Published on 19 March, 2015 in Scroll.in
And why this move signals the intensification of high-stakes battles between publishers for India’s most successful writers.
Bestselling author Anuja Chauhan’s decision to move on from HarperCollins Publishers India, the publishing house she started her writing career with, to Westland, has surprised, if not shocked, the publishing world. All her three books ‒ The Zoya Factor (2008), Battle for Bittora: The Story of India’s Most Passionate Lok Sabha Contest (2010), and Those Pricey Thakur Girls (2013) ‒ have been so far published by HarperCollins.
Chauhan will now publish her new book, The House that BJ Built, a sequel to Those Pricey Thakur Girls, with Westland, which has promised her more numbers, more publicity, more everything. Apparently, the negotiations have been going on for six long months. Chauhan’s earlier books will remain with to HarperCollins.
Said Chauhan, “It’s a new book and I’m trying something new. Westland is clearly a publisher that sells the maximum number of books and I am excited about their new marketing initiatives.” Added Anuj Bahri, CEO of Red Ink literary agency and Chauhan’s principal agent, “Anuja is a damn good writer and is capable of selling much more. So, why should an author like her suffer? If the author is a star author and if it is only money you’re losing an author for, then it’s a shame. The new publishing house is ready to invest three times more the money and it’s a strong business proposition after all because writing is all Anuja does now, she’s no longer a full-time employee.”
There was indeed a bidding war of sorts between publishers for the rights to Chauhan’s new book. But it is believed that it was not just the actual advance but also the publisher’s track record at selling huge numbers of a single writer’s work that was taken into account for the final choice.
The numbers game
The advance that a publishing company offers an author is a measure of how many copies of a book it is confident of selling. The calculations are simple: if a publisher believes it can sell, say, 50,000 copies of a book priced at Rs 300, of which the author will get royalties of 10% – that’s Rs 30 per copy sold – it will probably offer an advance of Rs 30 multipled by 50,000, or Rs 15 lakh.
So, a prospective author can judge from the advance how large the publisher’s ambitions and targets for the book are. While the actual advance offered to Chauhan for her new book isn’t known (despite a media report or two), Bahri said, “I can assure you that it’s a six-figure dollar figure.” Which would work out to at least Rs 65 lakh.
Bahri added, “Here is a publisher who is offering her an all India platform, 100,000 copies to start with, and is ready to invest Rs 15 lakh-Rs 20 lakh in the promotion of her books. I think it’s a very positive move for Anuja.”
What Westland brings
Most multinational publishers – such as HarperCollins, Penguin Random House India or Hachette – earn the larger proportion of their revenues from the sales of foreign titles. Westland, in contrast, only works on its homegrown list, which might enable it to pay more attention to each such book.
In addition, Westland has an active programme for translating Indian writing in English into Hindi and other regional languages. This way, they extend the reach of their bestselling authors quite effectively. The company claims its one single mega-franchise – Amish’s Shiva trilogy – is worth Rs 70 crore, part of it brought in by the sale of 250,000 Hindi copies. The company is now looking at introducing international names like award-winning crime writers – the Norwegian author Jo Nesbø and the Swedish author Håkan Nesser.
So, Westland plans to roll out Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, and Bengali translations of Chauhan’s book within a period of three to six months from the date of release. Said Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Westland, “Anuja has been in many ways one of the pioneers in the growth of Indian commercial fiction and we are very much looking forward to working with her. Our aim would be to extend her reach to as many potential readers across the country because we believe that the numbers would speak for themselves.”
Competing for writers
Was HarperCollins expecting this? Said Karthika VK, publisher and chief editor of the company, “Anuja was one of our most loved authors, so it is a bit of a wrench to lose her. But it’s a competitive world out there and everyone wants the best writers. The backlist is with us and we will continue to sell them, we’ll try and get them more visibility.”
Chauhan’s is the latest – and it probably won’t be the last – case of one publisher taking away a successful writer from another. In 2010, Penguin India acquired two best-selling authors of popular fiction, Durjoy Datta and Ravinder Singh, from Srishti Publishers. But their readers, more like die-hard fans, couldn’t care less about the move. They continue to swoon over Deb (protagonist of Datta’s Of Course I Love You Till I Find Someone Better, 2008) irrespective of his subsequent shift.
Journalist and author Aastha Atray Banan, who has published books with Harlequin India and Rupa Publications in the recent past, agreed. “Big publishing houses matter only in the literary circuit,” she said. “Readers only want a good story. Just like when I read Murakami, I don’t look at who’s publishing him in India. Everyone wants to work with a publisher who has a wider reach, but the visibility you get depends on how they pitch you.”
And then there are those like Devdutt Pattanaik who work with multiple publishers (Penguin India, Westland, Tulika etc). How and why he switches between publishers is a mystery because he prefers to “keep things private”.
For Chauhan though, matters were different. It was an eight-year long relationship with HarperCollins and, as Bahri pointed out, she decided to move on only after much deliberation. “There’s a world of difference between what HCI proposed and what Westland has promised us,” he said. “As an author, she aspires to reach out to more people. Money is not the only aspect. Westland sees value in the local market and I am happy that they recognise the Indian-ness in Anuja’s writing. Anuja is a people’s person and if she isn’t able to connect to the people through her books then what’s the point.”
According to Karthika, there’s no bad blood and the competition between publishers, as otherwise perceived by many, is not at all cut-throat. “Nothing else matters if the writer is happy,” she said. “I know we did everything we could for her in terms of sales, marketing and editorially. If an author approaches me, my job is to put the best foot forward. But I don’t think anyone is actively trying to poach. The move has been made in good faith and the fact is that there are so many good books out there and so many good writers. So even if there is a lot of competition, ours is a fairly friendly industry. We talk to each other all the time, sales figures are constantly shared and we know where one stands. We function as a big clan and the competition is never unpleasant.”
For now, the backlist comprising Anuja’s previous books remains with HCI, though Bahri has requested them to return the rights. While The House that BJ Built is scheduled to be released in the third week of May this year, a new television show ‒ Dilli Walli Thakur Girls, inspired by Those Pricey Thakur Girls ‒ is set to go live on March 30 on Zee India’s new Hindi entertainment channel called &TV. There’s also a film of The Battle for Bittora in the works.
Chauhan may have moved house, but the friendly tug-of-war – read: serious battle – for India’s most successful commercial writers will continue.