone who wants
FROM BUSINESS TO BACKPACKING: Karan Bajaj hit the road to find inspiration for his novel ‘Keep Off The Grass’
to write a novel these days, it’s the suits who are especially eager to append ‘Author’ to their credentials. What’s worse, they’re actually selling! As if it wasn’t agonising enough to read about their tripledeck apartments on the ‘upper west side’ of somewhere, and the length and heft of their paychecks (let’s not even mention the eye-watering perks), it’s the book sales that break the camel’s back. “The successful ones could be selling anything between 40,000 and 50,000 copies a title,” says Kapish Mehra, publisher, Rupa, who let loose Chetan Bhagat and his make of contemporary urban fiction on us. In 2004, when his first book appeared, Bhagat was an investment banker with Goldman Sachs. “You could say Chetan rode the first wave
with Five Point Someone,” says Mehra. And he effectively spawned dozens of corporate dualists like him. Unlike him, most still have to scale 100,000 sales per title, but Mehra says some are already halfway there. “The others have sold, on an average, about 40,000 copies, while a literary bestseller might only go as far as 15,000. Ravi Subramanian’s If God was a Banker sold 100,000 while his latest, The Devil in Pinstripes, recorded 40,000.” Mehra believes some of the credit for this goes to pricing (which seldom crosses Rs 200) and the scale of Rupa’s distribution, which includes B-towns like Bikaner and Bilaspur. But Ravi Subramanian says sales are also driven by two additional facts: a new story — the down-and-dirty of sectors like the media, FMCG and finance, whose proximity to a reader’s life makes him curious for the truth about it; and an expanding class of corporate aspirants who may count such fiction as extra-curricular reading that will prime them for what’s to come. Ravi’s books (three published titles so far) exhume the skeletons in banking. “No one has told the story of banking in India. And there’s lots to tell — fraud, politics, sleaze, money, relationships — it’s grist for a good story,” says Ravi, who wants to be the John Grisham of banking. (Grisham wrote his early legal thrillers between arguing cases.) Much has been said about this writing, but whatever its faults or asssets, what cannot be disputed is its range. “Paritosh Uttam, the writer of Dreams in Prussian Blue, has written about the life of a young painter in a live-in relationship. Bharat Wakhlu, the author of the coming Close Call in Kashmir, has written a thriller based in that state. So, the range of the writing depends on the author’s creativity,” says Vaishali Mathur, Sr Commissioning Editor at Penguin. And creativity in turn dictates sales. Karan Bajaj has hit the 200,000 mark with the cumulative sales of both his titles, Keep off the Grass and Johnny Gone Down, one of which is reportedly on its way to becoming a film. The books have won prizes and nominations, including the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (2008) for the first one. “I was bred into writing. After completing the familiar but necessary Indian treadmill of going to engineering college, then to business school — basically not thinking at all about one’s passions and interests for the first twenty-something years — I began to enjoy solitary pursuits once I entered work life; reading, backpacking, hiking, running, travelling. This inspired a lot of stories,” says the writer in an email from New York where he works in brand management for Kraft Foods. It was while backpacking for a year between jobs that Karan met an assortment of people on the road and in youth hostels. The experience gave him the bones for Keep Off The Grass, a road trip across India with a character lineup like a revue. He remarks, “The theme was success and whether living a stable, even-keeled life is better than a rich, interesting life with towering ups and abysmal lows.” When Karan actually got down to it, he knocked off the novel in five months, working a day job on the side.
