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Westland's Gautam Padmanabhan: The comeback man

Over a year after the Amazon setback, Westland Books' Gautam Padmanabhan on his venture’s various avatars, and why working in Pratilipi is exciting

Gautam Padmanabhan, currently, business head of Westland Books at Pratilipi.
Gautam Padmanabhan, currently, business head of Westland Books at Pratilipi. (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

On his Instagram bio, Gautam Padmanabhan calls himself a “publishing dinosaur”. About a year and a half ago, this would not have sounded cute. He may be sportingly alluding to having spent over three decades in the books business but in February last year, when Westland Publications Pvt. Ltd was suddenly dumped by its parent company, the India arm of the global retailer Amazon, his future in the trade was far from certain.

“Yeah, well…,” says the soft-spoken Padmanabhan, 57, haltingly. A wistful chuckle later: “As the CEO of Westland, I was aware of what was going to happen reasonably close to the date…but honestly, I did not expect the response we were going to get,” he says, referring to the shock and sympathy triggered by the news of shutdown.

It is thanks to one such response, from Bengaluru-based digital storytelling platform Pratilipi, valued currently at $265 million (around Rs. 2,173 crore), that he is able to have a conversation contrasting his 17 years as the CEO of a traditional publishing house with his now close to 17 months as the business head of the book publishing division of a digital storytelling platform. While more than happy to be back publishing books, Padmanabhan and his team at Westland Books have also been experimenting with other verticals within Pratilipi for multimedia storytelling.

The optimism is palpable as we speak at length on a muggy monsoon day in Delhi. Padmanabhan, visiting from Chennai, is dressed appropriately in a cool bush-shirt and office pants. In the conference room of their relatively new office space at the East of Kailash community centre in Delhi, he tells me about how working closely with Pratilipi’s in-house teams means they can more realistically reach the vast, untapped “market for...stories” and “explore non-traditional channels” to distribute them.

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In close to two decades with Padmanabhan as CEO, and about half a decade with well-respected editors like Karthika V.K. and Ajitha G.S., Westland had become one of the biggest homegrown trade publishers—the name would be listed in the same breath as the India concerns of some of the biggest international publishers like Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. When the news broke, some quarters even saw Westland’s closing as a comment on the future of Indian publishing.

All the noise, even if well-intentioned, could not have helped Padmanabhan when he was cornered into chalking out a future for his strong, tight-knit team and a family legacy he had nurtured through various big business changes.


Rapid fire with Gautam Padmanabhan.
Rapid fire with Gautam Padmanabhan.


Padmanabhan’s first job, in 1987, was as a sales manager at East West Books, a book distributorship his father had started in 1962. “Since I was interested in the business of books from childhood, I was ready to join as soon as I finished school, but, on my dad’s urging, I completed my BCom from Madras University,” recalls Padmanabhan, who has now lived for close to five decades in Chennai. In the early 1990s, this company merged into Westland, which he started in collaboration with the Landmark book-store chain. In the late 2000s, Westland was part of the Tata group’s acquisition of Landmark.

This was a turning point—it was on the advice of this new parent company that Westland turned its focus from third-party distributorship to publishing. Then, in February 2016, to test interest in India’s books market, Amazon first acquired a 26% stake in Westland. Later that year, it acquired the remaining 74 %.

Just about five years later, though, it pulled the plug. “I guess it was a straightforward thing that as a business they perhaps didn’t see much future in it—not in terms of Westland but in terms of growth in trade publishing itself in India,” says Padmanabhan. For context, the data and analytics firm Nielsen estimates trade publishing accounts for only 4-5% of the entire book market in India. “They therefore decided to move on and focus on other priorities,” he adds.

Through all these changes, Padmanabhan says their tendency towards “experimentation, following certain principles of business, and being open to new trends” helped. This is also why they seem to have been open to an offer from Ranjeet Pratap Singh, co-founder and CEO of Pratilipi, a non-traditional, online story publishing and reading platform that is both language- and format-agnostic.

Singh had reached out to Karthika and Padmanabhan just a day after the Amazon news broke. Time, though, was too tight for him to buy Westland from Amazon, so, a few weeks later, he asked if the team would join his firm. By this time, Padmanabhan and his team had managed to get the names of their properties (Westland and its imprints like Context, Eka, Red Panda) transferred from Amazon. They transferred these to Pratilipi when they joined.

