Look all around you. Whether you're in a subway, a park, an airport, a restaurant, even at this conference, all of you have a phone in your hands or maybe in your pockets. How many of you have a book? Very few, right? This is the sight that used to greet me every time I walked out of my office block. I was surrounded by a sea of 20-something professionals glued to their phones. And not a single one had a book in their hands. And this used to make me very, very frustrated.
I was a bookworm all my life. Books formed the milestones of my life. The first man I fell in love with was Mr. Darcy. I first read "Harry Potter" when I was 21, on a summer break from college. And I remember the first night I spent in a little flat I bought in my mid-20s, very proudly, and I spent the whole night reading "The Da Vinci Code." And then I'm going to make a terrible confession: even today, when I'm low, I get into bed with "War and Peace." Don't laugh.
But I was also like all those people I saw around me: I, too, lived on my phone. I ordered my groceries online, and soon my app knew that I needed a monthly dose of diapers. I booked my cinemas on my phone. I booked planes on my phone. And when I did the long commute back home like most urban Indians, and was stuck in traffic, I passed the time on WhatsApp, video-chatting my twin. I was part of an extraordinary revolution that was happening in India. Indians are the second-largest users of smartphones in the world. And data prices have been slashed so radically that half of urban India and even a part of rural India now have a smartphone with a data connection in their hands. And if you know anything about India, you'll know that "half" means, like, all of America or something. You know, it's large numbers.
And these numbers are just growing and growing and growing. They're exploding. And what they're doing is empowering Indians in all kinds of extraordinary ways. And yet, none of these changes that I was seeing around me were reflected in my world, my world of books. I live in a country the size of Europe, and it only has 50 decent bookshops. And Indians just didn't seem to want to read for fun. So if you look at all the best-seller lists in India, what you'll always find in the best-seller list is exam and professional guides. Imagine if you found the SAT guides as the "New York Times" number one seller, month after month.
And yet, the smartphone revolution was creating readers and writers of a different kind. Whether it was on Facebook or WhatsApp, Indians were writing and sharing and reading all kinds of things: terrible jokes, spurious pop history, long, emotional confessions, diatribes against the government. And as I read and shared these things, I wondered to myself, "Could I get these writers and these readers, could I turn them into my readers?"
And so I left my plush corner office and my job as the publisher of India's top publishing company, and I set up on my own. I moved into a single large room in a cheap bohemian district of Delhi, with a small team. And there, I set up a new kind of publishing house. A new kind of publishing house needs a new kind of reader and a new kind of book. And so I asked myself, "What would this new reader want? Would they prize urgency, relevance, timeliness, directness—the very qualities they seem to want from their online services, indeed, the qualities they seem to want from life today?"
I knew that my readers were always on the go. I'd have to fit into their lifestyle and schedules. Would they actually want to read a 200-page book? Or would they want something a little bit more digestible? Indians are incredibly value-conscious, especially when it comes to their online reading. I knew I had to give them books under a dollar. And so my company was formed, and it was born. It was a platform where we created a list of stories designed for the smartphone, but it also allowed amateur writers to upload their own stories, so they could be showcased along with the very writers they read and admired. And we could also enter into other people's digital platforms.
So, imagine this: imagine you're a receptionist, you've had a long day at work, you book your cab in your ride-hailing app, it shows up, and you get into your car, and you lie back on your seat, and you put on your app. And you find a set of stories waiting for you, timed to your journey. Imagine you're a gay young woman, in a relatively conservative city like Lucknow, which lies near Delhi. There's no way your parents know about your sexuality. They'd completely freak out. Would you like lesbian love stories written in Hindi, priced under a dollar, to be read in the privacy of your phone? And could I match readers to the events that were taking place around them in real time?
So we published biographies of very famous politicians after they won big elections. When the supreme court decriminalized homosexuality, an LGBTQ collection was waiting on our home page. And when India's Toni Morrison, the great writer Mahasweta Devi died, our readers found a short story by her as soon as news hit. The idea was to be relevant to every moment of a reader's life.
Who are our readers? They're mostly young men under the age of 30. There's someone like Salil, who lives in a city where there isn't a modern bookshop. And he comes to our app almost every day. There's someone like Manoj, who mostly reads us during the long commute back home. And there's someone like Ahmed, who loves our nonfiction that he can read in a single sitting, and that's priced very low.
Imagine if you're like a young, techie boy in India's Silicon Valley city of Bangalore. And one day, you get an in-app notification and it says that your favorite actress has written a sexy short story and it's waiting for you. That's how we launched Juggernaut. We got a very famous ex-adult star, called Sunny Leone. She's India's most Googled person, as it happens. And we got her to write us a collection of sexy short stories that we published every night for a week. And it was a sensation. I mean, no one could believe that we'd asked Sunny Leone to write. But she did, and she proved everyone wrong, and she found this immense readership.
And just as we've redefined what a book is and how a reader behaves, we're rethinking who an author is. In our amateur writing platform, we have writers that range from teenagers to housewives. And they're writing all kinds of things. It starts as small as a poem, an essay, a single short story... Fifty percent of them are returning to the app to write again. Take someone like Neeraj. He's a middle-aged executive, wife, two kids, a good job. And Neeraj loves to read. But every time Neeraj read a book that he loved, he was also filled with regret. He wondered to himself if he could write, too. He was convinced he had stories in his mind. But time and real life had happened, and he couldn't really manage it. And then he heard about the Juggernaut writer's platform. And what he loved about it was that he felt this was a place where he could stand head and shoulders, equally, with the very writers that he most admired.
And so he began to write. And he snatched a minute here, an hour there, in between flights in airports, late at night, when he had a little bit of time on his hands. And he wrote this extraordinary story for us. He wrote a story about a family of assassins who lived in the winding lanes of Old Delhi. We loved it, it was so fresh and original. And before Neeraj knew it, he'd not only scored a film deal but also a second contract to write another story. Neeraj's story is one of the most read stories on our app.
My journey is very, very young. We're a two-year-old company, and we have a long way to go. But we already, and we will by the end of this year, have about half a million stories, many priced at under a dollar. Most of our readers love reading and trying out authors they've never, ever heard of before. Thirty percent of our home page reads comes out of the writing that comes from our writer's platform.
By being everywhere, by being accessible and relevant, I hope to make reading a daily habit, as easy and effortless as checking your email, as booking a ticket online or ordering your groceries. And as for me, I've discovered that as I entered the six-inch world of the smartphone, my own world just got very, very big.