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Chiki Sarkar on 'Juggernaut' to become India's first phone publisher

Ex-publisher of Penguin Random House wants to entice new readers by presenting books as 'snacks' on the phone, and Nandan Nilekani is backing her idea

Anjali Puri  |  New Delhi 

Chikki Sarkar
Chiki Sarkar

When Chiki Sarkar left Penguin Random House India in April this year after a successful, high-profile run as its publisher, the publishing world was agog. It was an open secret that Sarkar, with whom four other top people from the company had also left, was going to start her own company, but the details were unknown. The mists have now cleared to reveal Sarkar, 38, and her four ex- colleagues sitting at a long communal work-table in a stylishly sparse office just off Delhi’s Khan Market, with a tech team toiling away on a mobile app in the next room. A mobile app for a book publisher? Yes, indeed. Sarkar’s new company, Juggernaut, is being run out of the 70-year old Sujan Singh Park complex, a slice of old-world Delhi with high ceilings, old terrazzo floors and quiet verandas. But her vision for it, and that of CEO and co-founder Durga Raghunath, who has worked in digital publishing for over a decade, is sharply futuristic. Juggernaut will be, Sarkar says in her effervescent way, “a fantastic publisher of all kinds of books, serious and commercial” that you can buy in a bookshop, or download as an e-book. She promises a “strong and robust physical list that you will see in April next year”, 25 titles to begin with, and quadruple that, going forward. But alongside, she is also gearing up to become, from next February, India’s first phone publisher. Phone publisher, what’s that, you ask slowly, and Sarkar is off and away. “If India is going to live on the phone, if we’re going to become a one-device population, then Indians will also read on the phone,” she declares. “The e-book,” she continues, “is literally a physical rendering of the book in electronic form, and too static. I’m saying, can we talk to this new mobile audience differently? Can we create a reading experience tailor-made for the phone?”

Durga Raghunath

Durga Raghunath

Having taken these very questions to investors in recent months, Sarkar has raised Rs 15 crore for her company, which, she emphasises, is only round one. The two main investors are Nandan Nilekani, ex-CEO and co-founder of Infosys, and William Bissell, the managing director of Fabindia.

Four smaller investors include Neeraj Aggarwal, the managing director of Boston Consulting Group in India (and earlier its head of digital strategy in India), and Sarkar herself, with her own savings as well as money gifted to her for her new baby by her father, media tycoon Aveek Sarkar (the other two don’t want to be named). Nilekani and Aveek Sarkar are also on Juggernaut’s advisory board, along with academic and writer Pratap Bhanu Mehta, novelist Vikram Chandra, who has a background in computer coding, and the managing director of TVS Capital, D Sundaram. “We will get a round two with double or treble that money within a year, when there is more to show on paper, because there is plenty of interest,” says Sarkar. “At the moment, my investors have put in money only on the basis of the team and the idea.” Would they have come on board for a purely physical publishing company? She thinks not. “It’s the question of how we can change the game that attracts investors.” And how will they do that? Sarkar and Raghunath would have you believe phone publishing can revitalise a faltering publishing industry, beset by poor sales figures (an average print run of 3,000 copies at Rs 299 per book), a shrinking number of bookshops and chronically delayed payments. “You can publish many more titles, at cheaper cost, experiment across genres, collect revenue faster, disburse it faster,” points out Raghunath. “I have no doubt that if we get the price point, content and consumer experience right, we will break all records of title publishing.” That 20-25 million people are consuming news sites in India, that 60 million are on 3G and data usage is doubling month on month, that digital payment service are growing exponentially, suggest, she stresses, that the time is ripe for phone publishing. Sarkar and Raghunath assert that the ease and convenience of phone-reading will draw in those who only have time to read in short, sharp bursts, say on a long commute, a tiresome wait, a traffic jam; that strong stories, presented in a mobile-friendly way can make avid readers out of those who shop, play games, or buy entertainment on the phone, but would rarely get around to purchasing a book. “Could we think of presenting a book in a way that people access it not just as one big, one-off serious thing with 200 pages, but in snack-sized portions,” asks Sarkar. “Can we make it possible for people to buy it in short, digestible bits? A chapter or two first, and then if they like it, more? Could each chapter be looked at almost as a TV episode?” Purists might wonder what the book is being turned into. But then Sarkar would argue that some of the greatest 19th century novels were snacks — they came serialised in magazines — and that TV, at least in the west, has pulled off “strong and intelligent storytelling”. More recently, there have been Japanese cell-phone novels and Chinese models too. (In both countries, mobile publishing is a big industry.) Apart from breaking down big books, Sarkar wants to commission short books for the phone, 20,000 to 40,000 words. She talks of hooking readers with new tales at 10 pm every night, of premiering the next political tell-all on the phone. “We have to do a few very simple things,” she says briskly. “We have to make sure the app is light, payment is smooth, that we respond very fast to what is working, what is not. And then most important, we have to give you stories so compelling that you are going to read them on the phone.” To writers, Sarkar expansively promises nothing short of a new deal: “a physical life, an e-book life and a phone life”, a greater share in the business, faster royalties, deep conversations with readers, “and a community of people who follow them, making it very easy for us to market their next book”. She wants readers to be able to tell an author, via Juggernaut’s app, “I really liked chapter one, but why did you kill her off in chapter five?” But wait a minute, you ask. Why would Indians, who have nixed the efforts of Indian newspaper and magazine sites to make them pay for content, fork out for Juggernaut? Do writers want to interact all that much with readers? Is the phone really conducive to proper book-reading? Sarkar makes short shrift of these arguments. “Remember,” she says, “one of the most interesting things about books, globally, is that no one has ever sold a book for free, nobody who reads books (unless they are pirated) assumes they are getting it for free.” All authors, she says firmly, want more readers and are happy to promote their books in the first two months after publishing. As for books and the phone, she says, “Forget about digital and physical. What am I betting on in the end? It’s a very simple thing. I know how to make books that people want to read.”

First Published: Wed, September 23 2015. 00:24 IST