Cover Story: How Amish Tripathi changed Indian publishing

Hindustan Times | By
Apr 27, 2013 05:30 PM IST

A husband who’s more than an author; a wife who’s more than a marketer. How Amish Tripathi and Preeti Vyas changed Indian publishing with The Shiva Trilogy (The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas and the recently released The Oath of the Vayuputras).

The writer and columnist Anil Dharker has an astute way of describing Amish Tripathi, author of the Shiva Trilogy (The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas and the recently released The Oath of the Vayuputras). “Amish has a self belief possibly bordering on arrogance,” Dharker says. It’s a compliment.

Tripathi, the banker whose manuscript was famously rejected by 20-odd publishers (he also showed a copy to Dharker only to ignore his every suggestion), has become India’s fastest selling author. Over 1.7 million copies of his books have been sold, ringing up Rs 40 crore and earning him an unprecedented Rs 5 crore advance for his next series. It couldn’t have come without self belief and almost-arrogance.

But as Tripathi readily acknowledges, it also couldn’t have come without some very calculated risks and a wife who headed the marketing machinery without playing a formal role in the making of the bestsellers. "I think I was damn lucky to have advisers who had nothing to do with publishing," Tripathi admits. "In any industry, the people with the freshest ideas usually come from outside."

Business partner
Almost everyone who works with Tripathi – his agent, publisher, literary festival organisers, publicists, distributors and retailers – credits the author’s wife Preeti Vyas for being the driving force behind the marketing of the books. Call her a backseat driving force – Vyas has no official designation, no defined post in the backstage drama of the Shiva Trilogy. But she’s hard to miss. Unlike most authors’ family members or spouses, Vyas accompanies Tripathi to meetings, records the minutes, ideates alongside everyone else, emails checklists and pushes ideas further than they’d normally go. At events she’s the one double-checking with the staff about seating and event-flow details. “The philosophical inputs for the book may have come from Amish’s family, the marketing and event ideas all come from Preeti,” says Sangram Surve, founder of Think Why Not, the agency behind most of the Shiva Trilogy promos.

Consider the February 26 launch for Vayuputras at Crossword’s flagship Mumbai store in Kemps Corner. Where most releases are humdrum affairs – author reads extract, has obligatory discussion with fellow literary type, fields audience questions, signs flyleaves, exits – this one was different. An hour before the 10pm launch, fans had already lined up outside, chanting “Har Har Mahadev!” Some were dressed as characters from the series; others sported tattoos featuring artwork from the books. There were bouncers for crowd control, numbered tokens to prevent queue jumping and MCs to entertain everyone.

Amish Tripathi (Photo: Kalpak Pathak)
Amish Tripathi (Photo: Kalpak Pathak)
Inside, once you squeezed in, it was even more of a circus. Artists painted Shiva body art for obliging fans. Dancers performed to music especially created for the book. It was Indian publishing’s biggest party. Kajol and Shekhar Kapur were there. But the biggest star was Tripathi himself, giving autographs and thanking people for coming. And it was all the brainchild of Vyas.

As a wife and marketer, Vyas has helped Tripathi at “all the critical points,” says Dharker. Back when he was working on his first manuscript, writing in the back of his car on the way to work, the writing-guide method of creating character sketches would keep interfering with the storytelling. It was Vyas who suggested her husband abandon the template and write as if he was recording a story unfolding in a parallel universe instead.

And when the time came to promote Immortals, the first novel from a writer no one had heard of, Vyas suggested that bookstores offer free copies of the opening chapter to customers. The strategy got readers to return, buy the book and make Immortals a bestseller within a week of its release. More recently, Vyas took over the trilogy’s success party at a five-star hotel. Guests drank milky “somrass” out of earthen cups, little dumroos at every table allowed for a different kind of audience applause, buffet items were named to reflect characters and locations in the novels, and everyone went home with a souvenir – a scroll bearing the Pashupati seal that features prominently in the books. The only thing missing, as someone cheekily announced over the speakers that evening, was a chillum of hashish.

Defining details

"If Amish had found his calling in any other field, I’d probably have been just a supportive wife," says Vyas, who owned and ran a children’s bookstore and launched Pantaloon’s books and music retail division before she founded the kids’ publishing house Fun Ok Please. "But as a passionate book lover and someone who’d been part of so many book launches, I knew that I’d better get my act together and put everything I know into Amish’s book. Because this was it!"

