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← How India's smartphone revolution is creating a new generation of readers and writers

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Showing Revision 8 created 01/08/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. Look all around you.
  2. Whether you're in a subway, a park,
    an airport, a restaurant,
  3. even at this conference,
  4. all of you have a phone in your hands
    or maybe in your pockets.
  5. How many of you have a book?
  6. Very few, right?
  7. This is the sight that used to greet me
  8. every time I walked out
    of my office block.
  9. I was surrounded by a sea
    of 20-something professionals
  10. glued to their phones.
  11. And not a single one
    had a book in their hands.
  12. And this used to make me
    very, very frustrated.
  13. I was a bookworm all my life.

  14. Books formed the milestones of my life.
  15. The first man I fell
    in love with was Mr. Darcy.
  16. I first read "Harry Potter" when I was 21,
    on a summer break from college.
  17. And I remember the first night I spent
    in a little flat I bought in my mid-20s,
  18. very proudly,
  19. and I spent the whole night
    reading "The Da Vinci Code."
  20. And then I'm going to make
    a terrible confession:
  21. even today, when I'm low,
    I get into bed with "War and Peace."
  22. Don't laugh.
  23. (Laughter)

  24. But I was also like all those
    people I saw around me:

  25. I, too, lived on my phone.
  26. I ordered my groceries online,
  27. and soon my app knew
    that I needed a monthly dose of diapers.
  28. I booked my cinemas on my phone.
  29. I booked planes on my phone.
  30. And when I did the long commute back home
    like most urban Indians,
  31. and was stuck in traffic,
  32. I passed the time on WhatsApp,
    video-chatting my twin.
  33. I was part of an extraordinary revolution
    that was happening in India.
  34. Indians are the second-largest
    users of smartphones in the world.
  35. And data prices have been
    slashed so radically
  36. that half of urban India
    and even a part of rural India
  37. now have a smartphone
    with a data connection in their hands.
  38. And if you know anything about India,
  39. you'll know that "half" means,
    like, all of America or something.
  40. You know, it's large numbers.
  41. (Laughter)

  42. And these numbers are just growing
    and growing and growing.

  43. They're exploding.
  44. And what they're doing
    is empowering Indians
  45. in all kinds of extraordinary ways.
  46. And yet, none of these changes
    that I was seeing around me
  47. were reflected in my world,
    my world of books.
  48. I live in a country the size of Europe,
  49. and it only has 50 decent bookshops.
  50. And Indians just didn't seem
    to want to read for fun.
  51. So if you look at all
    the best-seller lists in India,
  52. what you'll always find
    in the best-seller list
  53. is exam and professional guides.
  54. Imagine if you found the SAT guides
    as the "New York Times" number one seller,
  55. month after month.
  56. And yet, the smartphone revolution
    was creating readers and writers

  57. of a different kind.
  58. Whether it was on Facebook or WhatsApp,
  59. Indians were writing and sharing
    and reading all kinds of things:
  60. terrible jokes, spurious pop history,
  61. long, emotional confessions,
  62. diatribes against the government.
  63. And as I read and shared these things,
    I wondered to myself,
  64. "Could I get these writers
    and these readers,
  65. could I turn them into my readers?"
  66. And so I left my plush corner office

  67. and my job as the publisher
    of India's top publishing company,
  68. and I set up on my own.
  69. I moved into a single large room
    in a cheap bohemian district of Delhi,
  70. with a small team.
  71. And there, I set up
    a new kind of publishing house.
  72. A new kind of publishing house
    needs a new kind of reader
  73. and a new kind of book.
  74. And so I asked myself,
    "What would this new reader want?
  75. Would they prize urgency, relevance,
  76. timeliness, directness --
  77. the very qualities they seem to want
    from their online services,
  78. indeed, the qualities they seem
    to want from life today?"
  79. I knew that my readers
    were always on the go.

  80. I'd have to fit into
    their lifestyle and schedules.
  81. Would they actually want to read
    a 200-page book?
  82. Or would they want something
    a little bit more digestible?
  83. Indians are incredibly value-conscious,
  84. especially when it comes
    to their online reading.
  85. I knew I had to give them
    books under a dollar.
  86. And so my company was formed,
    and it was born.
  87. It was a platform where we created a list
    of stories designed for the smartphone,
  88. but it also allowed amateur writers
    to upload their own stories,
  89. so they could be showcased
    along with the very writers
  90. they read and admired.
  91. And we could also enter into
    other people's digital platforms.
  92. So, imagine this:

