The Number Games

Anumeha Verma
Published: April 2015

‘Lad lits’ selling copies into millions are the latest fad in the Indian publishing industry. What makes them so?

chetanWhen Prime Minister Narendra Modi was busy selling Brand India to Washington, our home grown 40 year old investment banker turned author, Chetan Bhagat was busy selling the funda of ‘Half Girlfriend’ to the twenty somethings of the country. Bhagat, the author of five commercial fictions launched his latest book controversially titled Half Girlfriend with much fan fare.

“Hi all! Happy to announce my next book titled, ‘Half Girlfriend,’” he tweeted on August 7th and the book became a top trending topic on Twitter. The critics might have trashed him, his writing may have been called average but Half Girlfriend generated all the talks in the town that its author intended it to generate. Bhagat’s first book Five Point Someone which published in 2004 went on to become a bestseller and his sixth one has much in common. Moderately priced (his first book was priced at Rs 95, now Rs 140 and the current one is Rs 176), with an oversimplified English and a feel good story talking of the aspirations of a small town boy, it has added another bit of pulp to the fast expanding genre of India’s ‘lad lit’.

The success of India’s own Nick Hornby in pulling the youth as his readers has spawned a number of authors who have joined the bandwagon with a little bit of tweaking here and there. Ravinder Singh’s Like It Happened Yesterday and Durjoy Datta’s When Love Only Remains, are a few in the genre. Another author who belongs to this group is Amish Tripathy but his stories are not ‘proper love stories’ as some of Bhagat’s books have been called, he has ventured into mythology.

Still these authors have much in common too just as their books with a heavy dose of emotions, relationships, heartbreaks, happily ever afters and not so grammatical English. All of them are MBAs who once upon a time worked in the corporate sector with Bhagat and Tripathi having attended nothing less than the hallowed IIMs while Dutta clinched his degree from Frankfurt School of Finance and Management and Singh being the product of Indian School of Business.
One cannot deny that the books by Bhagat hold a great appeal to the youngsters. Most probably because these books talk of what most Indians dream. Look at Bhagat’s first book. An ordinary boy overcomes all obstacles to get into the much revered IIT and gets a top notch job despite average grades and also finds love in the process. Datta’s When Love Only Remains is the love story between a bright flight attendant and a heartbroken singer trying to make it big. Ravinder Singh’s first two novels revolved around finding love. Most of these books talk of love, sex, cricket and religion and their protagonists are youngsters frustrated with the system, bewildered by the harsh world around them; all the right ingredients that appeal to the masses. The books are mostly read by college goers, teenagers and those in their early twenties.

Many argue that the books are read because of their simple language. This has a counterpoint in the fact that there are several books available in the market which are written simply and avoid terms which are not colloquial but most of them never go on to become a bestseller as Bhagat’s books do. Bhagat’s plots often befitting for scripts for Bollywood movies appeals to the taste buds of the crowd which has already grown up on a staple diet of masala films. Another factor that has hugely contributed to the success of these books is marketing. The ‘M’ word is dominant in the way books are launched and then promoted. Tripathi the author of Shiva Trilogy openly confessed in his interview to the NDTV. “Books don’t sell on their own. I know so many books that deserved to be bestsellers but lack of marketing didn’t let them become one.” The latest book by Bhagat shows the same trend of strong marketing techniques. The books are moderately priced making it affordable for the masses it is targeted at. Even people who don’t read books do not hesitate to shell out a hundred bucks to spend time on the train journey. The low pricing is coupled with clever marketing strategies. Tripathi had tied up with Times Music to promote his book. Penguin which published Durjoy Datta’s Someone Like You, tied up with Barista to give a free copy of the book with every two cappuccinos.

half-girl-friendApart from innovative practices by authors and publishers, the online media plays a huge role in promoting and popularizing the books today. Bhagat kept his audience engaged through Facebook and Twitter updates on his upcoming release till the product hit the market. After announcing the book on Twitter, he posted teasers on You Tube designed in a way that would create curiosity in the minds of the readers. The teaser carried silhouettes of a boy and a girl with skyscrapers looming large in the background and the text read, “Madhav is a Bihari boy with big dreams who falls in love with the beautiful Riya, a rich lass from Delhi. There are some fundamental differences between the two. Madhav’s English isn’t all that great, but Riya speaks the best English. Madhav wants Riya to be his girlfriend but Riya disagrees. She wants them to be just friends but he definitely wants more. Riya finally comes up with a suggestion, a compromise – she agrees to become his half-girlfriend!”

The first look of the book was unveiled on the online retailing store Flipkart. On the same day that Bhagat tweeted about it, the readers of Times of India got a glimpse of Bhagat’s book with their morning cup of coffee. Flipkart bought a full page ad on the front page of the newspaper to announce the launch of Half Girlfriend and the exclusive rights it holds for the pre-ordering of the book. It is noteworthy that Flipkart had the sole right to sell the book for one month after its release on October 1st. Interestingly, the online retailer spent 2.4 crores on the advertisement that created a buzz in the entire nation. Many readers and authors saw this as a positive sign that for perhaps the first time in India the front page ad of a newspaper was not dominated by the latest car or gadget in the market. However, this paid publicity had a flip side to it. The ad on the front page had more to do with Flipkart announcing its exclusive rights for pre-ordering than the product being a book getting a one-up on its direct rival Amazon. Its indirect influence was of course publicity for Bhagat and his book.

On the day of the release, Bhagat himself donned the hat of a delivery boy and delivered a set number of books. The fact that Bhagat has already got three Bollywood films based on his books under his belt has added further to the soaring sales figures of his books. A film does create awareness about a book. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saw an upswing in the sales after the release of the films. Though one cannot compare Tolkien’s prolific and artistic work to Bhagat’s rather run of the mill storylines, the films have certainly helped in selling the latter’s books.
An appeal to the masses, clever marketing strategies and public relation campaigns have all helped this new brigade of authors sell like never before. The formula is definitely working but the question remains would it ever be able to charm the more serious and mature readers? As of now the answer seem to be a negative.

 - Anumeha Verma is at present working with Jain University and believes that strategic communication plays a major role in solving development issues.