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Rajdeep Mukherjee: Pedalling growth

Pan Macmillan India's managing director on keeping a calm head and focussing on quality amid the publishing frenzy to the find the next big bestseller

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Rajdeep Mukherjee, 47, managing director of the publishing firm Pan Macmillan Publishing India Pvt. Ltd, loves to drive. In the city even. Mad, noisy traffic; one-and-a-half hour daily commutes down the hazy roads of Delhi—these leave him unperturbed. It’s much like how he steers Pan Macmillan India. In a country where the readership has expanded exponentially over the past decade, where trade publishers are in a flap, publishing just about anything to reduce their chances of missing the next super-seller, and where academic publishers like the Oxford University Press are also increasing their share of trade books, Pan Macmillan maintains a more or less steady course.

There are the occasional turns. The latest is the entry this month of Prasun Chatterjee as editorial director of the publishing house. Formerly with Oxford University Press, where he acquired books in history, politics, religion and philosophy, Chatterjee confirmed Pan Macmillan’s increasing interest in expanding its non-fiction list, stating that there is an “increasing convergence between academic and non-fiction publishing".

The Indian market for non-fiction, Mukherjee concurs, has always been strong, with a longer shelf life. “With Prasun’s presence, the non-fiction list will be strengthened," he says. Mukherjee is a complete backroom manager, and after having battled his reticence, he’s agreed to meet me at the bookshelf-lined Pan Macmillan office in the heart of Delhi, on Kasturba Gandhi Marg. Mukherjee has given me ample early warnings about the insipid coffee he can offer here; I choose green tea instead.

One of the biggest success stories of Pan Macmillan’s local list, he points out, fortifying his argument about the shelf life of good non-fiction, has been Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, a history of post-independent India, the 10th anniversary edition of which was published this year. Commissioned by Pan Macmillan publisher Peter Straus at a time when editorial acquisitions were being handled from the London office, in the nine years that it took Guha to write the book, they also published his books on cricket: the anthology The Picador Book Of Cricket, and A Corner Of The Foreign Field: The Indian History Of A British Sport. This year, Mukherjee prevailed with his idea of releasing a cloth-bound hardcover for the 10th anniversary, saying retailers reported good sales despite the simultaneous release of a cheaper paperback.

Mukherjee is a family man. In his nearly two-decade-long career in the book publishing industry, except for a brief three-year stint with Harvard Business School Publishing, he’s stuck, and grown with, Pan Macmillan. It was in 1999 that the German-based media company Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH acquired 100% stake in Macmillan Publishers, ending the Macmillan family’s 156-year ownership of the firm. Besides its academic, educational and general books, it also publishes the science journal Nature. This is also a publishing house with an illustrious history with Indian writers, Mukherjee points out, having published both Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali as well as Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography Of An Unknown Indian.

The perfect de-stresser for Mukherjee is a good drive. “People find driving stressful. I just enjoy being behind the wheel,” he says. But his love for the road is not limited to automobiles. Of late, he and his two daughters have taken to getting on their bicycles and going on long rides along some of the green forested areas of Sanjay Van in their neighbourhood in New Delhi.-

In 1998, when Mukherjee joined the group, while the firm already had a presence in India through its distributors—especially for academic and schoolbooks—it had decided to create a dedicated India trade list. Arundhati Roy had won the Booker Prize for her debut novel The God Of Small Things a year earlier, and the global publishing world had turned its eyes on India. Straus already had keen interest in Indian writers, and in 1999, Pan Macmillan launched the Picador imprint for literary publishing with books by Amit Chaudhuri, Githa Hariharan, Ruchira Mukherjee and a Tagore anthology, followed a few months later with Raj Kamal Jha’s debut fiction, The Blue Bedspread.

There were also books by well-known authors such Tabish Khair, Allen Sealy, Siddhartha Deb, Tarun Tejpal and V.S. Naipaul, and Rahul Bhattacharya’s debut, Pundits From Pakistan. And yet, it was only in 2010 that Pan Macmillan felt confident enough to create an India entity, having operated through the UK office for over decade, with authors being contracted and paid royalties in pounds and no local warehouse facilities.

