By Mitali Chakravarty
Nidhi Mishra is an ex-banker who pivoted from a ten year banking career to her passion for reading and luring others to read (admittedly, at times forcibly). Nidhi studied at Lady Shri Ram College , Delhi University, to pick up an Honours in Mathematics and a feminist flair on the side. An MBA from IIM Lucknow took her to a decade long career in the financial sector, finally quitting as VP, HSBC as she wanted to do something more meaningful with her time, which led her to found Bookosmia. Bookosmia (smell of books) is a children’s content company hoping to make children fall in love with reading, writing and everything else around Indian stories. Over the last two years, the company has built a significant spread of content, across formats- physical books, digital stories and audio stories with one common thread — to curate homegrown, relatable and fun content for Indian children. In this exclusive, Nidhi talks of their present and future, how she feels book publishing is still viable and needed…
Mitali: You have founded a publishing firm, which took up a challenge and pulled it off… selling 1000 copies of a book that was seen as a failure by others in a week. What made you take up the book?
Nidhi: At Bookosmia, we look to not publish more than 2-3 physical books every year. A very strong driver for us is to be able to find the topic / basic storyline meaningful and one that moves us. It helps to start out being very clear to yourself and the team that book publishing is not about making great money — it is about using books as a medium to amplify reach of a certain cause. We took up this book because we were excited about the challenge of using a children’s story book as a medium to spread awareness of a dying Indian dance form in a fun way and we were confident that we would be able to tap into our steadily growing network of parents /schools/ organisations that engage with kids across India.
I had full faith in the author, Archana Mohan to come up with a great, fun story for kids that will inform them of the Yakshagana dance form — the purpose of the book.
Mitali: In an industry that seems to be dying, book publishing, what made you come up with the idea of starting yet another publishing firm? What made you conceive the idea of Bookosmia?
Nidhi: I started Bookosmia (smell of books) after pivoting from a 10 year banking career, quitting as a Vice-President of HSBC (Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation). It may not seem the most logical thing to do but I felt the time was perfect for me to do something more meaningful with my time and skills and use them to create something from scratch. I am asked this question very often and I always answer it with a line from one of my favourite songs “I’d rather be a forest, than a street ( El Condor Pasa by Simon and Garfunkel, 1970)”.
Now to the second part of the question — why publishing? I belong to a family where a love for literature and passion for poetry is passed on in our genes. When I had my first daughter, I became acutely aware of what a challenge it would be for the kids today to experience the joy of sitting back and relaxing with a book — they are born into a world with low attention spans and the whole flurry of screens. I wanted to make children fall in love with reading, writing and everything around stories, specially with an Indian context.
There is of course tremendous research out there on how reading helps develop a better thinking and personality. But for me the urge is also emotional — there is a certain image that comes to mind when we think of the smell of books – hence, the name Bookosmia. While Bookosmia does have content in digital formats, physical books help parents build a certain trust in our brand, a familiarity of the times they grew up in. We try to offer to break the clutter by focusing on Indian content and making reading more interactive through add-ons based on the story like jigsaws, colouring book etc.
Mitali: Do you publish only children’s books?
Nidhi: Yes, our focus is completely on children’s content.
Mitali: You recently acquired Mytha, a Hong Kong-based company. Would you like to tell us why and what do you propose to do with the tie up?
Nidhi: Mytha is a digital stories-based app which specializes in Indian mythological and folk tales, illustrated by brilliant designers from across the world. AK Ramanujan said in India, stories are a grandmother away. With the changing family dynamics and time compression in our lives, unfortunately kids do not have ready access to these old Indian folklores, but the genre still has a special place for Indian parents. We hope to bridge the gap by making the stories easily available through digital publishing channels like Kindle and in vernacular language to recreate that magic of the past.
Mitali: What are the subjects/ genres you are willing to explore in your books?
Nidhi: We look at a wide range of topics as long as it fulfills one goal — the content should be homegrown, relatable and fun for children.
Mitali: How many books have you brought out? How well have they done in the market? Can you find your way in the international market?
Nidhi: We have published two books so far. I Wish I Were is retelling of an old story from Panchatantra, with rich Indian illustrations by Parvathi Pillai an ex-design head of Chumbak, an India-based gifting start-up. The book did well for a starting price point of Rs 1500, received global acclaim and is now available on our website with various options- personalization, add ons based on the story.
Our second book Yaksha, to spread awareness of the dying Indian dance form Yakshagana, is a beautifully authored children’s story which wraps up a lot of information about the dance in a relatable fun story for kids. The book has been a huge success, selling out its first print run of 1000 copies within a week of launch.
Mitali: What kind of books would you see as your future? Publishers often say good writing does not sell. Do you feel the same way? Would you publish to please readers or to bring to readers what would help them develop a taste for good values and nurture humanitarian concerns?
