The Rupa story began 80 years ago, when Sir William Collins spotted Dau Dayal Mehra selling hosiery on a Calcutta (now Kolkata) roadside. Impressed with the young man’s skills, Collins—the founder of a publishing house—offered him the distribution of the company’s books. Mehra set up a company named Rupa after a character in a Bengali play.
From distribution, at first for Collins (which is now HarperCollins, after a merger), then for others—for instance, bringing Penguin into India—and then publishing their own books (starting with two slim volumes of Bengali poetry in 1934), eventually moving to India’s publishing stronghold, New Delhi, in the 1970s, Rupa has continued to grow steadily.
Today, with none of the squabbles that are familiar to family businesses, the company has not just survived onslaughts from international majors to the threat from ebooks, but is also thriving and looking ahead to more growth. It is still 100 percent owned by a single family.
That Kapish Mehra, managing director, is the fourth generation in the family to run the company is not commonplace at all. David Davidar, once a Rupa rival when he set up the India operations of Penguin in 1987, and now an ally as a partner in Aleph Book Company, a joint venture with Rupa, says, “Globally, you can count on one hand the companies that have not changed, reconstituted, or been a part of some merger or takeover before they hit a hundred. In publishing, aside from Faber, I can’t think of a single company that has stayed in its original form. Rupa has. They’ve been wooed, they’ve been courted, but their answer has always been, ‘No, we’ll do it with our own resources’. And they’ve done it.”
The memoirs of President Pranab Mukherjee (the second part of which, The Turbulent Years, was released this January) are by no means the company’s biggest or most elite acquisition. Rupa’s author list includes Sunil Gavaskar (Sunny Days, 1976), Ruskin Bond (Rupa has around 70 of his titles in its catalogue) and Gulzar to name just three of their biggest sellers.
At just 31, Kapish is a publishing veteran. He didn’t step into his father RK Mehra’s cabin the easy way. As a child, the senior Mehra put him to work dusting the books. Kapish didn’t mind: Publishing books was his rather atypical aspiration even then, and he loved spending time at the office after school, understanding how things worked.
But Kapish was thrust into the hot seat at 17, when his father had a second heart attack, dividing time between the hospital and the company, getting advice from his father. While the senior Mehra did return to the business eventually, he had to scale back his involvement, and Kapish began spending all his spare time at Rupa; once studies were done, he joined full-time.
I didn’t know the difference between commercial and literary publishing, Kapish says with a self-deprecatory chuckle, just that there were successful books and unsuccessful books. “I just published what I, as a young person, thought would sell.” In 2004, he convinced his father to increase the print run—from the usual 5,000 to 10,000—of a book by a certain first-time author called Chetan Bhagat, who would go on to become India’s largest-selling author, and one who has stayed loyal to the company.
Kapish recalls with a laugh that he was so conscious of his youth while talking to older authors that he grew a beard to look older. Until he realised that his age didn’t matter as much as knowing what he was talking about.
His pride in what the company has achieved is transparent. “Usually, publishing in various parts of the world is dominated by the majors; it’s rare that a local publisher dominates the English language publishing scene. It’s rare to see companies in the media and entertainment world which are privately held, and owned by a single family.”
Rupa’s long run, he says, can be attributed to its focus on the customer. It finds out what customers are looking for, identifies authors who can deliver in those areas, and publishes them. “It is not for us to identify what the customer should be reading; it is important for us to assess what the customer is seeking.”
Disagreeing with the suggestion that this would likely lead to Rupa publishing only popular authors and titles, he says, “On the contrary, we’ve been a pioneer in publishing first-time authors in this country. We’ve been happy to experiment.” He adds that the ability to spot trends early, react quickly and fill the vacuum is what has served Rupa well.
There’s also the accusation that Rupa’s books have poor production quality, whether in how the books look and feel, or in their quality of writing. Kapish has evidently heard this too often, and points out that the quality may have once been poorer, but that issue was now more “drawing room conversation by people who haven’t been seeing what we have done lately” and that the company had won the Best Publisher of the Year Award from the Federation of Indian Publishers in 2008.
