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Gaurav Shrinagesh on expanding in other markets: “I would rather start small and learn about the market I’m in, and then formulate a recipe that works.”

The CEO of publishing Penguin Random House India & SEA is looking for local voices in the region.

Have you got a manuscript you’ve been working on these past few years? The publishing giant Penguin Random House has recently set up base in Singapore and is looking for material from writers here and the rest of Southeast Asia.

And because Gaurav Shrinagesh, CEO of Penguin Random House India & SEA, thinks there’s no fixed formula for making blockbuster titles, he’s looking for works in various genres including war, self-help, fantasy and mythology, children’s and learning.

Mr Shrinagesh took the helm of Penguin Random House India in 2013 after holding several senior positions in media conglomerate Bertelsmann, a majority stakeholder in Penguin Random House. He’s seen the publisher’s Indian division grow substantially: Overall revenues in recent years have increased by more than 20 percent, with sales of English-language books expanding by some 80 percent from 2005 to 2017.

The new Southeast Asian branch is headed by executive editor Nora Nazerene Abu Bakar, who previously worked for various publishing houses in Singapore. Penguin SEA’s just-released inaugural catalogue of 93 titles includes fiction by The Straits Times journalist Akshita Nanda, bestselling author Krishna Udayasankar and award-winning short story writer Elaine Chiew. These will be rolled out through 2019, with the first titles available for purchase in late-April/early-May.

Book-reading – either in print or e-book format – is on the decline across the world, as people turn to online entertainment such as Netflix, YouTube and social media for their daily diversions. But Mr Shrinagesh remains bullish about books in Southeast Asia, declaring that its youthful demographics create an aspirational class that relies on books (particularly education, non-fiction and self-help titles) for upward mobility. Beyond that, he simply thinks that everyone loves a ripping good yarn – and, if only for that reason, books will never be extinct.

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How are you establishing Penguin Random House in the region?

Our plans are to look across Southeast Asia for local voices writing in English, and seeing how we can take them to different markets. That’s one bucket. The other bucket is to find the great local voices that have not been translated into English and seeing how we can help those voices transcend national borders. So there’s a two-prong strategy. You see, Penguin Random House is a multi-local company. We understand that each country is a distinct territory with its own cultural nuances. So all our companies across the world publish local voices to begin with, and then we see how we can take them to international markets as well.

I imagine most of the great authors of each country have already found representation.

Absolutely. But the great thing about publishing is that authors for different books at times find different editors. There are authors who will stick to one publishing house, and generally the author’s relationship with the editor determines whether the author goes. But what Penguin Random House brings to the region is something that might not have existed. Singapore has some fabulous publishers, such as Epigram, Ethos and, from your own company, Straits Times Press. What we want to bring is a global view to a multi-local setting… There will be authors, I imagine, who have been established in their own markets for years on end. Their works might or might not have been translated, might or might not be copyrighted. So that research will need to begin. But we haven’t done that yet, as I’m giving you only the pillars right now.

What do you think creates a successful crossover from the local to the international?

That’s a good question, but I don’t think there is a formula. One of the things we have to be as publishers is understand our readers better. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do on that front in terms of what they’re like, what their preferences are and how we can meet them… Then there’s the hope that what is picked up and appreciated locally can migrate internationally. There might be books that might not become massive here, but might be popular among readers internationally. You see, readers aren’t constant anywhere in the world – even English-language readers. The same book that succeeds in one market may not succeed in another. So generally speaking, I don’t have an answer for what’s going to contribute to a book becoming a bestseller internationally. I think that if we understand what the readers in our local markets would like to read, this is a first signal for us that the content is strong. But I don’t want to second-guess. Publishing is such a nuanced business.

It sounds like, for now, you’re picking up non-English-language authors who already have some following in their home countries, and seeing if you can replicate that success elsewhere.

Well, there will be some. But Nora, our executive editor in Singapore, is always looking for new voices and she’s already found some. And I do want to stress that Penguin Random House always wants to find those new voices, because we really want to partake in society and culture. And the only way to do that is to engage with authors and readers in the society at large. If you just stick to authors who are already well-known, then there’s a bubble – which defeats the purpose. The role of a good publisher is to discover potential, build a new talent and make him or her successful. That’s why a new author usually partners with the publisher that he or she has trusted for many years because the publisher puts in a lot of effort into nurturing that talent.

Your ambitions are large, but you have only one person operating in Singapore – Nora – who’s looking at talents across Southeast Asia, which is sizeable, varied and complex.

To begin with, yes. But there are different ways to build up a business. You see it as one person. I see it as one editorial lead in Singapore with a team of 150 people functioning in India, ready to lend her all the support she needs. My view is that I would rather start small and learn about the market I’m in, and then formulate a recipe that works for that market. And then maybe we’ll pull in a larger team. A business or organisational recipe that works for the UK or India might not work in Singapore.

The last question is a personal one: What do you read when you’re done with work?

I’m 48 and in a phase of my life where I’m interested in books about mindfulness. When you’re managing a business, you’re always running left and right to do this or that. You’re always multitasking. So one of the things I’ve tried to do is to slow down, concentrate, and experience the fullness of each moment. That’s how I’m trying to grow and evolve right now. That’s where I am in terms of my leadership.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.