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Ravi Subramanian on how to make a bestseller

When he first wrote his first book, he didn't think there would be a second. Ravi Subramanian had a story to tell. He'd been a banker for more than a decade. His wife was a banker. All his friends were bankers...

brunch Updated: Nov 02, 2013 17:05 IST
Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain
Hindustan Times
Ravi Subramanian,Books,Brunch

When he first wrote his first book, he didn't think there would be a second. Ravi Subramanian had a story to tell. He'd been a banker for more than a decade. His wife was a banker. All his friends were bankers. He knew all the deep, dark secrets of banking and so, in 2007, came If God Was A Banker. Some figured who the real characters were based on, others played guessing games - the book became a bestseller. It sold more than two lakh copies.

And so he wrote more - six books in six years (most of them bestsellers). The latest, Bankerupt is an attempt to write beyond banking. It's set in academia (although, the book is laced with banking frauds) and gun control. But the story, like all his books, is a sermon. It boils down to good versus evil, greed spiralling out of control.'t buy into the "John Grisham of banking" bit. He's far from the Grisham of anything. You could get away with cracking some of the Dan Brown jokes doing the rounds earlier this year, but all will be lost on the millions of Brown's fans. All the characters in Bankerupt are talking textbooks - his Americans sound like Indian textbooks.

But if you have developed a taste for Indian commercial fiction, it's a good thriller, pacy too.

Subramanian is your regular nice guy. He has no airs, he's smart, he knows what he's talking about. And he knows how to sell a book, we quizzed him on that, the new book and other things.

Why makes a book a bestseller?

I have a very strong belief, echoed by current crop of popular fiction authors. The author is the CEO of his book. He has to take charge of everything, storyline, content, editing and things like distribution.

A lot of authors used to believe that they only had to write a book. I was at a session on how to write a book with Shashi Deshpande. She says, an author should just write and publishers should do the rest. But the publisher has a hundred books to push! You have to stand out in bookstores and publisher's mindset. I believe if you've written a book, you have to stand up and say, "guys, buy the book".

People think writing is a very distinguished, cerebral thing, where all you do is write. It doesn't work that way. People have to see online promotions, see piles of your book in stores, and you have to make sure the guy recommends it!

So for Bankerupt, there will be The Game of Bankerupt in Barista outlets, from November 1. It's a cerebral version of snakes and ladders - banking decisions, good and corrupt, which propel you or make you fall down - on tabletops. There is no way people will not come out of a Barista, they won't know about the book.

What do you have in common with the other big bestsellers - Chetan Bhagat, Ashwin Sanghi, Amish Tripathi and Ravinder Singh?
Not much. I don't have anything in common with them per se. But what has happened in the last 4-5 years in India is that certain authors have emerged, brought in something that hasn't been explored in the past. Amish writes about mythology, Ashwin brings in thrillers in mythology, I write about corporate and Chetan about life in general.

And, sure, all of us come from very grounded middle class backgrounds. It brings sincerity and commitment into our work.
And you all went to B-school.

You know, I have been thinking about it for long. Most MBA graduates are hungry for intellectual glamour. Most of these guys have very boring day jobs. They come out of B-school with a lot of hope, but are disappointed.

And getting a book published is not difficult, because publishers know that a few thousand copies will get sold, because after B-school, you network a lot.

But more interestingly, you have to remember that most of us started writing between 2006-10, a torrid phase for corporate finance in India. Amish, Chetan and I are from the same time. You can connect the dots.

Are all of you great friends, though?
Not Chetan. But Amish, Ashwin, Ravinder and I talk a lot. We exchange notes. We talk to each other about promotions and what publishers are doing. In this industry, publishing bitching is very common. Unlike the corporate world, the books' space is not competitive. People who read their books more will not read mine less. One doesn't have to go up at the cost of another. So there's no politics.

Ravinder has been known to say that he doesn't read. Do you think it's okay for writers to not read?
I wouldn't want to comment on him, He's a very successful writer in his own space. But I think reading makes you better writer. It gives you perspective. It broadens your horizon.

So, do you read a lot?
Writing doesn't let me read too much. I read about two books a month. I write before I sleep, so I don't read at bedtime. But, I don't read literary fiction. I like thrillers - I read [books by] John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer and Jeffery Deaver.

You've said in previous interviews, that you may not be the best writer, but you're a great storyteller.
Look, I'm not the literary guy. I'm not commercial guy. I say I'm a good storyteller because writing is education, it improves more and more with time. And after you've finished telling you story, you have a bunch of editors to improve your writing.

I used to write only about banking. Now I have written about various international issues. I have experimented with my writing.
For Bankerupt, I wanted to build a car chase sequence. I read multiple books, but I still couldn't write it the way it should have been written. So instead of writing a badly constructed car chase sequence, I dropped it and changed my story.

You interact a lot with your readers - what sort of reader is your target reader?
It's an interesting question. A few days ago, I was at a Standard Chartered bank party. And interestingly, all the wives came to me and said they had read the book. Thriller readers are supposed to be a male readership. So I was surprised.

I think my reader is somebody who likes thrillers, is a management graduate. The entire corporate population, actually. My books are for people between the ages of 25-55, the others - Chetan, Ravinder, Durjoy - write for a younger audience. My segment starts where theirs ends.

You make banking sound so dark.
It's important that people read and realise what happens in corporate lives. People have a lot of lofty ideas about what they're going to do after B-school. But college doesn't tell you what really happens:

In real corporate life, nobody will help you because they want to help you. It's another version of Indian politics.
And besides, writing about the good side is very boring. People remember the dark stories more.

Where are your characters coming from? Who's the most real banker yet?
A lot of my stories and incidents in my books are lifted from real life happenings.
A lot of people said If God Was A Banker was about two people from Citibank. But some also asked if it was ICICI bank, or ABN Amro.

Did Citibank really ban If God Was A Banker from its offices?
It's true. Citibank had banned it. People hid their copies. But the book was based on lots of incidents in banks, including Citibank. I used my creativity but picked from real life.

So lots of severed ties?
Not at all, actually. If someone gets upset, they're passively accepting it. So nobody says it! You don't make enemies in the banking world.

Last year, in the audience were four of my previous bosses. You don't make enemeies in the banking world.

How did you start writing?
Writing a book about banking was never a conscious thought. I was about 14 years into my career. I wanted to write a story. I was too lazy to research. There were interesting stories in banking and I knew it like the back of my hand.
My wife was away on training program. I was alone with my six-year-old. I jotted down 16 interesting instances and put the stories together.

If six years back, someone would have told me I'd wrote six books and they'd do reasonably well, I would laugh. When I wrote my first book, I wanted to just write a book.

Did you always want to write?
I used to write short stories as a child, I wrote poetry as a teenager. But writing was never a commercial option. I come from a middle class background. Education was only thing we were going to get from our parents. So, it was always, get a good job first, then write. When I wrote my first book, I didn't write for money

You were already rich then.
But even today, I don't write for money. The day I quit my job, I will stop writing. It won't be exciting. I don't want this to become my job!

Tell us about your real job! What do you do at the Shriram group?
The company is largely based in south India. I have been hired to set up their new businesses outside of the south. I'm the CEO (non chit), It is a high-pressure job, but if you're in a senior position, you have the time to, uh, manage your time.

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From HT Brunch, November 3

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First Published: Nov 01, 2013 18:41 IST