Aleph, their tie-up with Davidar in 2011, has also begun to make an impact in literary publishing. This has rubbed off on the mother-ship too: Rupa’s books are now noticeably more polished. The company also added the Red Turtle imprint in 2013, which publishes children’s books, with an emphasis on non-fiction. Most recently, they added Maven in 2015, focussed on business titles. “I believe that every three or four years, we should start something new. Not just for the sake of it, but because I believe that every 36 to 48 months, a new opportunity presents itself, and if one keeps one’s eyes and ears open, one is able to reach out for that opportunity.” Earlier Rupa Publications published around 210 books a year; at present, it has 160 titles under Rupa Publications alone, and a total of 190 titles, including the other imprints.
Mehra draws a triangle on a whiteboard and divides it into horizontal strips. “At the top are people who buy 28 to 40 books a year. The middle buys four to six. And the bottom buys one or two. These guys [at the top] can take a book to, say, 20,000 copies. The middle can take you from 20,000 to 200,000. But this bunch [the bottom] take a book from 200,000 to a million-plus. This is not about economic strata or anything; the rich can buy one book a year, the poorer ones can buy 40. The trick is to take a book from the top segment into the middle, maybe the bottom. A fancy way of looking at it is to invert this.” He draws another triangle, this time pointing downwards. “The point is,” he continues, “to carve out an audience that may not be the traditional one for a book.”
Mehra says it’s a question of integrating the marketing, packaging, pricing and distribution. Which is how memoirs like those of former Minister of External Affairs K Natwar Singh and former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai sold far beyond the conventional sub-20,000 even though they were priced at around Rs 500 (Singh’s has sold over 90,000 copies in a year, Rai’s over 40,000 in hardback). Kapish claims Rupa’s success rate in making a book a bestseller is around 40 percent, while much of the industry is at the 25 percent mark.
Today’s readers need to be catered to in ways that take into account their lifestyles, Kapish says. They are mobile-friendly, and have short attention spans. Rupa is repackaging books, including canonical reference works familiar to older generations, like High School English Grammar & Composition by Wren & Martin. “Today’s child doesn’t want to read Wren & Martin. For one, it’s too big. And the examples are not up-to-date. So we’ve created the Little Red Book series: Small books on grammar, punctuation, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, and so on, each about 120 pages. A child is happy to pick them up and absorb them, maybe buy five of them. As a publisher, where you were once selling one book for Rs 395, you’re selling five at Rs 100 each. It makes better sense from both the customer and commercial perspectives. Plus you can increase the series.”
“Electronic devices can only get cheaper, slimmer, faster. Content, especially what comes pre-loaded, will play a pivotal role in the growth of all kinds of technology. It will be the differentiator. The last ten years were about technology; the next ten will be about content,” he says.
Why, then, haven’t ebooks picked up as well as they might have in India? Kapish says that print is lazy. “We expect the reader who buys a book, a magazine, to pick up the same content in the same presentation in the online space. That is not the right approach because the target audience is very different. There will be rollover, but that is a small percentage. Conversion is not e-publishing. The game-changing moment is when you’re able to create content specifically for the online audience. Look at enhanced ebooks, with sound and media. Imagine an app that gives you a story every week, free, with monetisation coming from, say, ads. If one can do bite-sized books, there is a very large audience which is willing to spend five rupees, ten rupees for something interesting.”
Is Rupa moving into the e-world? “We’re doing that now. We’re working very aggressively on that, with a 12-month rollout plan, working with Amazon globally.”
Add to all of this Rupa’s expansion into other markets, like East Asia and the Middle East earlier, and now in the United Kingdom and the United States of America as well. Right now, some of their books are available to readers in those markets, through distribution arms or via print-on-demand. Kapish aims to make everything, ie, its massive backlist, available quickly to those readers in those markets in the near future.
And what you get are multipliers everywhere, on multiple fronts. As Kapish says repeatedly, “If you make it easy for your reader, growth will automatically happen.”
(Additional reporting by Pravin Palande)