There was a time, not long ago, when you could get through a respectable B-school without reading about an Indian company,” says Manish Sabharwal, chairman of human resource company TeamLease Services. “But it’s all changed now. We are in the Asian century and business books are a chronicle of this silent change.”
It’s the day before the announcement of the Gaja Capital Business Book Prize 2020. Instituted by the eponymous private equity company to recognise outstanding business writers in India, the prize, which gives ₹15 lakh to the winner, is the richest of its kind. The jury this year was headed by Sabharwal.
“We take pride in calling India a superpower, a $3 trillion economy,” says Gopal Jain, managing partner and co-founder of Gaja Capital. “But it’s not enough to merely boast of numbers—India also needs to own its narratives.” On 21 January, Mihir Dalal, a journalist with Mint, was chosen as the winner for his debut book, Big Billion Startup: The Untold Flipkart Story.
But this is not the story of one prize alone. Rather, this is a record of the remarkable growth of business publishing in India over the last decade. It’s impossible to cite exact numbers to make a case, since the industry is sprawling and not reliably or fully tracked. But even anecdotally, the evidence of an uptick is palpable.
“Business leaders have realised that narrating these stories is good for their brand and has the effect of paying it forward for the next generation,” says Anish Chandy, founder of the Labyrinth Literary Agency, which represents several business writers, including Dalal. “Increasingly, editors who were handling more literary genres seem to be open to working with well-written business books.” Among his other successful recent sales, Chandy mentions Indian Icon: A Cult Called Royal Enfield by Amrit Jha (published by Westland) and Azim Premji: The Man Beyond The Billions (HarperCollins India) by journalists Sundeep Khanna and Varun Sood (all three are former Mint journalists). With covid-19 and a slump in physical book stores, sales have taken a temporary hit but recovery is hopefully imminent. “Business books have historically received very little press so discovery was primarily through seeding the book in the author’s captive target audience,” Chandy adds. “Then, if the book was any good, word of mouth would take it further. Airport store recovery is important for business books.”
The appeal of a good story is irresistible, whether it charts the life history of an entrepreneur or the making of a big business. Nandan Jha, senior vice-president, product and sales, at Penguin Random House India, agrees with Chandy’s estimation. “Earlier, the segment was dominated by soft business books and career advice guides,” he says. Books like Subroto Bagchi’s Go Kiss The World and Prakash Iyer’s The Habit Of Winning were once the perennial best-sellers, with self-help books imported from abroad leading the way. Of late, the Indian reader seems to have become more curious, open to enjoying a good yarn—be it about the making of Marico (a book with Harsh Mariwala is in the works) or the inside story of Rana Kapoor’s YES Bank debacle.
Just how keenly Indian publishing is pursuing such opportunities is borne out by the fact that three books on YES Bank have hit the market in the last few months. The limited web series Bad Boy Billionaires: India, which dropped on Netflix in October, may have stoked the Indian readers’ appetite for more “bad boy billionaires” but, as Sabharwal says, “The good ones need to have their stories told too.” Like everywhere else, readers here, too, are hungry for well-told stories, about villains or heroes, that move with the pace of thrillers but also have fresh insights, not pompous theoretical tomes and dull hagiographies. And they are willing to pay good money for such books.
“Over the years, the market has shown exceptional receptivity for expensive hardbacks in corporate history and business leader memoirs. For a price-sensitive market, it is a welcome change to see books in the ₹699-899 bracket selling well,” says Sachin Sharma, an editor on the business list at HarperCollins India. Some recent biggest hitters for the company have been Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh (which has sold more than 85,000 copies) and I Do What I Do by former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan (120,000 copies). In the coming months, Sharma’s portfolio boasts of books by iconic adman Prahlad Kakar and industrialist Naushad Forbes.
“One of the major challenges earlier was to convince Indian readers (forever fed on foreign books) that our books were at par,” Sharma says. “Over these decades, not only have Indian authors been accepted world over, they have established new benchmarks.” Yet, even with the best of intentions, it’s often not possible to tell the story exactly as it happened—or even in the most exciting format. One episode of Bad Boy Billionaires, on Ramalinga Raju, for instance, could not be aired after a court order to hold it off, based on a petition filed by Raju.
“We don’t have enough true accounts of companies and business leaders,” Chandy admits. “Most of the books (in that space) are hagiographical, rewriting history or written by an outsider treading on eggshells to not attract an anti-defamation case. Corporate communication departments of companies are very sensitive to any kind of criticism when it appears in book form. If I could do a book of conversations that never made it into my books, I would have a mega best-seller.”