Amrita Chowdhury, Harlequin India: “We want to build the Indian author programme”

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Mills & Boon, for the generations that grew up on it, has been the last word in romance for 106 years – for its fans. Despite labels like ‘escapist fiction’, it swept women off their feet and the books into the best mass-selling category. Five years after it set foot in India, Amrita Chowdhury, country head & publishing director, Harlequin India, talks about the march so far and the foray into Indian languages.

Q. From heading the education portfolio at Harvard Business School to heading Harlequin India (after a stint in event management as well as writing a book thrown in) in charge of Mills & Boon, how do you view the shift/transition?

My role at Harlequin India blends seamlessly my experiences in strategy consulting and growing a business and passion for writing and publishing. Hence, it has been an exciting transition. Harlequin, through its vision of “entertain, enrich, inspire” brings together for readers a broad array of books from fiction to non-fiction. The Mills & Boon books, of course, are perfect for readers who want to explore romance or are looking for a relaxing read.

Q. You have a book to your credit. And you have managed businesses too. Are you more creative or more business oriented?

I prefer to think of myself as a left brain-right brain individual, both creatively inclined and focused on logic, structure and business.

Chowdhury: “feminism, of the variety propagated by Naomi Wolf, has crept into the books’

Q. With reference to M&B, how differently will you approach handling a market such as romance and love stories?

Mills & Boon is a 106-year-old brand, sold in 111 countries and in 31 languages. So, clearly as a product, it has deep strength and we are leveraging those strengths. We bring our global line-up of new books to India every month. Of course, in India, we aim to reach readers in a variety of ways. We have a strong line up of Indian authors.

The latest authors include Adite Banerjie, who has written a story of love and revenge between a landscape designer and a hotelier, set in the glittering world of Delhi’s industrialists. Tanu Jain has written an exciting tale of a lawyer and an erstwhile Rajput prince turned hotelier, whose childhood attraction blossoms into a romance. Indian readers can associate with these stories, and hence they carry great appeal in our market. We have started our foray into Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam books and Tamil magazines, to reach deeper into the market.

Q. How do you view Harlequin’s Indian journey so far?

A. Harlequin has had a fantastic journey in India thus far. We have built the Mills & Boon business and introduced our broader Mira, Harlequin Teen, and non-fiction books in the market. We are at the juncture where we are looking to further grow the business, and build the Indian author programme for Mills & Boon as well as Harlequin Fiction and Non-fiction.

Q. What is the immediate plan of action?

A. We are looking for new authors across genres.

Q. Pricing is a key to sales. Was printing in India the only reason you managed to keep the prices under a certain level?

A. Pricing needs to be conscious to the market, language and length of a book. We manage our pricing strategy carefully.

Q. M&B went regional a few months ago. Adaptation is just one step in the game. How do you plan to let the consumer in regional markets know?

A. Mills & Boon going regional was compared by Prasoon Joshi to ‘McDonald’s creating the aloo tikki burger’. We have received excellent reviews of our translations in the various languages. We are doing a series of marketing activities to make consumers aware that Mills & Boon books are now available in multiple languages.

Q. What is your strategy for the regional language market – in terms of distribution, translations and original fiction?

A. Our core strength is content, but to reach the regional languages we have tied up with credible partners who have deep strengths in each market to get the desired depth of distribution. Each partner is very strong in their region, and thus enables us to reach even small town locations.

Each book is carefully translated and goes through reviewers to ensure that the quality of translation is true to the original work.


The magazine format ‘book’

Q. M&B in Tamil comes in a magazine format. What is the reasoning for this?

A. Tamil Nadu has a strong precedent of romances being sold in a magazine format. Author Ramani Chandran sells hundreds of thousands of copies of each book she writes. Hence, we felt strongly that a magazine was the best format to bring romance stories to this market.

Q. Why do you think tie-ups like the one with Maruti International (for Grand Masti) are a fit for Harlequin?

A. The Grand Masti tie-up was under our Spice imprint, which is our line of erotic fiction. The book, written by Neha Puntambekar, features the three main characters from the movie Grand Masti and contains humorous and naughty stories around them.

These provide rollicking adventures and comic dramas as the heroes navigate a world full of village belles, former college-mates, pesky wives, pot-smoking sadhus, and local goons. The stories are a lot of fun and would appeal to both young men and women.

Q. What are the targets you have set for Harlequin?

A. On the business front, the target is clearly growth. On the content side, we want to bring – for Indian readers – stories set around the world or in India, in romance as well as general fiction categories. We want to build upon our non-fiction line.

Q. What has changed in the Mills & Boon formula now compared to the 1970s and 80s? In terms of content, target or age group…

A. The target age group for Mills & Boon readers is 18 to 60. While the M&B stories retain their century old tradition of intense romantic attraction between two individuals, the characters themselves have evolved a lot over the past decades.

Feminism, of the variety propagated by Naomi Wolf, has crept into the books. The heroines are modern career girls, navigating life in the city. They are opinionated and strongly believe in themselves. The heroes are approachable and respectful, while remaining utterly desirable and successful. The romance itself happens on an equal footing.

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