It, however, isn’t easy. Indian publishing is more used to lobbying for awards, angling for blurbs, and garnering critical favour than harnessing mass appeal. Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for 2012’s Man Booker and Man Asian Literary Prize (2012), was launched without a squeak. Immortals, on the other hand, came with a live-action YouTube trailer featuring Taufiq Qureshi. Tripathi pushed the book on social networks and followed up with distributors to ensure his book reached every tempted reader.

By the time The Secret of the Nagas was out, the author’s fan base had grown bigger than anyone was equipped to deal with. Vyas recalls a book-signing event in Pune: “If Immortals had 40 people showing up, Nagas had 400. No one was prepared. Readers crowded around Amish, he was at a glass table… anything could have happened.” Her solution? Plan a detailed event flow, turn it into a bullet-point checklist and send it to every store before Amish visits. It’s worked. Sivaraman Balakrishnan, Crossword’s senior manager of marketing, says he’s interacted with Vyas almost as much as he has with her husband, perhaps more. “I don’t know any other author’s spouse by name.”

Anuj Bahri, proprietor of Delhi bookstore Bahrisons (and the agent who backed Immortals when no publisher wanted to sign Tripathi), says that Vyas is a stickler for perfection. “I love it when she says, ‘Just leave it, I’ll do it’,” he says. “And for sure she gets it done just the way she wants it.” Vyas herself is aware of how her uncredited role can be misconstrued. “I don’t come from a place that says ‘I am his wife so you should listen to me’,” she says. “The publisher and bookstore is putting in real money. It is real business for them. They can’t indulge whims. I have to present the logic of my case.”

For Indian publishing, which has only recently tapped into the non-literary genre, it’s been a welcome move. Gautam Padmanaban, CEO of Westland (the publishers for books 2 and 3) sees her as “integral but unobtrusive”.

Out of character
Balakrishnan calls Tripathi the best example of a new kind of Indian writer – one who believes the author is the CEO of his book – unlike Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth, who leave promotion to the publisher. “Ashwin Sanghi, Ravi Subramanian, Chetan Bhagat, Ravinder Singh, Rashmi Bansal and Durjoy Datta know their reader is not a literary reader,” he explains. “They have no problems calling the bookstore and asking us to promote their book.” Bhagat and Tripathi are especially good for business. “They release one book a year, giving us an extra fillip to sell their older books.”

WHAT SHIVA DID NEXT: Readers line up for the first copies of Vayuputras on February 26 at Crossword, Mumbai
WHAT SHIVA DID NEXT: Readers line up for the first copies of Vayuputras on February 26 at Crossword, Mumbai

Westland and Penguin’s efforts echo the shift in book buying. Both focus on in-store promotion, which bids goodbye to vanilla launches, and don’t pressurise retailers to sell the same book the same way everywhere. “Each book has a catchment area,” Balakrishnan says. “Ravinder’s books do well in Kota, Surat, Baroda and Ahmedabad, not in bigger cities. 2 States sold the best in Ahmedabad. Authors are realising this too.”

Surve says an upcoming Penguin author has already contacted him, saying his publishers have given him a free hand with promotion. Another writer is planning a video and album. But Bahri notes that while most new authors have learnt a lot about promotion, they haven’t learned much about the value of good writing and good editorial support by a literary agency. “They only look at us as the ‘dealer’ who will help them get the best monetary deal for their book.”

Best practices
It’s perhaps why Tripathi is ahead of the game. Starting off with a small publisher meant there were no set notions of selling to begin with. But he kept at it. Five years later, he remembers store managers by name. Festival organisers know him to be punctual. Retailers see him as approachable. Bahri says he’s equally at ease with listening to ideas as giving them. Vyas says the whole family schooled Tripathi for press interviews for Nagas. “We asked him to explain the message of the book and he went into this long philosophical lecture. We all shouted: “No! That’s the wrong answer! That’s not the message!” And Tripathi calmly acquiesced. Surve’s colleagues have told him that Tripathi at a book signing looks like a “mayor on a campaign”.

And he’s still busy. Every fortnight Tripathi mails bookstores new statistics for his books – how much was sold, where, how fast and what new initiatives have been planned. “No author I know does this; it’s certainly not an industry standard,” says Padmanabhan. To retailers, it’s an immensely helpful tool. “It keeps you abreast with best practices and shows you if you’re selling as well as you should,” Balakrishnan says.

