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HomeFeaturesPratilipi is the biggest boom for women writers. Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi rule

Pratilipi is the biggest boom for women writers. Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi rule

Pratilipi may have chanced upon something elemental as well – the mutual relationship between consuming and creating. The lines between the two are being blurred.

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It is 9 O’clock in the night, Siya has had too much to drink, courtesy her bachelorette party. She is very happy. How can she not be? Tomorrow is her big day, she is marrying someone she loves. She comes home drunk. And so begins Pratiksha Tripathi’s long-winding tale of love, Anokhi Shaadi Dil ki Awaaz — a  276 chapter opus that has been read 16.6 million times on self-publishing and audio-book platform Pratilipi.

Bengaluru-based Pratilipi, which was founded in 2014 and is now home to 800,000 writers and 25 million monthly readers, has emerged as a haven for many aspiring young writers who don’t have to jump through the formidable gate-keeping hoops of the traditional publishing industry. With 12 languages to choose from and a plethora of genres – ranging from historical fiction and mythology to fantasy fiction and erotica – the platform has predominantly become women’s safe space. The biggest boom has come in Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali and Marathi, and there’s now a new excitement that the next big Indian writers are likely to be discovered from here. Last month, all of its top 10 writers were women.

A physiotherapist of 13 years, Pratiksha made a 180-degree turn in order to become a full-time writer on Pratilipi. “I’d never thought of taking it up as a full-time profession,” she says. But when you combine a pandemic that forces you to be at home for months on end, a new-born baby, and an overwhelmed mother – that’s what you get.

You know exactly what you are getting: a bucketful of salacious fun. No posturing is involved. And the definition of good writing is slowly altering too — no pretensions, no writing for just the top of the pyramid. “People want to read general conversation. They’re not into literature. You have to have the ability to express feelings,” says Pratiksha.

She writes love stories – also because it’s what she likes to read.

Raji PV, a 32-year-old who writes in Malyalam on Pratilipi, agrees with the hold love has over the Pratilipi’s audience. She has, however, experimented with a diversity of topics – ranging from humour to true crime. “People like happy endings,” she adds.

They also like brawn. “Since he couldn’t reach down, he slowly opened his eyes. The first thing that caught his eye were two mischievous brown eyes. Then a gold necklace with a single rudraksha. He looked at the whole person. He was about six feet tall. He was stout. He had a strong body and a mischievous face. A thick mustache and a chin. He hid a smile on his lips,” reads Raji’s Without Knowing, which has been read 1.5 million times.

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Self-publishing and accountability

Even as the debate around what is good literature and how important is the rigour of editing rages, the importance of the audience cannot be exaggerated. Writers are held directly accountable by their readers. The review-feature on the app is a weapon that is wielded freely. Raji knows her readers well, as they give her their opinions and offer ample feedback. The final part of one of her stories, which she refers to as a family-oriented “moral” tale of a teacher, has over a thousand reviews. The story itself has a whopping 110 parts, and there are three million people who have read it. “When readers like a story, they promote it,” she says.

It is a rare level of culpability. The kind of serialised, episodic content that has now become bread and butter for writers like Raji has ardent followers who believe in their responsibility as readers. It is a unique relationship – “they are like a second family to me,” says Ratna Halder, who writes in Bengali – another one of the 12 languages Pratilipi publishes in.

She gives the example of one of her characters who features in multiple stories she has written. He has three monikers – Rocky, Aurko, and Rashid Ansari. Just as she thought his story had been completed, her readers wanted more. This led to her constructing a separate narrative, which focused on Rocky and his female counterpart, Meghna. “My readers thought he was another story. They wanted to know – how did Rashid Ansari become Rashid Ansari?” Ever at the service of her readers, Halder delivered in the form of ‘How far will you go for your love.’ It has everything, she says: “romance, crime, psychology.” 

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Reader today, writer tomorrow

Writers on Pratilipi are attuned to the voices and feelings of their readers because they have been in the latter’s shoes. Halder, who used to teach Bengali at a school prior to quitting and becoming a full-time writer, mentions Sanghamitra Roy Choudhury, whose work she used to read on the app. “She was a Bengali teacher as well. I thought if she can do it, why not me? I didn’t feel brave enough,” she says.

Pratiksha Tripathi, who started reading on Pratilipi in 2017, recalls feeling “provoked” by the ‘write section’ on the app. Pratilipi gives aspiring authors confidence through its user-friendly interface, making an otherwise daunting profession available to everyone. It makes reading and writing go hand-in-hand.

Then, there is the added bonus of monetisation. There are three modes of earning money through the platform — the first being virtual coins, which subscribers can directly gift to the authors of their choosing. The second is a ‘super-fan’ subscription, of which the writer gets about 40-42 per cent, while the third is a ‘premium subscription’, that also gives them between 40 and 42 per cent.

Raji, a homemaker, has earned Rs two lakh through this. “It was the happiest day of my life,” she says – referring to a holiday she was able to fund for her family. Pratiksha Tripathi paints a picture of having it all – “my daughter is well taken care of, I have income, I have work satisfaction.”

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The post-covid shift

In the post-pandemic age, working from home is no longer an indulgence few can afford – a shift to which online platforms have been vital. Two of the three women referred to in this piece built their Pratilipi writer profiles in 2020, when they felt they had enough time to slow down.

