How to Succeed in Business? By Reading, India Says

It was a different kind of shopping trip for Pallavi Rao, 24, a trendy human-resources consultant who normally picks up things like sunglasses, bags and short jackets. After work last week, she browsed among dozens of stalls at Bangalore’s annual book fair and carefully selected a handful of titles on management and leadership.

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“Books are my personal mentors, they inspire me to do better at work,” said Ms. Rao.

Indian readers, particularly young ones, have been devouring books on business, management, careers and money in recent years. In storefront displays and airport bookstores across India, these tomes get pride of place, relegating fiction and books about politics to the back row.

Bangalore’s annual book fair, which was held over 10 days this month in the grounds of the Bangalore Palace, a Windsor Castle lookalike from the Raj days, attracted dozens of business-focused publishers and retailers with catchy names like Success and Genius, as well as more than 200,000 attendees.

Young Indians graduating from management schools “are voracious readers of nonfiction, they read to get a competitive edge,” says Krishan Chopa, chief editor for nonfiction at HarperCollins Publishers India. India’s growing economy has accelerated changes in business and at the workplace, he said, and authors who write about these changes are popular because the “country’s book-reading public is eager to stay updated.”

Bestsellers in India do not sell in the millions, as some do in the West; the most popular titles sell about 50,000 copies the year they are released. (Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, by comparison, sold more than 379,000 copies in its first week in the United States). India’s publishing market, when compared to the West’s, is still tiny, fractured and hard to measure.

But more people are reading, which, along with a competitive printing industry, appears to be fueling a publishing boom. As literacy rates climb (to 74 percent, according to the latest census) and as expenditure for private consumption grows (projected to rise 7.5 percent in the fiscal year ending March 2012, according to the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy) , book buying is expected to ascend as well.

India’s educated, savvy middle class has caused the market for business and management books to “explode,” said the Bangalore-based IT entrepreneur Subroto Bagchi, an author and the vice chairman of MindTree, a Bangalore base software services firm. This is especially true in smaller Indian cities, he said. Mr. Bagchi’s three books include “The Professional” and “The High-Performance Entrepreneur,’’ both published by Penguin; together they sold more than 150,000 copies. With his fourth book, “Business at 16,” Mr. Bagchi hopes to get teenagers interested in business, partly by using fictional anecdotes, including boy-meets-girl stories.

Business biographies and management guides are a top-selling category at the online retailer FlipKart, whether the author is Indian or foreign, said the company’s chief executive, Sachin Bansal. “Successful entrepreneurs are young India’s role models and their narratives offer valuable lessons,” he said.

Sales of such books on FlipKart are up 191 percent in the first ten months of 2011 compared to the entire year before, he said. Among the current chart toppers is Rashmi Bansal’s “I Have a Dream,” on social entrepreneurs.

Penguin Allen Lane launched a separate imprint for business books called Penguin Portfolio in India in 2006, when readership for the genre began accelerating. “Indian readers are more informed, curious and proactive than ever,” says Udayan Mitra, publisher of Penguin’s Allen Lane and Portfolio.“There is a desire to read in and around the area people work in.”

That segment has seen 100 percent growth in value terms over the last three years, and makes up about one-third of nonfiction sales at his publishing house, Mr. Mitra says.
Two distinct categories have emerged within the segment, Mr. Mitra said. High-end corporate biographies, such as the low-cost airline founder G.R. Gopinath’s “Simply Fly” or “The TCS Story . . . and Beyond” by the former Tata Consulting Services chief executive S. Ramadorai, and leadership strategy books command a significant slice of one end of the market, as do mass-market business self-help books.

Over 700 readers crammed into a bookstore at a mall in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj neighborhood recently for the release of the real-estate tycoon K.P. Singh’s autobiography “Whatever the Odds.” The author, founder of the development company DLF, made a video appearance from his Florida home via satellite.

It is an exciting time to be a publisher in India, says Kapish Mehra, managing director of Rupa Publications. Mr. Mehra published the retail entrepreneur Kishore Biyani’s autobiography, “It Happened in India,” which sold over 200,000 copies at 99 rupees, or about $2, each. Mr. Mehra says his publishing firm will release a dozen new titles on business and management in the next six months.

Mr. Chopra of HarperCollins says that even a few years ago, only a couple of his business books sold more than 10,000 copies per year. “These days, a dozen or more sell between 10,000 and 20,000 copies every year,’’ he says.

Regional-language publishers find that their own markets are keeping pace. “Small-town Indians want to know how successful people made it, and want to read to pick up lessons from their life and work,” says Badri Seshadri, managing director of the Chennai-based Tamil-language publishing house New Horizon Media, which has published biographies of the outsourcing company founder Azim Premji and Reliance Industries’ founder, the late Dhirubhai Ambani.

But Mr. Seshadri’s runaway bestseller has been an initiation into the Indian stock markets, which has sold 100,000 copies and is going into further reprints. The title is “Alla alla Panam,” or “Tons of Money.’’