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Priceless @ 95

At Rs 95, a business plan can hardly ever go wrong. But that isn’t merely what Chetan Bhagat is harping on — as an Indian Institute of Management alumnus he’d know that price alone cannot sell a product. “I don’t want to be India’s most admired writer,” he writes in the “acknowledgement” section of his new book. “I just want to be India’s most loved writer. Admiration passes. Love endures.”

Bhagat knows best. Love has endured to the extent of making him the biggest-selling English author in India. And that’s not even counting his third book, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, which hit the bookshelves over the weekend.

In four years, Bhagat has outsold Shobhaa Dé and Vikram Seth to register sales of over a million copies of his first two books combined. The first, Five Point Someone, has sold over 700,000 copies. One Night @ the Call Centre, his second literary venture, sold at the rate of one copy every three seconds in the first week after its launch. His annual royalty, according to a publishing insider, exceeds Rs 1 crore.

The 34-year-old investment banker has touched gold — and he thinks it’s all because of love. “You see, admiration demands perfection. Love accepts you with all your flaws,” he says. “It’s amazing how my readers have taken me as I am.”

Penguin, Dé’s publisher, does not divulge sale figures, but the story at the micro level is stark. Her latest book, Superstar India, was released across India two weeks ago. Until Friday, Om Book Shop — one of South Delhi’s biggest retailers — reported a sale of 250 copies. That very evening, Bhagat’s novel was released, and sold 300 copies. “Till date, we’ve sold 20,000 copies of his books, compared to 4,000 by Vikram Seth, and about 2,000 copies of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things,” says proprietor Amit Vig.

TOP SELLER

Total copies of Bhagat’s books sold till date in India: Over 10 lakh

Five point Someone: Over seven lakh copies in the domestic market and counting

One Night @ the Call Centre: Sold at the rate of one every three seconds at its peak hour. Now around the 5 lakh mark

The 3 Mistakes of My Life: First print order of 2 lakh copies

Courtesy: Rupa & Co

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Om Book Shop, Delhi, says,

Shobhaa Dé’s latest book Superstar India, released nearly two weeks ago, has sold 250 copies so far. Bhagat’s new book sold 300 copies on the launch day

The store has so far sold 20,000 copies of Bhagat’s works, compared to 4,000 of all Vikram Seth’s books combined, and just about 2,000 copies of Roy’s 1996 classic The God of Small Things

The figures pertain to only one book shop and are indicative

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Current annual royalty: In excess of Rs 1 crore

Even as he speaks, Bhagat’s publisher Kapish Mehra furiously tries to meet the escalating demand pouring into his Daryaganj office from distributors across India. Confident that Bhagat’s new book will do well, the Rupa boss had placed an ambitious print order of 200,000 copies, in a country where print runs for a paperback seldom exceed 5,000. Even before the launch, he managed to pre-sell nearly three-quarters of it. “I’m already thinking of a reprint,” he says.

But Bhagat, who has just been given as royalty a jumbo cheque of Rs 10 lakh, similar to those handed out after cricket matches, refuses to be carried away by all the jazz. Yet to grow out of his IIT-Delhi mould, he talks in Hinglish, the lingo of young India. Eleven years in Hong Kong haven’t affected his accent. And being billed a celebrity makes him blush with embarrassment.

“Writing is only for fun. It has nothing to do with selling. I’d write even if I made nothing from it,” says Bhagat, now with Deutsche Bank in Mumbai.

In 2004, when Bhagat wrote Five Point Someone, he was no different from other authors on Rupa’s catalogue. He was paid a nominal advance, and the book was released with modest expectations. But as a publisher-cum-distributor, Rupa could penetrate the Indian market to push his books in every small town. And aware that it would be read by youngsters living on parental dole, Mehra priced it at an affordable Rs 95. The rest was history.

Bhagat has a nice way of putting it. “I always had a problem with how writing that paraded as ‘Indian’ literature was only read by a few thousand people in big cities. The rest of the country never got a chance to flip through it. My biggest achievement is that at Rs 95, I have managed to make India read again.”

But Mehra’s strategy of underpricing Bhagat has its share of detractors. “Underpricing could potentially be counter productive, as a section of dedicated readers who associate price with quality might steer clear of a book offered at such a low price,” says P.M. Sukumar, CEO of HarperCollins India. “We’d love to have Bhagat on our catalogue, but not if we had to sell his books at Rs 95.”

Shobhaa Dé, while congratulating Bhagat, raises precisely that question. “There is a difference between selling a book at Rs 95 and claiming big numbers, as compared to selling other paperbacks, mine included, at Rs 300. Can one compare the Nano story with a Mercedes?”

Perhaps not. But Bhagat’s fans couldn’t care less. Critics have slammed his writing, using phrases such as “juvenile trash” and “classic Bollywood farce.” But the bad press never told on his sales.

Renuka Chatterjee, head of Osian’s literary agency, explains why. “In the mass market, it is the reader and not the reviewer who matters. As long as books strike a chord with the masses, it doesn’t matter how much they are panned in the review pages.

“That’s exactly where Bhagat’s strength lies. And his popularity can be best vouched for by his readers. “He is easy to read, he uses the language of our generation, and he knows how to connect with us by stepping into our shoes,” says 24-year-old Tanushree Upadhyay. “Within my circle of friends, any new book written by him is hot.”

Upadhyay’s words only corroborate academic and critic Alok Rai’s hunch. “In his own ground-breaking way, Bhagat has perhaps allowed his readers to live the ‘now’ experience, and that’s what has worked in his favour,” he says. Bookseller and agent Anuj Bahri is more direct. “If other writers have tried to click by churning out arthouse stuff, he’s doing it Rang De Basanti style,” laughs Bahri.

There are, however, other cogs in the well-oiled wheel that spins out the mega bucks. Like a tie up with Big Bazaar — the quintessential people’s retail outlet — for the launch of his new book in Mumbai and Gurgaon. “They’re super aggressive, man, they know how to sell,” says Bhagat. “During the Mumbai launch, they were throwing in a free copy with every five copies bought, like dal chawal. And people were actually falling for it.”

Bhagat has now decided to take a year off from writing to muse over his life and vocation, but fans could look forward to Hello, a film based on his second book starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, due for release this year.

Meanwhile, Rupa is making the most of the time to give those who’ve never read Bhagat a chance to catch up on his works. A premium boxset, featuring all three books, is now out for sale. The price? Elementary mathematics — Rs 285.

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