Nidhi/Archana Mohan*: Our future publications will say “thanks but no thanks” to perceived ‘safe’ subjects and continue to push boundaries. We owe our readers that. We cannot comment on other publishers’ views, but we are thrilled with the response we have received, validating our belief that if you have conviction in the product you put out, you don’t have to go out of your way to find an audience.
Pleasing our readers is extremely important to us but not in the sense that it would lead us to alter our story lines or characters just to play to the gallery. We believe readers are open minded. They may shake their heads with disagreement sometimes, but they are still willing to traverse the journey of a book nevertheless, till the end of the page, enabling them to understand a viewpoint that’s different to them. That, for us is the magic of books. Being able to start important conversations that are not always easy but still need to be on the table.
Mitali: Nowadays often books available online are defined by regions or boundaries drawn by politicians and business houses. What is your opinion of these laws that do not allow for the sale of books worldwide? Do you think that is good for the publishing industry?
Nidhi/ Archana Mohan*: Speaking purely from the stand point of children’s content, if a book is deemed fit for a child, in terms of language or subject, there is no point banning it for frivolous reasons that have nothing to do with literature. Irrespective of the political climate, books about young Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize winner Malala are loved by children in India.
Mitali: Do you market the books for your authors? Or, do you expect your authors to market for you?
Nidhi: We take up very few books every year and only when we are fully passionate about the subject. From then on, it is a full team effort where everyone is equally committed — being small gives us the advantage of putting our heart into the project we take up. It also makes us aware of the two big challenges we have when compared to bigger publishing houses:
1) Distributors are risk averse to take books and stock them up in book stores.
2) Challenge of funds for marketing the books we are about to launch.
As has been seen with the success of our latest book launch Yaksha, we have developed efficient ways to beat these two challenges: We skip the distributor route completely and make the books available online like Amazon and in well known smaller libraries and bookstores. We also run regular events in the latter to engage with the audience directly and make reading experiential. Instead of trying to raise funds to market the book, we completely rely on social media which gives us great and free reach (of up to 85k people/month) to the right audience.
Mitali: Do you publish unsolicited books, authors without agents?
Nidhi: I don’t think an author who has an agent would be the kind who would come to us for publishing! As I have said earlier, we only care about coming out with meaningful and fun Indian literature. A good example is the anthology of short stories that we will publish every year, starting 2019. This is a compilation of stories written by children across India — from those rescued from child labour in Bangalore to those studying in International school in Kolkata.
We partner with schools and other organizations to run story writing contests across India, focusing on the idea instead of the language or spellings, with the premise that children are perfectly capable and deserving of expressing themselves and also that other children are likely to appreciate and relate with these stories better.
Mitali: What do you think of self-publishing? Would you publish a self-published author with very less rating?
Nidhi: I think by now I have established that we do not comply to any standard norms of approval / assessment or labels for authors or illustrators. We want to use the agility and passion we have as a small publishing house to our advantage, making our considerations only about the quality of content.
Mitali: What do you see as the future of Bookosmia? What is the future of book publishing? Do you think electronic media will take over paper books?
Nidhi: I will take up the last two questions first. The print industry in India is the second largest share of Media & Entertainment, at Rs 318.90 billion (US$ 4.95 billion) in 2018 and is expected to grow at the rate of 5.90 per cent during 2018-2023. It is safe to say that physical publishing — primarily through newspapers and periodicals is not going to die.
Another important trend is that youth readership of newspapers (12 years +) is growing. An IBEF( India Brand equity Foundation) report further substantiates that 56% of urban children and 39% of rural children read a publication. These are great data points as it indicates a culture of physical reading amongst the younger audience. However, we cannot deny the context for this audience — a digital revolution where the internet user base in India is 500 million already. Use of digital media, focus on regional languages and original content will be the key drivers of content consumption in the future.
At Bookosmia, we have also adapted ourselves to these key drivers as we continue to build a spread of children’s content across formats. We are committed to publishing 2-3 physical books every year, digital and audio story bank on our website along with a constant release of new mythological and folktales on Kindle every month. I feel physical books have their own place in our lives and we can use the ease, availability and spread of digital media to enhance that experience, not replace it. Our focus is on content over form- to make good vernacular content available easily to children.
Mitali: Do you know of the Future Library Project spearheaded by Katie Paterson? What did you think of it?
Nidhi/ Archana Mohan*: The world’s most secretive library? An out-of-the box idea whose unveiling of manuscripts in 2114 will be a day to remember. Time capsules always have such nostalgia about them, and this project promises to be an incredible ride down the annals of humankind’s progression. There has been some criticism on the project too but if you tell me there is a hundred-year-old manuscript that’s never been published, I don’t care who the author is, I would want a copy and a steaming hot cup of tea to go with it!
*Archana Mohan is the head of content in Bookosmia. Nidhi asked her to answer these questions as she felt they related to the content.
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and Editor and blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.
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