On the few square inches of Zoom window that we connect on, Ranjeet Pratap Singh looks hot and sweaty, as though I have caught him midway through a run. It’s somewhat fitting, considering the 33-year-old has been running a marathon of sorts for the better part of the last decade, growing his young business from strength to strength and getting investors excited enough to shell out millions of dollars every few years.
As we greet each other, Singh is beaming but almost deliberately low key for a man who has just raised a whopping $48 million (around ₹355 crore) in a Series D funding round led by Krafton, the South Korean company famous for creating PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, better known as PUBG, one of the highest-grossing video games ever. It’s a neat sum by any measure but feels especially jaw-dropping considering what Bengaluru-headquartered Pratilipi—co-founded in 2015 by Singh, along with friends Prashant Gupta, Rahul Ranjan, Sahradayi Modi and Sankaranarayanan Devarajan—does.
On the face of it, Pratilipi is an online storytelling platform, a space where creators self-publish their work for consumers. The brainchild of Singh, who grew up in a small village in Uttar Pradesh reading voraciously (some 140-odd books a year, from Hindi comics to classic and contemporary literature), Pratilipi was born out of a primal hunger for a good story. “Away from home in engineering college, I realised Hindi content wasn’t readily available,” he says, “so I switched to reading in English.” But the lack of Hindi material didn’t stop bothering him.
In no time, Singh had got hooked to George R.R. Martin’s immensely popular Game Of Thrones—the appeal of which remains so sticky for him that he mentioned it at least half a dozen times in the little over half an hour we spent talking. “I have been waiting for the new book in the series forever,” he says, a tad disgruntled. In a sense, this is the kind of impatience that became one of the sparks that kindled Pratilipi—where writers publish in a wide range of languages, as frequently as they like, while readers consume content as quickly or slowly as they fancy.
“I was confident all along that my problem statement was valid,” says Singh, “that there would be demand for platforms someday where people could share their stories with one another irrespective of language, format or device.” The numbers bear it out. As I write this, Pratilipi has around five million stories, created by 370,000-plus writers in 12 languages, and is read by 30 million people and counting. These statistics are especially remarkable given Singh’s unequivocal insistence that Pratilipi’s role is never to prod people to read or consume more. Its goal, from the start, has been to level the playing field for creators, across the talent pool and linguistic spectrum, and open up a world of possibilities for consumers who are keen to access specific kinds of content.
It’s undeniable, though, that Pratilipi was an inspired idea for its time, especially in its ambition to create a pan-Indian platform that would attract readers from the so-called vernacular languages (at present it hosts content in 11 Indian languages and English). But its founding was prefaced by Singh complaining to his friends about the paucity of non-English reading material for a good seven-eight years.
“I come from a lower middle-class family who were very clear that I needed to get a steady job first,” he says. This meant getting an MBA and working with Vodafone for a while—till the penny dropped one day. “I told myself, if you are doing so well at the age of 24, then you must be doing something wrong,” he says. “So, I quit.”
Singh’s initial Plan B wasn’t to launch a startup but to find one he could work with. After roaming around the country for four months and spending time with some startup founders, he wasn’t sure he liked any enough. Eventually, he landed up in Bengaluru—a city he liked enough to take a bet on—and it was there, in 2014, that the beta version of Pratilipi was launched, bootstrapped with Singh’s own funds and those raised from friends. The company was incorporated in 2015. The same year, it raised ₹30 lakh from Times Internet, following it up with a nearly million-dollar fund from Nexus in 2016. The breakthrough came in 2018, when they raised ₹4.3 million in a Series A funding round led by Omidyar Network. Since then, there has been no turning back, with the user base escalating as internet usage grows by leaps and bounds (according to the market analysis firm Statista, India has 45% internet penetration in 2021, more than 10x up from a measly 4% in 2007).
It helped that Pratilipi’s business case was founded in an elegant and timeless idea—the irresistible pull of a good story—but with Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and YouTube spreading their nets fast all over India (currently, the country has the highest number of Facebook users, 340 million, according to Statista), it needed to up its game. The story as text alone wasn’t going to cut it—Pratilipi needed to think beyond the written word and become format agnostic.
