The woman who is trying to create a Netflix for books

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Chiki Sarkar hates being called a disruptor but that’s exactly what she’s doing to the opaque, incestuous world of Indian publishing. Along with Durga Raghunath, who brings the digital smarts, Sarkar has co-founded Juggernaut, a digital publishing house. She spoke to Neelam Raaj on why she wants to use tech to give dead-tree books a new lease of life

You’re pitching Juggernaut as India’s first phone publisher. Did you have to rethink the book for the small screen?

When the idea of Juggernaut first came to me in December 2014, I thought about what the phone can do that the book can’t, and I thought Sunny Leone – delicious stories on the screen. But we’re also turning her stories into a physical book. The idea is – Can the physical and digital talk to each other? Can I take the knowledge of who is going to buy our books on the phone and sell them other books?

Sunny will be appointment reading – one story on your mobile at 10pm every night for a week. But there’s a range of reading on the app, including short works of non-fiction, long serialized forms, and a set of short stories that you can buy one of. The cost will be around half of a physical book’s.

What will be your physical vs digital mix?

If we bring 100 books to digital, about 30 or 40 of those will have physical copies too. It will depend mostly on the book and the writer. When we publish authors Arundhati Roy, Prashant Kishore, Twinkle Khanna, Svetlana Alexievich, we’ll publish both physical and digital. But young authors will be tried and tested on digital first. On the phone, we think, people will come for areas around love, sex and romance – stuff you want privacy for. Crime and fantasy tend to naturally move to electronic so it will be a big part of our list. And there’s always going to be a big component of celebrities. Also, I think the only way to get great books in India is to make them up – I did that in Penguin (she was editor-in-chief) too. For instance, I knew I wanted a book on Aarushi so I went in search of a writer.

Do you see yourself as a disruptor in publishing?

I hate this word. Like any other publisher, I think of only one thing – how can I sell more books? Physical books will never die but can I add another way of thinking about publishing books, and can I use it to get more people to read more of my physical list? I’d be very happy if my physical sales go up because of digital.

But I’ll admit I have become increasingly impatient with the status quo. I’m 38, and not 60. I don’t want to be a copout. India is full of people who have good ideas and are following them. Thirty years down the line, I would kick myself silly if I didn’t do this.

Why would an author publish with Juggernaut and not self-publish with Amazon?

The question you should be asking is: why is an author coming to me and not, say a Penguin, Harper or a Picador? We’re not competing with Amazon; we’re a traditional publisher who is asking interesting questions about digital.

How did you get Sunny Leone to write erotica?

We wanted her to write on sex. She told us, ‘Look I don’t want to go all the way erotic. I’ll be sexy, but not pornographic.’ So we kept Fifty Shades of Grey as a marker but we wanted the stories to be empowering for women.

Her stories have a wife asking her husband for sex and being turned down; an overweight girl who fancies a guy who ignores her but things change when she loses weight, and then she changes her mind too.

What is more exciting now – Indian fiction or non-fiction?

Non-fiction, and it’s been that way for the last 6-7 years. We’re in that stage in the life of the country that we want to tell stories about ourselves. The more interesting fiction is coming from Indian languages, Gujarati, Marathi and Tamil.