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Juggernaut rolls: Are digital books set to meet data science?

Juggernaut plans books from Rs 49 and daily subscriptions at Rs 15 in a smartphone-centric universe where people will read more on small screens.

columns Updated: Apr 23, 2016 15:45 IST
Publisher Chiki Sarkar of Juggernaut Books aims to change the way Indians read and consume literature.
Publisher Chiki Sarkar of Juggernaut Books aims to change the way Indians read and consume literature.(Photo Courtesy: Chiki Sarkar’s Twitter handle)

I am writing this column on the World Book Day. A new chapter in Indian book publishing was launched this week when Juggernaut Books, a cool startup, launched its smartphone app for Android (with iOS expected a week later). The software is still shaky with bugs, but the ambition is high, because it steered by two high-impact women, CEO Durga Raghunath, who was earlier with Network 18, and publisher Chiki Sarkar, who has cut her teeth at Penguin, Random House and Bloomsbury. Its investors include former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani.

The big deal: this is about life after paper, or perhaps one in which paper will be there as an oh-by-the-way thing.

About 100 titles are available for download, including a bunch of short stories by porn-star turned Bollywood actor Sunny Leone, which sort of guarantees raised eyebrows for brand value. It also shows how high-brow can exist with low-brow in a new equation.

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What I am watching out for is the business model in a world where things are so easy now for readers, that it is difficult for publishers. With plenty of stuff is available for free on the Web, getting people to pay for digital books and juggling that with quality authors who deserve a good deal is a daunting challenge.

In the US, an all-you-can-read subscription model is on shaky ground. Last year, we saw the closure of Oyster, an ambitious startup that aimed to be the Netflix of books (where you can consume from a vast library of authorised high-quality content for a fixed monthly subscription). Amazon has its Kindle Unlimited service ($9.99 or about Rs 650 per month) – and an impressive library of more than a million titles. But it excludes books from top five publishers. Scribd, which offers a wide range of titles, is trundling among at $8.99 a month.

Where Juggernaut can score is in offering a range of big Indian authors at Indian prices. Books are planned to be priced at Rs 49, 99 and 149. The startup also plans to offer daily membership at Rs 15 and monthly subscription at Rs 299.

It promises consumers browsing, reading, interaction with authors and social features (probably hooking up with fellow readers) and easy payments (they have a tie-up with PayTM to start with). The authors include Arundhati Roy and William Dalrymple, and soon former McKinsey chief Rajat Gupta, who is turning author after a jail term in a Wall Street scandal.

India has an estimated English-speaking population of 125 million – and that’s five times the population of Australia. The smartphone penetration is upwards of 200 million already. Can micropayments meet huge volumes to craft a new publishing story? How will authors gain or lose? Will data science bring in new insights on who is read and who is not in a world where reading habits can be studied by shrewd, snoopy software?

The last of the questions might make a huge difference, perhaps.