A very Indian company

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There was a time, not so long ago, when you could go through a respectable B school without knowing about an Indian company, ”says Manish Sabharwal, president of human resources company TeamLease Services. “But everything has changed now. We are in the Asian century and business books are a chronicle of this silent change.

This is the day before the announcement of the Gaja Capital Business Book Prize 2020. Established by the eponymous private equity firm to recognize outstanding business writers in India, the prize, which gives ??15 lakh to the winner is the richest of its kind. This year’s jury was chaired by Sabharwal.

“We are proud to call India a superpower, a $ 3 trillion economy,” said Gopal Jain, Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Gaja Capital. “But it is not enough to boast of numbers, India must have its stories too.” On January 21, Mihir Dalal, journalist at Mint, was named winner for his first book, Big Billion Startup: The Untold Story of Flipkart.

But this is not the story of one price. Rather, it is a record of the remarkable growth of commercial publishing in India over the past decade. It is impossible to cite exact numbers to argue, as the industry is sprawling and not reliably or comprehensively tracked. But even anecdotally, the evidence of a slight increase is palpable.

“Business leaders have realized that telling these stories is good for their brand and pays it off for the next generation,” says Anish Chandy, founder of the Labyrinth Literary Agency, which represents several business writers, including Dalal. “More and more, publishers who were dealing with more literary genres seem to be open to working with well-written business books.” Among his other recent successful sales, Chandy mentions Indian icon: a cult called Royal Enfield by Amrit Jha (published by Westland) and Azim Premji: the man beyond the billions (HarperCollins India) by journalists Sundeep Khanna and Varun Sood (all three are former mint journalists). With covid-19 and a collapse in physical bookstores, sales have taken a temporary hit, but the recovery is hopefully imminent. “Historically, business books have received very little press, so the discovery was made primarily by sowing the book in the author’s captive target audience,” adds Chandy. “Then, if the book was good, word of mouth would push it further. Salvage from airport stores is important for business books.

The allure of a good story is irresistible, whether it’s the story of the life of an entrepreneur or the creation of a great business. Nandan Jha, Senior Vice President, Products and Sales, Penguin Random House India, agrees with Chandy’s estimate. “Previously, the segment was dominated by business books and career advice guides,” he says. Books like that of Subroto Bagchi Go kiss the world and that of Prakash Iyer The habit of winning were once the perennial bestsellers, with self-help books imported from abroad leading the way. In recent times, the Indian reader seems to have become more curious, ready to enjoy a good thread, whether it’s about the making of Marico (a book with Harsh Mariwala is in preparation) or the inner story of the debacle of Rana Kapoor’s YES Bank.

The fact that three books on YES Bank have been on the market in the last few months shows how much Indian publishing is looking for such opportunities. The limited web-series Bad Boy Billionaires: India, which released on Netflix in October, may have whetted the appetite of Indian readers for more “bad billionaires” but, as Sabharwal puts it, “the good ones need their stories to be told too”. Like everywhere else, readers here too are hungry for well-told stories, about villains or heroes, which evolve to the beat of thrillers but also have new perspectives, not pompous theoretical tomes and boring hagiographies. And they are willing to pay dearly for such books.

“Over the years, the market has been exceptionally receptive to expensive hardback corporate history books and the memoirs of business leaders. For a price sensitive market, it is a welcome change to see books in the ??The 699-899 media is selling well, ”says Sachin Sharma, Company List Editor at HarperCollins India. Some of the company’s biggest recent hitters have been Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Tap Refresh (which sold over 85,000 copies) and I do what i do by the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan (120,000 copies). Over the next few months, Sharma’s portfolio boasts of books by illustrious advertising man Prahlad Kakar and industrialist Naushad Forbes.

“One of the major challenges before was to convince Indian readers (always fed on foreign books) that our books were up to the task,” Sharma explains. “During these decades Indian authors not only gained acceptance around the world, but they set new benchmarks. Yet even with the best of intentions, it’s often not possible to tell the story exactly as it happened, or even in the most exciting format. An episode of Bad Boy Billionaires, on Ramalinga Raju, for example, could not be broadcast after a court ruling to suspend it, based on a petition filed by Raju.

“We don’t have enough real accounts from companies and business leaders,” admits Chandy. “Most of the books (in this space) are hagiographic, rewriting history or written by a stranger walking on eggshells so as not to attract an anti-defamation case. Corporate communications departments are very sensitive to any form of criticism when it appears in book form. If I could do a book of conversations that never entered my books, I would have a mega bestseller.


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