Openness to new ideas aside, there also seems to be one old thread they have held on to through the monumental changes: Westland has stayed close to its roots in the sense that every company it worked with has been a solid distribution channel in its time. If Landmark was a leader in book retail through the 1990s and early 2000s, and Amazon continues to hold strong as a global e-marketplace, the Pratilipi model is a unique marketplace where readers can subscribe directly to writers who self-publish and/or serialise their stories. Westland has also restarted the third-party distributorship business, working with publishers such as Parragon and Simon & Schuster.


Padmanabhan doesn’t give too many interviews. In one of the few he did agree to, close to eight years ago, he was clear about the fact that English language publishers with a national presence ought to explore the untapped Indian languages market. Sure enough, in the years leading up to and since 2022, when a Hindi book’s translation into English won the International Booker Prize, this became an interest area for big trade publishers.

Today, even as Westland continues to publish Ashwin Sanghi’s 13 Steps (2014) series of books in English (his novels are with HarperCollins India), they have the rights for it in all Indian languages; translations in Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali have been published. Similarly, though Amish isn’t a Westland author any more (now with HarperCollins India), Westland has acquired Indian language rights (except Hindi) for all his titles. “We are releasing the Shiva Trilogy and theRam Chandra series in Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Bengali first, followed by editions in other languages,” Padmanabhan notes.

Currently, Indian language publishing accounts for 15% of Westland’s revenue, and Padmanabhan hopes to double this in the next few years. Given that Pratilipi houses stories in over 12 languages and has over 25 million readers, the goal now seems more achievable. Earlier, with the distribution channels available for physical books in Indian languages, coupled with the high costs of translation, this would have been hard to justify financially. With the Pratilipi model, “where a story can take off first through, say, e-reading, that helps us amortise the cost and make it more profitable”, he says.

This isn’t about just being an English language publisher also doing Indian language books—Westland’s dream is to be a “truly pan-Indian publisher.”

In line with this, and to expose the physical books market to new writers and genres, Padmanabhan wants to bring a few of Pratilipi’s big e-authors to the offline world. “This is the thinking behind Pratilipi Paperbacks,” he says. I point out that in a world where print suffers at the hands of digital, the viability of this may be in doubt. But Padmanabhan thinks it’s worth a try. The team has already identified two titles in Hindi, one in Bengali and two in Tamil to bring to print; they will next be looking at mining Marathi and Malayalam stories from the app.

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“Also, scale need not necessarily come from just growing the market for the physical book, it can come from actually being able to adapt that content to other formats...,” he says, excited about the new avenues they have been exploring. With Pratilipi Comics, for instance, Westland is already working on bringing some classics into a series of comics. This includes stories by Saadat Hasan Manto, Rabindranath Tagore, Jim Corbett and Premchand. Some of these, to be published later this year, could work well both in print and online, he says.

Meanwhile, Westland is working with Pratilipi’s audio teams (FM, IVM Podcasts) to convert a few podcasts into books. Ashdin Doctor’s podcast, The Habit Coach, is one of the first that will make it. In turn, the audio teams, too, are considering books to take to audio. “The dream, though, is that even at the time of acquisition, we can...have the podcast team buy in,” says Padmanabhan.


In the living-room-like working area, framed covers of some of Westland’s bigger books are being hung, little towers of books stick up from desks laid out next to each other, and colourful sofa fabric gives a cosy feel. Through all its avatars, Westland has tried to maintain a homey office because “large corporate offices, where there is a lot of security and entry is a problem, are not inviting spaces for authors”, notes Padmanabhan. Things like this, in addition to well-respected editors, have helped Westland win and retain author loyalty and respect.

Just over a year ago, Westland had to give back all rights to authors. Today, Padmanabhan estimates that out of approximately 600 authors on their old roster, about 225 have so far re-signed with them. These include big names in fiction like Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Perumal Murugan and Manoranjan Byapari, as well as non-fiction favourites like Devdutt Pattanaik, Rujuta Diwekar, Parmesh Shahani, Nalin Mehta and Kabir Bedi. Some, like Kavitha Rao, Rukmini S. and T.M Krishna, also have new books in the pipeline. In parallel, about 100 fresh authors have also been signed on.

This makes me wonder about the craft of writing itself in a format-agnostic world of storytelling. Is a manuscript just another piece of “content”? “Our job is to just recognise the merits of the story…and whether we want to publish it,” Padmanabhan says. “At this point in time, the first objective is to make a story work as a book, everything else is an add-on.”

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