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Ananth Padmanabhan: The page turner

  • The CEO of HarperCollins tells 'Mint' how e-books have not made a big difference, and why a new book and a marketing plan are equally creative ideas
  • The company is expanding across the education sector, with Collins Learning, and entering the audiobooks market

Ananth Padmanabhan.
Ananth Padmanabhan. (Jayachandran/Mint)

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In the pre-election world of memes, a journalist and a publisher meeting at Delhi’s Khan Market might have sounded like the beginning of a tired joke. Nonetheless, this market, with its collection of independent book stores, is also an entirely apt venue to meet Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins India—for it is on the shop floor of a book store that his story began.

The year was 1992 and 17-year-old Padmanabhan had failed to clear his class XII exams because he hadn’t finished his math paper on time. There were a few months to go before he could repeat the paper, and since he had grown up in a family that loved books, an interim job at a book store seemed a perfectly logical choice. Landmark, which had opened five years earlier, was one of the biggest stores in Chennai, and, although he was just starting off, the store manager put Padmanabhan through a round of four interviews to ensure he was serious about the job.

The work involved segregating books by category in the back office and entering them into the system. Thereafter, he would be on the floor, changing and replenishing displays to maximize their visual impact, deciding this on the basis of titles that had sold or had the potential to move. “A lot depended on the guy on the shop floor having a sense of who wanted what, and being able to reorder the right books,” says Padmanabhan. “This depended on conversations with people and making notes of things they asked for that we didn’t have,” he says.

Little did Padmanabhan know that this chance decision would decide the trajectory of his life and lead to a career in publishing. In fact, his career graph traces the story of publishing in India over the last 27 years. The simple learnings from the five years he spent at Landmark—everything about hand-selling new books to customers to getting them to discover new categories—have stayed with him.

“In 1996, we put up a huge exhibition of Penguin classics at Landmark and both the sales director and the then publisher of Penguin, David Davidar, came down for it. When they met me, they said it was clear that I had a passion for their list and followed it up with a job offer as a sales representative for Penguin in south India,” says Padmanabhan.

He was not only their first representative in south India but also the first person who would travel across the country selling Penguin titles—back then, books were sold only through distributors; there were no sales representatives for individual publishers. Padmanabhan took hundreds of train rides across the length and breadth of the country, doing rounds of book stores, meeting distributors, visiting book fairs and building a market for new imprints. He had to navigate a clunky model of sales and distribution in the pre-internet era, making sure there was awareness about new titles as well as enough stock across all distributors, all the while dealing with the challenges thrown his way.

“When Shashi Tharoor’s India: From Midnight To The Millennium And Beyond was published, copies were printed in Kolkata and then couriered to Bengaluru. Since the books had not reached the market on time, I remember going to the DHL office in Bengaluru, taking copies in a bag and hopping on my first flight in order to follow Shashi Tharoor on his book tours across the country,” he says.

Another learning experience was the release of Goblet Of Fire, the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, across book stores countrywide. There was a worldwide embargo on its release date and books had to appear in stores on the same date and time everywhere. This was a massive project. It also fit in with a larger global publishing trend, which, according to him, “changed the publishing market permanently”.

Padmanabhan has worked his way up through the echelons of publishing even as the industry has gone through a sea change, both in terms of categories and sales models. The advent of commercial fiction and the rise of authors like Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi and Ravinder Singh was a game changer. “All of them expanded what we understood of demographics, reader interest and what directions publishing could take,” he says. Everything, from the expansion of high street retail in 2000-10 to the growth of online book sales propelled by companies like Amazon and Flipkart, contributed to this evolution.

And all this played into the way Padmanabhan introduced changes to the business, altering models of distribution and introducing differential discount pricing and credit recovery across online partners and stores. With the decline of brick-and-mortar stores and the economic slowdown, further lessons had to be learnt to weather the crisis. “Every three years over the last 25 years, I have experienced something or the other that has impacted the industry and it was teaching me quite a bit,” says Padmanabhan.

At Penguin India, he had several firsts to his credit, including e-shorts (short stories that were available on a digital platform) and a mobile app where you could sample audio clips of books and extracts.

