Hitting the right note with 'The Write Place'

Kinjal Shah, CEO, Crossword Bookstores talks to Swetha Amit about The Write Place, a new initiative introduced over the last one year to encourage budding authors get themselves published, and other initiatives such as their new stationary called 'Yello', the impact of Crossword Book Awards in promoting readership and the big titles expected in the 2016

Kinjal ShahLast year, Crossword book stores introduced The Write Place, a platform to encourage new writers. What has been the response to this initiative over the last one year?
Well it has been good so far. When we were doing our research last year before launching this initiative, we found that many authors had initially been rejected by some publishers. So, it was imperative for us to ensure that we build a platform for these writers. Our vision was to be their publisher of choice, provide innovative products by using the entire marketing strategy of Crossword, leveraging on the loyalty of  our customers and our chain of 98 stores to ensure that budding authors have a strong platform to launch themselves from.

With The Write Place, the author gets four times the royalty of what other publishers give, plus we take care of printing, packaging, marketing and retailing. This becomes a great opportunity for new authors. Last year, we published close to eight books out of which two hit our bestseller list. We have already signed 24 books and  are now targeting 100 books next year.

Being innovative publishers, we want to do multiple things simultaneously. We aim to identify the gaps in the market between what has not been published and where there is a demand for it. We will be commissioning a project on Shivaji Maharaj, which will be our biggest book as nothing has really been written about him in the genre of non-fiction besides the books in our educational curriculum.

We are also trying to look at international authors, for whom we can take distribution rights in India. We can provide a platform for them as the largest bookstore chain in the country and see if we can help them promote their books. We are also developing an entire range of adult colouring-book series with some interesting designs, for which we are partnering with a brand called Humming Whale. The series will have multiple titles, with the first one called Around India in Forty Doodles, which is a book with 40 different cities in India, depicting a monument pertaining to a particular city. The second series is on Indian gardens.

However, here we are not competing with the traditional publishing houses. As retailers, we want to play our part in helping with promotional aspects. We have been in retail for the last 22 years and now the satisfaction that we get from the The Write Place is pushing us to do our best.

You have mentioned that you are innovative publishers. How would you differentiate yourselves from the traditional publishing houses?
My mandate is very simple. We want to be chosen by authors not because we are the best publishers but because we are the most innovative ones. We look to create that innovation primarily from the marketing aspect. When the author brings in the product, we will try our best to package it and put it on our shelves. The innovation will be showcased from the unique way in which we market the product. So we will look at creating characters and merchandise to ensure that the author is perceived in a certain manner. The other aspect of creativity will come from identifying the gaps as I had mentioned earlier and bring these kind of books to life.

What kind of books and authors have emerged from The Write place? What genre of books appeal to readers from this segment and what are the titles that topped the bestseller charts?
We have seen a good mix right from people who have had four or five books already published to first-time authors, HR professionals, mothers and even kids. Basically we have seen that the entire country wants to write and we have worked on providing the right platform for them along with the essential marketing tools. We are still fairly new to be able to judge the appeal quotient but from what we have seen so far is that impulsive, fast, easy reads with an ability to connect with the readers seem to be selling like hot cakes in this segment. The two titles, which have done well are Business As Usual by Deepak Chawla and The Rigveda Code.What worked with Business As Usual was that it was a compilation of short stories written in an experiential way accompanied by an attractive cover, good marketing.  Most importantly it was placed prominently across stores.

Crossword Bookstores has also aimed at providing a world class experience to readers, which scores over the e-commerce threat that has been prevailing lately. Considering this factor, what are the steps taken to promote the reading culture for the Gen Y generation which seems to have taken a fancy to the online forum?
In fact, we had an event on Author Dan Brown sometime last year at the National Centre for Performing Arts, in Mumbai. I was asked by someone to estimate the audience profile to which I replied that I was expecting an average age of 30 plus corporate professionals.  However, when I walked into the venue, I was amazed to see that the average age of the audience was 16 years. Kids from this particular age group are often seen at our stores, browsing through book shelves and many of them have in fact picked up their reading habit from us.

Having said that, we have tried to elevate the experience of customers especially in the last two years. In 2015 especially, we repositioned our brand by renovating the store and introducing initiatives like The Write Place and our 'Yello' merchandise. Both these initiatives helped us in gaining an edge over competition. Now when customers want to buy a book,  they can do so either online or by visiting our stores. However, when they are not sure what to pick up, there is a hunger within them to find new books, which they can do so only by being physically present at a book store. Therefore we try and do our best for customers by curating a wide range of collection for them to choose from.

Could you tell us more about Yello, your new range of stationary?
We wanted to embark on the journey of a private brand that is exclusively available in our stores. That's how Yello came into being and the name comes from our brand characters as our brand colour is yellow.  We already have 15 personal diaries, note pads, pen cases and merchandise and we are looking to expand the entire horizon by at least adding 75 more products in the next one year.

We clearly understand that a customer doesn't just want to buy a functional product alone but something that is coherent with their personality as well. For instance they want to buy a notebook which talks about what they are. So Yello will be focussing on customers with clear attributes and personalities. We are currently focusing on three ranges. The first is a literary range which is inspired by literary quotes and authors. The second will be a classic range where the designs will be plain, subtle and minimalistic.  The third range will be focussing on fashion, where the designs will change every season.

We see Yello as a big opportunity. In the first year, we have done similar sales in brand Yello, which we do from any other competing brand in our store. For instance,  brands which are six to eight years old. In the first year itself we have picked up competition by comparing the sales numbers. So we are very confident that we have embarked on the right journey.