“We believe that great stories not only remain powerful for a long time—think of the works of Premchand or Shakespeare—but that they are also extensible,” says Singh. “Once a story works in one format and geography, there are high chances that it will also work in another format and in a different terrain.” This not only means ever-new possibilities of monetisation through new formats, but also that the “text” remains a living, evolving entity, adaptable to the mood of the moment and the consumer’s preference.
Singh uses the example of Murdon Ki Train, one of the most read stories in Hindi on Pratilipi, to drive home the point. “We converted it into the comics format and it became the highest revenue-generating work in the comics section,” he says. “So, we converted it further into a physical comic book. Now it is being sold both online and offline. We have also turned it into an audio book and are now working to transform it into a web series with a third-party producer that will hopefully play sometime next year on a major OTT platform.” The same intellectual property (IP) has thus ended up yielding returns across platforms, with both Pratilipi and the creator benefitting financially each time from all the formats. In 2020, Pratilipi acquired IVM Podcasts—it already had the Pratilipi FM app for its audio content—leaving no segment untouched by its presence.
While its multifaceted formats and models of shared benefits may work well with the top-performing stories on Pratilipi, 99.9% of the content on the platform continues to be free. “Recently, we offered subscription options to a handful of our creators, who can now charge their ‘superfans’ to get early access to the content,” says Singh. Revenue sharing for IP depends on the format and model; there are no fixed numbers. In the case of Pratilipi’s largest revenue stream i.e. subscription, 40-60% goes to the creator.
Comics remain the most successful category in this regard, while suspense and thriller are the best-performing genres overall on the platform, followed by love and romance, trailed by horror and paranormal. By removing the layer of editorial gatekeeping, Pratilipi also gives tremendous control to readers, enabling them to give feedback and inputs to stories that are already up, or to works-in-progress, which get published in instalments.
“The Harry Potter series is only second to the Bible in terms of global sales and yet the first book in it was rejected by most publishers till it was picked up by one,” Singh says, with a touch of exasperation. Self-publishing platforms such as Pratilipi, he adds, may be able to make life easier for the J.K. Rowlings of the future. As a test case, he waxes eloquent about his current obsession, Webtoon, a content-sharing platform for comics creators run by the South Korean company Naver, which has works by the legendary Stan Lee of Marvel Comics, alongside those by aspiring 16-year-old Stan Lees of the future. Such a democratic coexistence of legends and nobodies on an equal footing is unthinkable in mainstream publishing.
Things are far from hunky-dory in the world of online publishing, though. Unfettered access to self-publishing platforms can lead to dwindling quality control. “With several million stories in the literature section alone, it’s not possible for us to curate them all or to go through each and moderate the content,” says Singh. Pornography and hate speech remain the big headaches but it is copyright violation that leads to even bigger troubles. “For this reason, we have invested heavily in our technology that tries to build data models to weed out content that shouldn’t be there on Pratilipi,” says Singh. Most people know such innovations as Artificial Intelligence (AI); Singh prefers the term machine learning (ML).
Call it what you will, technology has worked reasonably well for Pratilipi, from rendering texts in complex Indian scripts to acting as an excellent predictive tool for readers. “Once you have read 10-20 stories on Pratilipi, you will probably like eight out of the 10 things we recommend to you,” Singh says. There’s probably more than a grain of truth in this, considering his claim that Pratilipi’s daily user average has gone up from 34 minutes in 2018 to nearly 73 minutes in 2021—this isn’t nearly as much to do with the empty days of the lockdown as with the quality of recommendations, Singh insists.
But competition is stiff in the fast-growing space of online self-publishing. From Medium to Substack to (most recently) Quora, every big and small player is going gung-ho about subscription-based models, grooming creators to become better at making and selling their content. “In the past, we have done AMA (ask me anything) sessions with successful writers and even had Sahitya Akademi winners come on Pratilipi to talk about ways of becoming a better creator, though I don’t believe we have put as much emphasis on these activities as we need to,” says Singh. “We want to correct this in future.”