The number of creators went up by 50-60 per cent during Covid, notes Ranjeet Pratap Singh, crediting this to the use of writing as “an escape mechanism” during a tumultuous time. Readership, however, has remained consistently high. Around eight million people flock to the app every day.

“It was an overwhelming time in my personal life, and it was difficult to be at home after 13 years,” says Pratiksha. A typical day for her consists of writing at night, editing in the morning, and posting in the evening.

Raji started posting once her baby was born, at a time when she couldn’t read books either and thus began to use Pratilipi. She started with only a 100 views and recalls the excitement with which she tracked her rise.

The three are satisfied and do not want to shift to traditional modes of publishing. They also have the support of their families in this journey. “If someone asks me today, I say I am a writer,” Ratna Halder says, with definitive pride in her voice.

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Pratilipi’s script – present and future

Though Pratilipi publishes content in English, the stories that boast of the numbers that Pratiksha, Raji, and Ratna have, are largely in regional languages. CEO Ranjeet Pratap Singh, a voracious reader himself, says that books in other languages weren’t as readily available when he was studying Computer Science at the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology in Odisha.

“There was a lack of access. The majority of India doesn’t speak English. I started Pratilipi to make people read again, in the format and language of their choice,” he remarks.

Vijaya, an IT professional and Telugu writer on Pratilipi shares this experience. She prefers reading in Telugu and says that in and around Hyderabad, the books being sold are mostly in English.

The organisation’s focus has always been long-term. “We didn’t want to focus on monetisation until we had enough readers and writers. Businesses have a habit of running after shiny things.”

While this could have been perceived as a gamble at the time, the old saying holds true – good things come to those who wait. The company has now ventured into an array of formats. There is Pratilipi comics, touted as “the most popular comic-reading platform in India”. IVM Podcasts, which hosts comedians Cyrus Broacha and Rohan Joshi, The Wire Talks by The Wire co-founder Sidharth Bhatia, and What the Hell Navya by Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter Navya Nanda, to name a few.

Murdon ki Train, a horror comic that garnered enough views and popularity to be made into a motion comic, has 13 million streams on YouTube. Episodic content may be difficult to adapt into film, but work well as web-series, says Pratap-Singh, alluding to Pratilipi’s future.

Pratilipi’s comics explore themes like college love stories, supernatural thrillers, and mild horror.

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Publishing vs self-publishing

Earlier this year, the publishing world went into a tizzy when Amazon shut down Westland and all its imprints. The ecommerce giant housed a number of big names, as well as Chetan Bhagat’s 36-crore six-book deal. Soon after, it was announced that a new publishing company, helmed by Pratilipi, would be set up in collaboration with the team at Westland.

It is the digital storytelling business’ first official expansion into conventional publishing. They previously licensed a few stories to Manjul, the publishing house responsible for translating Harry Potter in Hindi. In tune with their readers – Tashree, a supernatural mystery romantic thriller, and Angoothi ka Bhoot, a romantic horror tale were given to Manjul.

CEO Ranjeet Pratap Singh told ThePrint that the books to be published by the new Westland vertical will be in synergy with Pratilipi’s content that will also be available on the Pratilipi app and website. He also expects stories on Pratilipi to be picked up by the currently unnamed company.

There are clear benefits to writing without the additional tedium of literary agents, publishers and editors. There are none of the confines of physical books: reams can be written without stopping to consider the impossibility of lugging around what would amount to thousands of pages. There are no ISBNs, no production costs.

Pratilipi exists in opposition to the onerousness of the publishing industry. There is a free-flowing stream of content and a conscious lack of editing, which Ranjeet says, is done to foster the “democratisation” of reading. Vijaya compares the content and readership of Pratilipi to the force of television.

Even before the arrival of OTT revolution, television was treated as inferior to more ‘respectable’ mediums like films and books. Similarly, there is a pre-existing universe of literature to which Pratilipi’s entry may be restricted. “It cannot come close to a certain standard of literature,” says Rachana Yadav, publisher of Hans, a literary magazine founded by Premchand that was then taken over by Rajendra Yadav in 1986. “When a submission to Hans is accepted, it goes through rounds of meticulous editing. Pratilipi has few censors. Writing, as a craft, is not being honed.”

There are also doubts on whether its popularity can transcend the digital and conquer a largely English-dominated space, as previous attempts, like those made by Juggernaut, have not worked.  “There is very little appetite in India for anything outside of print. Publishers for e-books and audio books haven’t done well. Pratilipi’s biggest challenge is to win readers over in English,” says literary agent Kanishka Gupta, who represents writers like Avni Doshi and Daisy Rockwell.

But the priority for writers on Pratilipi is not to engage with ‘writing as an art’, or cater to an English-speaking readership. It is to use their words as a vehicle to tell stories – stories that are being told in abundance. India has a rich tradition of tales that is being preserved in different ways.

Just when many thought that the old tradition of serialized storytelling was nearing its end, Neelesh Misra’s radio show Yaadon ka Idiot Box revived it. Misra has weaved together a tapestry of narratives “around relationships and everyday India.” The show has been on air for nearly a decade.

Pratilipi may have chanced upon something elemental as well – the mutual relationship between consuming and creating outside the drudgery of all that restricts aspiring authors and keen readers. The lines between the two are being blurred.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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