Unlike other multinational publishers with a presence here, which have a growing India list of literary and commercial fiction and non-fiction, Pan Macmillan has continued to contain its numbers. “Pan Macmillan is among the top 5 publishers, but we are not the biggest. We are a mid-sized company. We need to realize what we are good at
and we need to focus on that," says Mukherjee.

The idea, right when Picador India launched, he says, was to keep it small, and publish only quality content. He acknowledges that readership has grown in all areas, whether fiction or non-fiction. “If you even look at the kind of numbers that Indians authors are selling, whether it is Chetan Bhagat or Amish, earlier you didn’t see these numbers. Of course, earlier there wasn’t this kind of publishing." They’ve had the support of their UK office not to mass publish, he says. “As an organization, we need to make certain decisions. The focus is on quality. That’s what keeps us away from fiction of the lighter variety, say chick lit.... We need to focus on our strength and develop it."

That’s not to say that Pan Macmillan does not publish commercial fiction at all. While its imprint Pan publishes commercial fiction from India, from authors like Jeffrey Archer, Robin Cook, Sidney Sheldon and Dick Francis to Ken Follet, David Baldacci, Ian Fleming and Douglas Adams, these global best-sellers are all part of the international Pan Macmillan stable. Besides representing the Pan Macmillan UK and US offices here, the publishing house also distributes books by the independent publishers Oneworld Publications—which famously published two simultaneous Man Booker Prize winners, Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings after it was rejected by 16 publishers, and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Then there is the list from Seagull Books, Harcourt as well the children’s publisher Walker Books and Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. Considering this, it’s a wonder that it can stick to its decision to publish only about 50-60 books per month.

Still, it’s the steady race that they’re running. While in 1998, when Mukherjee first joined, they had a turnover of £230,000 (about Rs2 crore now), in 2009, just before the India company opened, it was £1 million. And in 2016, they closed with Rs27.88 crore.

But 19 years after he started working here, the industry has gone topsy turvy. “For a very long time, this market had remained where it is. But in the last six-seven years, so much has changed," Mukherjee says. The biggest challenge to a publisher is to distribute equal attention to the traditional as well as digital market. Unpredictability has increased; and discoverability is a challenge. But when it works, it works. Mukherjee quotes the example of one of their UK authors, Joe Wicks, a YouTube sensation, who does 15-minute exercises and 15-minute health meals. “While the growth rate for the industry last year was 4-6%, Pan Macmillan UK grew 34% (because of him)," he says.

Of course, the digital medium has also meant that curbing piracy—one of the publishing industry’s biggest headaches—has become even more difficult. “Earlier, you had to be visible to get sold. Now we don’t know what gets sold. The reader will look for the cheapest option online and buy. But he gets cheated, the author gets cheated, the publisher gets cheated. We’re working with Amazon on this; ultimately these sellers are registered with Amazon."

It is the children’s books segment, though, that’s the fastest growing in India, reveals Mukherjee—an area of strength for Pan Macmillan, and one that Mukherjee is personally passionate about. While fiction constitutes the largest share of Pan Macmillan’s publications, at about 40-45%, the steadily growing children’s literature market means that this and non-fiction have about equal shares of the pie, at 25-30%.

Mukherjee’s journey with the Macmillan family runs concurrent with him starting his own family. His first child was born in 1999, just a year after he started working with the firm, and his second daughter in 2000. This is one part of the explanation for his passion for children’s literature. “But what really intrigued me was the success of these books in international markets and the fact that we were not able to replicate it here. One hindrance has always been price. India is a price-sensitive market. But I had the belief that there were parents who would invest in good content for their children."

Julia Donaldson, the author of the best-selling Gruffalo series of books, is, of course, their top author. According to Mukherjee, in 2015, she was the biggest brand in the UK, and not just for Pan Macmillan. But he remembers a time when—India being such a small picture book market then—he had to hand-sell her books to reluctant book stores. “And I met someone yesterday who shared a comment a bookseller made: Julia Donaldson aap kisi bhi price pe rakh do, woh bik jayegi (Julia Donaldson will sell at any price)," he says. That’s a battle that Mukherjee has certainly won.

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