Just as author and customer bases changed over the years, so did retail strategies. Apart from working with some of the industry stalwarts and travelling to book fairs around the world, Padmanabhan did a publishing course at Stanford University, US, and followed this up with a short-term management course at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in 2010, which gave him a more global and broad-based perspective on publishing.

For Padmanabhan, the most important question has always been—“What is the differentiator in the marketplace and what helps you understand the consumer better?”

Today, he feels the market has developed in ways that were not entirely anticipated. Like other publishers, he has realized that e-books have not made a big difference to publishers’ bottom lines, and while they knew fiction was declining a bit, the resurgence of literary fiction with a new young crop of writing, as well as a new upsurge in poetry and translations, has come as a big surprise. The industry has also been able to leverage non-fiction much better.

“We are discovering that categories are changing, and, like with music playlists, we are now able to plug into interests thanks to how social media helps you identify buying groups. This is different from before, when buying patterns were driven by best-sellers. Now we are able to individually sub-sell interest levels,” he says.

Over the past three-and-a-half years that he has been CEO at HarperCollins, he has introduced subtle as well as far-reaching changes suited to a dynamic market. At the same time, in the first letter he sent out introducing himself to his new team, he wrote that he was aware he was walking into a mature publishing house rather than a start-up, and the idea wasn’t to just step in and do new things just for the heck of it. Instead, his plan was “to evaluate, add to and create ideas”. For Padmanabhan, everything from the book to its marketing and sales pitch are creative ideas— and he was always looking out for new ideas.

“I have been in HarperCollins and we have been changing the way we publish, and the people who were published for this market,” he says. While the company had a list focused on literary fiction, his idea was to diversify the catalogue. “One of the things I did was cut down the number of books we publish from about 230 to 180 annually across categories. So we have a year in which we are going to publish the highly commercial Ravinder Singh’s next book as well as Raghuram Rajan; there is Ruskin Bond on one end of the spectrum and Satya Nadella on the other,” he says.

The company is expanding across the education sector, with Collins Learning, and entering the audiobooks market. A big change was rebuilding the brand and cutting down the number of imprints. “Going forward, we want to build a solid lit-fic list as well as a high-quality translation list,” says Padmanabhan. A joint imprint with Vani Prakashan will enable them to start publishing books in Hindi and fill a market gap.

Collaboration is a big part of Padmanabhan’s management ethos and one of his areas of focus is to getting the best books in the market to the consumer. “In order to do that, we are representing companies and providing them the scale to address the challenges of the market,” he says. So HarperCollins works with companies like Juggernaut and Amaryllis, helping them distribute their titles. “The idea is to create an indie publishing group collaboratively and in a non-cannibalistic manner and give them access to a wider retail market,” he says.

Apart from his day job as a publisher, Padmanabhan manages to compartmentalize his life and take time out for his family, including his four dogs, and creative pursuits. Between 2012-14, even as he was spending time devising sales strategies, he managed to pull off a photography exhibition and write a book. His first show was based on a series of photographs he had taken while wandering the streets of Kolkata. The idea for his first story came over a solitary coffee between meetings and led to a story about a stripper in New York City. The latter led to a collection of short stories exploring female desire that he wrote and kept away.

And then Fifty Shades Of Grey happened and erotica exploded across the world. Publishers in India started exploring the possibility of an Indian version and Padmanabhan’s name popped up in an edit meeting. The next thing he knew, he was being commissioned to write a full-fledged erotic novel called Play With Me. Vetted by several women at Penguin, including senior editors, the then publisher Chiki Sarkar, and his wife Hemali Sodhi, who handled marketing and children’s books for the company, the book was published in 2014 and went on to receive positive reviews.

A constant restlessness and a desire for something new has allowed Padmanabhan to keep his ideas fresh. It also allows him to look as thoughtfully at a profit and loss statement as a manuscript and understand where the creative impulse comes from.

Name one of the books you are happy to have acquired in recent times

That would have to be Raghuram Rajan’s new book, ‘The Third Pillar: How Markets And The State Leave The Community Behind’, and the credit for it rests equally on Krishan Chopra, my publisher for non-fiction.

What about a book you took a chance on but which didn’t take off?

‘Koi Good News’ by Zarreen Khan, which was about a couple who don’t want a child but then it gets to a point where they want to, but can’t. We thought we really had found the next Anuja Chauhan but it didn’t become a rage.

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