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Comic relief

The slow-moving comic books and graphic novels space is looking up with the entry of new players and a rise in interest.

Vimanika's Karan Vir Arora (L) with comic character KALKI at the Indian Comics Convention in Delhi Vimanika's Karan Vir Arora (L) with comic character KALKI at the Indian Comics Convention in Delhi
About three years ago, two men, whose professions were as far apart as the places they belonged to, decided to put their money where their hearts were, and not where their families would have ideally wanted them to. Mumbai-based Karan Vir Arora, a motivational speaker and personality development trainer whose family was in the real estate business, launched Vimanika Comics, to produce comics based on mythologies, with Rs 5 lakh borrowed from his father. Delhi-based Keshav Thirani, who had thriving businesses in railway equipment as well as LED lighting, started Campfire, a publishing house for graphic novels.

Publishing, especially that of comic books, has traditionally been a slow-moving business in India. But neither has any regrets. "I was interested in mythology and wanted to put my knowledge to good use," says Arora, adding that he was inspired by the launch and subsequent success of Virgin Comics in 2006.

Visitors admiring posters at the Comics Convention
Thirani's love of books comes through even when he talks hard business. "There were few easy-toread, entertaining books in the market," he says. "Children did not enjoy reading. Thus we thought of providing condensed, illustrated versions of old classics, mythological stories and biographies, which, however, would retain the original flavour," he adds.

Campfire has brought out 47 titles so far with a print run of 5,000 per title. In India, it sells around 10,000 copies a month. It notched up sales of around $30,000 in countries such as the United States following a tie-up with publishing giant Random House last year. Besides, it is taking its graphic novels to countries like Hungary, Turkey, Brazil and the Czech Republic, has tied up with Amazon and Flipkart for online distribution in India, and plans to come up with 100 titles in the next two years.

Vimanika sells nearly 10,000 copies per month and expects to double its turnover this year from Rs 50 lakh in 2010. It also plans to enter the licensing and movie business this year. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are immense opportunities in this sector, which is expected to grow to Rs 500 crore in the next five years," says Arora.

The publisher's optimism was evident at the Comics Convention in Delhi in February, India's first and along the lines of similar conventions held annually in New York, Baltimore, London and elsewhere in the West. The two-day jamboree saw an impressive turnout of all those associated with the comics and graphic novels industry, including publishers, retailers, merchandisers, writers, artists, illustrators, etc., besides attracting more than 15,000 visitors and fans and notching up encouraging sales. Campfire alone sold titles worth Rs 1.5 lakh.

The sheer scale of participation and the enthusiasm of comic fans belied the notion of comics as a fading genre. Rajat Mishra, a 30-yearold Product Manager at remote tech support provider iYogi, who heard about the convention through Facebook and blogs, says he would not have missed it for anything. "I grew up on Amar Chitra Katha tales and Tintin.... I was surprised by the turnout and the response to this event," adds Mishra.

So was Jatin Varma, Founder of Twenty Onwards Media and the moving spirit behind the event: "I am overwhelmed by the response… Hopefully, in the coming weeks, you will hear of new projects inspired by the Comics Convention, and the event will be an annual affair."

The convention, intended to celebrate the exciting world of comics and give a boost to the industry, showcased its emerging trends. The estimated Rs 100-crore comics and graphic novels space, which until a few years ago was dominated by veterans like Diamond Comics - publishers of old favourites such as Chacha Chaudhary, Billoo, Pinki, Phantom (Hindi), among others - and ACK Media - owners of brands like Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle - is seeing some serious action by new players such as Campfire and Vimanika, among others, while the existing ones are expanding into other verticals. Last year, Om Books acquired the Hindi translation rights of the Tintin comic book series from Franco-Belgian Casterman Publishers.

The old domestic players, perhaps sensing the growing competition, are ramping up their presence with new categories and vigorous expansion plans. The Rs 25-crore Diamond Comics group is planning to roll out an integrated delivery platform spanning e-comics and magazines, mobile games, and a children-focused content portal. "We are also looking at licensing opportunities for TV, video games and merchandise. A unique barter arrangement with Disney, Nickelodeon and MTV - we give ad space to these brands in our comics and get ad slots in return -has also helped us in expanding our reach," says Managing Director Gulshan Rai.

Diamond's closest competitor ACK Media has already moved to TV with a weekly, half-hour show called Amar Chitra Katha on Cartoon Network. With a new title every two months, the publisher has moved beyond comics and mythology and introduced catalogues, magazines and hardbound small books on India's tourist attractions and historical personalities. Last year, it acquired the distribution business of India Book House, India's largest books and magazine distributor, and hopes to expand its reach to over 1,000 bookstores and 20,000 magazine outlets this year. In June last year, Elephant Capital Plc, an AIM-listed private equity fund, invested 3.2 million in ACK Media.

Says Savita Pai, Vice President of Product Management at ACK Media: "Children below the age of 14 are our core target audience, and they are well over 300 million. We are competing today with television, gaming and movies, and expanding our reach is critical." The group's flagship brand Amar Chitra Katha sells 25,000 copies, and Tinkle over 1 lakh per month.

The creator of these two brands, Anant Pai, who was felicitated with a Special Lifetime Achievement Award at the Comics Convention, passed away on February 24, aged 81. The going is not easy for new players, though. Thirani of Campfire admits that gaining a foothold is tough and he expects to break even only sometime in 2012. "The gap between income and expenditure is huge, and I am willing to bleed solely because of my love for this space," he says, adding: "In a print run of 5,000, very few titles cross the 3,000 mark."

Andrew Dodd, a former Citibank employee, was hired as the publishing, editorial and rights consultant of Campfire when it was starting out. "We started with four employees and pushing sales in the first year was an enormous challenge," he says. A graphic novel can take as many as seven months to get completed, and the printing and distribution operations take a toll on budgets, he adds.

Events like the Comics Convention may be just the kind of booster that Thirani and his ilk need: a platform that gives them a ready audience and a burst of sales as well.