‘One of those guys who refused to enter temples’
Bear with me, I want to quote an author to you at a little length:
My books are historicals. They’re set in the India of 4,000 years ago…My books are based on a premise that Lord Shiva was a real historical man, who lived 4,000 years ago, and his grand adventures gave rise to the myth of the god. So I’ve written on a Hindu god. But I was an atheist, eight or nine years ago. Today, I’m a very devoted Shiva worshipper. But eight or nine years ago, I was a committed atheist. I was one of those guys who refused to enter temples. It’s been a really long and strange journey.
On Wednesday, the London Book Fair’s opening conference — called Publishing for Digital Minds (#PDMC15) — held an advance event. Conference Director Orna O’Brien and her staff in London, supported by Midas PR’s Chris McCrudden, staged an eight-hour series of events, a “Virtual Stream” that included events via Google Hangout, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more. Here’s the full list of events. The day started at 5 a.m. Eastern and was finished by 1 p.m.
I was asked to handle the 90-minute India segment on Twitter. We started with a 45-minute interview with Hachette India’s Managing Director Thomas Abraham and with Penguin Random House India’s Children’s Publisher Hemali Sodhi. These were terrific interviewees, beautifully prepared, firing off tantalizing details of one of the most vast and complex books markets on Earth.
- Sodhi, for example, knew precisely how to tell me the reach of the young readers’ market in India: “More than half our population,” she said, “is under 25 years old.”
- And Abraham nailed the promise of mobile reading on smartphones in India: “Look at the potential, Porter: The number of telephone subscribers in India rose to 970.97 million at the end of December 2014.”
I would interview Sodhi and Abraham again in a heartbeat. They were efficient, personable, fascinating, and they were all that in what is actually a difficult format, the live Twitter interview with two simultaneous guests and a host.
But it was yet another of those nearly-one-billion Indian phone subscribers whose chat with me was even more compelling. And for a very different reason. At its heart — maybe in his heart — lies my provocation for you today.
‘An earthy and frankly rather cool God’
The second 45-minute segment of my India section was a Twitter interview with an Indian author named Amish Tripathi. If you’re Indian, you know him simply as Amish. On Twitter, he is @AuthorAmish with more than 90,000 followers and not even 5,000 tweets on record. I probably made him tweet more than he’s ever done in 45 minutes.
I want to bullet out for you the technical facts of this man’s writerly success quickly, so you have the context.
- Amish Tripathi is 40, based in Mumbai, married and a father.
- He has three books to his name: The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas, The Oath of the Vayuputras.
- These three books form his Shiva Trilogy. The first book in his new Ram Chandra series is to be out later this year, The Scion of Ikshvaku.
- The Shiva Trilogy has sold more than 2.2 million copies, bringing in more than US$9.4 million to date.
- Film projects are in the works on The Shiva Trilogy both in India and in Hollywood.
Tripathi and his agent self-published his first book, The Immortals of Meluha. Reports say it was rejected as many as 40 times by publishers. “I stopped counting after 20,” he tells me in our interview. With a lot of inventive presentational marketing — high-end physical publication of a sample chapter given away free in bookstores, etc. — Tripathi and his agent leveraged the 5,000 self-published copies enough to draw the eye of the publisher Westland, which now has bragging rights on a very smart move.
For the record, Tripathi isn’t really a self-publishing story, by which I mean he’s not about self-publishing and doesn’t want to be. Self-publishing 5,000 copies to draw the attention he needed to Book 1 with some aggressive, smart marketing was the way to what he wanted, a contract: the means, not the end. This is something I wish more of our authors today could consider instead of falling into the distraction of self-publishing as some sort of crusade. But that’s for another provocation. Suffice it to say that when I referred to his self-publishing phase, he made it clear that it was just that: a phase:
I didn’t choose self-pub. Just made a virtue out of necessity! :) But now I have a proper publisher.
In fact, he doesn’t seem to feel that his marketing efforts are unusual. While some of our culture’s authors can fill whole trilogies of their own with lamentations about disappointing marketing efforts from publishers, Tripathi’s resopnse is as close as you can come to executing a shrug on Twitter when asked about marketing his books:
Of course. You shouldn’t leave it to publishers. You must take charge of your own book.
Why don’t we just have that printed on every writers’ conference name-tag this year? It would save us a lot of weepy chorales of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.
‘God has been kind’
Beyond all this, the essential elements of an outlier success story in publishing, there’s another aspect to Tripathi’s experience I’d come across in my research and was eager to ask him about.
I’d seen a television anchor jump onto this point with Tripathi: “You’re always thanking God, Amish, always saying that God has been kind.”
Tripathi is the grandson of a Sanskrit scholar, a pandit who lived in the holy city of Benares or Varanesi — said to have been the favorite city of Shiva. Although Tripathi says he was an atheist for some time, his work on his retelling of the Shiva mythology has left him an adamant believer in what he describes as a discovery that “rationalism and dharma (one’s moral duty) can go hand-in-hand.”
