17 November 2017 11:15:40 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

From a distributor to a leading publisher

Rupa Publications India is a publisher of no mean repute

William Shakespeare once said: Some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them. Dau Dayal Mehra, the founder of Rupa Publications, falls under the last category.

Satyajit Ray’s touch

A hosiery retailer in Kolkata, Mehra’s salesmanship skills were noticed by an Indian representative of Collins (now HarperCollins), who persuaded him to use his talent to sell books for Collins in India.

After a diffident start, Mehra soon developed a love for books and set up Rupa & Co in 1936. He is said to have named it after a female character in a Bengali play. The logo was designed by filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who reportedly just walked into its office one day and offered to create a logo in exchange for some books.

Starting with distribution for Collins (a relationship that lasted about ten years), Mehra went on to enter the publishing scene with two volumes of poetry. This was followed by the English translation of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha , which became the first of many bestsellers published by his company.

Independence and beyond

It is said that he sent Jawaharlal Nehru books when the latter was in jail in the 1930s, a fact that was duly acknowledged by India’s first PM in a letter to his daughter, Indira Gandhi. The letter had read: ‘…a firm in Calcutta — Rupa & Co — with a branch in Allahabad, has sent me books from time to time. They have good books as a rule and English publications’.

After independence, Mehra (and his company) shifted to Mumbai. In the 1970s, Rupa moved again, this time to New Delhi, and made it the headquarters of its publishing scene. During the 1980s, the company published the works of famous personalities in different fields — Sunil Gavaskar, Gulzar and Rajmata Gayatri Devi.

It was in the early 2000s that Rupa tapped into the commercial books category with general trade publications. Today, it is the leader in this category.

Incorporation and diversification

Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd. was incorporated in 2010. As part of its expansion strategy, it entered the literary publishing scene in 2011 with ‘Aleph Book Company’, which was a partnership between Penguin International’s former CEO David Davidar and Penguin India’s former CEO Ravi Singh (who quit in 2014). By 2012, it had entered the children’s market under the ‘Red Turtle’ name, publishing fiction, short stories, poetry and quiz books.

In 2015, it launched its business imprint, Maven, dealing with topics such as finance, marketing, leadership, entrepreneurship, economics, policy and strategy. It also forged an important partnership with Amazon Kindle the same year, ensuring that all its titles were available on Kindle Unlimited. In fact, over 95 per cent of Rupa’s catalogue is converted into e-books (Annually, it publishes around 180-190 titles).

Discovering and retaining

A company that started as a book distributor and importer is today a publisher of no mean repute. Rupa ‘discovered’ Chetan Bhagat and numerous other first-time authors. It is said to have about 70 titles by Ruskin Bond in its catalogue, having been associated with him for several decades now. It has identified and published many new authors in both fiction and non-fiction, with the latter covering sportspersons, politicians, civil servants, actors, and industrialists.

Once a year, Rupa selects an author for an award, in recognition of their talent. Reportedly, very few writers have left Rupa for another publisher because of the quick turnaround time (it takes just three to four weeks to know if a work has been accepted for publication), the market knowledge that enables it to introduce new genres, and the loyalty factor — more often than not, it would have been Rupa that published them first.

More than 300 million people in India speak, read and write English. The market for English books is said to be growing steadily, and Rupa dominates this market in India. It publishes mainly in English, though it does have a few offerings in Hindi too.

Marketing and publicity

Rupa’s advantage has always been that it makes good content available at affordable rates. Add to this the fact that it is the only major publishing house in India to own a distribution network for selling its titles, and it becomes obvious why Rupa Publications is India’s largest independent publishing house today.

It can also be said to have pioneered innovative marketing and publicity endeavours for pushing its titles — like taking out front page ads in leading newspapers, arranging media events, interviews and book signings, and drumming up media and trade support.

Of late, it has used social media to promote its books. Perhaps that is why its success rate in making a book a bestseller is said to be 40 per cent, as opposed to the industry average of 25 per cent.

As content shifts from physical books to e-books, apps, enhanced e-books and audio books, Rupa is gearing up to take on the challenge. Rather than worry about how the digital reach might affect its sales, it has cleverly leveraged the same to maximise its reach, while factoring in the point that not all things that sell in print will work on the digital platform.

Customer-centric focus

Rupa remains a privately-held company, owned by a single family. Even as giants like Penguin have changed hands thrice, Rupa Publications has continued on in its original avatar, shunning offers for mergers and takeovers.

Kapish Mehra, the current MD, feels that Rupa has been constantly at the forefront due to its customer-focussed approach. Rather than dictating what the customer should read, it goes out of its way to find out what the customer wants to read, by observing the reading and buying patterns at exhibitions and fairs it organises in big cities and small towns.

It has developed teams to assess readership trends. They meet regularly with each other and also with distributors to constantly update their knowledge of readership patterns.

When reader preference shifted from classics to fiction, and from self-help to business and management, Rupa kept pace by releasing titles to meet the demand, with a strategic marketing approach behind each book.

Production and packaging

The short attention spans of modern readers — including children — are taken into consideration when repackaging books or creating new series. For instance, the cumbersome Wren & Martin might be too heavy for today’s children. Their ‘Little Red Book’ makes it easier by packaging grammar in small doses — books with about 100 pages each on different aspects of grammar. These are a hit with parents and children alike.

At the same time, with clever packaging, targeted marketing and distribution, Rupa has managed to create new audiences for books like memoirs, which usually have niche readership (K Natwar Singh’s memoirs have sold over 90,000 copies in a year).

The company was once accused of poor production quality despite being pocket-friendly: the print was too small, the look was plain to the point of being disappointing and sometimes, translations did not live up to the mark.

But it pulled up its socks and won the Best Publisher of the Year Award from the Federation of Indian Publishers in 2008. Its proud boast is that despite not having a global presence, you can get a Rupa book anywhere in the world within 48 hours of placing the order.

Rupa is planning to expand into the UK, the US, East Asia and the Middle East in the near future.