This story has been updated.
In the world’s second largest smartphone market (around 220 million users, beat that!), book publishing couldn’t have held back for too long. And now, with porn star-turned Bollywood actress Sunny Leone under its fold, the juggernaut has been set rolling.
On April 22, Juggernaut—a company founded by Chiki Sarkar, former Penguin India publisher, and Durga Raghunath, former vice-president at online food portal Zomato—launched an app that lets readers access books customised for Android smartphones. According to the company, this is a first by any publisher in India.
The startup, which began operations last September, has already roped in a star ensemble whose books it will publish. For instance, Leone’s collection of “delicious stories of passion.” Other big names in line are disgraced investment banker Rajat Gupta—who will write a tell-all autobiography after 19 months in federal prison—Man Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy, historian William Dalrymple, actress Sharmila Tagore, and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai.
“We thought traditional publishing didn’t really work in this country. There aren’t enough bookshops and not enough sales per title,” Sarkar, Juggernaut’s publisher, said in an email interview. “We believe the world is moving on to their phones and that as publishers we have to find a life there.”
For now, Juggernaut works almost like any other publishing house.
“It’s not hard,” explained Sarkar. “We charge for the books, pay authors royalties. The prices will vary, but at the moment (for) online we are keeping to 50% of what might be the print price.”
Juggernaut will launch books across various formats, including short stories, one-two hour reads, serialised novels, one-shot long form writing, and eventually also turn its focus on vernacular languages, including Hindi, by June. The company would publish in both physical and digital format.
There is no dearth of funding. So far, the company has raised about $2.2 million, with the bulk of it coming from Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani and William Bissel, managing director of Fabindia.
But in a country where book readership itself has been on a decline, and with many preferring to stay off paid apps, Juggernaut’s growth trajectory may not be entirely smooth. And Sarkar is aware of that.
“I don’t know if it will (work), but I think we have to try,” Sarkar said about the willingness of readers to buy books online. “If this country is one of the largest smartphone users in the world, we must play in that space.”
Indeed, India has already overtaken the US in the sheer number of smartphone users. And the growth isn’t stopping anytime soon.
“For me it is simple. The old route never worked in this country. Not enough bookshops, super long repayment time, unconsolidated retail. You might as well try and reinvent the game,” explained Sarkar.
The company has also tied up with online payment platform Paytm to help with payments.
Update: The earlier headline of this report implied that the app had gone live with Rajat Gupta’s tell-all. However, the company has not published him yet, but only signed him on.