It took Sarita Mandanna five years. The author of Tiger Hills, who is also vice-president at Equifin, a private equity firm in New York, wrote between the briefs. “It’s never easy being a writer, whether or not you have an alternate profession,” she says in an email. Sarita was paid the highest advance Penguin India has offered a debut author so far, but she clarifies, “The Rs 35 lakh quoted in the media is a vastly inflated number!” Writing is never easy, and for corporates who clock in but rarely clock out, it’s patently tougher. “Work was priority, so I wrote in all the spare time I had, even correcting drafts while on the gym treadmill,” says Mandanna, for whom writing was a strict process of compartmentalisation. “I walked to work in Manhattan and would give myself time to think about the plot and characters until I reached the doors of the building. Once I was in, the story was shut away. I’d walk back late at night, mulling over the day. Once home, I’d give myself an hour to unwind. I’d then begin to write once more, working until I was too tired to go any further, typically till 3 or 4 am,” she recounts about her expansive historical fiction located in Coorg. Like others who’ve been through the B-School grind, Sarita too applied the lessons she learned at Wharton and the Indian Institute of Management to construct her narrative. “Tiger Hills spans about 70 years and I had detailed timelines on an Excel spreadsheet that shifted direction with changes in the plot. It was important to me that the dates referenced in the story and the ages of the characters added up. I also had decision trees as the plot developed. The spreadsheet would be open as I simultaneously wrote in Word and toggled between the two.” Other than that, she says there wasn’t anything remotely B-school about the writing. “The whole purpose of the exercise was to do something ‘different’ than what I did during the day.” For debut writer Anish Sarkar too, it was the pursuit of the new. Sarkar, a VP, Sales at Capgemini,
a French multinational company, pulled off a period/contemporary thriller called Benaami, coupling reincarnation with the 1857 Mutiny. “The idea came to me in 2004 when I had reached a stage in my career where I felt ‘stuck’,” he says. So he threw himself a challenge. “I wanted to see if I could write a novel,” he discloses. “I didn’t need to quit work for it; all I needed was discipline and perseverance,” says Sarkar, who had no prior experience in writing other than scripting emails and PowerPoint presentations. “Corporates are as likely to have an active imagination as anyone else and our training helps us develop a sense of structure and attention to detail. We know how to make the narrative flow well, like a good business presentation,” says the author who kept his project quiet until it was ready to be published. “I was initially worried that my boss would presume I had slacked off work to write this, but when I actually took the news to him, he overwhelmed me with his encouragement.” The response isn’t always enthusiastic. Even if HR has no objections to an employee writing a book, in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate politics, it is sometimes colleagues that one has to watch out for. Anurag Anand, who works with a multinational bank as VP, Credit Card Alliances, says, “While you do receive encouraging feedback, you also need to be prepared for taunts. Statements like ‘why do you worry so much about work, you can always go back to your writing’ and ‘why do you require a bonus? This is surely just pocket change for you’ come your way on a pretty regular basis.” Anand, whose latest work, The Quest for Nothing, is his second title in fiction, believes the Indian corporate set-up is marked by perceptions that suggest if people stay back late at work and work on holidays, they’re more dedicated than the rest. “An extension of this is that if you have a successful parallel vocation, it can only be nurtured at the expense of your work,” he says.
“No one has told the story of banking in India. And there’s lots to tell — fraud, politics, sleaze, money, relationships — it’s grist for a good story,” says Ravi Subramanian, who wants to be the John Grisham of banking Time-management has therefore proved an invaluable B-school lesson for this lot. Primed to meet deadlines, it’s no coincidence most complete their novel (admittedly no Wolf Hall) within a year. But schooling in business studies and a working experience of market logic tells on other aspects of their writing and publishing as well. Partha Basu, CFO Whirlpool India, whose third book With or Without You is being brought out by Penguin next month, says he susses out the market before picking a subject. “I choose topics that are relevant today,” he comments. “Once I have a few ideas, I speak to people from different age groups and backgrounds. I survey bookstores. And then, I zero in on a topic.” Such premeditation may not work for some, but what non-corporate authors could learn from the office is what to do post-publishing. Nearly all suits apply their market savvy to the marketing of their books, often teaching publishers a few new tricks about how it’s now done. “Chetan suggested we tie up with MTV for a promotion around Five Point Someone, with a certain amount of content sharing. We’d never have thought of this,” admits Mehra of Rupa. Anurag Anand conceived of a consumer promotion with bookmyshow.com, and collaborations with retail chains like Landmark, Crossword and Reliance Timeout. The offer gave purchasers of the book (priced at Rs 100) a coupon to redeem. Ravi Subramanian explored all channels of communications, deploying everyone he knew to research bookshops and report to him about the positioning and availability of his books, and establishing relations with all the leading bookstores. Now that they’ve got ink on their fingers, would they consider giving up their corporate jobs for the popularity of authorship? The writers-in-suits answer this by throwing you a question: Why give up a job that pays a quarter of a million dollars a year for a career that would take at least six bestsellers to approach even a quarter of that quarter when you can have both, the paycheck and the popularity? firstname.lastname@example.org