Columns & Opinions

Beyond books: No writers’ block for these literary brands

When writer Ashwin Sanghi was writing his first novel, The Rozabal Line, it was just a matter of getting it done and published. The first print run was 2,500 copies and it was anybody’s guess whether there would be a second book. It was only when sales touched 70,000-80,000 copies that Sanghi knew a second book would happen. “Once you have a successful book out there then to a very great extent your inertia is also affected because your publisher then starts following up,” he says. And only when the second one—Chanakya’s Chant, in 2010, a year after The Rozabal Line—did well was he convinced that there should be no looking back.

He went on to complete his third mythology-based fiction The Krishna Key (2012), after which he co-wrote two books in the Private series with American crime writer James Patterson, and a non-fiction 13 Steps series, co-written with domain experts.

Unlike Sanghi, whose writing career was more or less unplanned, author Amish Tripathi says he had a very clear plan in his head right from his first book: To create an interconnected universe of characters, much like the Marvel Universe, over the years.

His Immortals of Meluha was the first in a trilogy on Shiva and, two books down in the second trilogy about Ram, he points at the clues he has left in each book that bind not just the current series but also the earlier one. “If I had spoken about the clues at that time people would have said, ‘yeah, yeah, you’ve got a 25-year plan’. They wouldn’t have believed it. But now that the Ram Chandra series has come out, people can see the interconnectedness. So now when I say this, they can say ‘haan plan hai’ [Yes, there’s a plan].”

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The plan is to set up a sort of writers’ centre. “A project I am starting, incorporating a company, involves hiring writers. I will tell them the story and they will write the book, which I will supervise. What it does is, [it] expands my capacity. It has been done abroad. I have started working on some fiction books on this model already,” he says, adding his aim is to grow it into a proper media company that will then also produce movies, TV series and the like, based on his interconnected world.

Even as readers don’t seem to be getting enough of their work, writers who struck gold a decade or so ago with their first books are increasingly making the most of their success. This doesn’t just involve churning out more pulp on their own but setting up content companies and collaborative writing. Having made a name for themselves, the attempt now is to extend the brand and create new revenue streams.

The success of Anand Neelakantan’s Asura proved there was a market for mythology of a less conventional variety—while Asura is the Ramayan written from Raavan’s perspective, the Ajaya series is the Mahabharata from Duryodhana’s point of view.

It also brought his way the writing of the prequel to the story of the hit Baahubali films, after director SS Rajamouli approached him to tell the historical epic in three books that are planned to be made into a mini-series. And besides a 10-book deal (five with Westland, four with Penguin and one with Jaico, two of which are non-fiction) Neelakantan is looking at forming a content company so that he can bring to the world the folk and oral tales he has been collecting over the last 25 years.

“We Can Supply Stories To The World.”
—Anand Neelakantan

“We have a huge oral and performing arts tradition, and that is my source,” he says, adding he has nearly 18,000 stories. “I can keep churning out stories as long as I have time, that’s what I believe. There is no end to it, no dearth of stories. But there’s only that much I can do. Twenty years ago, outsourcing changed the Indian IT industry; I believe if we can find a business model, we can supply stories to the entire world.”

It’s a model that has worked in the West, points out Anish Chandy, head of digital business development and offline sales at Juggernaut Books, adding that while he sees a similar attempt in India, he isn’t quite sure it will work here.

“Right now I don’t see a trend of writers who are monetising, but they are trying to. There are writers like Amish, Chetan Bhagat, Ravindra Singh, Twinkle Khanna; you could also include people like Ramachandra Guha and Amitav Ghosh, who are successful writers across genres. Some like Bhagat branch out into other avenues like speaking and motivational talks, but most writers haven’t created platforms, apart from their books, that they can monetise.”

Bhagat, who is also in the Bollywood space, remains in a league of his own as a brand; his website for instance also has T-shirts and frames with the author’s quotes on sale.

But books will have to be at the core. Durjoy Datta, who was picked up by Penguin Random House in 2013, has written 15 in the last decade. Ravi Subramanian, who has written nine, has with his latest novel branched out from the world of banking to write a general contemporary thriller.

Sanghi writes fiction and non-fiction under three different categories—the Bharat series, the Private series and the 13 Steps series—while mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik writes prolifically about lessons from Indian religious texts. He also gives talks, writes columns and hosts TV shows.

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