  93. imagine you're a receptionist,
    you've had a long day at work,
  94. you book your cab
    in your ride-hailing app,
  95. it shows up,
  96. and you get into your car,
    and you lie back on your seat,
  97. and you put on your app.
  98. And you find a set of stories
    waiting for you, timed to your journey.
  99. Imagine you're a gay young woman,
  100. in a relatively conservative city
    like Lucknow, which lies near Delhi.
  101. There's no way your parents
    know about your sexuality.
  102. They'd completely freak out.
  103. Would you like lesbian love stories
    written in Hindi, priced under a dollar,
  104. to be read in the privacy of your phone?
  105. And could I match readers
  106. to the events that were taking place
    around them in real time?
  107. So we published biographies
    of very famous politicians

  108. after they won big elections.
  109. When the supreme court
    decriminalized homosexuality,
  110. an LGBTQ collection was waiting
    on our home page.
  111. And when India's Toni Morrison,
    the great writer Mahasweta Devi died,
  112. our readers found a short story by her
    as soon as news hit.
  113. The idea was to be relevant
    to every moment of a reader's life.
  114. Who are our readers?

  115. They're mostly young men
    under the age of 30.
  116. There's someone like Salil,
  117. who lives in a city where
    there isn't a modern bookshop.
  118. And he comes to our app almost every day.
  119. There's someone like Manoj,
  120. who mostly reads us
    during the long commute back home.
  121. And there's someone like Ahmed,
    who loves our nonfiction
  122. that he can read in a single sitting,
    and that's priced very low.
  123. Imagine if you're like a young, techie boy

  124. in India's Silicon Valley
    city of Bangalore.
  125. And one day, you get
    an in-app notification
  126. and it says that your favorite actress
    has written a sexy short story
  127. and it's waiting for you.
  128. That's how we launched Juggernaut.
  129. We got a very famous ex-adult star,
    called Sunny Leone.
  130. She's India's most Googled
    person, as it happens.
  131. And we got her to write us
    a collection of sexy short stories
  132. that we published every night for a week.
  133. And it was a sensation.
  134. I mean, no one could believe
    that we'd asked Sunny Leone to write.
  135. But she did,
  136. and she proved everyone wrong,
  137. and she found this immense readership.
  138. And just as we've redefined
    what a book is and how a reader behaves,

  139. we're rethinking who an author is.
  140. In our amateur writing platform,
  141. we have writers that range
    from teenagers to housewives.
  142. And they're writing all kinds of things.
  143. It starts as small as a poem,
    an essay, a single short story ...
  144. Fifty percent of them are returning
    to the app to write again.
  145. Take someone like Neeraj.
  146. He's a middle-aged executive,
    wife, two kids, a good job.
  147. And Neeraj loves to read.
  148. But every time Neeraj read
    a book that he loved,
  149. he was also filled with regret.
  150. He wondered to himself
    if he could write, too.
  151. He was convinced
    he had stories in his mind.
  152. But time and real life had happened,
    and he couldn't really manage it.
  153. And then he heard about
    the Juggernaut writer's platform.
  154. And what he loved about it
    was that he felt this was a place
  155. where he could stand
    head and shoulders, equally,
  156. with the very writers
    that he most admired.
  157. And so he began to write.

  158. And he snatched
    a minute here, an hour there,
  159. in between flights in airports,
  160. late at night, when he had
    a little bit of time on his hands.
  161. And he wrote this
    extraordinary story for us.
  162. He wrote a story
    about a family of assassins
  163. who lived in the winding
    lanes of Old Delhi.
  164. We loved it, it was so fresh and original.
  165. And before Neeraj knew it,
    he'd not only scored a film deal
  166. but also a second contract
    to write another story.
  167. Neeraj's story is one of the most read
    stories on our app.
  168. My journey is very, very young.

  169. We're a two-year-old company,
    and we have a long way to go.
  170. But we already, and we will
    by the end of this year,
  171. have about half a million stories,
    many priced at under a dollar.
  172. Most of our readers love reading
  173. and trying out authors
    they've never, ever heard of before.
  174. Thirty percent of our home page reads
  175. comes out of the writing
    that comes from our writer's platform.
  176. By being everywhere,

  177. by being accessible and relevant,
  178. I hope to make reading a daily habit,
  179. as easy and effortless
    as checking your email,
  180. as booking a ticket online
  181. or ordering your groceries.
  182. And as for me,
  183. I've discovered that as I entered
    the six-inch world of the smartphone,
  184. my own world just got very, very big.
  185. Thank you.

  186. (Applause)