Why you should care

Because these writers took a different route to the top.

It was a literary festival, and just down the way, poets discussed meter while translators bemoaned the lack of a vernacular book market. But on one panel, things felt more like a movie theater. The audience jostled to glimpse the three authors onstage behind titles like If God Was a Banker, Those Pricey Thakur Girls and I Too Had a Love Story. They sell in the millions.

Such book sales are new here in India, where half a decade ago, a “best-seller” sold some 20,000 copies. One of the writers onstage at this, the Zee Jaipur Literary Festival, was Anuja Chauhan, who told of being offered a 22,000-copy print run for her debut novel — a terrific contract at the time. Nowadays, though, the Indian paperback mass-market publishing world is booming. And the people raking it in seem to have something in common: business backgrounds. In India, things are going exactly the opposite direction from in the U.S., where the literary debate of the day is about whether writers ought to drop $40,000 on creative-writing grad school.

Ravi Subramanian, author of If God Was a Banker, was, yep, a banker. Chauhan is famous for creating India’s Pepsi slogans. Best-selling mythological novelist Ashwin Sanghi holds an MBA from Yale. These writers don’t believe in just handing a book off to their publishers, says Game of Thrones-esque writer Amish Tripathi, an MBA who’s sold around 3 million copies and will have his books turned into Bollywood and Hollywood productions alike. Indeed, over here, writers must be owners of their own products, and “good books don’t sell themselves,” says Tripathi.

Tripathi couldn’t find a publisher at first, so he self-published, and got guerrilla with his marketing, funding a movie trailer to get the word out.

The rise of Indian publishing dates back to the 1980s. That’s when the first wave of Indian writing — embodied by the Salman Rushdies and Arundhati Roys of the industry — was essentially literary, says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland Publishing. Given that India’s a postcolonial nation, one might argue that the four decades following its 1947 independence were about appealing to European and American audiences, winning prizes like the Booker — originally open only to former Commonwealth nations. As for paperbacks? Those could be imported — John Grisham and Dan Brown would do just fine. Why bother with homegrowing such products?

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Visitors at the Jaipur Literary Festival on January 25, 2016.

Source Himanshu Vyas/Getty

Then came the rise of the Indian middle class, and with it a new type of English speaker, says Padmanabhan, who puts out a few megastars, including Tripathi. These people “came to English later,” for work or college, and didn’t grow up seeking novels of the Queen’s English sort. For them, romance novels, thrillers and popularized versions of Hindu mythology, in which they can recognize themselves and their own language, are mouthwatering. So writers like Tripathi who focus on “very Indian subject matter,” as Padmanabhan says, are hits.

As these writers came up, and as the tech industry took root in South India and Delhi’s real estate boom introduced Audis and oligarch-like wealth to Delhi, the market became ripe for a change. The messiah arrived in the form of erstwhile banker Chetan Bhagat, whose second novel in 2005, One Night at the Call Center, took off, chronicling the life of middle-class Indians in a thoroughly middle-class Indian setting. Bhagat caused publishers to discover an “entirely new market,” says Padmanabhan.

Bhagat, Tripathi, et al. have been bemoaned in India’s intellectual media for their lack of pretty prose. The authors don’t care, and wrinkle their noses at this idea that a “book is not a product,” as Subramanian said onstage at the literary festival. Same with teeny-bopper-beloved romance writer Ravinder Singh, who told the audience he’s “unashamed” of his social media techniques — for instance, promoting targeted Facebook ads when he’ll be in town for a reading. Tripathi couldn’t find a publisher at first, so he self-published, and got guerrilla with his marketing, placing samples of the first chapter of his book in bookstores and funding a movie trailer to get the word out.

There’s another way in which the commercial-fiction authors apply their biz habits to their writing — obsessive research and organization. Tripathi started his books as philosophical tomes on good and evil, and tried to use complex character maps, Excel spreadsheets and piles of writer self-help books to get things in order.

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Author Amish Tripathi during his book launch for Scion of Ikshvaku, at the India Habitat Centre on June 4, 2015, in New Delhi.

Source Shivam Saxena/Getty

Yet despite all the differences between the MBA writers and the literary types, some things sound the same. Like the misty eyes with which these authors discuss the way they came to writing. For Singh, that meant grieving for his girlfriend, who died just days before their engagement. So out came the choppily titled I Too Had a Love Story. For Sanghi, writing offered a sudden spurt of meaning after years of business — he’d worked on family companies since age 14 and attended business school at 21. By his mid-30s, he says, “I was really looking for something else which would give me a sense of satisfaction.”

Today, he works four hours a week and writes the rest of the time. He might become a full-time writer in a couple of years. This correspondent is jealous, imagining the guy with the MBA relaxing in a country home, subsisting on words — and a lot of money.

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