How cynical we may have become. In his 11-minute INKtalk appearance (a series of very TED-like talks), I found myself watching for some sign that his talk of faith connected to these novels might be part of the show. I don’t find such a sign. O, me of little faith.
Granted, Tripathi’s books are unapologetically melodramatic, their scenes and situations are sensual, apocalyptic. His video trailers are roiling-cloud affairs, thundering with primal drumming that could make the Kodo ensemble blush. To Western eyes, many Indian aesthetic traditions seem over the top, saturated in TechniColor. And for heaven’s sake (sorry), his subject matter is mythological grandeur. These tales may seem strange and exotic to us, but if we see Zeus toss a lighting bolt in a film or read of it in our Edith Hamilton, we’re fine with some sizzle and smoke. Look past the precise symbols of one religious lexicon and you find easily recognizable aspirations, hopes, fears…faith.
“I’m certainly a believer,” Tripathi told me when I asked him. This guy who was told by his wife to hire a driver so he could spend his commute to work writing was becoming his own first convert “in the backseat of my car.”
And why Shiva, destroyer of evil, a man who became a god? In Twitter to me, Tripathi answered without missing a beat. And notice his capitalizations — they remind me of old-church literature in US Protestantism:
Lord Shiva is an earthy and frankly rather cool God, Who is especially popular with the youth…I’m a rebellious person by nature. Lord Shiva is the ideal God for someone like me (no disrespect to other Gods).
And as he has worked his way through the trilogy and its big, big reception, Tripathi told me, he has seen in India’s readership something new and glowing:
Oh, answering that is difficult in 140 characters. But I guess I can say that India is changing. Our confidence is rising once again. So there is a greater interest in stories rooted in our culture and country.
His own prospects rising with that cultural lift, Tripathi was upbeat, cordial, fun. When I couldn’t pin him down on the publication date for the forthcoming The Scion of Ikshvaku, I reminded him of George R.R. Martin, struggling to stay ahead of the racing HBO serial, and Tripathi came back:
:) I’m writing it. And I promise that it WILL release this year! Also, I’m waiting for @GeorgeRRMartin’s next!
[pullquote]What I think I saw and heard in Amish Tripathi is something we could use more of in today’s literature of all genres: personal commitment, purpose, intent. What may appear in the film adaptations as fantasy-worlds entertainment — although no doubt of great vigor and scale — is coming from a place deeper than so much of the fiction output that chokes our markets today. [/pullquote]
All the while, followers on Twitter were gathering in the stream, that amazing murmur that composer Nico Muhly captures with scary beauty in his opera Two Boys. The crowd that Tripathi draws, I learned, wants to tell you about tolerance. These people spoke in quick, deferential tweets about being sure they allowed others to worship as they wanted, not to impose one belief on another. “@AuthorAmish is one of the better minds to make sense of chaos here in India,” one young man told me. A woman told me that she’d found his story so inspiring that “I even hired the same marketing agency” as his. “I’m understanding the basic premise of spiritual evolution through Karma,” another told me, “grateful to Shiva Trilogy for this insight.” Another: “It is time we learnt to celebrate the diversity in various cultures and rejoice in it.”
Where were they getting these things? Almost simultaneously, Tripathi was saying to me:
Nothing wrong with devotion to your God. What is wrong is when you attack another person’s God.
His stories “come to me in bits and pieces,” Tripathi told me, “and not always in a structured manner.”
I’ve learnt to trust the flow and just go with it. I’m an instinctive writer. I just follow the story the way it comes to me. It’s actually quite easy that way.
What I think I saw and heard in Amish Tripathi is something we could use more of in today’s literature of all genres: personal commitment, purpose, intent. What may appear in the film adaptations as fantasy-worlds entertainment — although no doubt of great vigor and scale — is coming from a place deeper than so much of the fiction output that chokes our markets today. Somehow not what we think of as religious fiction, Tripathi is writing something more subtle: faith-informed fiction. He’s in touch with something enviably unifying for him right now. That’s a kind of grace we don’t see a lot when people are obsessing over book sales and self-publishing exclusivity and the cost of editing.
[pullquote]I would continue to write even if my books remained only in my laptop. And that is actually a wonderful place to be. [/pullquote]
Here he is again from the INKtalk commentary:
What am I trying to get across?…My point is that if you listen to your soul’s advice and you discover your life’s purpose, success or failure actually ceases to matter…Success was a prerequisite for me to like my banking career…In my writing career, my story is completely different. If somebody told me that, “Your books will be super-flops”…would I still be happy? The honest answer is yes. Success or failure was irrelevant in loving my writing career…I would continue to write even if my books remained only in my laptop. And that is actually a wonderful place to be. Where the journey itself becomes a place of joy. And the destination doesn’t matter.
How honestly can we, in such money-driven cultures as we operate today, find a sense of completion if no market ever looks our way? Many, maybe most, of our writers will have this happen. Because there aren’t enough readers and there is already more content than anyone can accommodate. Would Tripathi himself be able to say this if he had sold 25 copies, not 2.2 million?
At the end of our interview he said to me:
And may all the Gods (or the Universe if you are an atheist) bless you.
And you know what? I had a better day.