If you’re interested in reading, or simply getting front row seats to the, well, disruption that’s about to hit the Indian publishing industry, go ahead and download the Juggernaut app right now. The app, which releases for Android phones today and iPhones a week later, is publisher Chiki Sarkar’s attempt to get smartphone-obsessed Indians to read.
“I want young Indians to read. And if they’re going to be on the phone, then I have to find a life for reading on the phone,” Sarkar told Publishers Weekly in a recent interview.
Sarkar, who headed Penguin Random House India, the country’s largest English trade publisher, quit the company along with four top editorial staffers in April 2015. The mass exodus shook the publishing world but Sarkar kept mum till September, when she lifted the veil on Juggernaut, a brand new publishing company that, according to its website, wants to “redefine reading and writing for the digital age.”
Here’s the thing with India: despite our explosive growth in smartphones (220 million and counting), our ebook market is still nascent. Sure, there’s tons of potential. Amazon didn’t launch Kindle Unlimited, its ultra-cheap subscription service that gives you all-you-can-read access to thousands of Kindle books, last year for nothing.
But Juggernaut doesn’t just want to be a Kindle competitor. It wants to fix some fundamental problems with the way books are published, sold, and read in India. “Indian publishers are not aggressive, disruptive, or innovative when it comes to acquiring new readers,” says Durga Raghunath, CEO at Juggernaut in a phone interview.
The Juggernaut app is a mashup of the Kindle app’s reading experience, Netflix’s recommendation engine, and the social experience of the Amazon-owned Goodreads, although Raghunath says that she is wary of comparisons. It features 50 original titles created by Juggernaut — everything from a risqué short-story collection by actress Sunny Leone to hard-hitting Indo-Pak non-fiction by former Pakistani envoy and author Husain Haqqani — and 50 titles from third-party publishers.
The app itself is free and lets you instantly flick through the entire catalogue, browse through categories, and read free previews. To add anything to your wish list, or to buy a title, you need to create a Juggernaut account or sign in with Facebook.
Once you’ve done this a couple of times, the app will start showing you recommendations across genres and authors. This is the part that gets Raghunath, formerly Senior Vice President of growth at Zomato, and CEO at Network18 Digital, excited. “Netflix killed it with its recommendation engine,” she says, referring to the streaming service’s legendary algorithm that is famed for accurately matching users with the kind of movies they like based on their viewing history. “I would like to learn from that and go forward. It’s what we are trying to do in the long run.”
But that’s just the beginning. Unlike the Kindle app, which simply offers up existing books in an electronic format, the Juggernaut app tries to reimagine books themselves. Tap on a cover and you jump right into reading mode. “We are not going to bullshit and make you read a foreword and acknowledgements,” says Raghunath. “All that is at the back of the book.”
Book length is a major deterrent to reading in India. Juggernaut knows this, and it’s trying to fix this problem by trying to keep most titles in the sweet spot between 15,000 and 20,000 words. “We’re thinking of pages in terms of phone pages, of course,” says Raghunath. Each phone page, she estimates, is roughly 100 words. Assuming that an average reader takes 30 seconds to a read a phone page, a 20,000-word book should take roughly 90 minutes to complete — much faster than you can finish your average 300-page tome of a physical book.
Books over 30,000 words will be chopped up into parts that will be delivered to your mobile at a fixed time each day. If you buy Sunny Leone’s Sweet Dreams, for instance, you’ll get one story every evening at 10 for seven days, kind of like a TV show.
Juggernaut will also feature story bundles, picture books, and short story collections with the ability to buy individual short stories from a collection for as little as Rs. 10 (comparisons to Apple’s strategic — and historic — move to let people buy individual tracks for just 99 cents instead of shelling out $15 for a new album in iTunes spring to mind), although the average price of a title will generally hover between ₹49 and ₹149 according to Juggernaut.
The objective is to build content from the ground up that is optimised for both distribution and reading on mobile. “We don’t want to just dump content on to users,” says Raghunath.
You can pay for books or stories using a debit or a credit card or through PayTM — but for ₹15 a day or ₹299 a month, you get a Juggernaut membership that allows you unlimited access to everything Juggernaut offers. This, Raghunath admits, is the long-term goal for how Juggernaut plans to make money.
“I don’t think the fundamental economics is tough,” she says. “We don’t have physical publishing costs; and we commission fewer books in a year than a traditional publishing house, so our path to profitability is much faster. To break even on a book is not very hard for us to do.”
Juggernaut will release a tiny subset —about 5 to 10% — of its digital catalog as physical books to satisfy older “sarkari” readers, according to Raghunath, who may not be comfortable with reading on their phones, or who may simply want a trophy copy of high-profile books like the memoirs of former McKinsey head and convict Rajat Gupta, who the publisher recently signed. And also, says Raghunath, “because physical books are beautiful.”
Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect the correct number of Indian smartphone users from 125 million to 220 million.
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