While on the subject of e-commerce, Kindle seems to be the regular haunt for customers who are unable to find a copy of a particular book. How does Crossword propose to combat this and still attract consumers to the stores?
Well I don't see Kindle as a threat. In fact, we sell Kindle in our stores.  We ultimately need to understand what the customers want to buy and how they want to read. So whether they want to read a book physically or via kindle, its fine by us as we are in this business of not selling books but inculcating reading habits among people. 

I see this as an opportunity for us in the long run as readership in India is still very low and by clear market statistics, this market is bound to grow at 20 per cent in the next three - four years.

Nowhere in the world has it happened where people resort to buying only a particular medium. People often ask me in a debating manner whether books or book reading will be similar to the pager to mobile transition. I always tell them that it will be something similar to the transition from cinema to television sets. When television entered the market, people proclaimed it as an end to cinema. Yet, both have survived today. So we are very happy through whichever source readership increases, be it kindle or manual books.

You also organise the Crossword Book award in order to promote readership in our country and appreciate authors at the same time. How do you see the response to them?
Well, I would say people are reading more for sure. However, the means through which they are reading is arguable. For instance we find most customers today, browsing through their smart phones reading either emails or books. However, this technology has caused a time constraint for customers today. Earlier, people had a lot of free time on their hands but today because of such devices they are busy multitasking. So this is one challenge that we are facing. The other challenge is that in the last quarter of 2015, we didn't have any major releases. In fact if you google Nielsen, there would hardly be any new releases. However, we are not unduly worried as the business cycles is at its low. We hope to see lots of new releases in the upcoming quarters.

You have several categories in the crossword book award section. So do you plan on having a category for authors from The Write Place as well?
We certainly want to, but not this year.  We have already started getting entries from publishers and begun on the jury process. Partners like Raymond and Kotak have already confirmed their participation. We want to reach out to a larger base this time and hence plan to have it on a grander scale as compared to the previous years. We are still contemplating on the categories.  Over the next few years we hope to include the write place category as well as we want to promote writing largely.

As a start up in The Write Place we are conducting case study competitions in B-schools and short story competition in schools. The idea is very simple: we give the school participants a small introductory paragraph and ask them to build a story around it. The top 10 winners will be selected and their stories will be compiled into a book. What we are attempting to do is to cultivate the writing habit and also connect to the Gen Y. Once we hit about 200-300 books in this category, we plan to introduce this as a category at our Crossword Book Awards.

You have a category for Indian Translation as well in the Crossword Book Awards. So how do you see those books faring among readers? Promoting such books indicates recognition of regional literature. So how do you ensure the awareness and availability of such books being the leading bookstore in India?
Ever since we started the Crossword Book Awards in the last 16 years, we have been contemplating how to get recognition for translated authors. These were books in English, translated from various regional languages. While it was easier for us to just label it as either fiction or non-fiction, we retained these translated category awards as we saw merit in them. Honestly speaking, however, the numbers are not commensurate to the efforts that we have put in to ensure better marketing of these books.   However, the sales for these books have been better than what it would have been before being nominated for these awards.

We could also probably create a section in our bookstores for these books to ensure better awareness. Maybe we will in due course of time.

While on the topic of literature, one sees numerous Literary Fests  in our country. Does Crossword ever plan to organise a LitFest celebrating the authors from The Write Place, for instance?
We are too busy opening stores for our authors and customers. In fact we already have 8-10 stores lined up. While our business is interesting and we love every bit of it, it's also challenging. It's a huge effort and we spend all our energies into creating more stores for our readers. So at this moment, there are no plans of organising LitFests.

2015 has also seen a year of several book launches of some high profile authors. What are the big titles readers can expect this year?
So in the year ahead we will see Amish's second book of the Ikshvaku series coming out. We will see the sequel of Harry Potter, set 19 years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which will release some time in July. Apart from that, there is Lord Jeffrey Archer's new title Cometh the Hour. is doing well. It has almost 7-8 chapters based in India. It's an interesting story and is the sixth book of the Clifton Chronicle Series.  Since it's based in India, it will find its appeal among a lot of Indian readers.

Being the CEO of one of the largest bookstore chains in India, what books do you enjoy reading?
I am typically a self-help book kind of a guy and like reading a lot of management books. Currently I am reading a book called The Internet Is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen. It's a good read where the author talks about what are the things that could happen if the internet goes wrong. It deals with very simple things; for instance last year alone there were about lakhs of tweets, 76 hours of YouTube videos being used and we are all entangled in this internet phase. So the book explores the repercussions, in case something goes wrong with the web world.

Elon Musk's biography which talks about the story of Telsa Motors is also an interesting read. Zero To One by Peter Thiel is also a good read as it talks about how to build the future, the right business models and what an entrepreneur should invest in. The author says that one should always look at investing in something which can create value over a period of time.

Lastly 2015 has been a great year for Crossword bookstores in terms of scaling up operations and opening new stores. What are your plans for 2016?
Well, we look to expand the Yello business aggressively and add more products there Our vision is to see if we can sell this brand on international shores as it's a premium and lifestyle brand and also connects to readers.  With The Write Place, there is going to be an expansion on titles and there will be at least 100 books in a years' time. If a customer wants to release only a digital copy, then we aim to facilitate it using the entire eco system for customers.

We are also looking at adding ten more stores in a year. Earlier, we had two types of models  - either we used to work only on franchisee operated or 'company-owned-operated' models. Now we are looking at a 'franchisee-owned, company-operated' model and we hope to scale up this model as it gives me more control over operations and merchandising. We are also focusing on travel retail, where we are looking to open stores at airports and metros as we see this opportunity being large in the next few years.