A few weeks after the launch of Vayuputras, Tripathi and Vyas threw a small party for the photographer, cinematographer, PR and advertising people and the promotions team. “They’d made individual trophies for all of us,” Surve says. “Preeti did a mini Oscar-style ceremony, with nominees and all, and gave each one their award as a thank you. We were all so touched.”

Photo: Kalpak Pathak
Photo: Kalpak Pathak

The worst bit about being married to a successful author?
“Everything I used to nag about has now been legitimised. The time he spends watching battle scenes on TV is now research. Being spaced out is justified as thinking of a plot twist”
– Preeti

Your Excel files were once filled with character bios, which never made it to the book. What’s in them now?
My accounts!
– Amish

The best part about being a successful author?
Reading is now tax deductible!
– Amish

Fantasy becomes reality
Tripathi’s story is the stuff of publishing history – or at the very least, a case study in out-of-the-box marketing for bright-eyed MBAs. Here’s how he did it

Starting out

The Immortals of Meluha was released with a print run of just 5,000 copies. To hook readers, Tripathi gave out sample chapters for free, got shops to display posters and uploaded a promo on YouTube. The first book by the new author and small publisher hit the bestseller lists within a week.

Following up
“For The Secret of the Nagas, Amish wanted a trailer in the style of HBO’s Spartacus,” recalls Sangram Surve of ad firm Think Why Not. “The budget wasn’t big, but it was a first for India. We wanted to be part of history.” The film hit multiplexes and won fans.

Topping it off
“Amish knew that those who’d bought books 1 and 2 would buy The Oath of the Vayuputras, anyway,” Surve says. “Our brief now was to also increase sales of Book 1 and widen fan base.”

Idea 1: Think Why Not started off with a music video to garner publicity on music channels without ad spend.

Idea 2: Then they figured they could licence the song to a music label and make money and signed a record deal.

Idea 3: The record company planned to fill the rest of the CD with their own music. “So we thought, we might as well record content of our own.” And so, what began as a song turned into

India’s – possibly the world’s – first original soundtrack for a book. Then, news broke that Karan Johar had bought the movie rights to Immortals.

Sales skyrocketed. Westland claims the book sold 3.5 lakh copies in its first week. By the time you read this, sales will have touched 4.5 lakh.

Team of two
The reason Amish and Preeti work so well together is probably because they’ve had such an early headstart. The college sweethearts met in 1990, standing in line for their ID cards at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College.

Amish, on the other hand, was attracted to Preeti’s exuberance. “She fully experiences the joys of life,” he says. “I think I was a slightly boring guy before we met. She taught me to loosen up.”

“She was ahead of me and asked for gum, or was it scissors?” Amish recalls. They married roughly a decade later at age 24. “Preeti has taught me to enjoy life a lot more”

Preeti says: “Back in college, we worked like crazy to make Amish the chairperson for Malhar [the college festival]. When he was finally elected, I was the one jumping all over the place. He was so calm, it was like nothing had happened.”

“The thing I’ve always liked about Amish is that he’s so stable and detached from everything”

FYI: Amish talks plot twists with his siblings and in-laws, but marketing ideas all come from his wife, Preeti

8 steps to A bestseller

Believe in the story You live in a free country where you have a right to be heard. Don’t be afraid of putting it out there – Preeti Vyas

Bounce ideas off Friends and family A lot of the plans for the Immortals book came from calling people home and feeding them coffee, dinner and apple pie – Preeti Vyas

Writing isn’t everything. There are a lot of books out there. Many don’t make it to the reader. Yours has to shout “I’m here! I deserve to be read!” – Sangram Surve

Approach every publisher It’s still the best way to get a book out – Preeti Vyas

Don’t fear failure The moment you are afraid of what people, readers, critics think, you’ll be paralysed. You can’t make decisions based on market research – Amish Tripathi

Prepare to do the selling Publishers don’t have the bandwith or the money to push every book. Figure out what each of your stakeholders’ selfish interest is and add it to your marketing plan – Sangram Surve

if it doesn’t work, it’s cool, man Everyone gets three out of 10 decisions wrong. But if you’re wrong more often than you’re right, you have a capability issue. You probably should be in another industry – Amish Tripathi

Remember that in India, the average bestseller is still only 3,000 to 10,000 copies – Sivaraman Balakrishnan

From HT Brunch, April 28

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    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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