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Juggernaut turned the page

How this start-up broke new ground in the risk-averse publishing industry with its digital model

Chiki Sarkar, founder, of Juggernaut Books at her office in Shahpur Jat, New Delhi. Photograps: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Chiki Sarkar, founder, of Juggernaut Books at her office in Shahpur Jat, New Delhi. Photograps: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

How does one describe Juggernaut Books? A publishing house? A book store? A conversation with the chief executive officer (CEO) and co-founder of the digital publishing house, Durga Raghunath, reveals how much more business sense it makes to think of the firm as the latter, which is not just selling original writing, but also reselling books from other publishers, creating a fuller experience for someone visiting the app.

Juggernaut Books, which went live with its application in April, has not yet been a game changer in the Indian book-publishing segment, but it is certainly treading new ground in an otherwise risk-averse industry. Juggernaut was founded in September 2015 by Raghunath, former Zomato senior vice-president (growth), and Chiki Sarkar, after she quit as publisher and editor-in-chief of Penguin Random House India, along with senior editors Nandini Mehta, R. Sivapriya and Jaishree Ram Mohan. With a core funding of Rs15 crore, its investors included Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, Fabindia’s William Bissell and Boston Consulting Group’s managing director Neeraj Aggarwal.

Ahead of the launch, Sarkar had spoken to Mint about her reasons for heading in a new direction: “An average book sells 3,000 copies, at a price point of Rs299; we bend our backs, break our backs making these great books, and what happens at the end of it? Very few people read it." According to Raghunath, Sarkar noticed a behavioural shift, with the number of readers on the smartphone growing. Sarkar, who is on leave, was not available for comment.

Unlike traditional publishing, in which “physical just gets dumped on the digital platform", Raghunath says she felt there was always an “opportunity to do something original for digital behaviour"—for the publisher, the reader and the writer, who feels less intimidated by the shorter length of writing preferred in this format—and, most importantly, to get a new audience. “A lot of print was getting repurposed for digital. I felt, can we do something with an app that will make people who spend disproportionate amounts of time on the smartphone read books?" says Raghunath. “Unlike movies, for reading, you set aside time, you treat it with too much respect. So that’s the thing I’m trying to remove: You don’t have to set aside time, stop treating it with so much respect. Boom, dive into it."

In eight months, she says, 400,000 people have downloaded the app, with their recent desktop launch adding another 200,000 users. There have been approximately 120,000 “transactions or add to carts", with the classics, non-fiction, short stories, and love-sex-romance fuelling Juggernaut’s growth. This is pretty evident on the home page of this stylishly designed and easy-to-navigate app, which usually has special offers on short stories, and attempts to draw readers into its popular erotic short-fiction list with tantalizing cover images of actor Sunny Leone. In fact, Leone’s was one of the very first books to be published by Juggernaut, and her books continue to be the sole author-driven best-sellers on the app.

Durga Raghunath, co-founder of Juggernaut Books, at her office in Shahpur Jat, New Delhi.

The classics, on the other hand, are mostly available for free in a bid, no doubt, to enhance the “book store experience". “Typically, if I remember right, 4,000-6,000 is a decent book store, and 8,000-9,000 would be a large book store. So now, with 5,000 books, you can call us a decent book store," says Raghunath. Interestingly, she reveals that people have responded less to individual books or authors, even if it is a best-selling writer like William Dalrymple or Twinkle Khanna, and more to offers and discounts within categories—the one exception has been Leone. “People are like, if this is a store, I want to see a variety," she says.

Even so, while Khanna’s recently released collection of short stories, The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad, has already sold 80,000 copies—and she has a very urban readership unlike, say, a Rujuta Diwekar, whose fitness books have a more widespread appeal—Juggernaut had a stroke of luck, having published the only available biography in English of the late Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa by the journalist Vaasanthi (Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey From Movie Star To Political Queen)—the Madras high court had earlier restrained Penguin from publishing Vaasanthi’s more comprehensive biography, Jayalalithaa: A Portrait.

While the Juggernaut team believes it can target a large untapped audience, other mainstream Indian publishers haven’t yet shown any urgency in jumping into the smartphone segment, preferring a digital strategy that makes their books simultaneously available both in print and a slightly cheaper e-book format.

Kapish Mehra of Rupa Publications says this also involves making sure they can make their books available across the globe, “since the diaspora audience is very wide". In the next few months, he will be experimenting with “reaching out to non-conventional readers", though he says he is not at a liberty to reveal plans at the moment. HarperCollins India has no such plans.

“Will HarperCollins have its own app? Maybe not," says Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins India. As reasons for this decision, Padmanabhan cites everything that Juggernaut is attempting to crack, from the low pricing structure, the long catalogue that is required, with customers needing to be offered new books all the time and at speedy intervals, to the convenience of the interface, which can make or break a reader’s relationship with the application. One of the main concerns, of course, is pricing, and the mindset that books on the electronic media should be available cheap, or for free.

Padmanabhan has preferred to concentrate on making HarperCollins India’s list of 220-230 books, published this past year, available to readers on as many platforms as possible. While HarperCollins books are offered to 14 e-book vendors, some children’s books and Harlequin romance titles are also being made available on the Juggernaut app. Any discounts, of course, come from the seller.

Raghunath says she was curious to explore if, one, she could get readers to pay for digital content, and, two, if she could make books economically viable in what she considers an overpriced market. Juggernaut has chosen to price several of its short stories for as little as Rs10 or Rs30. “Rs100 is a sweet spot. The moment it goes over Rs120, we see a huge dip in sales. In this digital business, when we are trying to build a habit, it would be stupid to price it over that," she says.

In a segment where Juggernaut is competing less with other publishers and more with utility-driven apps like, say, Uber, the key is to find ways to continuously build a relationship with the reader. “With phones, people uninstall (apps) a lot, so you have to stay relevant and useful," says Raghunath.

So, besides making sure that there are daily offers, newsy non-fiction, and shorter reads, Juggernaut will launch its submissions and writing platform on 15 January. It believes this will activate a larger audience than just readers. Fundamentally, Raghunath says, people want to write. “And I think there’s a submissions problem also to be solved in the book publishing industry. Can we democratize publishing was the other thought—that you don’t have to know a Chiki Sarkar to be published."

So, whether it’s short stories, essays, long form, cookbook or poetry, people can choose to publish through this section, and once it starts doing well, Juggernaut will repackage the book, give the writer a contract—basically, take it to the second level. This is exactly how mainstream publishers zero in on commercially successful books from the self-publishing platform; Juggernaut is attempting to concentrate the activity on its platform by “building a community of readers and writers".

By March, Juggernaut will also have started its Hindi publishing segment. The next fiscal then would probably be concentrated on stabilizing the platform, from getting the content list right to re-examining the model of content acquisition—“upfront cost has to be low, you have to talk about revenue share, the risk has to be spread wider than it currently is"—and raising more funds. And continuing to seek answers to the fundamental question they started with. “I don’t know whether we have as yet come up with a digital genre that is very originally digital. It would be wonderful to do that," says Raghunath.

The Juggernaut timeline

■This digital publishing platform, co-founded by Durga Raghunath and Chiki Sarkar, went live with its application in April, with over 100 titles

■The app aims to change reader behaviour and has been downloaded by 400,000 consumers. The launch of its desktop version has added another 200,000 consumers

■Classics, short stories, newsy non-fiction and romance and erotica have primarily driven its growth

■In January, Juggernaut will launch its writings and submissions platform, through which it will publish manuscripts submitted on its app. Books that do well will be repackaged and sold

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