Kunj Sanghvi needs no formal introduction on our platform. He is the man who bet on himself. Having left his cushy job at a media company, he embarked on a journey across all of India, with the aim of publishing a book of short stories at the end of it all. The book, Side Upper, was published by Leadstart Publishing's imprint, Frog Books and is available on leading online stores (See below the interview for links). Meanwhile, Kunj has reentered the corporate world. And achieved celebrity status for his literary exploits (view his TED talk at TEDx XLRI. )
InsideIIM caught up with Kunj Sanghvi to get his perspective on writing, careers and MBA.
InsideIIM: What motivated you to travel throughout India and write a book?
Kunj: I needed to find isolation so that I could put my head down and write. I also sought inspiration. In my growing up years, my family used to travel very regularly on holidays across India and I knew what I was signing up for. So it gave me two things essential to write a book – isolation and inspiration.
InsideIIM: How tough was it to take a break from a thriving corporate career?
Kunj: I take quick decisions and then look at making them work for me. If I had analyzed pros and cons, etc I wouldn’t have been able to take the plunge because I was enjoying myself in an industry I had always dreamed I wanted to be in. There were times on the road, when I questioned if all this would be worth anything at all, but overall I was pretty comfortable with my decision.
InsideIIM: Writing a book is a very unstructured project, difficult to plan and break down into bite-sized modules, and therefore, almost impossible to complete. How did you manage to complete the book? What kept you going?
Kunj: Attention. If I had quietly gone about doing this, I might have given up midway. But I had created a lot of noise about it on social media when I was travelling. Blog posts, pictures, poems, notes, etc. So now everybody knew what I was upto. So I became addicted to that admiration and wanted more and more of it. So a disorganized and lazy person like me, put his head down and got it done.
When I came back from my 6 month journey across India, I had about 10 stories which were near completion and others were just fleeting glimpses at what the story might be. I made several color-coded excel sheets with deadlines, genres, lacking elements, extent of completion, and other unquantifiable things, quantified for indulgence.
But the most important thing that helped me was that I started sharing my stories with my English professor from college. She had specific delivery deadlines that I had to meet and she would get back to me with changes, comments, etc and I had to rework and show her the stories again and again. That really pushed me.
InsideIIM: A lot of people have 'passions' that they are unable to decide whether follow or not. What is your practical advice to them?
Kunj: Practical advice is to really get a better understanding of the world around us today. There is a certain opening of possibilities today that may have never happened before in our country. The only criterion is to do the job well. There are no lucrative and non-lucrative fields. There is space to do anything as long as you are very good at it. So passion is wonderful and all that, but we need to get on with it and put in the hard hours for it. Every hour today people less passionate than us but more committed are creating wonderful things.
On a more basic level, 24 hours is much longer than we think – we need to do more than our day jobs to be able to kill time for our 70 years of life on this planet.
InsideIIM: What were the best things you saw in your six-month journey across India? What did you discover, briefly?
Kunj: The best thing that happened was I had a lot of time and nothing to do. So I could observe small nuances of people across the country. I could indulge in long conversations with strangers, eavesdrop on arguments, focus on little mannerisms. What I saw was that sitting in our Mumbais and Delhis, we make easy assumptions about our country. Our world is defined for us by our twitter timeline and its problems are defined for us by our Facebook friends list. There is so much diversity in our country that we cant fathom it from our matchbox urban houses and petit geography textbooks. My effort in the book has been to bring out these little nuances to tell a big story about each of the places I have been to.
InsideIIM: Could you walk us through your process of getting the book published? What were the major obstacles you faced? How did you overcome them?
Kunj: I first targeted the literary agents because that’s what my online research threw up as the best strategy for a first time writer. It didn’t work out so I sent my manuscript to all the publishers I could find. I got into advanced discussions with many but nothing bore fruit for several months. Then I heard that a first timer had a better chance if he first got published abroad so I started pitching to independent publishers in London, New York and Singapore. But here I met with failure because they saw the content as specifically catering to an Indian reader and a little too authentic for the diaspora settled in that country. Also, since the genre was short stories with nothing tying all the stories together except the fact that I travelled to all these places, meant that most publishers told me that short stories don’t work in India at all. I changed my pitch to publishers several times, beginning from having a very heavy-handed approach to selling the book – one where I question the wordings of the Preamble to our Constitution through fiction – to a lighter tone – that of travel stories bringing out a more authentic India.
Finally, just when I had made up my mind to self-publish, I got a call from Leadstart Publishing and I happily signed on after doing proper research on them.
InsideIIM: What are the perks of being a published author? How does it help in your corporate career?
Kunj: I landed my current job because of my project. They weren’t interested in my past experience as much as they were in my 6 month journey and the book. I work with a business media brand that talks to the person who isn’t a CEO, but a common man with big aspirations. And through various essays and interviews, I was able to bring out that I understood Bharat as much as India thanks to the journey and the book.
I believe I will always make it to the interview stage of any job thanks to this – it is that vital differentiator from a sea of MBA CVs that HR managers regularly come across.
InsideIIM: What is your view on the future of the book publishing industry?
Kunj: I am very new here to comment on the industry, but I see a bigger appetite to experiment with new formats, mixed formats and regional literature, as content takes centre-stage in our country today. I have been told that even today an average Indian reader reads only one book per year. For that to change, the formats have to be changed so that publishers don’t have to depend on a handful of writers for their profits.
InsideIIM: What is Side Upper all about? How would you market it to a layman?
Kunj: Side Upper is a contemporary look at the conglomeration of cultures that we call our country. It is a collection of 23 quirky short stories set in various cities and towns across India and it endeavors to make us question if all that we assume about our country is true. In the end, the effort is to pay every city a compliment that would make it blush.
For marketing it to a layman, I want to create an exchange of stories through the book. You could either pay for the book or just give me a story from your life and if I like it, I’d give you my book for free. In the famous words from Doctor Who, we’re all stories. I want to create a culture of story-telling again in our country and that will be my intention while marketing this book. So rather than marketing the book, I am looking to use this opportunity to create an even bigger bank of content through collaboration and conversations.
InsideIIM: How did your MBA help you in the journey of writing and getting yourself published?
Kunj: My MBA gave me a foot in the door with many publishers because of the Chetan Bhagat legacy. I was also able to approach the project in a more structured manner – planning of the journey, the structuring of the stories, the pitch to publishers and the sale to readers. But above all, my MBA gave me friends who critique, inspire and support me all the way.
InsideIIM: What is your advice to MBA students who have graduated in 2014?
Kunj: Get seduced neither by sexy salaries or, what my friend calls, travel porn. There is nothing that we ‘should’ do. Don’t work for a certain image on facebook. Today, more than ever, old-fashioned commitment to one’s choice will be richly rewarded because there are so few who still do it.
Follow Kunj Sanghvi on InsideIIM.com. Read the Baazigar series by him at baazigar.insideiim.com. The book, Side Upper, was published by Leadstart Publishing's imprint, Frog Books and is available on Infibeam, Amazon, Flipkart, Crossword, Rediff Books.
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